the history and politics of white identity
June 7, 2020 11:40 AM   Subscribe

"We have become so accustomed to looking at life through a racial lens that we imagine that all societies and all ages have done so, too. That is not so. It was only with the emergence of modernity that both the scientific concepts and the political language underlying the concept of race came to be developed." Kenan Malik (previously) talks about the origins of white identity, from the counter-Enlightenment to the alt-right.

From the (heavily abridged) transcript:
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Europe underwent a series of intellectual and social transformations that laid the basis of the modern world. It was the period in which the modern idea of the self, and of the individual as a rational agent, began to develop; in which the authority of custom and tradition weakened, while the role of reason in explaining the natural and social world was vastly expanded; in which nature became regarded not as chaotic but as lawful, and hence amenable to reason; and in which humans became part of the natural order, and knowledge became secularised.

Humans were now seen as part of the natural order. So the question arose: how did humans fit into that order? Natural philosophers had begun classifying all of nature. How should humans be classified as part of this project?
Malik explores how early racial profiling and class distinctions, developed in opposition to Enlightenment universalism, led us to where we are today. In a talk that covers the Haitian Revolution and the New Left of the 1960's, he describes how identity politics have taken the place of the politics of solidarity.
‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are. And the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth (4 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is ground also covered in Ibram X. Kendi's widely recommended Stamped from the Beginning - The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the audiobook version of which is currently free on Spotify.
posted by progosk at 12:47 PM on June 7 [4 favorites]


also the Seeing White podcast
posted by kokaku at 4:27 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]


There's a bunch of scholarly debate about dating the emergence of "race" and even "white supremacy" in Western history/world history -- I think a lot of the disagreement has to do with what we think race means to people, what whiteness means and has meant, and the difficulty of understanding the worldviews of people in ages past.

Nevertheless, it's crucial that all of us, whites especially, understand the development of ideas, practices, and systems that got us here, and learn to see what "here" looks like, really, as best as possible. We need to know that the way we see things is not the obvious way to see things, and that often we're not even aware of all that we're seeing or the mechanisms we use to interpret the world.

Yikes. Too much -- thanks for this!
posted by allthinky at 5:58 AM on June 8 [2 favorites]


Nevertheless, it's crucial that all of us, whites especially, understand the development of ideas, practices, and systems that got us here, and learn to see what "here" looks like, really, as best as possible. We need to know that the way we see things is not the obvious way to see things, and that often we're not even aware of all that we're seeing or the mechanisms we use to interpret the world.

Yes! It's also important to remember that this varies from place to place, as reflected in the divergence of thinking in Europe, the UK and the US, to be further complicated by the multiple political narratives from the Islamic world to Africa to the Far East, leading to an infinite universe of worm cans and bean plates where there are no easy answers.

Malik writes largely from the UK perspective, with a focus on history, philosophy and politics. He skews left and atheist, and is respectful of religion but wary of identity politics. I've found his work on multiculturalism particularly interesting, but he's equally good on all sorts of topics. I highly recommend exploring the rest of the blog, particularly the longer essays.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 2:57 AM on June 9


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