Much chinstroking in The Guardian about this invention of whiteness stuff. The idea that those who share a certain set of genes – for less melanin – are different and better. The Guardian goes on as if this is all entirely and obviously a dire development, one that led to slavery, the current fractures in society and so on and on.
And this isn’t really true. Or at least we can cast it the other way around. Rather than being exclusionary that idea of whiteness is inclusionary. It’s not the deepening of a divide between different groups at all, it’s a widening of what is considered to be the group. As such it’s an increase in communality, not a decrease:
If it’s easy enough for many people today to accept that whiteness is a purely sociological phenomenon – in some quarters, the idea that “race is a social construct” has become a cliche – the same cannot be said for Du Bois’s suggestion that whiteness is a relatively new thing in human history. And yet just as in the case of genetic science, during the second half of the 20th century a number of historians demonstrated that while Du Bois was off by a few hundred years, he was correct that it was only in the modern period that people started to think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race.
Of course, it’s important not to overstate the case: the evolution of the idea of whiteness was messy and often indistinct. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter has cautioned, “white identity didn’t just spring to life full-blown and unchanging”. It had important antecedents that included a growing sense of a pan-European identity; longstanding cultural associations that saw white as a symbol of purity and virtue; and bog-standard ethnocentrism.
The clue there is in that “bog standard ethnocentrism.”
And it is bog standard. Every human grouping anyone has ever been able to note has the concept of in group and out group. The most common form of which is kinship. Family as we can put it. This isn’t all that surprising as the species itself lived for near all its time as just that, an extended family grouping. Out to, perhaps, first or second cousins might be that little troupe of plains apes that did stuff together.
We also get such things as endogamous marriages among those – unlike Hapsburgs – who grasped that continued first cousin marriages were why the kids all tried to invade the Balkans.
In group and out group. It took a hell of a long time for the inhabitants of these silver girt and sceptered isles to get far beyond that. The Anglo Saxon Kingdoms are around and about what one such kinship group could control as a warrior caste for example. Near none of the inhabitants of which would consider themselves to be Mercians, or Wessexites. They were members of much smaller groups than that.
To be English is a much later invention. To be European later still. Nigerian, let alone African, is a concept still being built – ask any Ibo, Yoruba – and so on. An Aborigine might describe himself as a First Fella in politics but in actual life it’s be as a member of a specific tribe.
To go back again there is actually a reason the English regiments were raised by county. It was a much stronger cultural and social unifying factor than something as disparate as the nation.
Sure, we can all hope that the definition of “us” that is fully human and in fact just like us extends to all homo sapiens sapiens and there are those trying to insist that it extend out to whales and the Jains seem to think it might include insects. But this idea of “whiteness” is an expansion of this concept of what is us, not a limitation from the former position. For when it arose it was indeed an expansion from what the previous conception of “us” was.
That is, this whole invention of whiteness was expansionary, not exclusionary, as a definition.