“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there, nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another 60 years.”
That is the summarizing statement and the big takeaway from Ted W Allen’s two-volume work called “The Invention of the White Race.”
That does not mean that people looked differently. There were English people that were there, there were people that might look like some of us in this room, but they did not consider themselves to be white in 1619.
And this talk is going to go through how whiteness was invented in the 17th century. And so from the early 1600s, that idea does not exist yet. By the end of
that century, it does.
I’m going to talk about three people that sort of represent how being someone of African descent changed from being someone that was a little lower in status but able to achieve parity, to their being a complete divide between people who would be considered Black—or in these terms Negro would be the term, right? And then the invention of whiteness as a thing.
Then I’m going to tell you about one of the major incidents that seems to have
caused that. It’s called “Bacon’s Rebellion” and ultimately I’m going talk about sort of the justifications that happened after the invention of whiteness to try to make it a real or scientific thing and how those really didn’t hold up especially in the 20th century and into today.
So the first person I want to talk about is a man named “Anthony Johnson”. He arrived in Virginia in 1621. So as many of you probably know, the first African enslaved people arrived in Virginia in 1619, and they showed up in Jamestown. Jamestown was found in 1607, but these people that were forcibly brought there, they got there before the Pilgrims so the pilgrims are central to our national myth, but they don’t found Plymouth until 1620.
Anthony Johnson was captured by an enemy nation in what’s now Angola, he was sold to a merchant working for the Virginia Company, but he was sold as an indentured servant. And this is something that’s pretty important about the early period of American colonization because, if y’all remember the current governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam he got into lots of trouble because apparently he either dressed up in blackface or as a KKK member in college. And then tried to explain that and had to be coaxed out of moonwalking, and then he did an interview, and he referred to the first Africans who came to Virginia as being an indentured servants, and the interviewer corrected him instead slaves and that is somewhat true, but in case of Anthony Johnson, he actually was able to work his way out of forced indentured servitude. So he’s able to engage and marry another indentured woman, whose name was also “Mary”. And by 1647 he is definitely completely free he is able to purchase cattle. By 1651, he acquires 250 acres of land, and he also has five hundred servants. Of those five, only one of them is of African descent. So in this early period, statuses are a little more fungible.
Between 1653 and 1655, Johnson is involved in lawsuit with a man named Robert Parker and it’s over a person whose name is John Casor.
So in this lawsuit, we have Johnson described as a “free Negro”, and Casor is an indentured servant who claims that he’s being held illegally because his time, his contract, is up, and Johnson’s holding it too long. Johnson first loses the suit, so Casor is going to be able to go freely, but then on appeal Johnson wins the case and Casor is declared to be a slave for life. This is very new because he’s not accused of doing anything wrong. There’s no crime. But as of 1655, he is going to be held as property, basically for the rest of his life. And what this change represents is that Casor viewed himself as part of a client-patron relationship, so he thought he was a client of Johnson, so he was going to go become a client of Parker. But Johnson’s argument was that, no, this is his property, he’s not somebody that can make that change.
Remember that Johnson is what we would not describe as Black, so he’s able to own property and do these things. He wins this case but there is obviously some discrimination there against him.
In 1657, someone forges a letter supposedly by Johnson—who is illiterate—saying that Johnson owes that guy 100 acres. Johnson doesn’t fight this. He gives the 100 acres to pay off that debt, and by 1670 when Johnson dies he’s going to try and leave 50 acres of what is still his land to his son, but a jury of men of European descent—this is 1670—they determined that the colony can seize those 50 acres rather than allowing Johnson to give it to his son because the son was “a Negro by and by consequence an alien.”
So Mary Johnson still survives, she is able to give some cattle to her grandsons. In 1677, one of those grandsons is able to buy 44 acres of land, but by 1730, this whole family is out, and disappear.
So over the course of his life, Anthony Johnson goes from being forced into indentured servitude, getting status and becoming someone who is a cornerstone of the community. In 1653 there’s a fire that burns their house and lands, and the legislature says actually we won’t make these people pay any taxes because were such find, upstanding residents. Within a few decades, they’re gone.
So Anthony Johnson is part of one of the first cases of associating African descent and perpetual slavery for no crime. He’s part of that case, but even before that we have a man named John Punch.
In 1640 John Punch is an indentured African servant. He ran away together with a Dutch and with a Scottish indentured servant, and they wanted to get out of Virginia and go to Maryland. When they all get caught, they’re all given 30 lashes, but the Dutch and Scottish ones, they just have a couple more years added on to their period of servitude. Whereas Punch, he is sentenced to “serve his set master for the time of his natural life, here or elsewhere.” So already, we don’t have a conception of “race” yet, but they are making these distinctions between people of African descent and people of European descent.
