The white identity is entirely unnecessary– that is, unless the political or class category of whiteness is placed in the context of a global economy where Europe and Europeans (and therefore white people) receive the greatest material benefits of imperialist capitalism. Then the necessity of whiteness becomes particularly true for white “Americans” in the United States, which is a settler colony of Europe built on genocidal violence against Africans, Indigenous peoples and most (or all) so-called people of color. In this colonial context, whiteness is not just a matter of skin color, or an indication of one’s origins: whiteness is a ticket to resources, to security and to protection from the state.
Frantz Fanon wrote, “Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it becomes clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”
An English person in England, many centuries ago, would no more be described as “white,” on account of their pale skin, then they would be called a “person” in order to differentiate them from someone else. The requirement of whiteness as a differentiating factor only came about when the question of resources in a world economy had elevated the political categorization of “white,” and so an individual in England now was not merely English but was a “white person.” However, since they were already a person, prior to Europe’s imperialist conquest of Africa and the Americas and the world, their personhood had already been established. As an English person who didn’t belong to the nobility, and who didn’t have the “right” blood, they may have been considered an inferior person, yet they remained a person nonetheless– particularly if they were a cisgender man. And whiteness– while dividing up the conquered world, as well as the unequal distribution of the great wealth accumulated by this conquest– actually provided an ideological or political basis for the lowly Englishman to ascend toward full personhood, particularly at the stage of Europe’s development when bourgeois democracy replaced monarchy.
The United States, as the former colonies of England, gave the white person– who was no longer English or British– the ability to achieve full personhood, as guaranteed in the Constitution. The ideological basis for this ascendance toward full personhood experienced by the white person in the colonies was the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of the war against England, which stated that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Prior to the European conquest of Africa and the world, which gave birth to capitalism, the English person in England was not considered equal by the feudal monarchy, and so the white person (both a person and white) was not yet born– not until France, the United States, and other white powers began to legally recognize the equality of “all men” (all white men). After this point of history, if you were white in the United States, this meant you were free, you were an equal among men, and therefore you were granted the constitutional right to enjoy the spoils of imperialist conquest. And if you were free, and equal among men, and were granted the right to the riches of empire, you were white. Under world capitalist rule, whiteness became very necessary.
Beneath this ideological basis for the recognition of complete white personhood in the United States was the material basis of access to resources and wealth within a global economy controlled by Europeans (wherever we live). As the globe has become smaller and smaller in the collective imagination of the European– its many territories outside Europe having been explored, conquered and often populated by whites– our consciousness of more resources and more land has grown bigger and bigger. Whiteness, a political category, connects the European population to the land and its materials, and often to the sources of labor– the masses of brown workers– who must be dominated by imperialist power and forced to extract and produce these commodities for our benefit. As a result, whiteness and property became inseparable, even as white people felt compelled to separate ourselves– once again through force– from the brown people of this new and growing global reality.
Europeans held the imagined world in our mind, and now it was just a question of how to bring its material fact– its resources, labor and land– toward our actual bodies, who were achieving greater and greater levels of humanity (that is, the liberal and humane ideals of freedom, justice and equality) through greater and greater levels of genocidal violence and imperialist conquest. What was needed to make the dream of “the good life” a reality in “America” (and the world) was a political category, a system of identification which could serve as a differentiating factor for superior class status, or power: what was needed by Europeans was whiteness.
By connecting our identity to property and to the gains of capitalist empire, Europeans transformed our relationship to nature and to the world’s population outside Europe. Whiteness is power. Whiteness is wealth. Whiteness is ownership. And in order to identify as an owner, something (or someone) must be owned. The masses of Europeans who had struggled under the system of feudalism could only gain full personhood through ownership and the creation of capital. Whiteness is capital. This is why the “white working class” is largely mythological– even when European colonizers aren’t wealthy we may still be able to cash in on our whiteness, or capitalize on our whiteness.
