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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What's in a name? In this case, the key to white racism

Formerly: The problem with white people

For many years a pet peeve of mine has been the use of the terms "whitelist" and "blacklist" in the IT industry. FYI, a whitelist is a list of IP addresses that should definitely be allowed access and a blacklist is a list of IP addresses that should definitely be blocked. Since these terms are used in building Internet firewall rules, I have to use them all the time in my day job as a Linux Systems Administrator but I always felt they had a racist connotation. There are many other words and phrases that have been accused of carrying a racist connotation. Michael Coard asks in an essay "Are You - or Your Language - Racist or Not Racist?" and lists these examples:
Blackball, black-hearted, blackmail, blacklist, black market, black ops, black sheep, black hat/white hat, white lie- Need I say more?
We could also add white knight, white wedding, whitewash, a white paper and white collar to the list of phrases where "white" is used to express positive values such as courage, innocence, cleanliness, authority or position. On the other hand "black" is used to convey negative values, often related to death or bad things like the black death, black plague, black comedy and black day. I have long regarded these and numerous other phrases, like angel food cake and devil's food cake, as examples of racist symbolism bleeding over into other areas. Now I realize that I have been wrong all along about this and that it is entirely natural and logical that "white" should take on certain positive connotations and "black" certain negative connotations that are primordial and have nothing to do with race.

In order to understand why certain attributes fall organically to "black" and "white", we first must talk about color. So let's review some basic facts about light, and how it is perceived by the human eye. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is detectable by the human eye. The wavelength, which is the inverse of frequency, determines the color we see the light as. Here are some familiar colors and their specs:


Wavelength interval

Frequency interval


~ 700–635 nm

~ 430–480 THz


~ 635–590 nm

~ 480–510 THz


~ 590–560 nm

~ 510–540 THz


~ 560–520 nm

~ 540–580 THz

The seven colors of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and their wavelengths range from 780 nanometers to 390 nanometers. What we call white isn't one of the colors of the rainbow, in fact white is not a primary color at all, white is an illusion.

Both "white" and "black" as well as the grey areas between them are called achromatic colors, literally, colors without color. What Wikipedia says about "white" is useful to our discussion, I will be relying on Wikipedia quite a bit to establish the basises for my argument:
An incoming light to the human eye that stimulates all its three types of color sensitive cone cells in nearly equal amounts results in white. White is one of the most common colors in nature, the color of sunlight, snow, milk, chalk, limestone and other common minerals. In many cultures white represents or signifies purity, innocence, and light, and is the symbolic opposite of black, or darkness. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, white is the color most often associated with perfection, the good, honesty, cleanliness, the beginning, the new, neutrality, and exactitude.[2]

In ancient Egypt and ancient Rome, priestesses wore white as a symbol of purity, and Romans wore a white toga as a symbol of citizenship. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance a white unicorn symbolized chastity, and a white lamb sacrifice and purity; the widows of kings dressed in white rather than black as the color of mourning.
Please note that all the above examples of positive associations with the meta-color white existed long before any people started calling themselves "white," as we shall see. It was only with the 17th century enslavement of Africans, the land grabs from people with darker colored skin, and growing capitalist assault on the natural world, that a group of Europeans who had more advanced methods of domination at their disposal (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay),  sought to use their lighter skin color (itself a result of a need to produce vitamin D under conditions of less sunlight), to embellish all that they were doing with the symbol of purity and righteousness that had long been associated with the meta-color white, by proclaiming themselves to be "white" even though they clearly were not white. But I get ahead of myself. First let us return to the basics of human sight.

The radiation that reaches us from the sun, and other sources that mimic it, contain light from all the colors in the visible spectrum. When it is reflected by a surface that scatters it and reflects it in the same ratio as it is received from the sun, we perceived the object as white. We can see the colors that make up sunlight in the rainbow because the water droplets between the sun and the observer refract the light differently according to wavelength and allow us to glimpse its constituent parts.

