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Seeing White

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Seeing White

Scene on Radio podcast: Season 2

Scene on Radio,

15 min read
9 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Which came first, bigotry or exploitation?

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  • Eye Opening
  • Hot Topic
  • Inspiring


Media examinations of matters of race tend to focus on people of color. In this podcast series, “Seeing White,” radio producer John Biewen and researcher Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika turn the lens from people of color to white people. The Peabody-nominated series zooms in on the early cultural forces that fabricated the idea of whiteness and the problems that have sprung from the creation of that concept.


  • The modern narrative about the origins of racism is misleading.
  • The concept of race doesn’t have a basis in biology or genetics.
  • In the past, the concept of whiteness helped keep the lower classes from banding together to overthrow the upper classes.
  • Racism was codified into law in the 1600s; racist legislation continued well into the 1900s.
  • Celebrated US leaders venerated the idea of equality while also harboring a belief in white supremacy.
  • Though race has no scientific foundation, the idea of race has potent effects in the real world. 
  • Policies that benefited white people, historically, continue to affect race disparities today.
  • The most nefarious forms of racism are systemic, institutional and economic.
  • Broad, systemic measures caused racial disparity; so, society needs similarly sweeping measures to solve it.


The modern narrative about the origins of racism is misleading.

Many people believe that racism was a natural reaction when Europeans encountered people with darker skin tones. Since they didn’t perceive them as quite human, the narrative goes, they treated people of color badly. In truth, exploitation came first. Throughout the early years of European contact with the Americas, for example, enslaving people allowed farmers to grow labor-intensive crops cheaply. People created the concept of race, racist ideas as well as the concepts of whiteness and white superiority to justify exploitation that was already occurring.

“They wanted cheap labor, and they enslaved people, and then they later…deployed the science…to match and support the idea that they could exploit these people because they were inferior.”

A Portuguese man named Gomes de Zurara was among the first to put racist ideas into writing. Zurara wrote a biography about Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, who spent much of the early 1400s enslaving people from Africa. Zurara claimed that people in Africa “lived like beasts” with “no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in bestial sloth.” Prince Henry was saving them by introducing them to Christianity and offering slavery as a superior life to what they knew. Zurara’s justification for slavery circulated in Portugal and abroad, as Europeans explored and colonized America. 

The concept of race doesn’t have a basis in biology or genetics. 

In the 1970s, American high school textbooks taught kids about three races: the Caucasoid (listed at the top), the Mongoloid and the Negroid. This categorization, dating from the 1940s, was neither the first nor the last attempt to sort people “scientifically,” based on skin color. In the late 1700s, German anthropologist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach suggested categorizing humans into five types. By 1795, 12 different schemes classified humans based on different methods and ideologies.

Several researchers tried to use skull measurement as a method of classification. In the 1830s, physician Samuel George Morton began collecting skulls from around the world. He diligently measured each skull, proclaiming that the bigger the brain pan, the more intelligent the person. Modern statistics show, however, that skull size doesn’t correlate with intelligence in adult humans. Moreover, as the Human Genome Project revealed at the beginning of the century, humans are 99.9% genetically similar, regardless of skin color. Genetic differences occur as much or more within one racial group as between racial groups.​

“Anthropologists finally say, and it is way past due, that race is anthropological nonsense. Is that the same thing as saying it’s not real? No, because it’s real. It’s powerfully real, it’s politically and socially real.” ”

If you go back far enough, all humans can trace their ancestry to Africa, where everyone had dark skin. As early people explored, those who ended up further from the equator developed lighter skin to take advantage of scarcer sunlight. Although race is a man-made construct, the idea has affected society immensely and continues to influence wealth distribution, health outcomes, access to quality education and life expectancy. 

In the past, the concept of whiteness helped keep the lower classes from banding together to overthrow the upper classes.

The first Africans arrived in America on a Dutch ship in 1619. Soon after, white colonists began developing laws and practices that determined people’s fates based on their skin tones. In early colonial America, many poor people of all colors worked as indentured servants. But when three indentured servants who escaped together were caught and brought to trial in the Colony of Virginia, they were not treated equally under the law. The judge sentenced the men with European heritage to an extra four years of servitude and the one of African descent to servitude for life.

Over more than a century, the men who shaped the United States defined it as a country by and for the people they labeled white. And they tried to draw hard boundaries, to wall off white.”