The third person I want to tell you about is Elizabeth Key. She was born in Virginia in 1632 she was born in what will become United States. Her father is a British man who serves in the Virginia House of Burgesses. That is the colonial legislature. But her mother is an enslaved African woman. Key’s father, once he dies when she’s 6 years old, she then goes with the home of a godfather who is supposed to take care of her. So she is going to be an indentured servant for this man who’s gonna help her till she gets to the age of adulthood.
Instead he sells her to a judge who considers her to be a permanent slave. Now, Key goes with her common-law husband, and they sue saying she’s being enslaved wrongfully. So her argument is first that under English common law, you take the status of your father. Her father was a free man, he was an important politician, therefore, she should be free. But secondly, they have her certificate of baptism. She’s a member of the Church of England, and they cannot enslave Christians. So it seems like pretty open-and-shut case. She wins, and she’s able to win her freedom or acknowledging freedom of herself.
So that’s 1656, and the legislature goes: “So by law she’s right. I guess we need to change the law.” In 1662, they pass the law that says in the colonies, people are going to take the status of their mother, and the justification for this, at this point—this is 1662—is that Africans are not subject to British law because they are not British. They’re African. So we have like different laws for people from foreign nations, basically.
But this also has the very obviously self-interested effect of allowing people who own people to profit by sexual assaults and have more property. But as late as 1656, you were still able to transition from one state to another.
So Bacon’s Rebellion is what is pointed to as a central event in early American colonial history. It’s 1676, because Ted W. Allen, the guy who wrote “The Invention the White Race”, he traces—how especially in England—the status of peasants had actually been getting better throughout the late medieval period, they had gotten more rights for themselves. But then with enclosures, the ruling class started enclosing lands off from the commons. And they want to do that because it was worth more to have sheep graze on it which you can turn into wool and sell somewhere else. Before, the people working the land could make food ourselves. The effect of this is that you push a bunch of people off the land, they could not grow from food anymore, they had to rely on wages which didn’t pay very well.
So a lot of them were either involuntarily or being coerced or just not having better options than selling themselves into indentured servitude, going to the colonies, and hoping for some kind of better life.
Early on they are also paid wages. Allen shows that it was pretty rare for someone to be in an indentured servant and not also make money because that would be a punishment. But as the 17th century goes on, it starts to resemble more and more we would recognize this chattel slavery. You didn’t have rights, you could be beaten, those sort of things.
In addition to that, mortality rates are very high in the colonies. People are dying of diseases a lot, and also starvation. Because the Virginia Company is an explicitly capitalist enterprise. You should make the most money. That means you should export tobacco because that makes the most money. Unfortunately, you’re not growing your own food, so they were often very close to starvation. There was also an economic crash, so things were not very good.
In addition to this the American Indian nations by the time we’re still very numerous and powerful. In fact, up in New England, it’s called King Philip’s War. It was the leader of Metacomet. He had a confederation that was going to wipe out all of the English colonies. He nearly succeeded but didn’t quite. In Virginia, it wasn’t quite that bad, but there were groups that were raiding them, too.
So there’s a guy, his name is Nathaniel Bacon, and Bacon, he really wants to go retaliate against the groups that are attacking them but also just wipe them out so that he can take over their land. His argument is that, “We don’t have enough land here; we should get more of it then we can have more land and be richer.” But he is in disagreement with the governor of Virginia at that time, William Berkeley. Bacon is able to unite the indentured servants of European descent, the servants of African descent, and the enslaved slave people, who at this point are all of African descent.
And it says something I guess about us and our history that the only thing that really has ever united people is trying to wipe out another group, but that is what got them all together. Then they turned on Berkeley in the House of Burgesses, and the colonial powers they burned down Jamestown. They were nearly successful at overthrowing this whole system, then Bacon got fever, he died, and their rebellion falls apart.
This scared the heck out of the land-owning people because they saw all of these poor people together, and there’s always way more poor people than rich people. They saw them working together and the rich people recognized they needed to do something to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.
So we’re talking about the invention of whiteness. It is pretty late. The adjective “white” for a person does not go back any earlier than 1671 in English, but it starts to get codified into the law more and more. At the same time that you were taking freedoms away from people of African descent, you were starting to bribe the other poor people by giving them a status of whiteness—that they could one day own property, they could one day become a high status person. They got a few more protections, but as an example, in 1680, there is a law that is again aimed as enslaved people, and it says if “any Negroe”—and for some reason they spelled with an e at the end—”or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any Christian”, they’ll be lashed.
