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!!!
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.