As this blowup makes clear, there are no white pixels in a color screen, all the colors displayed by the monitor are generated by pixels of three primary colors, red, green and blue. When they are all turned on, we see the screen as white. When they are all turned off, we see the screen as black.

This perception of the combined colors as white has some important results for human vision. Since water is clear or colorless, like many other substances in the natural world, it appears white when it takes on a structure that defuses or scatters the light that hits it, such as in snow or clouds. This dynamic also accounts for the white color of pure sugar or salt, diamonds and all sorts of foams and crystals. In many of these cases, whiteness can correctly be taken as an indication of purity or lack of contamination. Of course all this has nothing to do with race or even the human social condition. It is the result of the human perception of the working out of certain natural laws, but it does impart a certain sense of purity or goodness to the meta-color white.

Black is not a real color either. Black is simply the absence of light of any color. Your screen doesn't have any black pixels either. To represent black, all the pixels are left off. Black also has some negative connotations given to it by the natural world. In most of its states, pure carbon reflects no light and appears black to the human eye. This means things damaged or killed by fire appear black. Outside the body, dried blood appears black, as does blood in the feces, never a good sign.  Many other death products of carbon based man fades to black.

Fade to black is used in films to end a scene as the night ends the day and so mimics a pattern familiar to us. It's no accident that we used the same word "day" to symbolize both a single rotation of the Earth in front of the Sun, and to symbolize that roughly half of the rotation in which we face the Sun, that part which isn't night. Also given our focus on daylight activity, it's also quite natural that sunlight and white come to symbolize beginning or birth and darkness or black come to represent ending or death.

Probably most important in shaping our primordial attitude towards white and black is this difference between day and night and the fact that, compared to many other animals, humans just don't see very well at night. Wikipedia simply says:
Humans have poor night vision compared to many animals.
We lack many of the structures, like a reflective coating behind the retina, that allow those that would hunt us to see much better at night than we do. What we lose in night vision is more than made up for by having eyes that are sensitive to colors. Most animals can't see colors.

Because of our poor night vision, humans are not nocturnal hunters or gatherers. We feel safest during the day. Night has always been the period of greatest danger, a time when we retreat to whatever security and shelter we can manage to await the rising sun and our next day's activities. These are all natural conditions of human existence that pre-date and have nothing to do with race that have irrevocably imparted to the meta-color white certains positive attributes as a symbol for sunlight and the meta-color black certain negative attributes because it symbolizes the darkness.

As we enter the make-or-break period for this experiment called humanity, it is important to remember it has been a very long time in the making, so some of these associations are not only prehistoric, they are pre-human. Scientific American published a special issue on human evolution, January 2009. Using the latest research in that field, it traced our first hominid ancestors back to the Sahelanthropus tchadensis that lived in Chad more than 7 million years ago. Some scientists count 23 separate hominid species on the road to us, and as close as 50,000 years ago, there were still four distinct hominids vying for the top prize, H. neanderthalensis, H. erectus, H. floresiensis, and us, H. sapiens, whose oldest known fossils were found in Omo, Ethiopia. All these were far from our Primate origins, all had big brains, could walk upright, and use tools, but Scientific American reports that Homo Sapiens were:
The only hominid to colonize every continent and the first to systematically use symbols.
So it may well be the case that it wasn't simply our big brains, ability to walk upright, and use tools that made us the Primates that went on to dominate the planet. Most probably it has been our ability to use symbols to organize and act upon our world that sets us apart from all the species that came before us.

Now that we have established the importance of symbols in organizing our world, and identified some of the organic reasons "white" and "black" are such powerful symbols, we are now ready to examine the history of how one part of humanity became "white," while others, by implication, became "black."

The history of "white" people.

