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
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
anthropology at the University of Michigan and the curator of
at the school's Museum of Anthropology. "The concept of race
appear until the trans- Atlantic voyages of the Renaissance,"
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
director of the Institute for Research in African-American
Columbia University. "Whiteness is the negation of something
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
"discovered" around the world, and the black and brown people
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
Dr. Williams said. "The people in power spread the belief
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
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
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
exploited African blacks, rather than the other way around?
In his book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human
Norton), Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at the
medical school, contends that white dominance was a largely a
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
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
dark people is a historical accident," Dr. Diamond said.
THE human will to dominate others is far too creative to be
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
island in the Solomon Sea, and in various parts of New
Guinea, in the Pacific
Ocean northeast of Australia, the majority are very
who have pale skin are looked down on.
There, too, color matters.