A Brief History of ‘Race’ in Canada and the US

This is the first of a series that I will post on the history of race in Canada and the US.

The word race, as it refers to biological or genetic differentiations among humans, first appeared in the english language in the last decade of the fifteenth century, the same time that Europeans arrived for the first time in what is now known as North America (Hirschman, 2004; see also Oxford English dictionary, 2000). Despite the recent and growing calls for the ‘end of race’ and the growing consensus among scholars that race is socially constructed, race continues to have a real presence in Canadian and US culture, and continues to shape how these societies are organized (Omi, 2001).

Within whiteness studies, historians have played a central role historicizing race and whiteness (s.f. Roediger, 1991; Saxton, 1990/2003; Jacobson, 1998). While there is some consensus on the fact that understandings of race and whiteness have changed over time, theories vary widely on exactly what those changes have been. Some of the most well known include Roediger (1991), Ignatiev (1995) and Guglielmo (2003). Roediger, for example, traces the emergence of the white worker in the 19th century. Before this time, Roediger contends, the “white worker” did not exist with the same kind of meanings that it has today (Roediger, 1991, p. 20). Jacobson takes a slightly broader look at the changes in whiteness in the U.S. He posits that the political history of whiteness in America is divisible into three great epochs: 1790-1840s, with the first naturalization law; 1840s-1924, the mass immigration of Europeans; 1924 onwards, after the immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act.

Situating race as a historically flexible concept is significant because it challenges the claims (implicit and explicit) that race is a natural way of categorizing humans. This gives more substance to the increasing challenges to biological or scientific understandings of race. When it is made visible that whiteness has not been the same throughout history, it is much harder to claim that a particular manifestation or occurrence of it is natural.

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