Without whiteness, our land, our labor, our very personhood might be up for grabs by the reigning global system of power, capitalism. Without whiteness, we may become the owned, not the owner. And a white person who is poor, who lacks property, who hasn’t done much with all these guaranteed constitutional rights to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, and doesn’t enjoy many of the benefits of whiteness, is considered a great disappointment by this racist, bourgeois society. They must be lazy, stupid, and worthless– like the rest of the people are, those who are less than human because capitalism requires that they be so. If they were otherwise, and were fully human, there would be no Indigenous land for the United States, no African labor to create its empire, and no profits for G4S (one of the largest corporations in the world today).
Yet our relationship to colonized populations under the global economic system of capitalism has also transformed the European colonizers’ relationship to nature. In an earlier stage of capitalist ascendance (and the ascendance of whiteness) the English poet John Donne famously wrote:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne referred to “every man” as “a piece of the continent” in the metaphorical sense. The identity of man, in John Donne’s imagination, wasn’t that he’s a piece of dirt, a clod. Donne was talking about the spiritual connection of humanity, and specifically the individual’s involvement in the “mankind” of “Europe”— as a piece of the human continent. Donne meant that the material reality of “man” involved a unity of spirit.
In England, we were previously just English. Perhaps we originated in Normandy or Scandinavia, but white skin was hardly a differentiating factor, and certainly not a basis for class division. However, in the colonial context of English and European capitalist rule, now our connection to nature, and the elevation of our personhood, is signified by our whiteness. We are fed by capitalist empire. We are clothed by capitalist empire. We are able to grow and develop on account of capitalist empire. Whether we are white in Europe or white in the United States, or Canada, or Australia, and whether we are wealthy or poor, whites are a “piece of the continent” in a very different sense, as part of a transformed relationship to people and planet. To be a “[white] American” means we are part of conquered land, connected to territory ripped from the lives of Indigenous peoples, and henceforth developed through the subjugation of African lives. In England, we were just English. In Europe, we were just Europeans. In the United States, whites are defined by an entirely different relationship to our physical location: we are nothing without the stolen earth which sustains our existence, and the exploited labor upon this occupied soil and all around a planet dominated by capitalism.
As far as our philosophical idealism is concerned, which fills the mind with visions of wealth, freedom, and decent, humble, kindhearted living, the white individual in the United States is free, and believes in justice and equality. Yet in materialist terms, the white individual in the United States has only attained this liberal and humane sense of self through the theft of land, resources and labor, exchanging the personhood of Europe for the whiteness of “America.”
Whiteness sustains the metaphysical image of the liberal, humane “American,” yet this image is disconnected from the material reality of ongoing colonial oppression and genocidal violence against Africa and the world. Our dreams of middle-class goodness stay there in our heads, empowered to be disassociated from the reality of capitalist empire because whiteness itself is insulation, a wall of colonial fantasies which shuts out the objective world, while the racist bourgeoisie piles up its profits and grows richer and richer.
And should it be any wonder that “racial tension” exists and that whites are not loved by the world as much as we believe we ought to be? The global system of capitalism, through its ideology of white supremacy, has empowered Europeans to exchange personhood (however unequal it was prior to our invasion of Africa and the Americas), for the material benefits of whiteness. These benefits of whiteness established a liberal, democratic, bourgeois equality among Europeans, in addition to a belief in freedom and other worthy ideals. Yet whiteness transformed our relationship to the material world and to the population outside Europe. Having elevated the white individual– particularly the “American” settler in the United States– to some lofty vision of human rights, Europe’s system of imperialist conquest subsequently disassociated the European person from their natural environment, by transforming the white identity into capital itself, based on its connection to land or property.
Capitalism reduced the European person to an inhumane object– or objectifier– in the dialectical relationship of the colonizer to the colonized, the oppressor to the oppressed, and the owner to the owned. The greater sense of power and self-fulfillment experienced by the white “American” represented a disintegration of his connection to humanity and planet. As a result, rather than being a piece of the human continent, as the pre-colonial, pre-capitalist European might have become, the white individual and whiteness became inseparable from the colonial and capitalist occupation of land and people, disconnecting us from nature and humanity. Under capitalism, whites have become pieces of … well, something.