Concept of 'Whiteness' in America: Evolution & Categories

Instructor: David White
Whiteness is a complicated (and often poorly defined) concept that has begun to gain attention in America. In this lesson, you will learn how to define whiteness and explore some of the ways that it has evolved over time.

Race as Construct

From the moment the Pilgrims arrived in what is now Plymouth, MA, Americans have struggled with the issue of race. Indeed, at the center of difficult issues like slavery and the relocation of thousands of Native American peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries is the concept of whiteness. But whiteness is broad and in many ways remains ill-defined.

In the most general sense, whiteness is a term that describes the historical, social, and cultural concepts that are attached to people that identify as Caucasian - that is, people who are of European heritage with light skin. But particularly in the United States, where race remains a difficult issue, what does 'whiteness' actually end up meaning?

First, it's important to understand that race is what's known in the social sciences as a cultural construct: something that only has meaning within a social or cultural context. There is a biological explanation for why people have variations in skin pigmentation, but it is only within a social context that those variations and characteristics are interpreted as meaning anything specific. Throughout the 19th century, for example, many Americans believed that Native peoples should be given vocational training because they were only capable of manual labor. Despite being untrue and having nothing to do with their race, this belief was applied to all Native peoples in order to clearly define characteristics of Indians that made them different from whites.

The concept of whiteness is actually very complicated and intersects with almost every other aspect of American life and culture that has existed since the nation's founding. Given that, we're going to have to jump around a little bit through history.

Columbus and Whiteness

The issue of race and construction of whiteness in America is actually older than the country itself. The people of 15th-century Europe tended to see themselves as the pinnacle of civilization - they operated an economic empire, created art and culture, and practiced what they considered the most civilized religion. Christopher Columbus carried this idea with him when he accidentally arrived in North America in 1492.

When Columbus and his men disembarked their ship in what is now the Caribbean islands, the first people they encountered were the Arawak, the indigenous people that inhabited that part of the island. Because they didn't speak Spanish, wore very little or no clothing, and seemed disinterested in the material goods that the Spanish valued, Columbus perceived these non-white people to be inferior to himself and those of his race.

Columbus lands in North America

This idea of white superiority in the New World was one of the first justifications for enslaving these so-called inferior people. Had they been just like him (worshiped the same god, dressed the same, spoke the same language, etc.), Columbus wouldn't likely have enslaved them because they would have been equal, and he would have returned to Spain with nothing to show for his trip.

Whiteness in America

Fast forward to the mid-19th century: Americans have established their own country, which has expanded from the east coast to the west. Their motivation is a belief called manifest destiny - white Americans believe that they have a God-given right to the Indians' land, simply because they are white and therefore superior.

It was during the 19th century that the idea of whiteness became closely associated with the American identity. Only a few decades after severing ties with England, Americans were beginning to construct their own identity and looking for things around which they could bond. Given their European ancestry and the desire to differentiate themselves from slaves and Native peoples, the easiest and most obvious place to begin was with the color of their skin.

For nearly all of American history, white people have been the dominant and most powerful group, establishing themselves as the social norm. As a result, non-white people were spoken of as a deviation from the norm, generally thought of as being different or less valuable. This idea justified, among other things, slavery and forced labor throughout the first half of the 19th century.

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