Where Does “Blackness” and “Whiteness” Come From?


I don’t know what I expect when I write some blog posts.  Usually I’m just in my own little head trying to get some coherent thoughts out so I can learn and think.  So, I write what I’m thinking.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I do hope it’s helpful to someone else.  But sometimes it stirs up questions and comments I didn’t anticipate.  Like the post “This Black Leader or That Black Leader.”  I suppose I knew it would stir conversation, but I didn’t anticipate being accused of furthering Black-White divides, especially when I’ve written so much to challenge the very question of “race” itself.  Outflanked on the right, I suppose.

Then there was this great question: “Where does the idea of ‘blackness’ come from anyway?”  Hmmm.  That’s a fine question.  It revealed my assumption that everybody had a working notion of “blackness” or “whiteness” and some sense of where it comes from.  I’m glad for the question for two reasons: (1) It proves not everybody does–that’s good news; and (2) it suggests real progress on this front–also good news.

But, perhaps it’s good to attempt a short answer to this question before resuming the schedule of posts I have for this week.  Perhaps answer this question will help make some sense of the previous posts and make the subsequent ones more helpful (at least understandable).  So, where does “blackness” (and for that matter, “whiteness”) come from?

Not from the Bible

First, we ought to say something about where it does not come from.  It does not come from the Bible.  As I understand the Scripture with what light the Spirit has given me, the Bible’s story line emphasizes our great continuity with one another.  To be sure there are different families, clans, nations, languages, and religions, but there is one humanity, descended from Adam, made in God’s image and likeness.  Genesis 10 tells us of the fracturing of peoples into various clans and regions.  But note that everyone there descends from one family, Noah’s.  Acts 17:26, a favorite text of early African American Christians fighting to be regarded as human, reads: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (KJV).  I suspect Paul had Gen. 3:20 and Gen. 10 in mind when he preached those words in Athens.  So, if by “whiteness” or “blackness” we mean something approaching “race” as biological other, then that idea finds no support in the Bible.

Not from Genetics

Acts 17:26 (KJV) is also interesting for another reason.  At least in terms of American views of “race,” there has been the long-standing “one drop rule.”  That’s the idea, at first social and then legal, that one drop of African blood made a person “black.”  This is why we ask insane questions like, “What color is Johnny?” or “Is Barack Obama black?”  And this is why we make the equally insane conclusion once we find out that somebody in Barack Obama’s family was black-skinned that, in fact, Barack Obama is “black.”  The one-drop rule resulted in terms like “full-blooded” (as in the case of “full-blood Cherokee”) or “half-breeds” (a pejorative if ever there was one), and “mixed-race” people.  The one-drop rule rests upon a faulty genetic premise: that there is sufficient genetic difference to constitute different “races” (read, “species”) among the peoples of the world.  The mixing of these “bloods” resulted in, it was assumed, real genetic differences between the “races.”  However, you’d be really hard-pressed to find one genetic scientist today who would argue for any genetic basis for different races.  The genetic difference between blacks, whites, browns, etc. is so marginal that we’re left to affirm Acts 17:26: “He made from one blood all nations of men.”  So, race (and therefore “blackness” or “whiteness”) has no genetic foundation.

From Society

So where does “blackness” and “whiteness” come from?  There are four interlocking sources, if you’ll let me speak in general terms.  First, it comes from society.  ”Race” and attendant ideas like “blackness” and “whiteness” are social constructs, made up by people and cultures everywhere.  One thing many people don’t realize is that there has never been in worldwide consensus on precisely how many “races” there are.  Different societies developed different definitions.  In America, most of the history focused on two “races”–black and white.  But in South Africa, that society classified people into three “races”–black, white, and colored.  Early Chinese ethnographers argued for ten racial classifications.  We could go on.  If you want more about this, read the introduction to Colin Kidds excellent work, The Forging of Races.  The point is that “race” and “blackness” or “whiteness” are socially constructed identifiers.

What’s fueling these social constructions of racial categories?  That brings us to our second of the three interlocking sources: spiritual alienation from God and one another.

From the Fall

Read Genesis 3-4 and 10 again.  What was meant to be one humanity under the reign of God subduing the earth and filling it with His glory became a alienated, hostile, murderous, dispersed, confused, and separated mass of peoples.  The effects of the Fall are real, and it’s our fallen nature that drives us to not only classify ourselves along racial lines but also to join feelings of alienation, hostility, and xenophobia to those classifications.  What’s the first thing Cain says when God pronounces his banishment?  “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14, NIV).  Do you see the alienation from God and other peoples in Cain’s speech?  It’s an alienation he received from his parents and that we receive from his parents.  The spiritual “other” or “alien” really emerges from sin’s entrance into the world.  And it’s partly what explains the existence of “blackness” and “whiteness.”

