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The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea

Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race. But once the idea was invented, it quickly began to reshape the modern world. by Robert P Baird, April 20, 2021


"The economic utility of the idea of whiteness helped spread it rapidly around the world. Du Bois was not wrong to call it a religion, for like a religion, it operated at every psychological, sociological and political scale, from the most intimate to the most public. Like a religion, too, it adapted to local conditions. What it meant to be white in British Virginia was not identical to what it would mean in New York before the American civil war, in India during the Raj, in Georgia during Jim Crow, in Australia after Federation, or in Germany during the Third Reich. But what united all these expressions was a singular idea: that some group of people called white was naturally superior to all others. As Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister and one of the most committed race ideologists of his time, put it, “race implies difference, difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance”.

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