What, exactly, is ‘white’?

Racism is one hell of an issue for “whites.”

The fact that most people who consider themselves “white” or find themselves categorically lumped into “white” don’t catch its significance demonstrates the depth of its impact.

“Whiteness” is a vestige of the “peculiar institution” that was Slavery. Yeah, that’s Slavery with a capital “S,” not capitalized by some nationalistic arrogance, but because this country participated in the dingiest, damnedest mother of all slaveries.

It wasn’t prisoner-of-war slavery/societal indentureship, as in African, Roman or Greek slaving traditions. It was a most brutal, life-binding, self-sustaining and self-perpetuating system, tall and new on race-structured supports.

It was peculiarly and uniquely entrenched, and contrary to the values the U.S. conferred in its political rhetoric and policies.

The fact that there are “white” people demonstrates that we still bear up Slavery’s supports.

Trace the beginnings of “White”-ness back to Jamestown, Va., in the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

People became “white” after African indentured servants ran away with European indentured servants of many ethnicities. People became “white” after Africans and Europeans came together and burned Jamestown to the ground.

Colonial law testifies to this. It’s documented in Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.’s In The Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, the Colonial Period. Before multicultural escapes and Jamestown’s burning, the law referred to people by ethnicity (Scottish, Irish, Dutch,etc.) but afterwards it held them as “white.” They received punishment and privilege as “whites” by law based on far different standards than their African brothers and sisters. Its effective heart, this set the peculiar stage for slavery.

American history is full of poignant examples of people sacrificing degrees of cultural heritage to the law and society to become “white.” “White” became a valuable commodity, and people bought it and fought for its racial privilege with whatever they had. People still do.

Racism robs “whites” of chunks of humanity, culture and truth. Racism has built “whiteness” on the backs of African-Americans and other “non-white” peoples.

It has built “Whiteness” on the backs of “whites” too.

From Ku Klux Klansmen to everyday folks, racism uses and abuses “whites.” Its standards of inhumanity and division stand as a gauge. It gauges consciously or unconsciously in people’s minds and in our institutions, allowing the humanity of all interactions to be lower.

An injustice to one is really an injustice to all. If it’s OK to treat some folks like crap, it’s more OK to treat more folks like crap.

“Whites” need to claim, reclaim and work towards culture independent of race-structured values to truly and meaningfully communicate at the table with African Americans and other people of color.

It may be that “whites” have to begin to move in this direction just to understand racism and our situation.