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  • Writer's pictureAnita Friday


Updated: Sep 9, 2023

This information is from the National Museum of African American History. I shared it because I would like us to think about how and why the evolving artificial concept of "whiteness" has such a profound effect...and also for people to look at "whiteness". What does it mean to be white.

The word “white” held a different meaning, too, and transformed over time. Before the mid-1600s, there is no evidence that the English referred to themselves as being “white people” This concept did not occur until 1613 when the English society first encountered and contrasted themselves against the East Indians through their colonial pursuits. Even then, there was not a large body of people who considered themselves “white” as we know the term today. From about the 1550s to 1600, “white” was exclusively used to describe elite English women, because the whiteness of skin signaled that they were persons of a high social class who did not go outside to labor. However, the term white did not refer to elite English men because the idea that men did not leave their homes to work could signal that they were lazy, sick, or unproductive. Initially, the racial identity of “white” referred only to Anglo-Saxon people and has changed due to time and geography. As the concept of being white evolved, the number of people considered white would grow as people wanted to push back against the increasing numbers of people of color, due to emancipation and immigration. Activist Paul Kivel says, “Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.” European colonists’ use of the word “white” to refer to people who looked like themselves, grew to become entangled with the word “race” and “slave” in the American colonies in the mid-1660s. These elites created “races” of “savage” Indians, “subhuman” Africans, and “white” men. The social inventions succeeded in uniting the white colonists, dispossessing and marginalizing native people, and permanently enslaving most African-descended people for generations. Tragically, American culture, from the very beginning, developed around the ideas of race and racism.

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