From Psychology

The Fall touched every part of man, corrupting him at his root.  The rational faculties of man are no exception.  That’s what I mean when I say “race,” “racism,” “blackness,” and “whiteness” come from our psychology.  There’s a theory in social psychology called “social attribution theory.”  Simplifying a bit, the theory teaches that basically all of our minds are pretty quick stereotyping machines.  We recognize certain characteristics in others and then our minds–often so quickly that we’re not conscious we’re doing it–begins to make attributions.  You’ve perhaps heard of the famous (though flawed) psychological study that showed a black baby doll and a white baby doll to little children and asked the children to describe what they thought about the dolls.  Routinely the children rated the black doll as dirty, dumb, and so on, while rating the white doll as pretty, desirable, etc.  That study was pivotal in the Brown v. Board case that led to the end of racial segregation in the United States.  I point to the study simply to illustrate the point: we are assigning attributes to one another all the time based upon things like skin color and hair texture.  It’s not simply that we have a category of “races” in our minds, or simply that we notice skin color.  That’s not how the mind works.  We notice skin color, file the person into a racial category, and then our minds take over by filling in assumed attributes (positive or negative) about the person.  We do it and we often don’t even know we do it. The mind is a mercilessly efficient stereotyper.  That’s why we have the notion of “blackness” or “whiteness.”

From Interaction

Now, there’s a fourth source of “blackness” and “whiteness” we need to consider: cross-ethnic interactions.  Our experiences with one another have a lot to do with forming, reinforcing, and shaping our notions of “blackness” and “whiteness.”  Part of what it means to be “black” or “white” gets formed in the crucible of shared pain, suffering, joy, hope, failure, success, loss and so on.  Despite our various categorizations, we share one planet and occupy one social world.  There are places in this social world where we may retreat with others who share our identity, but even then we’re aware of “the others” and that awareness shapes how we’re together.

Now, here’s an important point under this category of interaction: White people helped define “blackness” for Black people, and Black people help define “whiteness” for white people.  The entire argument for slavery which depended on defining “blacks” as inferior and subhuman had and has a tremendous effect on how others see Black people and how Black people see themselves.  Many others bought and buy the lie.  So, too, did some Blacks.  And those Blacks who did not nevertheless had to forge a definition of “blackness” in response to the negative definitions of whites.  There’s a dynamic negotiation and struggle for the control of “blackness.”  Where does “blackness” come from?

But the truth is: White people created “blackness,” and Black people have returned the favor.  ”Blackness” and “whiteness” come from the conflicts and interactions of black-skinned and white-skinned people fighting for that most absolute power of defining self and others according to your own social location.  In the same whites, Blacks have mounted counter-strikes to define white-skinned people, so that “whiteness” in the Black imagination includes certain things.  To be silly and very stereotypical, “whiteness” includes the inability to dance, strange tastes in music, no ‘cool’ or ‘soul,’ and so on.  Or, to be more serious, “whiteness” represents risk to one’s Black self, oppression, marginalization, and so on.  We are simply one lifetime away from a social setting where mistakes with Whites ended in lynchings, cross burnings, and so on.  That’s ugly, real, painful history.  It illustrates how “blackness” and “whiteness” result from a fallen social world where attributions and interactions happen at the speed of thought and carry enormous consequence.


That’s why any discussions of “race” almost immediately move to discussions of our experiences.  It’s in the interactions that these things get defined in powerfully personal ways.  Now the problem with the quick move to experiences is that (a) we can’t change our histories, (b) our histories can enslave us, and (c) our personal histories often blind us to the underlying issues of the Fall and the social attributions we make.  So, our histories keep us from doing the harder, deeper work of forging a biblical view of ourselves and others.  And this is very important: Because these ideas are formed through interaction, it’s going to take massive levels of interaction to undo the damage that’s been done and to forge a new path.  We won’t escape the quagmire by waving a wand or by fiat.  Nor will we get there by simply decrying the fact that others “still think this way.”  We have to roll up our sleeves, reach into our hearts, pull out the old and plant the new.  I pray the Lord will allow us to do this more and more by His word and His Spirit.


Some References for Those Who Might Like to Read More:

Collin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge, 2006)

Joseph L. Graves, Jr., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (Plume, 2005)

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (Norton, 2010)

Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968)

David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writes on What It Means to Be White (Schocken, 1998)

Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners (Anchor, 2004)

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Belknap of Harvard, 2005)

Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (Oxford, 2000)

Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, 2006)

Mark M. Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill, 2006)

Scott L. Malcolmson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000)

Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton and Oxford, 2001)

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Pantheon, 1998)

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