When White People Became “White People”

An origin story.

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How exactly did white people become “white” people?

It seems like most white people have no idea about how they came to identify as “white”. That’s a problem. Overlooking this part of our history, I think, means white people can misunderstand ongoing critiques of white identity politics in today’s culture wars.

So, I’ve broken it down in this bite-sized video:

 

One key fact that tends to slip our minds is that the concept of whiteness, as a racial identity, didn’t even exist until the mid-17th century. Sure, lighter-skinned people were around, but they identified more with their respective nationalities—be it English, Dutch, or Greek—than with a broader, pan-European “white” identity.

To navigate this complexity, I leaned heavily on the scholarly insights from Dr. Nell Painter’s bestselling book, “The History of White People.” In it, she demonstrates how the concept of whiteness was largely a reaction to Blackness, an identity which colonizers and enslavers linked with inferiority—giving birth to the myth of whiteness, by associating it with notions of moral purity, superiority, and destined rule.

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