So in 1680, it is said that there are enslaved people and there Christians: that’s the status. But it should be pretty obvious why this needs to change. Because if I can just say, “You know, I believe in Jesus now. I want to join the Church of England,” I can now leave this status. It’s not permanent. You can’t keep doing it. But if you based slavery on something else that is permanent, then it can stay forever.
By 1691, the first laws that mention this, they’re about intermarriage. They define all these people that are not supposed to be able to intermarry with “English or other white women”. By the end of the 17th century, we have defined whiteness, and whiteness is people of European descent. If you are not one of those people, you can never be. And if you have any the, phrase they use is “admixture” the origin of the one-drop rule, you’re not white.
They did make an exception though because do you remember the story of Pocahontas? She married and had children with John Rolfe. They became wealthy landowners, and so the laws did go out of their way to say that these people that were claiming Pocahontas as an ancestor, they still had whiteness. Everybody else didn’t, but this family did, and so they managed to carve whiteness out for them.
Throughout the 1700s, throughout the 1800s, there starts to be more and more laws making this divide wider. Things are not really getting that much better for the poor people that we would now call white. Their conditions weren’t improving, they were still pretty bad, but they even bought off and bribed to consider themselves aligned with rich planters instead of the other people who were a more similar status.
But it’s not enough to just have a status that makes you superior to somebody else. You can’t just enjoy oppression because that makes you kind of feel bad, and so starting in the mid 1700s, we have Carl Linnaeus. He’s only gave us the Linnaean system of biology. So of course, you also classify humans. He said there were Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Asians. Of course, who’s going to get the top? It’s Europeans.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1795, he coined the term Caucasian. If you’ve ever wondered why that term exists, he just liked them. He thought that’s the original race, was Caucasians, and he thought they were the prettiest. That’s why we have the term Caucasian.
Samuel George Morton in the mid-1800s, he is not the only one to do this, but he would be most enthusiastic: he’d like to measure skulls. He just paid people to bring him skulls from all of the world. He measured them, he said this is the slope here, this is the size, and wouldn’t you know it? He found out that people who look like him were the smartest and best and should be in charge.
So this is not a surprise, but everything from religious justifications to science is called polygenism. So there were people who were religious who said, “Yeah I know that God made Adam and Eve, but maybe He also made some other people, and the other people are worse and bad and we should slay them.” And you have scientific people who took Darwin’s theory of natural selection and said, “Well, I mean that’s natural selection, and also social Darwinism, and yeah we’re at the top now. So we deserve it. I am benefiting from this and it’s deserved.”
So it doesn’t really matter what the justification is, you’ll find something that justifies your power and oppression and then try to make it scientific. You will still see people try to do this even with things like the human genome projects. In terms of actual biology, this should be well known by now. There are more differences within any group than between any groups. Sometimes people will say, “But what about sickle cell anemia?” And it is true that people who live in that band around the equator, they are likely to get malaria, so there’s an advantage to having sickle cell because it stops the spread malaria. But that is not relevant in a racial category that has been defined. The one I think that is the most commonly used, even today, is just as recent as the the 1940s. These terms are bad: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. Complete arbitrary. That should be obvious. But it’s also not really any sooner than the 1940s because some people have said there’s four races, there’s five. Whatever. This has been a part of American history.
In 1790, the Naturalization Act said they were allowing immigrants to naturalize who were “free white persons of good character”. I don’t know how they define a good character, but whiteness was right there. If y’all weren’t aware of this, immigration is a matter of debate people talk about now, but for about the first 100 years of American history, we just didn’t have an immigration policy. Beyond that anybody was allowed to come in. Then for the next 40 years after that, our only immigration policy was no Chinese people, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Before 1882, anyone of any race had come in, and some couldn’t be a naturalized citizen, but there wasn’t any real attempt to stop anybody from coming. It was only in the late 1880s as we started having more Chinese immigration that we said said, “Well, not those people. And if they leave, also they can’t come back.” So there were also no quotas before that I’m aware of prior, although some came later to target other East Asian groups, such as the Japanese.
In the twentieth century, 1924 is the big year for immigration restrictions. It was based on census levels from 1890. Basically, they said, “We only have this many Italians that we want to come in. We want more English people to come in.” That sort of thing. By the way, there are other forms of discrimination that exist. I’m gonna talk about those a little bit, but this is about whiteness.
Early on it was a little easier, and in the South they’ve tried to keep it this way or act like there are just two groups: that’s it. But in the early 1900s, the Naturalization Act of 1906 says “free white persons” are able to naturalize and also “persons of African nativity or African descent.” So they can naturalize along with whites. But this opens up a lot of questions because there was a lot of other people that are not those two things. In America, everyone wanted to achieve the status of whiteness because that was where power was.
