The Invention of the White People

Dismantling of the murderous myth that is “White People” will break down the backbone of the racist ideology.

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The invention of the 'white people' was a blatant mechanism of power and domination, writes Dabashi [Reuters]

There are no white people. There are no black people. There are no red, yellow, brown, blue, purple, crimson or any other colour people. These are all socially constructed delusions. Delusions though with real, frightful, murderous, and genocidal consequences. 

None of these facts have been hidden to us. There is a vast body of scholarly literature on the social construction of race, gender, and ethnicity.

In his monumental two-volume study, The Invention of the White Race (Revised edition, 2012), as early as in the 1960s Theodore W Allen had documented the manner in which the ruling elite in the United States had devised the category of “white people” by way of economic exploitation of the African slaves and the social control of the emerging polities. More recently, in her Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today (2013), Jacqueline Battalora has offered an examination of the enduring issue of race in the US tracing it back to when “white people” were invented through legislations and enactment of laws. 

The problem with this scholarly body of literature is not only the fact that its erudite message does not get through the thick skulls of illiterate racists like Donald Trump‘s white supremacist supporters. The problem is that such archaeology of hatred does not erase the fact that a massive body of humanity has suffered precisely because they have been branded as “black” or “red,” or “yellow” or “brown”. Racially constituted to divide and rule, those colourful delusions have become social facts.

Central to all such socially constructed delusions are the relations of power they entail and sustain – whether colour-coded, classed, racialised, or gendered. “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, Simone de Beauvoir declared in her path-breaking book The Second Sex (1949). In later, critical expansion of this idea, scholars like Judith Butler have shown how varied social practices are definitive to the social constitution of gender. The same is true about race or ethnicity. One is not born, we may extend de Beauvoir’s insight, but rather becomes white, or black, etc. 

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The gross spectacle of racist terrorists in August in Charlottesville, US, and President Trump’s unabashed siding with the proto-Fascist white supremacists have now brought this solid streak in American politics to global attention. However limited or extensive this “base” of Donald Trump’s presidency might be, the politics of white supremacy has now become openly integral to the racial imagination of the US.

Taking their cues from their president and his chief advisers like (until recently) Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka in the White House, a small but increasingly vocal armed militia calling itself “white nationalists” (a euphemism for white supremacists) march with torches like the KKK, saluting like Nazis, and chant xenophobic and anti-Semitic slogans through Charlottesville. These are the driest and deepest layers of racial hatred from the time of the first slaughter of Native Americans, from the time of mass slavery of African Americans, now finding the right environment to come up to surface. 

A white supremacist carrying a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. [Steve Helber/AP photo]
A white supremacist carrying a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. [Steve Helber/AP photo]

As a society and a polity, the US has never been cured, never been treated, and it has never resolved its murderous racist history. It has just kept shoving it under a thin veneer of liberal hypocrisy and bourgeois etiquette at home and projected it outward in the form of warmongering abroad. From the Korean, to Vietnam, to Afghan and Iraq wars the US invasions and occupation of other countries are underwritten by racial hatred. The Israeli occupation and systemic land theft of Palestine is an extended chapter in the same book. 

The Racist Nexus of US/Israel

The affinity of neo-Nazi white supremacists for Zionism and Israel is a match made in the racists’ heaven. Self-delusional liberal Zionists act surprised that a nefarious white supremacist like Richard Spencer has openly admitted on an Israeli TV show that Israelis “should respect him” for he is “a white Zionist”. But the world at large is not surprised at all. Of course, he and his ilk are all “white Zionists” – a phrase that is in fact redundant. What the liberal Zionists do not wish to admit (for it exposes their own racism) is that the white supremacists’ Zionism is integral to their anti-Semitism and vice-versa. 

Struggle for racial justice must commence and continue with the full knowledge of how racial divides were socially manufactured and politically sustained before we can learn how to overcome them.


The roots of Zionism as the dominant ideology of a settler colony are in European white supremacy, evident in their much more universal colonial culture in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – to all of which Israel is now a last bastion. 