Exasperated by rampant inequality, the poverty-stricken masses in colonial America staged uprisings, trying to overthrow the wealthy. Perhaps unconsciously at first, the people in power began conferring small benefits to people who looked like them. These benefits weren’t enough to pull poor white people out of poverty, but they were enough to make them identify with wealthy white landowners rather than with the Black people who shared their circumstances. This shift in loyalty created a “multi-class coalition” of people who defined themselves by their whiteness rather than by their economic class. The idea of race-based superiority, thus, divided the poor and helped keep power relations in place.

Racism was codified into law in the 1600s; racist legislation continued well into the 1900s.

Until the 1660s, the law saw race as patrilineal. The children of slave mothers raped by their white owners could, therefore, claim whiteness and freedom. But then, lawmakers changed the laws in the state of Virginia: Children now inherited their race from mothers instead. Interracial sex and marriage was made illegal and punishable by banishment.

“They were trying to connect Blackness to slavery in order to justify slavery, and whiteness to freedom in order to justify white freedom. And so biracial, free people would have devastated those racist constructions.”

Lawmakers also changed an existing English law that said it was illegal to enslave a Christian to stop enslaved people from seeking conversion as a path to freedom. In 1682, the Virginia House of Burgesses worked to create a legal definition of whiteness to prevent people of color from assuming the rights of citizenship. According to the Naturalization Act of 1790, “any alien, being a free white person” could become a US citizen. This criterion persisted until the end of the Civil War. Even after Black Americans gained citizenship, white citizens still enjoyed privileges that Blacks lacked. Thus, new residents of the United States sought designation as “white.” 

In 1922, Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa stood before the US Supreme Court trying to prove that he was white. He provided evidence of his complete assimilation: His children spoke only English and went to American schools. His family went to an English-speaking American church. He didn’t associate with any Japanese civic groups. Finally, he presented the actual color of his skin, which was very pale. The judge told him he wasn’t white. White meant Caucasian.

Ozawa’s case provided hope for Indian American Bhagat Singh Thind’s citizenship case. If Caucasian was the standard for whiteness, Thind was a shoo-in: His family actually came from the Caucasus Mountains. But Thind, too, was deemed insufficiently white. The ruling in his case caused 50 other Indian Americans to retroactively lose their citizenship.

“This is the significance of the Thind decision. It said we were happy to rely on science when it confirms our prejudice, but when science challenges our prejudice, we’re out.”

The citizenship trials from the 1920s showed that whiteness had no legal definition. It was based on social and cultural constructs. 

Celebrated US leaders venerated the idea of equality while also harboring a belief in white supremacy.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the 1770s. On the other hand, Jefferson himself was a slave owner who also believed that “the Blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” When Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal, he wasn’t talking about Black people.

“Fourteen years after we declared to the world, ‘We hold these truths,’ the US Congress made its first actual laws, and those laws said something different: This is a white man’s country.”

Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was an outspoken critic of slavery, but even Emerson extolled the superiority of whiteness in lectures and in his forgotten book English Traits. Dismissing these missteps as generally accepted views at the time overlooks the fact that some contemporaries were true anti-racists. In 1688, Mennonites wrote “The Germantown Petition Against Slavery,” and in the 1760s John Woolman, a Quaker and journalist, wrote “Placing on Men the ignominious Title SLAVE, dressing them in uncomely Garments, keeping them to servile Labour…tends gradually to fix a Notion in the mind, that they are a Sort of People below us in Nature.”

Policies that benefited white people, historically, continue to affect race disparities today.

In 1618, England implemented the “headright system” for its Virginia colony: England offered 50 to 100 acres of land to anyone who wanted to work in the colonies – that is, for anyone considered white. In 1705, white indentured servants who had worked off their debt received 50 acres, a musket, 10 bushels of corn and thirty shillings to start their new lives as free men. The government put a similar policy in place to help freed Black slaves after the Civil War. Some former slaves received 40 acres of land and a mule to start their new lives as free men. However, that policy was only in place for one year, and whites soon reclaimed most of the land and animals given to the freed slaves.

Every economist will tell you: For working-class and middle-class people, home ownership is the most powerful way to build some kind of wealth to pass on to the next generation.”

In 1785, the Land Ordinance Act helped distribute land to white people for a dollar an acre. In 1862, the Homestead Act, similarly, allowed white settlers to claim land. In 1866, some former slaves got to stake claims as well, but most lost them when the US Agriculture Department instituted racist policies in the 20th century.

In the 1930s, President Roosevelt passed the New Deal to bolster the middle class in America. To help more people buy houses, the Federal Housing Administration instituted 30-year mortgages with low interest rates. However, a practice called redlining  meant that 98% of the favorable home and business loans went to whites.

