Whiteness: Where Does it Come From?
Susan Saulny, September 2001

              September 2, 2001

              And There Was Light, and It Was Good?

              By SUSAN SAULNY

                  he "Michael Jackson" is all the rage in
                  Tanzania. And those too poor to
              bleach their skin with the mysterious pill
              named after the ever fading King of Pop turn
              to a messier method, coating their skin with
              koroga, a homemade, dangerous mixture of
              lye and bleach.

              Traveling through the heart of the Namibian
              desert recently, Dr. Ife Williams, a
              Philadelphian who spent the last six months
              teaching political science at the University of
              Dar es Salam, was stunned to see women
              using koroga there, too. "I thought I knew
              something about race, having studied it all
              my life," Dr. Williams said, "but I did not
              really understand the depth to which even
              African people had begun to internalize

              There hardly seems a place on earth
              untouched by social and political hierarchies
              linked to skin color, which rank the world's
              rainbow of skin tones according to two
              shades, light and dark. That distinction is the
              foundation of the current notion of race.

              As how to define racism, much less what to
              do about it, roils the delegates to the United
              Nations' World Conference Against Racism
              in Durban, South Africa, it might be wise to
              remember that the importance of skin color
              is largely a modern invention.

              Certainly, slavery and many other oppressive forms of
hierarchy have existed
              throughout human history, as have differences in skin color.
But the idea that
              the two have a cause-and-effect relationship is relatively
new, with its
              genesis, many academics say, in the trans-Atlantic slave
trade and the
              colonialism that emerged with it.

              There is no word for race in the original language of the
Bible, or in the
              writings of the ancients, like Herodotus, the Greek
historian, anthropologists
              say. Marco Polo, in his 13th-century travels from Italy to
China and back via
              the Indian Ocean, described peoples as "idolaters" or "the
eaters of" this or
              that, not according to skin color, said C. Loring Brace, a
professor of
              anthropology at the University of Michigan and the curator of
cultural biology
              at the school's Museum of Anthropology. "The concept of race
does not
              appear until the trans- Atlantic voyages of the Renaissance,"
he said.

              ANOTHER way of thinking about skin color is to ask: When did
              start thinking of themselves as white?

              "There was no whiteness prior to the 17th century," said
Manning Marable,
              director of the Institute for Research in African-American
Studies at
              Columbia University. "Whiteness is the negation of something
else. The
              something else are Africans who are described by Europeans
not by their
              religion or nationality but by the color of their skin. And
nowhere in Africa
              did Africans call themselves `black.' "

              The word race was used for the first time in a modern sense,
it is widely
              believed, in a 17th-century French travelogue, Dr. Brace said.

              Historians have yet to decide conclusively on chicken or egg
              racism and colonialism. Europeans used skin color to rank the
people they
              "discovered" around the world, and the black and brown people
at the
              bottom were judged to have little humanity, so colonizing
their lands and
              using them as slaves moved ahead freely.

              "People with dark skin were demonized in order to justify
their exploitation,"
              Dr. Williams said. "The people in power spread the belief
that: `These
              people are nothing but monkeys. We're helping them out.' "

              The Spanish began using the word negro to describe Africans
in the 1500's.
              They used claro, or light, for themselves. The application of
the term "white"
              to describe a person's color, and, by extension, race, began
in northern
              Europe thereafter, Dr. Brace said.

              Skin color became seen as evidence of an essential human
conflict, just the
              way art and literature pitted day against night,
consciousness against sleep,
              evil against sacredness. And relative lightness of skin has
proven a
              compelling ladder to superiority that people of many skin
tones have tried to

              But if racial hierarchy is not a natural law, why was it that
European whites
              exploited African blacks, rather than the other way around?

              In his book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human
Societies" (W.W.
              Norton), Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at the
              medical school, contends that white dominance was a largely a
product of
              geography, climate and other factors, not race. European
habitats had a wide
              variety of plant and animal species that formed a reliable
food base and
              encouraged farming, he says, and farming led to stable
communities, stratified
              societies, governments and, eventually, armies and explorers
who sought to
              extend their culture's reach. Other cultures with those
advantages, he argues,
              faced different diseases or other constraints.

              "The main reason for the apparent domination of light-skinned
people over
              dark people is a historical accident," Dr. Diamond said.

              THE human will to dominate others is far too creative to be
satisfied only
              with skin color. Economic resources, dietary habits,
religious beliefs — the
              range of factors that can prompt discrimination seems
endless. And yet few
              are as pervasive as skin color.

              There are a few places on earth that don't see color quite
the same way. But
              before anyone gets excited about openmindedness, consider: On
Baku, an
              island in the Solomon Sea, and in various parts of New
Guinea, in the Pacific
              Ocean northeast of Australia, the majority are very
dark-skinned. Those
              who have pale skin are looked down on.

              There, too, color matters.


To Rich Gibson's Home Page