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The whiteness of history

December 18, 2013

Russian icon depicting scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas, c. late 1400s, National Museum, Stockholm. Source: Wikimedia Commons via Bjoertvedt

Last week, Fox News personality Megyn Kelly announced on her program as a true fact that Santa Claus and Jesus were white. You can see the segment here, and as for the reactions, they run the gamut from Fox fellow Bill O’Reilly totally agreeing with her, to a reasoned piece in The Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt, who notes that her comments are both bad history and bad theology.

Kelly herself has protested (here, and here) that her comments were meant to be light-hearted, and dismissed her critics as “race-baiters.” It was for the children, Kelly said last week on the segment in question: “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white, but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.”

Leaving aside Kelly’s severe misunderstanding of her network’s viewer demographics, something’s being missed amid the outrage. As a person who studies and teaches about things like race and history and civil society, I feel the need to weigh in. To me, Santa-Is-White-Gate points to a major failure in our understanding of race and whiteness.

The most obvious problem with Kelly’s comment is that, if we take “white” to mean skin pigmentation that’s more or less similar to that of Kelly and the three others on her panel (see video above), then neither Jesus nor the historical bishop that Santa is modeled on would fit the bill. Both first-century Judea and fourth-century Anatolia were cosmopolitan regions that had seen centuries of population movement and gene flow between people from North and East Africa, Southwest and Central Asia, and Europe. As Merritt notes in his Atlantic article, “If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.” Same for Saint Nicholas.

But that’s not my point here. Kelly’s remarks are flawed on a deeper level, one that revolves around three related issues.

Skin color varies even among closely related people

The idea that “races” of people fall into neat little categories – white, black, brown, yellow, red – is a conceit that has no relationship to actual human variation. The idea traces back to Linnaeus, who assigned attributes to different populations on the basis of generalizations about skin tone. The problem is, human variation of all traits, including skin color, exists on a continuum. Trying to draw rigid lines of color falls apart with a large sample.

If you were to look at a random person from Nigeria and a random person from Norway, for instance, you’re likely to see a clear difference in skin color. But if you were to look at everyone in the Nigerian’s population, you’d find a huge amount of variation in skin tone – some darker, some lighter – and you might realize that classifying everyone as “black” ignores those who are of lighter skin. The same would be true in reverse for the Norwegian’s population – everyone would have relatively lighter skin than our African sample, but that lightness would exhibit variation itself.

This idea is illustrated very well in an interactive from the American Anthropological Association. Give it a try, where do you draw the line? And for a really good, accessible book that explores this and related topics, I highly recommend Jon Marks’ Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology (note: this is an uncompensated recommendation; I don’t get any money if you click that link or buy the book).

If we accept acknowledge the reality of variation in skin tone, then what Kelly insisted is a true fact seems much less, well, truthful and factual. But it gets better.

The idea of “white people” is a fairly recent concept

It’s no mystery why Linnaeus decided to assign and group people by skin color. He was writing at the height of European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Since the 15th century, Europeans had been encountering people of very different appearances, habits, customs, and beliefs. Classifying those “others” became the necessary first step to controlling them. “White” was how the colonizers distinguished between themselves and the colonized.

But it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, there was quite a bit of overlap between color, language, and religion early in the colonization process. For instance, the Spanish missionary Bartolome de las Casas argued that conversion to Christianity meant native americans could not be enslaved and worked to death. Religion, in that sense, trumped color.

In the early years of the Virginia Colony, indentured servants could be of European or African descent. They lived and worked side by side, mated and married, and were able to secure freedom and property after their indenture. Status, in other words, depended not on skin color, but on one’s status as a servant or a landholder. Over that first century, color-based divisions were created by virtue of court rulings, gradually erasing indenture as a status for African-descended people (and then Europeans), and replacing it with a system of lifetime slavery based on color. For more on this, see Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity.

The point is that “white” was created by law and custom and “science,” it wasn’t a status that had meaning to people in the sense that we understand it today, until well into the 18th century. Back into the ancient world, there’s very little evidence that color was considered to be an indicator of difference or ability. Nubians ruled Egypt, Romans married North Africans, and so on.

The idea that the past was filled with white people is simply flawed, regardless of what Kelly says. “White” isn’t something that’s self-evident, it’s something that has a history. It had to be invented. And it had to be invented for a specific reason.

“White” is about power and privilege, not skin color

The people who created and policed the distinction between “white” and “other” were the ones who held the power – it was the colonizers, the scientists (Linnaeus, Haeckel, Vogt, Morton, and others), and the politicians (Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, etc).

After the end of slavery in the U.S., legal segregation maintained distinctions between white and black for the purpose of keeping political and civil power away from those whose interests would oppose the (white folks) in power. Mechanisms to disenfranchise African descended people were based not just on physical appearance, but on ancestry. This odd system, called “hypodescent,” assigns people whose ancestry comes from multiple groups into that group with the lower amount of prestige, regardless of their skin tone. So a person who had, say, one grandparent who was black would be classified as “black,” no matter how much they appeared “white.” Hence, they might not be able to vote, hold office, get access to education, make a contract with a “white” person, and so on. We still feel vestiges of this today: Consider how President Obama is classified, despite having a white mother and a lightly pigmented skin tone.

Moreover, exactly who is included in the category “white” (in the United States at least), has been enlarged over the past two centuries. Immigrant groups including Italians, Irish, Jews, and Scandinavians had to overcome barriers to social mobility and economic access based on the perception that they were dirty, lazy, uncultured, uncivilized, less intelligent, and other traits constructed in opposition to “white” society. “White” in this sense was not at all about skin color, but about class – access to resources and advancement and social capital was reserved for the already wealthy and privileged: the native born, England and Scotland-descended Protestant elites. By a variety of mechanisms, immigrant groups came to be included in the class-based construction of whiteness. Many of their descendants became the so-called “white ethnics” of today. For more on these cases, see David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, 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.

So to sum up: “White” as distinct from any other skin color does not exist in actual human populations; “white people” came about only in the past three centuries, and “whiteness” as an index to power and privilege is a construction that serves to exclude others based on a largely arbitrary difference.

None of this is particularly revolutionary or mysterious. Nor is it hard to teach. In my own experience, students ranging from intro-level college undergrads to graduate students in advanced seminars are profoundly interested in these ideas, and they get them on a visceral level. Yet last week we saw a highly compensated and visible news personality publicly stating the polar opposite of what anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows to be actual fact.

What’s the disconnect? Is the history of race simply not taught? That seems wrong to me, because it touches on so many other topics. You can’t teach the so-called Age of Exploration without discussing it. You can’t teach U.S. colonial or Civil War history without talking about it. You can’t teach a class in 20th Century America without talking about it.

And in case anyone thinks Kelly’s remarks were an isolated issue, realize that when people of power and prestige put out false narratives, it has an outsized impact. I point to a story out of New Mexico from this week, where a teacher is accused of chiding a black ninth-grader who dressed as Santa that “Santa is white.” I’m not suggesting this teacher got the idea from Fox News, rather that a lot of people are woefully misinformed about what “white” means, and why it means what it does.

I suggested up top that the problem with Megyn Kelly’s comment is that it highlights how little we know or think about race and whiteness. Kelly herself is highly educated – she has degrees from Syracuse University and Albany Law School, both of them very good institutions. But we clearly need to do a better job teaching, and we need to call out people in media that propagate bad history.

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