The Invention of Race, Part I

I’m going to try to post something relevant to black history every day this month. It’s a great prompt, so let’s deliver greatness.

I think it’s appropriate to start off by talking about the roots of race/racism in the United States. Most black Americans consider race to be a construct, an aspect of our heritage, both–and beyond? Blackness is something of a question mark each of us carries around constantly. Sometimes for better, often for worse; others tend to judge/malign us on sight of our skin, hair, names, or at the sound of our voices. Sometimes these markers aren’t associated with criminality or shitty morals; sometimes we’re presumed to have higher skills as musicians, athletes, lovers–which assumptions have their own problems (AND our talents have problematic origins, if you think about the controlled breeding slaveowners forced on the Africans they bought). My point is that black Americans as a group have a presence in American culture and the American imagination that far outweighs our numbers; that’s something I want to explore this month. The imagined or invented or caricatured black person in the white American mind also tends to be reductionist. I often think of Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination when a white person blames one or all black people for their problems. Tyehimba Jess’ Olio includes a list of reasons given, over time, for the lynchings of black people, that would be hilarious if it weren’t so nauseating, saddening, and infuriating: said list includes “frightening white woman,” “being obnoxious,” “indolence,” and, in case you weren’t sure this lynched man was asking for it, “race hatred.” My friend, the former slam poet D Silence, agrees; one of his poems informing the audience that most white people fear black men “between the ages of 8 and 88.” Sadly, the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Edwards, Jason Negron, Darius Smith, and so many others (the numbers spike horrifically when 18-year-olds are included) by law enforcement are clear evidence of this. We’ll talk about cops later I’m the month, too.

And for this month, I’ll waive my typically crotchety, snobbish attitude towards the uninformed, and freely field questions and conversation on the subject of blackness from non-black people. Educating others about race is not our responsibility (I’ll keep saying that for as long as it takes), it’s something all adults should learn about, particularly the dominant group/class–but for this month, back-channel or otherwise, feel free to respectfully engage. I will try to be gentle.

A lot of us are never taught much about race, and have to figure the whole mess out by ourselves. One thing I was definitely never taught was where it–the very concept of race–comes from. So I looked it up to see if I could trace the origins of racism. I read. A lot. Here’s what I found, what I learned, and what so far!) I think I think.


Racism against blacks by whites is largely considered to be the archetypal American discrimination. Although other forms of bias existed on this continent prior to African immigration (sexism and xenophobia against native Americans come to mind); regardless, many Americans consider black/white relations to be our foundational abusive dichotomy. It’s often the lens through which we attempt to make sense of other forms of discrimination (coining the term yellowface after the term blackface, for example) and has been a model for other struggles for civil rights (although suffragettes were among the earliest and most outspoken abolitionists, feminists became one of many marginalized communities that used black Americans’ fight for civil rights to shape their own struggle). Of course, black Americans drew inspiration from elsewhere too, but we can talk about that later.

The cold heart of American racism, the core value system that led to the establishment of slavery and the first laws delineating racial hierarchy, isn’t endemic to America. That framework doesn’t even come from the British, originally; the colonies were humming merrily along without racism as part of the established internal culture. Discrimination against native Americans worked differently for the most part, typically manifesting as willed amnesia, coupled with a shameless exile from the ever-growing colonial bubble (nightmarish exceptions, such as the Osage murders, prove that type of racism to be as deadly and real as any, though). The most generous analogy I can make for herding human beings onto reservations to get them out of sight altogether: settlers basically plugged their ears and hummed as loudly as they could to pretend (lie) that Europeans had “discovered” the “New” World).

But there were outsiders the Europeans decided to include in their everyday lives. Not long before the colonies became a country, slavery was adopted, then embraced, by more and more landowners, then codified into law. British planters, inspired by immense greed, willfully adopted the premise behind a hundred-year-old caste system so insidious, it poisons the world to this day.

Initially, landowners in the British colonies preferred indentured servants to slaves (Slaves were twice as expensive!), gathering employees from the continuous tide of (mostly European) settlers. African servants suffered from no special prejudice; they were considered the equals of their Irish peers. Overwhelmingly, African and Irish men worked and lived alongside each other and socialized freely, without stigma. Blacks were still lower-class citizens; indentured servitude was no prize, and the British thought the Irish were little better than animals. They were considered to be stupid, superstitious, lazy, immoral drunkards (I’m sure I’m missing a few shitty stereotypes, but you feel me). The distinction of skin color didn’t mean much, though. Besides, Africans were a tiny percentage of immigrants in those early days: one ship brought 23 to Jamestown in 1619, and their numbers stayed low until around 1700. Since no one really knew how to think of them, so they were largely overlooked at first. The British didn’t have enough of an established relationship with African cultures to have developed the kinds of sophisticated stereotypes they had for the Irish.

Most importantly to the landowners, servants did the job just fine. And slaves were so damn expensive! Why should a planter pay extra for a few more working years from a man who they’d have to lodge and feed, too? Of course, indentured servants were only cheaper in those years because their masters hadn’t yet envisioned that slavery might become systemic. They hadn’t imagined it, because they had no pressing need for such a sprawling, staggering network of cruelty. No need. Not yet.

Not long before, though, those planters’ forebears had cast the long shadow of white supremacy over the colonies. When European settlers arrived in the Americas in greater and greater numbers, indigenous people’s land became more valuable than their friendship.

Suddenly it became “necessary” to classify native Americans as savages, heathens with no genuine claim to property. Europeans had to be superior, more…civilized? A more important part of God’s plan? Otherwise, the wholescale theft of settlements and hunting grounds, the attendant murder and rape to terrorize anyone who got in the way–the horrific betrayal of their former allies and neighbors–all of that would have been morally abhorrent, right? How could upright Christians possibly live with themselves if they were treating human beings (brothers, equal in the eyes of God) with such unfathomable evil? Manifest Destiny allowed them to raise their economic desires above what was ethical and humane, or even, simply, fair.

(My friend Patrick Phillips wrote an astonishing book, Blood at the Root, explaining how, a hundred years later, this attitude gave white Americans the justification to rob black Americans of their homes, property, and businesses. It’s a great book, and you should read it.)

Those thieves’ descendants, the wealthy planter class in the Virginia colony, were largely content with indentured servitude. But as the colonies continued to grow, so did their need for labor. At the same time, their workers began realizing their own power, and they began to demand better treatment: they began, in short, to organize. That might have spelled disaster for the planters, who shuddered to think they’d have to share the wealth. Ugh. Can you imagine? Treating employees with respect? Dignity, even??

Fortunately for the Brits, those poor old rich men, the wily old rich Spanish men they traded with had solved this problem for them. The Spaniards and the Portuguese had an established, God-approved (booo Christianity), moral justification ready for them to inspire a system of oppression of staggering dimensions, and unbelievable monstrosities. This new establishment would ensure their wealth, and that of their descendants, for generations to come (boooo capitalism).

So what, exactly, did the Spaniards do?

Tell it like it is.

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