“Whiteness” in America
The concept of “race” can be viewed from opposite ends of a long spectrum.
At one end are scientists and geneticists, who do not recognise the existence of separate “races” at all.
At the other end are racists. In common parlance, “racist” has come to simply mean a person who hates other people based on their perceived “race”, but this is not the whole picture.
Any person – even a very nice person – who believes that a human being with ancestry from a specific geographic region, with a certain outward appearance, is fundamentally different to certain others, is also a “racist”, of sorts.
When we hold popular folk beliefs such as “Koreans are born better at math”, or “African-Americans have natural rhythm”, or “Jewish people are prone to neuroses”, that is also racism, whether ill-meant or not.
Of course, the most extreme racists believe that some human beings are innately superior to other humans due to genetic inheritance, period.
Between these poles are anthropologists, social activists, cultural commentators, writers, artists, and most of the rest of us. People who, for various reasons, choose to accept the concept of “races”, if only as a simple shorthand way of describing the lived experience of specific cultural or ethnic groupings.
It is easy for a certain class of contemporary educated liberal to proclaim that “race is a social construct”, without ever needing to lay out exactly what that means – especially when people clearly suffer real-world consequences due to their apparent “race”.
Even the most kind-hearted, non-bigoted “white” person in the world will look at someone from Sub-Saharan Africa, and someone from Korea, and say “They aren’t the same race as me”.
How can race be a “social construct” if certain population groups look so different to one another?
This is a justified and legitimate question, and luckily, it is a question which can be answered. Not with a simple answer, mind you, but with an answer nonetheless.
That is where this podcast comes in.
This is not a science podcast. This is a history podcast.
For over 500 years of American history post-Columbus, most people in the Americas have believed in “race”, as surely as most people in the Americas have believed in the Middle-Eastern God of Abraham.
So when we look at American history, it is of little use trying to interpret the common American understanding of “race” through the eyes of a scientist, because science did not begin to address the concept of “race” until the past century or so.
This podcast will most certainly invite science in the door where appropriate, but for the most part, we will try to view the world of the past through the eyes of our less-schooled ancestors – the people who constructed the idea of “races”.
A world of black people, white people, Chinamen, Red Indians, mulattos, half-breeds, and Asian Indians. A world of pagan savages, Christians, “Hindoos”, and “Mohammatens”.
Ask any contemporary “heartland” American (racist or non-racist) what’s in their ancestral melting-pot, and one will invariably hear about Irish or “Scotch-Irish“, along with English, Welsh, Scottish, German, and perhaps a few French, Dutch, Poles, Italians, and Scandinavians.
Many today will even allow for a “Cherokee great-grandmother”, now that being part indigenous American is fashionable rather than something to deny.
Most of the aforementioned ancestors of heartland Americans are imagined to have been good and honest, hard-working, God-fearing “white folks” seeking a better life away from “tyranny” or “religious persecution”.
When asked about their present ethnicity, these “heartlanders” are the people most likely to self-identify simply as “white” and “American”.
By now you will have noticed the repeated use of the term “heartland”. In a cultural/political landscape which is currently deeply polarised, this word carries a lot of freight for both progressives and conservatives.
It is important to make absolutely clear what is meant by the term “heartland” in the context of this podcast…
It is first and foremost not a coded slur for people in red hats who vote a certain way. It is not an “acceptable” code for other unacceptable terms such as “redneck”, “hillbilly”, “Bible-thumper”, or “white trash”.
Throughout the life of this blog and podcast, “heartland” will be used to mean the following:
– people and communities with deep and extensive roots in rural and small-town America
– people and communities whose ancestors were directly involved in the events of the colonial and frontier eras
– people and communities who usually self-identify as being working-class or middle class, Christian, “white”, and “American”
These are some of the people most inclined to value ideals of “liberty” and “freedom”, and tend to see these almost sacred ideals as a direct by-product of “American Exceptionalism“.
Buried in this description of heartland America, though, are two tiny words with a universe of violence, war, and politics contained within them.
Heartland Americans almost always self-identify as “white”.
Heartland Americans, on the whole, however, often claim to disdain “identity politics”.
Identity politics is seen as a recent development, in which liberal “victim culture” seeks to defy “common sense”, while trying to dictate what words we can use to describe others and the world we inhabit.
In fact, the essence of American history, America’s original sin, the dark heart at the core of all American mythology, is “identity politics”.
One group who self-identifies as “X”, and then claims exclusive rights to identify “others” as “Y” and “Z”.