Our official history would have us believe that white people are responsible for many of the early developments and civilizations. They will tell you that white people created the great ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, white people circumnavigated the globe and discovered the New World. This is fake history. Aristotle, Caesar and Jesus weren't white, neither was Columbus or Magellan. None of these people would have described themselves as white people. They saw themselves as representing regions or nations we now think of as Greece, Italy, Palestine, Portugal, or Spain and, to be sure, they knew they had a lighter complexion than many they met in their travels, but that didn't make them white people because that category hadn't crystallized as a category of people variously distinguished by skin color and origin. Modern racism had yet to be invented.  Christopher Columbus wasn't even an Italian in his day, he was a proud citizen of the Republic of Genoa. The category of "white people" came alive only in the 17th century with the adoption of racial slavery. Since then all these Europeans have been posthumously awarded the title of "white person." According to Wikipedia, the Ancient Greeks weren't white:
Classicist James Dee states "the Greeks do not describe themselves as "white people"—or as anything else because they had no regular word in their color vocabulary for themselves."[3] People's skin color did not carry useful meaning; what mattered is where they lived.[4]
From Wikipedia, we learn that the concept of a white race is a surprisingly recent one:
The contemporary usage of "white people" or a "white race" as a large group of (mainly European) populations contrasting with "black", American Indian, "colored" or non-white originated in the 17th century.
Obviously, light skinned people had inhabited parts of Europe for a long time before that, so it's no accident that the "white race" was invented just when these Europeans were first embarking on their imperial mission. The Wikipedia entry for "White People" gives us a brief history:
The term "white race" or "white people" entered the major European languages in the later 17th century, originating with the racialization of slavery at the time, in the context of the Atlantic slave trade[11] and the enslavement of native peoples in the Spanish Empire.[12] It has repeatedly been ascribed to strains of blood, ancestry, and physical traits, and was eventually made into a subject of scientific research, which culminated in scientific racism, which was later widely repudiated by the scientific community. According to historian Irene Silverblatt, "Race thinking … made social categories into racial truths."[12] Bruce David Baum, citing the work of Ruth Frankenberg, states, "the history of modern racist domination has been bound up with the history of how European peoples defined themselves (and sometimes some other peoples) as members of a superior 'white race'."[13] Alastair Bonnett argues that 'white identity', as it is presently conceived, is an American project, reflecting American interpretations of race and history.[14]
The thoroughgoing links of the concept of a "white race" to imperialism are revealed as much by where it was invented as by when it was invented. It was invented where slavery was being implemented. Back to Wikipedia:
In the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean, the designation English or Christian was initially used in contrast to Native Americans or Africans. Early appearances of white race or white people in the Oxford English Dictionary begin in the seventeenth century.[3] Historian Winthrop Jordan reports that, "throughout the [thirteen] colonies the terms Christian, free, English, and white were … employed indiscriminately" in the seventeenth century as proxies for one another.[22] In 1680, Morgan Godwyn "found it necessary to explain" to English readers that "in Barbados, 'white' was 'the general name for Europeans.'"[23] Several historians report a shift towards greater use of white as a legal category alongside a hardening of restrictions on free or Christian blacks.[24] White remained a more familiar term in the American colonies than in Britain well into the 1700s, according to historian Theodore Allen.[23]
The terms "white people" and "white race" were used first in the colonies and only later in Europe and the rest of the world, so it can truly be said that Europeans came to the Americas and sent "white people" back. Again, from Wikipedia
Before the Industrial Revolutions in Europe whiteness may have been associated with social status. Aristocrats may have had less exposure to the sun and therefore a pale complexion may have been associated with status and wealth.[141] This may be the origin of "blue blood" as a description of royalty, the skin being so lightly pigmented that the blueness of the veins could be clearly seen.[142] The change in the meaning of white that occurred in the colonies (see above) to distinguish Europeans from non-Europeans did not apply to 'home' countries (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). Whiteness therefore retained a meaning associated with social status.
The "white race" was first created on the backs of African slaves and went on to firmly establish itself as a fake category on the strength and growth of western imperialism, but being an opportunistic rather than scientific classification, it hasn't always been clear just who is "white." Again from Wikipedia:
By the 18th century, white had become well established as a racial term. According to John Tehranian, among those not considered white at some points in American history have been: the Germans, Greeks, white Hispanics, Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Slavs and Spaniards.[155] Still today the relationship between some ethnic groups and whiteness remains complex. In particular, some Jewish and Arab individuals both self-identify and are considered as part of the White American racial category, but others with the same ancestry feel they are not white nor are they perceived as white by American society.[156][157][158]
The meaning of "black people" has also been variable with time and place, generally with "white people" doing the defining. Wikipedia had this to say about "black people:"
Different societies apply differing criteria regarding who is classified as "black", and these social constructs have also changed over time. In a number of countries, societal variables affect classification as much as skin color, and the social criteria for "blackness" vary. For example, in North America the term black people is not necessarily an indicator of skin color or ethnic origin, but is instead a socially based racial classification related to being African American, with a family history mainly associated with institutionalized slavery. In the United Kingdom, "black" was historically equivalent with "person of color", a general term for non-European peoples. In South Africa and Latin America, mixed-race people are generally not classified as "black". In other regions such as Australasia, settlers applied the term "black" or it was used by local populations with different histories and ancestral backgrounds.
There are also extremely important and very deep psychological forces that are put to work in the efforts by one group of people to dominate another when the color card is played as it has been by Caucasians. I have not really touched on these, but they may be the most powerful way this illusion of whiteness binds Caucasians to a continuing pattern of racism, world domination, and destruction. Joel Kovel, in his White Racism: A Psychohistory, 1970, goes into great detail. It is a must read on this subject. From p.232:
Racism abstracts the color of the living body into non-colors of extreme value, black and white. Within this organization black represents the shade of evil, the devil's aspect, night, separation, loneliness, sin, dirt, excrement, the inside of the body; and white represents the mark of good, the token of innocence, purity, cleanliness, spirituality, virtue, hope.
From this we can see that the very terms "white race" and "white people" have inherently racist content. Therefore racism can never be completely defeated before the use of these terms is abandoned.