The very first case that I was able to find about this was 1909, and it was Armenians. So Armenians are literally Caucasian. They were in danger of being deported, though, because they weren’t exactly white. They managed to win that case and, actually I was looking this because it’s like an old New York Times article. This is kind of blew my mind. It was a judge, and his arguments that, “I guess the Armenians can stay” is Judge Lowell also held that
“Congress may amend the statutes to provide more specifically what persons may be admitted to citizenship but until that is done and the definition of a white person is clearly set forth, the circuit court will not deny any citizenship to aliens on account of color.”
There’s some other nasty terms in here. “In his decision, Judge Lowell stated the government attempted to classify”—this next term is “Asiatics”—”having already made no objection to Hebrews”. So his argument was literally that like, “If we cannot keep Jewish people out, I guess we can’t keep Armenians out either.” So they got to join whiteness.
Not everybody did though. In 1922 Takeo Ozawa, he’s a Japanese American, he had lived in the US for 20 years, and he argued he ought to be considered white. Why? Because if he didn’t go out in the Sun, he was pretty pale. He argued a lot of things about Japanese culture been great his report though held that however “pale” Ozawa was he wasn’t “white” under the definition like Caucasian. So yes, you literally do get pale when not in the Sun, but that’s not we’re talking about here.
Another person that tried to have run of it was man named Bhagat Singh Thind. He was an Indian Sikh man. He immigrated United States and tried in 1923 to argue that he was his term, “a high-caste Aryan of full Indian blood”, and this time the court said that wellm true by like the scientific definitions that thety’re using that would be correct. But under the common or standing, you are not white, so you don’t get that privilege. Which obviously very arbitrary. It’s really arbitrary because it changes with time. In the South under segregation, in some areas people of Chinese descent were able to go to the all-white schools. They were not like forced to go to the segregated black schools. In 1930, the U.S. Census for the first time differentiated “whites” and this is the term “Mexicans”. So up till that point, and now we say there’s Non-Hispanic white and Hispanic white and so forth.
The thing about are you white or are you Mexican is that the 1930s was when we forced “repatriation” where about 500,000 people were forced to go to Mexico, even if they were not ever born there and didn’t speak any Spanish, because there’s a great depression we wanted to get people we did not consider being white out of the country.
Also, in 1915 there was a man named George Dow. He was a Syrian American and he did win his case, so for that purpose Levantine (Christian) Arabs were considered white, but not other Arabs. So if you’re North African (Muslim) Arab you do not count as white until 1943.
So this should all be very clearly not a thing that is based anything that is substantively real, but it has real effects. Whiteness has very real effects on what you are able to do in society and what privileges you have. The fact that all of these different groups wanted to get the status of whiteness for themselves should be pretty clear because if you have a status of something else, you’re gonna face massive discrimination in almost every aspect of your life.
A lot of times people will hear this sort of thing and bring up, “Yeah but weren’t the Irish also discriminated? Or ike “Mike my great-great-grandfather was Italian and they called him names, all these things.” And that is true that other European groups experienced racism right but they experienced races for being the wrong kind of white right they were not legally barred from things in the same way that people who were considered to be Black, who were considered to be Chinese, for example, were barred from certain things. That’s why whiteness is this thing that doesn’t make any sense except as power.
Whiteness has been able to expand and contract and grab the people to help maintain itself, to maintain white supremacy, because it really just wants to keep the status quo. And if we say now that “this is the most diverse time in American history”, that’s kind of true but also there have been past times we could consider a diverse accepting we look back, and now say that all of those people were white, all of those people were part of this caste, and I think it’s really important to be aware of what whiteness is and means. It is not that you cannot have genocide or you can’t have slavery without a concept of race. Romans did it. They were really nasty and brutal, and they didn’t need racism for that.
But in American society, the way that we are structured is based on this, for lack of a better term, technology having all of us be convinced that if we are white then we’re in it together against those other people. They’re more dangerous because they’re trying to come in and take our things. That was the original reason that it was invented in the late 1600s, and even though it has changed a lot in terms of how expresses itself, and who includes it and who it excludes, that is a thing that is still very much a part of our society and if you are someone that benefits from being white, it’s not just enough to feel bad. “Well I look at history and go wow that was really bad those things that those people did.” You have to, in a very direct way andmore than just personal behavior way acts to change that because racism—
the fact it’s the fact this lasted so long it’s kind of depressing right but at the same time it doesn’t have to exist right we invented it we can not have it we can actually get rid of it. We have the ability if we try real real hard we can’t undo 400 years of this invention.