“Between 1933 and 1962, they would give out over 120 billion dollars in home loans and business loans. The inflation calculation says the impact of that 120 billion dollars today would be the financial impact of $2,150,949,618,320 dollars and 61 cents.” ”

The Federal Government created America’s social security system in 1935, but until the 1950s, the system did not grant benefits to domestic or agricultural workers – and thus, two-thirds of African Americans. In 1944, the GI bill helped war veterans to go to college. Since segregation was still rampant, people of color could only go to the limited number of Black universities. White universities prepared men for jobs as scientists, doctors or engineers; Black universities traditionally prepared students for lower-paying work like teaching or farming. Trade schools helped white men enter well-paid professions like welding and mechanics, but encouraged people of color to become cooks or cleaners. By 1971, the government had put $95 billion toward this racially stratified system. 

“White schools weren’t letting them in, so that meant white people came home and had access to government-sponsored education in ways that people of color didn’t have.” ”

White parents who benefited from these programs could later afford to help their adult children prepare for an affluent life. They were able to pay for their child’s college tuition or help with a down payment on a house or a car. At the very least, white parents were generally able to support themselves using social security or a nest egg, while young people of color often ended up needing to support aging parents who hadn’t benefited from government programs.

Bolstered by generations of policies, white households end up accumulating 13 times the assets held by the average Black household. Compare an average Black family whose head of the household has a college degree to an average white family whose head of the household never finished high school: The white family still has “more generational wealth, more money” and “more assets” overall than the Black family.

The most nefarious forms of racism are systemic, institutional and economic.

People who believe that racism resulted from outdated ideas about racial superiority may conclude that now that white people know better, they treat people of color as equals. Within this narrative, racism is mostly solved. It merely continues to exist in problem areas. Others write racism off as the domain of a scattered handful of individuals. Thus, racism would only be fixable "on an individual level. This narrative allows people to shed a sense of collective responsibility for the issue, because they don’t see themselves, personally, as racist.

“In the North they don’t care how high you get as long as you don’t get too close, and in the South they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too high.” (African American folk saying)

While the concept of racism covers individual prejudice, however, it also includes systemic racism which influences how institutions distribute rights and resources. People must recognize that they continue to benefit from past injustices as well as from present exploitations. Biased benefits allow them – and allowed generations before them – to collect wealth that expand lifetime trajectories. 

“We have either learned or been educated to see racism as individual acts of meanness.” ”

US society considers whiteness as the norm or default: In many towns, for example, people know local churches with a predominantly Black community as “Black churches”; those churches that mostly white people attend are simply “churches.” When a Black person gets a doctorate, it may feel like a victory for the Black community. But when a Black person commits a high-profile crime, it feels like it reflects badly on all Black people. No white person will feel responsible for the deeds other white people commit. Because whiteness is the default, white people have the privilege of feeling like individuals.

Broad, systemic measures caused racial disparity; so, society needs similarly sweeping measures to solve it.

Even people who don’t consider themselves racist have an instinctive tendency to reject the suggestion that they’ve been socialized into a racist worldview. Individuals can contribute to a more equitable society by accepting that they unwittingly contribute to systemic racism.

“I cannot tell you how transformative and liberating it is to start from the premise, ‘of course I’ve been thoroughly conditioned into a racist worldview. Of course I have a racist frame of reference and investments in this system’.” (Author Robin DiAngelo)

Accepting that a racist worldview underpins many aspects of society without denying, defending or self-judging is a good first step. Becoming more conscious about biases helps as well. Individuals might also organize at the community level, join organizations like Black Lives Matter, or join other groups taking on causes affecting people of color. Changes also need to happen at the system level to distribute power and resources differently, and only governments can implement those types of changes.

“How attached are you to the idea of being white?” (Chenjerai Kumanyika)”

Some economists recommend reparations for Black Americans: cash payments that would make up for slavery and the generations of wealth disparity. Other ideas include sliding-scale trust funds for all American babies; children from rich families would get a smaller fund, maybe $50, while children from poor families would get a larger one, maybe $50,000. Upon reaching adulthood, all people would, thus, have some assets to launch them into successful adulthood. The government might also provide jobs for people who cannot find one on their own. Such programs would carry heavy costs, but so do massive corporate bailouts and America’s myriad anti-poverty programs.

About the Podcast

Scene on Radio is a Peabody-nominated podcast that dives deeply into issues central to American society and identity. This many-part series, “Seeing White,” looks at the roots and meaning of white supremacy. Host and producer John Biewen is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He’s worked in public radio and created documentaries for more than 30 years. Chenjerai Kumanyika is a researcher, journalist and artist who lectures at Rutger’s University.

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