Before There Was Whiteness
by Paul Alexander
Willie James Jennings stirred my imagination with this:
The return I envision brings us back to bodies, and formation of racialized bodies. We must think through to the utter limits of the racial calculus to expose its deepest fault lines. We must do this in order to tear open racial identity so as to reveal the original relation—exposing it afresh to our social imaginations. If whiteness became the facilitating reality, as that form of identity inside of which all other identities could be imagined, then walking away from or renouncing or questioning existence within white identity is no simple matter.(1)
I, along with many others, have been raced-as-white. More particularly, we’ve been raced-as-white-by-whiteness-for-privilege. “White” is a historical construct manufactured for oppression, and whiteness is a totalizing system of differentiation, assimilation, and annihilation created for the purposes of exploitation of humans and commodification and ‘resource extraction’ of the earth. I invite people who think they are white to think of themselves instead as raced-as-white. Whiteness did this to us, and it tried to race everybody else, and whiteness cannot be redeemed. Whiteness had a beginning, and it’s going to have an end.(2) There will be a space, and a place, and a time when people will tell stories about how humans used to call themselves white many centuries ago. But how do we all together escape this crap and get there, sooner rather than later?
Tearing open to reveal the original relation
Answers to the questions of “original relation” depend on whom we ask. So before we get to theological narratives told a few thousand years ago (the Scriptures) and a few hundred years ago (colonial theology), let’s look at current understandings of DNA from a few hundred thousand years ago—which is itself simply another discourse of Homo sapien existence.
Sometime between 120,000 and 338,000 years ago, “Y-chromosomal Adam” lived in what is now called Africa—he was the Most Recent Common Ancestor of all currently living Homo sapiens. All 7 billion people on earth descend from this one ‘male.’ Sometime between 140,000 and 200,000 years ago, “Mitochondrial Eve” lived in what is now called Africa—she is (grand)mother to all 7 billion people on earth. The original relations then (a hundred thousand years ago) and there (the birthplace of humanity) were between those Homo sapiens, each other, and the land and other animals. And they have migratory, land-based relationships with us too.
Since then and there, a couple dozen human migration haplogroups have emerged (see map below; click to enlarge).
The genetic variations are based on movement across the land, and patrilineal migrations are named by scientists as A, B, CT, D, E, E1b1a, E1b1b, C, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, O3, P, Q, Q1a3a, R, R1a, R1b, S, and T. They are named inside an English alphabet and with Arabic numerals. Our bodies are being torn open and translated into letters and numbers again (I say “again” because any naming of a body is a translation of it into letters/words, such as “African” or “European.” DNA is a relatively recently developed language of naming and categorizing bodies). My paternal line—the Y-DNA of my raced-as-white body—is named-as-R1b1a2. My momma’s line is named-as-haplogroup W1-T119C—the first member of the W haplogroup was theoretically born between 49,000 and 26,800 years ago in what is now northwest India or northern Pakistan (see map below; click to enlarge).
An exact DNA match of a certain number of “markers” signifies that we descended from the same ‘male’ within the last 40 generations or so. I have living exact matches of my R1b1a2 in lands that are now called (ordered by frequency of exact matches): England, Ireland, Scotland, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Northern Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Portugal, Wales, Canada, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland.(3)
This is one of the most recent ways some humans are naming us based on a reading of our bodies that pre-dates the earliest recorded written namings of human bodies. Our bodies are being translated into DNA codes that are then interpreted to have meaning in relation to land and place.
My body is connected through a hundred thousand years of migrations to the land of ‘Africa’—through the lands of the ‘Middle East’—through the lands of ‘Eurasia’ and ‘Central Asia’—through the lands of ‘Eastern Europe’ through the lands of ‘Western Europe’—through the last centuries of colonialism and genocides and pogroms to the land that is only recently called the ‘United States of America.’
Along the way, as my ancestors moved farther away from the equator, some of their bodies adapted to less sunlight and their need for vitamin D by reducing pigment in their epidermis. Lighter-toned skin is an adaptation that helps prevent vitamin-D depletion.
However, a few hundred years ago, some lighter-skinned Homo sapiens used theology, law, violence, ‘science,’ and many other tools to construct the notion of whiteness for the specific purpose of abusing people-raced-differently-than-them, taking or controlling land, and building their own wealth and power. A lot of human diversity was strapped into, or falsely combined together, into the constructed uniform of whiteness as ‘white.’ And a lot of diversity was strapped into, or falsely combined together, into constructed uniformities of ‘black,’ ‘brown,’ etc. What I mean by this is that what was diverse – whether peoples all throughout Africa or peoples all throughout Europe – became one ‘thing’ – white, or black. Those lighter-skinned Homo sapiens invented a way of reading bodies and naming people; they invented the fiction of races, and this fiction of the ‘white race’ and the ‘black race’ became a horrendous fact. The whiteness they invented conceals and destroys diversity, and it seeks to render diversity invisible all the while assigning and asserting superiorities and inferiorities.
We Homo sapiens have been calling each other many kinds of names, and calling ourselves names, for thousands of years. I think all these names are human constructions—people invent them all. But whiteness has been a particularly destructive story that we’ve been living in—some benefiting from, some resisting—for centuries now.(4) How are we going to get out?
Maybe we can narrate our way out of whiteness, by storytelling our way beyond it by enfolding its beginning and end inside of a longer and more landed/earthed/migratory story and by creating new (and ancient) identities and relationships created not for oppression but for equity.
Paul Alexander is Ronald J. Sider Professor of Ethics & Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, Co-Director of the Sider Center, and Co-President of Evangelicals for Social Action.
- Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 275.
- To paraphrase Jennifer Harvey, “People who [thought they] were white created white supremacy and people who [have been raced as] white sustain it.” Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparation and Sovereignty (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 7.
- As of January 4, 2015, by percentage of people tested in each country, these are the lands where humans with the closest genetic match to me reside (a total of 4,952 people): Wales (6.2%), Scotland (4.8%), Northern Ireland (4.8%), United Kingdom (4.6%), France (4.4%), England (4%), Canada (4%), Spain (3.7%), Belgium (3.6%), Ireland (3.5%), Netherlands (3%), United States (3%), Portugal (2.9%), Germany (2.6%), Brazil (2.5%), Switzerland (2.4%), Denmark (2%), Puerto Rico (2%), Italy (1.8%), Austria (1.8%), United States (Native American) (1.6%), Australia (1.6%), Mexico (1.4%), Norway (1.3%), Iceland (1.3%), Sweden (1.1%), Czech Republic (.9%), South Africa (.8%), Hungary (.7%), Turkey (.7%), Slovakia (.7%), Algeria (.7%), Bulgaria (.6%), Croatia (.6%), Israel (.5%), Poland (.4%), Finland (.4%), Ukraine (.4%), Romania (.4%), Greece (.2%), Ghana (.2%), Kazakhstan (.2%), Russian Federation (.1%), India (.1%).
- Whiteness is not only a forged United States ‘American’ identity; it’s of European origin as well and predates and co-develops with the colonial history and conquest of what is now called the United States of America.