Israel today is a perfect model, an aspiration in fact, for neo-Nazi white supremacists in the US and Europe. That these neo-Nazis are also anti-Semitic and Zionist is exactly the recognition that now stares American Jews in the eye.

Today, American Jews find themselves at a momentous crossroads where their historic struggles against racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism place them face to face with Israel and the racist ideology on the basis of which it was founded. Benjamin Netanyahu’s son openly calling Black Lives Matter and the Antifa “thugs” and “scum” and dismissing the significance of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville speaks voluminously of the racist foundation of Israel. The young Mr Yair Netanyahu speaks openly and without the diplomatic finesse of liberal Zionists or the intellectual sophistication of a New York Times columnist. He says it as it is: the structural hostility of Zionism to any emancipatory civil rights movement, and its equally foundational affinity with xenophobic anti-Semites.

Today, Israelis have absoletely no moral authority, not an iota, to denounce the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, for the neo-Nazis intend to do in the United States what the Zionists have already done in Israel: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is a model for the white supremacists in the United States. Mass expulsion of Palestinians, the massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yasin and elsewhere: those are the Zionist trademarks the Neo-Nazis hope and wish and strive to replicate in the United States.

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“Charlottesville,” as a result, “is moment of truth for empowered US Zionists,” as it has been pointedly suggested, especially for those boldfaced conquerors of Palestine “who name their children after Israeli generals”. The militant nexus of US/Israel is today the transatlantic prototype of racist white supremacy that sustains and advances the murderous myth of the white people civilizing the world. 

The Almost Whites 

The distinguished novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Tony Morrison has keenly observed: “All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness.”

But the question is not fealty to any “native country”. The question is rather the systematic subordination of all immigrants, regardless of how they have been colour-coded, to the myth of the “white people” and the violent fantasies of their civilizing missions. No brown, black, or any other thus coloured person can ever be completely “white”. But their trying to pass as white is a mechanism of humiliation and denigration they willingly play to presume they are part of the power structure and a more “normal” human being.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer chants back at counterprotestors as self-proclaimed 'white nationalists' and 'alt-right' supporters gather for what they called a
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer chants back at counterprotestors as self-proclaimed ‘white nationalists’ and ‘alt-right’ supporters gather for what they called a “Freedom of Speech” rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington [Jim Bourg/Reuters]

In How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998), Karen Brodkin has put forward one line of argument as to how since World War II American Jews began to pose and perform themselves as “white”. The practice is not peculiar to American Jews, of course. Upon their arrivals and one generation into a successful economic status, other recent immigrants, Muslims and Hindus alike, have also sought to posit and pass themselves as (almost) white.

Becoming white has always been the most potent way for racialised “minorities” to overcome their violently alienated personhood in order to become something they could (and should) never be.

Towards a Dialectic of Emancipation

By replicating and reenacting the racial politics of their European origin and now their US benefactors upon Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, the Zionists are the living testimonials as to how racial hatred is manufactured and sustained as means of political domination. The term “Israeli Arab” invented by Zionists for Palestinians in their own homeland is the epitome of European racism carried to its most obscene colonial conclusions.

Struggle for racial justice must commence and continue with the full knowledge of how racial divides were socially manufactured and politically sustained before we can learn how to overcome them. The full acknowledgment of the murderous history of racism in the US and Europe is the first step towards dismantling it. No postmodern or poststructuralist dismantling of race can disregard the sustained history of racism as coterminous with capitalist modernity. It must acknowledge, sublate, in order to overcome it.

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Here, we need a “double consciousness” of a different sort than the one WEB Du Bois famously theorised. This “double consciousness” is not between a universalised white and a reified black consciousness. It is between the false “coloured” consciousness on one hand and on the other the liberated consciousness for a democratic uprising. The vast, beautiful, and ennobling consciousness of all racialised people must here come together to empower a new liberation poetics that no longer partake in but sublate the false consciousness of the racialised minority.

The invention of the “white people” was a blatant mechanism of power and domination. Dismantling that murderous myth will break down the backbone of a racist ideology that has kept a settler colonial consciousness in power for too long.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.