How “Whites” Washed Away Their Identities

Between the World and MeBut race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs, the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me

4 thoughts on “How “Whites” Washed Away Their Identities

  1. “Washing the disparate tribes white” was accomplished well into the 20th century, mostly in the second half, and not during slavery. Very few Jews, Mennonites, Quakers, and Eastern or Southern Europeans owned slaves. Many if not most ethnicities now lumped into the category “white,” immigrated around 1900, give or take a couple of decades. The vast majority of slave owners were White Anglo Saxon Protestants, along with a few French Catholics and a smattering of others. “White” people appreciate and celebrate their various heritages. In thinking about the history of slavery, people need to remember that most groups now called “white” were never part of the slave owning culture.

    • True. In fact, I think that’s implicit in the quote. The point is that “white” doesn’t really mean anything at all. “Latino” is an ill defined term, but it does have some kinds of meaning — people from central and south America. But I suspect within a generation or two, Latinos will be washed into “whiteness” just as Italians were before. It’s not really about slavery. Remember, this is just one quote out of a book length essay — which is excellent, BTW.

      • Excellent point Frank. I believe this foundational point for his primary argument, about what built white America’s progress and by consequence black America’s deficits, was very well established.

        • It’s just part of the common human desire to slice everyone into the good and the bad people. “White” is whatever group of people we don’t treat as a race — which is a huge advantage, allowing “whites” to be treated as individuals.

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