So of course much of heartland America hates identity politics.
They accepted the concept, and embraced the concept, for centuries. And now they’ve lost control of it.
For people who do believe in the concept of “race” and choose to self-identify as “white”, what exactly counts as “white”?
Let’s set aside our distaste for a moment, and entertain the definition of “white people” as promulgated by racists and white supremacists.
To a white supremacist, the essence of “whiteness” is Central or Northern European ancestry. White supremacists are deeply, deeply enamoured of historical groups like the Franks, the Saxons, the Angles, the Celts, and of course, their “Gold Standard” of whiteness, the people of Scandinavia – especially Vikings.
To white supremacists, all things “white” and “good” radiate out from a Northern and Central European ancestral homeland into regions with lessening degrees of “proper whiteness” as one travels south and eastwards, into the lands of southern Spain and Italy, into the dubiously Slavic Balkans and swarthy Greece, until reaching the doorstep of the Turks, “Araby“, India, on towards the Far East, and God forbid, down into darkest Africa.
Almost every self-identified “white” heartland American, if they cared to dig, would find that they utterly fail to clear this “racial purity” bar set by so many self-appointed gatekeepers of “whiteness”.
In fact, if “whiteness” really is the exclusive preserve of Northern and North Central European peoples, then heartland Americans – the people with deepest roots in underclass colonial America – are quite possibly the least “white” people to ever call themselves “white” – at least by the measure of white supremacists.
The fact is, in American history, “being white” has almost nothing to do with actual genetic ancestry. Being “white” means belonging to a social caste conjured out of thin air, and one which is continuously mutable, depending on the prevailing social conditions.
Many people today falsely assume that racism caused, or at least allowed, slavery to develop. Over the course of this podcast, we will discover that the reverse is true.
Greed, and the desire for slave labor to feed this greed, led humans to invent excuses and self-justifying arguments in favor of slavery.
An obvious difference between the enslavers and the enslaved had to be found – some clear factor which could allow “the othering” to begin. Something able to gain widespread acceptance.
Perhaps surprisingly, that “obvious difference” – at least in the beginning – was not skin color.
During the 1600s, in a world steeped in Christian religiosity, with deeply ingrained social class systems, the people usually considered suitable for bonded servitude and enslavement could be drawn from many sources: the impoverished underclasses, orphaned children, criminals, prisoners-of-war, and non-Christians such as Asian Indians, Moors, sub-Saharan Africans, and indigenous Americans.
Colonial America presented slaveholders with a singular problem, however. Indentured servants and slaves who looked relatively similar to their masters could always run away. They could change their names and start a new life elsewhere. Native American slaves could disappear and blend back into their own communities beyond the frontier and reach of European settlements.
This is why, over many decades, “African-ness” became the ultimate property-tracking device. Racism was born of banal convenience.
A Spaniard can look like a Berber. A Romani Gypsy can look like a Shawnee. A Portuguese might look like a South Asian. An Italian might look Turkish. A “mulatto” might look Arab or Persian. Brown skin can be a very ambiguous guide to one’s ethnic origins.
But someone with sub-Saharan features can only rarely dispute having sub-Saharan African ancestry. “Black” became less about actual skin shade and color, and more about specific identifying features or phenotypes.
Until the late 1600s and early 1700s when legislators and slaveholders finally settled on sub-Saharan Africans as their chosen slave caste, colonial America had actually been the melting-pot of yore for decades – especially among its disempowered underclasses.
Most people today would be astonished to hear that in 1720, perhaps 20% of the population of Virginia was comprised of people classified as “free blacks”, or “free persons of colour”.
Much of heartland America is in fact descended from this roiling, ethnically-mixed underclass of convicts, indentured servants, “illegitimate” slaveholder offspring, prostitutes, common field laborers, Gypsies, fighters and soldiers, runaway slaves, land squatters, itinerant preachers, washerwomen, displaced indigenous peoples, spinners, ship-jumping sailors, beggars, slave traders, miners, dreamers, peddlers, hunters and trappers, pimps and subsistence farmers – with ancestry drawn from five continents.
Yes, five continents. Not two, not three. Five.
Anglo-America’s crude binary racial caste system left a vast population of ethnically complex “brown” people embroiled in a decades and centuries-long struggle to ensure they were planted firmly on the sunny side of the black/white divide.
To prevent backsliding from their improved, safer social status, once a family or community reached the Holy Grail of “whiteness” they then had to “act white”.
Really, really white.