From here we can proceed to some preliminary definitions and conclusions:

White supremacy is then, at its core, the false belief by Caucasian people of European descent that they are "white" - meaning they share in the natural attributes of "white" like "pure", "good", "ideal", "the standard", "righteous" - that they, owing to lower level of melanins in their skin, share in these symbolic meanings of "white" that others don't, making them the chosen ones.

While the skin color differences between the European colonizers and the people of the South may have provided the original impetus for the "white" and "black" categorization, the adoption of the symbolism of "white" by Europeans at the beginning of the imperialist period has been used not only as a sign of their righteousness in dominating and raping the thereby newly created "non-white" people, it has been used as a sign of their righteousness in dominating and raping the entire planet. Therefore we can conclude that the problems inherent in a group of people being called "white" is not merely a race problem. It would be a problem even if there were no other races.This attitude of Whiteness has been invoked not just against the "black people of the Earth" but against the Earth itself.

White chauvinism therefore is the practice of white supremacy, not just towards the excluded peoples, but towards the entire excluded natural world. It underlines and legitimizes the operations of capitalism not just in exploiting "people of color," but in ruthlessly exploiting the resources of the Earth as well.

Racism is the application of white chauvinism to people.

White nationalism is the derivative belief that white people constitute a nation. This actually brings the mythology around full circle since the original object of the creation of the "white race" was to forge a number of European nationalities into a new trans-national grouping better suited to imperialism.

Also note, This is not a "rose by any other name" type of situation. The positive symbolism of "white" is primordial and immutable, so the contradiction cannot be resolved by pretending it doesn't unfairly award that positive symbolism to a people based on skin color. It can only be resolved by depreciating the label "white" as applied to any group of people.

Executive Summary: The use of the word "white" to describe a specific ethnic or racial group is itself racist and must be abolished to end racism and save the planet. White Power is unhealthy for children and other living things.

More, later,

Clay Claiborne

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