Early race history: Slavery and Colonization

Part II of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

In the US, whiteness was enshrined by Congress as early as 1790, when “all free white persons” had the opportunity to become citizens. Although Congress included white in the definition of who could become a citizen, it did not articulate who was considered white (Jacobson, 1998). This was in part because the delineation between white and not-white was so taken for granted that it did not require definition.

However this general taken-for-grantedness was not total, as the example of Alexina Morrison illustrates. Morrison was born into slavery, but after being sold as a slave in 1857, she claimed that her white skin (and blond hair and blue eyes) was proof that she couldn not be a slave and attempted to gain her freedom. Even in the colonial slave-owning society of the 1850s, whiteness was not always so easily defined – although this is not to imply that it is more easily defined today. In an examination of Morrison’s case, Johnson (2000) highlights some of the mechanisms through which whiteness and blackness operated, such as lineage (i.e. born to free or slave parents), biology (i.e. blood content, facial structure) and sexuality (i.e. was she a good, chaste woman – because this was how white women were defined). Each of these three factors shed light on how race was operating at this time, and how the boundaries of race were being constructed and policed.

The visibility and prominence of slavery in the US has often overshadowed the violent, but more historically distant and marginalized, events of colonization. Roediger (1991) contends that First Nations were not as available to be the foil against which whiteness was defined. This was because Native American populations were declining rapidly in the early days of confederation in the US (due largely to the violences of colonialism) and the remaining indigenous communities were being forcibly relocated to more remote areas. African slaves and free blacks, on the other hand, were more integrated into the daily lives of white people, and thus whiteness came to be defined in comparison to black rather than Native-American in the colonial period. The legacy of this definition of whiteness continues today. Even in Canada where significantly fewer African slaves and immigrants, race is often said to be about white and black. Those who are more ambiguously racialized (such as First Nations people or people of Asian decent) are not always recognized as being “people of colour,” but nor are they always recognized as being white.

The role of First Nations in the national imaginaries of the US and Canada was predominantly that of the “disappearing Indian.” This was an active construction in both Canada and the US during the early days of colonization and was enabled by the trope of terra nullius, or “empty lands” (Lutz, 2007, p. 41). European colonizers often spoke, wrote and made art about the vast empty lands of Canada and the US, despite the existence of a wide diversity of indigenous nations. As Day (2000) argues, terra nullius was actively created by European colonizers: “before the ‘waste’ lands could be populated, they had to be de-populated; that is, their emptiness had to be constructed in colonial practices so as to correspond to colonial theory” (p. 117-8).

In contrast with the US, whiteness in the Canadian context was articulated primarily through the language of civilization in contrast to the ‘savage indians’ (Jacobson, 1998). The ‘civility’ of Canadians is two fold. On the one hand, First Nations are available as those who need to be civilized, thus constructing European colonizers as those are more civilized. On the other hand, colonizers in Canada took pride in being so much less violent than colonizers in the US, thus allowing the Canadian national myth to be one of peaceful coexistence with First Nations (Mackey, 2002).

Build me a bridge …

An actual comment, left by an actual person on the Stuff White People Like blog:

I am so sick and tired of the fucking double-standard!!!
OMG! YES, ONCE UPON A TIME, WHITE PEOPLE HAD BLACK PEOPLE AS SLAVES! GUESS WHAT!?!?! THOSE TIMES ARE GONE AND PASSED!
MORE IMPORTANTLY, you should realize that the white people around today WERE NOT AROUND BACK THEN! We didn’t do anything!
So go ahead, cry me a river, build me a bridge, and GET THE FUCK OVER IT!!!

by Columbia on October 22, 2008 at 8:48 pm

It’s amazing to me that so many people believe history is over, in the sense that it no longer affects us. It takes so little to see how the history of race and racism in Canada and the US continues to shape all of our lives. Some of the most glaring examples include:

  • the (growing) income gap between white and black in the US – whites currently, on average, make twice as much as blacks
  • the high rates of poverty and illhealth among First Nations in Canada
  • the fact that every prime minister in Canada has been white and christian (although the election of the first biracial man for president in the US does not constitute evidence that race is no longer a factor in US elections, especially given that 95% of voters for McCain were white)
  • the long history, in both Canada and the US, of preferential immigration policies for white European immigrants

I guess if you don’t believe that history matters then it would be easier to believe the stories about meritocracy that get told to explain these disparities.

The Social Construction of Race

“Not all experience is social but the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point, therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social group background – the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing ‘social construction of reality’.” (Saxton, 1990/2003, p. 18)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increasing consensus in the academic community that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, while the mechanisms of racialization have changed, race as a social category and inequalities along racial lines persist. For example, Gissis argues “that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on” (Gissis, 2008, p. 438). This persistence has prompted an expansion of the ways in which race is analyzed and the growth of the field of whiteness studies.

Jacobson was one of the first scholars to trace the changing social categories of race and whiteness through history. He argues that race is based “in the contingencies of politics and culture,” rather than based in biological or scientific notions (Jacobson, 2001, p. 86). This premise is significant because it makes possible an analysis of race as a changing phenomenon, rather than a natural or scientific fact. It is also important because it affirms that it is possible to affirm that race is both a socially constructed category and continues to have material and political consequences in people’s lives (Brubaker, 2002). These two perspectives are too often presented as mutually exclusive. It is said that either race is socially constructed (and so it cannot have an effect on people’s economic or political lives) or race has an effect on people’s lives (and therefore cannot be socially constructed).


Some argue that this debate is irrelevant, because there already exists a consensus about the social construction of race (Arnesen, 2001). However, while there may be a consensus in the academy about the social construction of race, it is certainly not the case in North American culture more broadly (Barrett, 2001). A quick look at almost any newspaper will show a number of references to race that are either based on a biological or scientific understanding of race or do not challenge such an understanding, implicitly allowing readers to believe that race has a biological basis [2]. A poignant example was a recent Canadian edition of Time Magazine during the 2008 American presidential campaign. It features Obama’s face, but half has been photocopied in black and white, making his skin appears white. Four of the headlines on the cover also refer specifically to race, including the feature article “Why the economy is trumping race” (October 20, 2008). The consensus on the social construction of race needs to be much more widely accepted before scholars abandon this area of research.