Notes from Scene on Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ in 2017

Ahead of an Antiracist seminar that several coworkers and I are attending, organizer Kim Crayton recommended attendees listen back to the popular 2017 podcast season of Scene on the Radio ‘Seeing White.”

Though it’s several years old, I appreciated listening in greater detail and with fresh eyes. It’s as timely today as ever. Here I will share notes for me to return to, but I strongly suggest you listen to the entire excellent 14-episode series on “whiteness,” the historical construct of race and its implications today.

Here are a few notes to jump off from or use alongside the podcast if you do listen:

  • Slavery predates racial identity: Forms of slavery were used for thousands of years. Racial identity was a formed construct.
  • Race has historical origins. National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi has argued that Gomes Eanes de Zurara in articulating that Africans benefited from Portuguese-created slavery for Prince Henry the Navigator . More here
  • Racial prejudice was useful to construct a multi-class coalition (rich and poor whites) rather than a multi-race coalition (poor white and Blacks). Historically leaders offer “just enough” to ensure the allegiance of poor whites.
  • In 1640, John Punch was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery, after he ran away with two white indentured slaves. Those white slaves had far shorter sentences.
  • Early American laws shaped and defined race. In 1656, mixed-race Elizabeth Key won her freedom in a court case due to her white father and Christianity. Virginia lawmakers changed initial race definition by way of mother, not father (essentially allowing for white male slaveholders to have children by way of their rape of Black women), and updated English Common Law that had maintained active Christians couldn’t be enslaved.
  • Following the 1676 Bacons Rebellion, the Virginia slave codes created further incentive to cement multi-class solidarity.
  • In 1682, Virginia defined only Europeans as Americans; legally using “white” for the first time, rather than nationality.  “Negro, Moor, Mulatto, Indian, slaves to all intents and purpose “
  • In 1790, the Naturalization Act defined “only free whites” can be American citizens.
  • Racism “is not prejudice; it is not bigotry, it is about power” Racial Equity Institute cofounder Suzanne Plihcik. Privilege is a “system of advantage.”
  • It’s not quite right to consider someone a product of their time. Thomas Jefferson was challenged by anti racists in his time.
  • “It seems the whole project of whiteness was about exploitation” Chenjerai Kumanyika
  • It’s not quite right to consider someone a product of their time. Thomas Jefferson was challenged by anti racists in his time.
  • In 1688 Mennonite in Philadelphia’s Germantown contributed a petition against slavery, seen as the first religious-centered abolition movement.
  • In 1760s, John Woolman writes: “Placing on men the ignominious title SLAVE..tends gradually to fix a notion in the mind, that they are a sort of people below us in nature, and leads us to consider them as such in all our conclusions about them.”
  • “Racist ideas do not lead to oppression, they result from it.” John Biewen
  • Thomas Jeffersons’ famous 1824 letter on slavery: “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. … We have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.
  • Even perceived abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson was complex: Anti slavery was not for Blacks but for enslavers as it was too barbaric in his English Traits.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920) on privilege: “The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate, beyond this he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced he deserves it and above all that he deserves it in comparison with others. Good fortune, thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”
  • “We’re trying to become something this country has never been.” – Chenjerai Kumanyika
  • South Carolinian and Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) reinforcing the class-coalition over race: With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.”
  • Black folk saying dating from the Great Migration: “In the north white people don’t care how high you get as long as you don’t get too close. In the south white people don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too high.”
  • “The history of wealth in the western world is inextricably linked to exploitation” so racial constructs do a lot of work to defend wealth inequality, said Chenjerai Kumanyika. “Race is remarkably enduring as an institution. But it’s unstable as a concept”
  • How the Supreme Court has twisted definitions of race. In pursuit of American citizenship, a Japanese-American Takao Ozawa argued in 1922 his literal light skin made him white but ultimately the Court decided only “Caucasian” people were white. In response, a year later Indian-American Bhagat Singh Thind’s legal team argued that since his ancestors were literally from the Caucasus, the Ozawa precedent would let him be a free naturalized American citizen. The Court reversed its opinion and noted he did not meet a “common sense” definition of white.
  • To know who had power at any given time in American history, look to see who had the right to vote. So though the Irish, Italians and Jewish people went through periods of being seen as “less white,” they were always white enough to be able to vote.
  • Whiteness is about the individual. Part of the injury of even referring to someone as “white” is that it appears to group people who are accustomed to being granted nuanced and individual stories.
  • Affirmative Action was for poor whites first. Though 40 acres and a mule for Black was largely reversed, earlier versions for white residents weren’t. 20th century programs like the GI Bill and Social Security disproportionately benefited white residents, due to widespread practices like redlining.
  • Households headed by a white person are 13 times wealthier on average than those headed by a Black person. By some accounts even white high school graduate households have more wealth than Black college-degree holders. Generational wealth means support most often flows from one generation to the next differently among white and Black people.
  • The invisible knapsack of white privilege by Peggy McIntosh in 1989: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”
  • Remember that White Fragility as a book is best thought to be in white studies so it isn’t a perfect solution But the concept does work. Author Robyn D’Angelo advises white people to stop saying “but wait not me” and instead understand all white people, regardless of circumstances, have benefited from systems. It doesn’t have to be your fault. Otherwise it’s collusion. Not white guilt, but white responsibility

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