(This is a transcript of the video below)
Hi everyone, let’s discuss the lie that invented racism. So last week I had a very raw and in-depth conversation out of nowhere with one of my classes. One of my students asked me point blank where did racism come from and how is it 2020 and it’s still a thing. I will be honest with you that for a moment I was kind of at a loss for words because these are 15-year-old students asking a very deep and loaded question. More so than anything, I had that moment of realization that, despite being on zoom, for a moment all eyes were locked on me. So here’s a bit of our discussion.
What is up with white people? What makes one person think they are superior to the other simply because of their skin color? I know it’s a question that people of color have been asking for centuries. Over the last few years, this is something that I have really thought on and I feel like there are many people in the same boat with me. Notice how I am us white people. As in all of us. Not just the ones with the hoods, tiki torches, and swastikas that our soon to be former President thinks has good people included. They are a threat and commit the majority of the acts of domestic terrorism in our country. But what I am discussing is something even more immense and pervasive. White people at large. Maybe even more so, I am talking about people like me. One of those self-described progressives that doesn’t want to be racist. That is the type of person I was raised to be. I grew up learning racism is wrong and racists are bad people. At the same time, I grew up in a relatively affluent small town that was very very white in Alabama. I am speaking for myself in saying that I believe that allowed me to view those hooded racist figures that I learned about for 15 seconds in my history textbook came from another place or time period. It wasn’t about us and I didn’t feel implicated in that. I would say that I am still in recovery from that early belief. A recovery that I am still in the process of growing out of each and every day. I went to college and majored in Criminology and History in part because I was passionate about equality and justice. But the notion of racism was always a complicated puzzle. Why is it with us if it is so clearly wrong? What struck me was that maybe it still puzzled me because I was not looking in the right place or asking the right questions.
Let’s face it this year has been a reckoning on an unimaginable level. Have you noticed that when people in our mostly white media report on what they consider to be racial issues, or what we consider to be racial issues, that usually means is that we’re pointing our cameras and our microphones and our gaze at people of color, asking questions like, “How are Black folks or Native Americans, Latino or Asian Americans, how are they doing?” in a given community or with respect to some issue — the economy, education. I’ve done my share of that kind over many years. But then George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, followed by this unending string of high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black people, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dylann Roof and the Charleston massacre, the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace, and all the incidents from the day-to-day of American life. These overtly racist incidents that we now get to see because they’re captured on smartphones and sent across the internet.
Beneath the media are those damn pesky facts and data that show systemic racism in every institution we have. Housing segregation, job discrimination, the racialized inequities in our schools and criminal justice system. What truly did it in for me, and I know I am not alone in this thinking, is the rise of Donald Trump and the horrifying reality that the majority of Americans, nearly 73 million to be exact, would support or accept a raw kind of white identity politics. This disturbed me as a human being and especially one living in the south.
One of the main questions I keep coming back to is where did this idea of being a white person come from? Crazy concept here I know, but I did some research and read a lot on this subject from leading sociologists and historians dealing with race and the history of race. You know the science doesn’t lie. We are one human race. We are all related. All of us descended from a common ancestor in Africa. Over time some of us migrated out of Africa into cooler, darker places and lost a lot of their melanin. Some of us more than others, but overall we are all 99.9% genetically the same. There is no gene for white-ness or black-ness or Asian-ness.
So how did this happen? How did racism start? If you were to ask me a few years ago, I would have told you something along the lines of well somewhere a long long time ago people encountered each other and realized wow you are strange to me. You have different colored skin or hair so I will jump to the conclusion that you are less than me so that makes it all good to mistreat you. I feel like I am not alone in this thinking and that a lot of white people would agree with me about a story similar to this? So if we assume that racism developed out of this timeline then it all seems to be one big misunderstanding. A failure to communicate.
Well guess what….that’s wrong. Race is in fact a recent invention. It’s only a few hundred years old. Before that yes, people divided themselves up by religion, tribal group, and languages, but for the majority of human history there was not an understanding of race. Now right here I know there are people yelling at their computers that there was a lot of slavery in the ancient world. Yes there was but people enslaved people who did not look like them and people that did. The English word “slave” comes from the word “slav” because Slavic people were enslaved by all kinds of people for centuries. Slavery was not based on race during this time because race was not even a concept yet.
So who did? I researched one of the leading historians on race, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who detailed how one person, who should be a whole hell of a lot more famous, or infamous in this case. Anyway, his name was Gomes de Zurara, a Portuguese man who wrote a book in the 1450’s that did something no one had ever done before. He lumped all of the people of Africa together into this one distinct group being inferior and beastly. Now, Africa being the a vast and diverse continent, yet he came down to these two descriptors. Now let’s overlook the fact that in pre-colonial times Africa had some of the most sophisticated cultures and empires that humankind had ever witnessed. From Mansa Musa, who was the wealthiest human in history with the Mali empire to the kingdom of Ghana. There are so many empires with rich culture and history that were completely white washed out of Zurara’s book.
