Everybody’s talking about race, but not many seem to know what it is, or where it came from. That’s understandable, for there’s not a single story of the history of race to be written. How concepts of race were developed, and what they came to over time, is different for different global regions and different countries, and such origin stories are never simple. Even focusing on the United States, as I will do here, I would have trouble pinpointing points of origin, moments where perceived differences between people were conceptualized a certain way, established in social practice, and then codified by law.
That’s not to say that there are not such points of origin, but only that there is no single story to tell about the development of concepts, laws, and practices concerning race in America. Native American history might overlap with African American history, Asian American history with Latinx history, and all might play into the complex picture of various national backgrounds and ethnicities that gathered in the lands that became the United States (with the creation of the nation itself a story with race at the center). The role of US concepts of race in the development of Native American, African American, Asian American, Latinx, Irish, and Jewish communities, among others, is the story of specific laws, specific histories, specific cultural responses to oppression, and specific drives towards collective self-determination that does not lead to a singular or even coherent story. The messiness of race, in fact, is the story at the center of American history and culture.
In the center of that messiness, though, is a racial category that has always been and remains the real source of our current problems: whiteness. Throughout this complex history of race in the US, the one constant has been the need to define whiteness, to guard its privileges, and to protect its borders. To be sure, those borders have proven to be difficult for white Americans to police, as visual markers of racial identity are not always clear, and the borders have been expanded over time, a expansion explored in such books as Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America. But even as the borders expanded, whiteness remained a racial category defined mainly by its determination to distinguish itself against all other racialized groups. Whiteness has been the racial category, in effect, both constantly defining itself and constantly avoiding any racial definition. Of course, there are many Americans today who are all too willing to tell you exactly what the white race is, often offering mangled melting pots of misinformation to promote the latest take on white supremacy. But the broader and deeper whiteness that has plagued our history belongs not to radical groups but to mainstream white America, in the way our lives are structured, in the way the culture works, in the way we talk about American history.
Of course, if you push some folks in the white mainstream even a bit, they will start banning books and echoing warnings about something called Critical Race Theory—something they could not describe accurately if their lives depended on it, as apparently they think is the case. But such gestures of racial defensiveness aside, identifying racial exclusions, oppression, and violence at the center of white American culture doesn’t require the service of Critical Race Theory. It’s simply a matter of attending to history, to documents and practices associated with almost any significant moment or event in the nation’s history. You can barely look at any moment in American history without seeing the defining and persistent presence of race. And what the evidence reveals is that we wrote our way into this—through books, proclamations, laws, and stories—and we’re going to have to read our way out of it if we have any chance of coming to an understanding of who we are and how we got this way. Everybody’s talking about race, and maybe the time has come to read up a bit on what we’re talking about.