Mom, Dad...Where do White People Come From?
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Actually, it's only white if it comes from the Whîté region of France, otherwise it's just sparkling pallor.
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This week we decided to ask a simple question: where do white people come from? White people have been in the news recently starting around...1492. People are talking a lot of shit on white people and as a white person, I just wanna say...what did we ever do to anybody else?
I’m kidding of course. Please un-cancel me (don't worry, there will be plenty of opportunities in the future). White people have a history of taking things that don’t belong to us like Brooklyn or...culture. We do some things well though! I say that primarily because as a skinny white boy I’m legally obligated to defend the band Vampire Weekend.
Our question today is more specific though - where do “white people” come from? You’re probably thinking, "Europe, duh." But that doesn’t really answer our question. We know where Europeans come from- a tiny cave with funny accents, aged cheese and angry Popes.
But Europeans are French, English, Danish... They've long been melanin-deprived, but historically they didn’t call themselves white. It was after mass waves of immigration to America, assimilation and intermarriage that Europeans went from German, English, Welsh, Irish and so on to “white.” In her book White Identity Politics, Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina points out that many white Americans today are descended from immigrants who, when they first arrived in America, were not actually considered white.
So whiteness can expand and contract like a messy pastry on the Great British Bake Off. Whiteness as an identity is really an American invention...and like most American inventions, it was created by immigrants. So how did this happen?
One significant historical event goes a long way to explain the invention of whiteness. The “Great Migration,” which was the large movement of African-Americans from the south to the north in the United States.
To better understand this topic, we interviewed Marco Tabellini, a professor of political economy at Harvard Business School and an expert on this topic.
The Great Migration: Stay Tuned for Mufasa
According to Tabellini, the Great Migration was a decades long process in which six million African Americans fled the American South to the North and West. It occurred in two waves. First, about 1.5 million African Americans moved between 1910 and 1930, until the Great Depression hit. When that subsided, another 4.5 million made the move beginning again in the late 30s.
That figure bears repeating: six million African-Americans left the South. For context the US population in 1920 was a little over a hundred million, so about 6 percent of the total population just moved. In today’s numbers, that’s roughly the equivalent of the entire state of Florida just...moving. Side note, maybe that’s not so bad? Wasn’t Trump trying to buy Greenland? Maybe we can trade it for Florida and bi-partisanship can finally return to Washington.
It's also important to highlight this “Great Migration” wasn’t just one thing. It’s not like one day, every black person just kinna peaced out for the North. It was a decades long process.
Unsurprisingly, the equivalent of the population of Florida just ditching one spot and showing up in another had a huge impact on the country. According to Princeton economist Leah Boustan, writing with Marco, the Great Migration fundamentally reshaped the Southern farming economy and, by extension, the economy of the US.
As African Americans fled the South, farmers had to rethink their business model. See when the whole strategy of denying even the most basic human rights of their workers back fired, farms in the South started to invest a lot more in technology, consolidate and even alter which crops they planted.
For African Americans themselves, it had a positive, but mixed, impact. Their economic outcomes in the North were much better than those who stayed behind, especially for the subsequent generation. But it also meant many Black families were forced to leave behind everything they knew.
Smithsonian Magazine profiled one young child of the Great Migration. In 1935, at four years old, he sat with his family in the front of the train moving North. At the time, Blacks actually sat in the front of train, because that would be the first to absorb impact in the event of a crash. Yep.
The impact of leaving behind everything he knew and showing up to a new place left him with a stutter and a fear of speaking. After bullying, he went mute for nearly 8 years. Finally in high school, a teacher coaxed him into reading poetry in front of the class, and he regained his confidence speaking. The little boy’s name was James Earl Jones. If you don’t know that name, I promise you know his voice.
Here’s a hint:
“Luke, I am your father.”
“Simba - Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”
The voice of Mufasa and Darth Vader, and one of the most respected actors of his generation, James Earl Jones, was a child of the Great Migration. Other children and grandchildren of the Great Migration include Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball; Lorraine Hansberry, who’s play A Raisin in the Sun is considered one of the greatest American plays ever written; and innumerable other cultural icons including rapper Tupac Shakur, actor Denzel Washington, singer Whitney Houston, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald...The list goes on.
What does this have to do with Inventing White People?
The massive influx of African-Americans changed the social dynamics between the European immigrants living in the North. Before the Great Migration, the Brits and the Scots banded together, they didn’t like the Italians, and everybody hated the Irish. But with a massive influx of African Americans, that started to change.
Groups of European immigrants who had previously been considered socially distant (sorry) from “native whites” were suddenly perceived as much “closer” after the arrival of large numbers of African Americans.
For most of US history, “White” wasn’t a fixed identity. Let’s take the Irish as another example. Beginning around 1845 with the potato famine, millions of Irish left their homeland for the United States. In the US they faced virulent discrimination, both because of their Irish ethnicity and also because of their Catholic faith. Divides within what we now think of as white people were common, and religion exacerbated these divides. Basically, people will always find a way to discriminate against each other.
With the massive influx of African-Americans from the South, however, to the socially and economically dominant White Anglo Saxon Protestants, the Irish started looking a little less leprechaun and a lot more like nice white people.
But that’s not all. The case study of the Irish is pretty interesting for a few reasons. First it shows that prejudice is strong, but racism is stronger. But it also shows there’s a lot of paths that lead to racism. And I think that’s not something we acknowledge enough which is the remarkable diversity of the racist community.
The discrimination against the Irish shaped their attitudes towards black people. Tabellini describes the emergence of the "Know-Nothing Party" (at least political party names were honest back then...). The Know Nothing Party was adamantly opposed to Irish immigration and obtained significant support. To fight back against this discrimination, the Irish had to signal their whiteness to the majority. "Yeah, we may be Irish, but at least we're not back, amirite?!"
If America were a high school, the Irish in the North kept getting beat up and getting their lunch money stolen. When a bunch of new kids arrived from the South, Black people, rather than band together to beat up the popular kids, the Irish started beating up the new kids to try to fit in with the popular kids. Except instead of like, getting invited to Brad’s house party, the reward obtaining meaningful economic and political power.
The Irish example illustrates a grand American tradition - come to America, get shit on by the dominant social group until you accumulate enough economic, social and political capital to start doing the exact same thing to the next group. Rinse and repeat.
It’s remarkable to think about how much thought and energy and effort has gone into just being racist. If white people had just gotten over racism I swear we’d have flying cars by now.
We asked Tabellini the million dollar question, and kind of the point of this whole episode: "Is it accurate to say white people were invented in America?"
Marco is a PhD and a talented academic, meaning he’s far too smart to give one definitive yes or no answer. However, I did get him down saying “I think the answer to your question is yes.”
So in short, yes, white people were invented in America. Marco did contextualize his response that in the US context, “whiteness” often has more of a political connotation than any meaningful genetic connotation, reinforcing that when we talk about “white” people in the US, we’re generally referring to anyone of European descent that broadly fits into the majority category, even though some ethnic groups might not consider themselves white (e.g. Italians).
It’s a simplification to say the Great Migration led to “the invention of white people.” But not by much. It accelerated the process of a bunch of pale, pasty people who hated each other suddenly becoming one coherent racial and political identity united by our love of fro-yo and the word “hokey.”
I want to thank Marco Tabellini, our guest, for his time and excellent research. If you are interested, the full interview which runs at about 30 minutes is available below. The full interview also goes into other topics we didn’t have time for including the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Great Migration and its impact on Chinese residents of California, the role of residential segregation and how sometimes white people in segregated neighborhoods were more likely to support anti-racist legislation than in mixed neighborhoods, and a lot more.