So why would Zurara make this claim? Like every other investigation, it helps to follow the money. Zurara was hired by the Portuguese king to write this book. Just a few years before, slave traders from Portugal were the first Europeans to pioneer the Atlantic slave trade. They were the first Europeans to sail to sub-Saharan Africa to kidnap and enslave Africans. All of a sudden it became really important to have a story that depicted the African people as inferior. This helped justify this new trade to not only themselves, but to other people, and the church.
But Zurara did more than just write a book. He helped to construct the idea of blackness and whiteness. His description of Africans led to the creation of blackness and to quote Dr. Ibram X Kendi, blackness has no meaning without whiteness. Other Europeans followed Portugal’s template to gaining human property and free labor, but more importantly they helped to foster the lie Zurara created about the inferiority of African people. Upon realizing this, I found it to be clarifying. Racism did not start as some misunderstanding between groups of people way back in ancient times, but rather it started with a lie.
Now let’s jump across the Atlantic to colonial America, where colonists calling themselves white started building a nation on the foundation of these racist ideas and turned them into law. Laws that stripped all human rights from people they were calling black and locking them into a life of slavery. These laws gave even the poorest white people benefits. Not substantial benefits in material wealth, because the elite had to maintain their power, but the right to not be enslaved for life. To not have your loved ones ripped away from you and sold and a real good one dealing with the handouts of free land in colonies such as Virginia. Which I need to clarify was stolen land from the Native Americans.
Now I can only imagine that there are people listening, if you haven’t already had a Donald Trump style meltdown, who are thinking why does this matter? It happened hundreds of years ago. Things have changed, right? While we have made progress, I would argue that learning this real history has brought about an entirely new perspective dealing with how I understand racism today.
So let’s review two quick main points so far! One, race is not a biological thing but rather a story people decided to tell. And two, people told that story to justify the brutal exploitation of other human beings for profit. Once these two facts sink in, it becomes clear that racism is a product of attitudes but rather its a tool. It’s a tool that’s used to divide us and to prop up economic, social, and political systems that advantage some and disadvantage others. It’s also a tool to convince a lot of white folks who aren’t really benefiting from society to support the status quo. Maintaining the status quo meaning well I may never be rich but it could be worse, atleast I am white.
Once I was able to grasp the origin of racism, I have been able to stop being shocked at the fact that it still exists. Racism is not something that ended in 2009 with Obama being elected or some ignorant way of thinking that will die out. This tool of racism is still doing and succeeding at the job it was created to do. If this election and the last four years have shown you anything it is that it is still alive and well. Powerful individuals go to work each day and get to leverage this tool for their own gain. Not only in the government, but in many news agencies that start with an F and ends with OX, and even down to your local businesses. We don’t need to worry about whether or not they are really racist or meant what they said. What is really important is pocketbooks and power.
To begin to even try to understand racist thinking we have to go back to the beginning. When we do we see the entire notion of racism was built on a lie. This lie is not a culmination of attitudes, but rather it is a tool used to maintain the status-quo of protecting pocketbooks and power. This video is not made out of guilt, but rather a responsibility. There are no sidelines. If I am not fighting to help destroy a system that advantages me, then I am complicit in its’ continuation.
The most important take away from all of this and I am speaking to white people in particular for a minute. Once we understand that people who look like me invented the very notion of race in order to advantage themselves and us, it becomes easier to see that it is our problem to solve. If I spill my coffee I can’t rely on someone else to solve it for me. I have to clean up my own mess. This is a white people problem. We cannot rely on people of color to educate us or fight this problem that we created and benefit from daily. I know what a lot of you are thinking right now. You didn’t have anything to do with slavery, so why do you have to fix it. For the longest I thought that it wasn’t my fight. I wasn’t one of those real racists that wore a hood, so I didn’t need to or know how to get involved. I genuinely wanted to see the people of color win, but I want to fill you in on a little something. There are no sidelines. We are all involved and we are all implicated. If I am not joining this fight to destroy a system that advantages me, then I am complicit. This isn’t about shame or guilt. White guilt doesn’t solve anything because history is not my fault or yours. What I do feel is a sense of immense responsibility to actually do something.
This has changed the way I think and the way I approach teaching. But what does this mean for all of us? Could it mean that we support leaders who are working to transform unjust institutions? Or could it be that instead of approaching the topic of racism with a sense of resentment we approach it with humility and an open heart. More than anything we need to approach it with a willingness to put down this power that we did not earn.
I truly believe that we could all benefit if we can transform our society that isn’t built on the exploitation of anyone. But more important than anything that I have discussed, we should do this simply because it is right.