“Acting whiteness” was founded upon a three-legged stool of:
“Patriotism”, expressed in the free exercise of voting rights and a willingness to support the take-up arms in defence of mutable ideals of “freedom” and “liberty”,
“Christianity”, expressed through church attendance, professing faith, and testifying, and
“Supremacy”, a deep-seated mistrust of and sense of superiority over those “others” who do not look or act “white” enough.
Privilege and social standing are not the only things which came with “whiteness”.
Whiteness also bestowed – by simple birthright – an innate sense of pride in being part of the “Heroic Story of America”.
Pilgrim Fathers. Settlers at Jamestown. Minutemen. Paul Bunyan. Johnny Appleseed. The Boston Tea Party. The Revolution. The Frontier. The War of 1814. Log cabins. The Taming of the West. Cowboys. Cavalry. Buffalo Bill. The railroads. Tom Sawyer. Country music. Great inventors.
All of this and more has been commandeered as “The Story of America”, performed exclusively by people who call themselves “white”.
This performative culture has been going on for centuries, right up to the present day.
We are now at the stage where there is a real danger that no one, bar a few specialist scholars (and people of color), will be left to remember that American “whiteness” has always been an act; a confidence trick. The lie has been made flesh, the myth has been made a widely-accepted reality.
This podcast will not be a “liberal” hatchet-job on heartland America.
This writer and podcaster was born in Missouri, and spent his childhood moving between there and Tennessee, Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, attending ten different schools between 1970 and 1980, while his working-class (and often deeply dysfunctional) family chased after The American Dream.
We owned guns, and we rode in the back of pick-up trucks. We hunted and we fished. This writer was not educated in the hallowed halls of any Ivy League college.
This writer was not unfamiliar with life in a trailer park, or twice-a-week Bible School in an evangelical “dunking” church. This writer joined the army on his 17th birthday.
Heartland Americans are my people, for better or for worse.
Heartland America has always supplied the people willing to do the “dirty work” for the American political and industrialist class and their projects. More often than not, they have been lied to, poorly rewarded, and ill-used by the people they served.
But contrary to current evidence and much urban liberal orthodoxy, this USA heartland is not uniquely foolish, bigoted, racist or wicked compared to the people of any other nation.
The USA as a whole, though, is highly unique in a couple of fundamental ways:
1) The historically recent mass acquisition of land and resources (including slave labor and criminally cheap labor) created a situation which allowed many “white” people of relatively poor educational attainment to achieve a higher living standard than similarly skilled people of a comparable educational level in most other places in the world.
2) The USA is also utterly singular in the way the resultant wealth and military power has allowed it, more than any other nation, to project its own mythology, “conjured reality”, and self-image onto the world stage – all while steadfastly refusing to face into an accurate account of how other humans, land and resources were acquired and developed in order to generate its wealth and power.
In 2020, the USA finds itself in an existential crisis, having become a nation at war with itself. This is the tornado created when the warm winds of mythology meet the cold winds of reality.
Weathering this storm will not suffice. For the USA to flourish in the aftermath, it will have to survey the wreckage, save what is worth saving, and start from scratch. The new house will need to be built on better foundations, with a roof big enough to offer shelter to all its children.
We must stop repeating the “official” stories told to us by the powerful, and remind ourselves that indoctrination and leadership are not the same thing. Our forebears knew this. The songs they sang about it still exist – train songs, Dust Bowl songs, coal mining songs…
Nothing is more powerful than the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, if those stories are based on truths drawn from the reality of our own lived experiences.
We must unbind the filthy poultice of “official memory” which only serves to hide the gaping, festering wound underneath – a wound infected by secrets, lies, and hypocrisy.
As the great American author Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “our cries are for an accounting…”
If we cannot have a proper accounting just yet, then the plain, unvarnished Truth might do for a start.
As stated, this podcast will not be a “liberal” hatchet-job on heartland America. It is an attempt to release many good Americans from the heavy shackles of “acting white”. Heartland American history and culture is far richer and more complex than can be described by a skin color or wrapped up tidily in a red, white, and blue flag.
This podcast is the product of many years of obsessive research into the real and oft-times obscure ethnic origins of thousands upon thousands of real heartland American families.
Using documentary, photographic, and the latest DNA evidence, the show will attempt to help set the record straight on one of the most enduring and damaging lies at the core of heartland American self-identity – “whiteness”. In the process, we will also discover a more accurate depiction of American history in general.
This is about the time Before We Were White.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!