That said, why did something called “racial” difference become so important in people’s sense of their identity? Before the age of exploration, group differences were largely based on language, religion, and geography. The word “race” referred rather loosely to a population group that shared a language, customs, social behaviors, and other cultural characteristics — as in the French race or the Russian race or the Spanish race (differences we might now call “ethnic” rather than “racial”). As European adventurers, traders, and colonists accelerated their activities in Africa and Asia and the Americas, there emerged the need to create a single large distinction for differentiating between the colonizers and the colonized, or the slave traders and the enslaved. At first, religious distinctions maintained their preeminence, as the Africans and American Indians were dubbed pagans, heathens, barbarians, or savages — that is, as creatures without the benefits of Christian civilization or, perhaps, even as creatures without souls. Efforts to Christianize the Indians and the Africans, however, were never separate from efforts to steal their lands or exploit their labor. To justify such practices, Europeans needed a difference greater than religion, for religious justification melted away once the Indian or African converted.
Whiteness, then, emerged as what we now call a “pan-ethnic” category, as a way of merging a variety of European ethnic populations into a single “race,” especially so as to distinguish them from people with whom they had very particular legal and political relations — Africans, Asians, American Indians — that were not equal to their relations with one another as whites. But what of America as the great “melting pot”? When we read our history, we come to see that the “melting pot” never included certain darker ingredients, and never produced a substance that was anything but white. Take, for example, that first and most famous essay on the question “What is an American?” In 1781, an immigrant Frenchman turned New York farmer named Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur published his book Letters from an American Farmer. Here are some lines from its most quoted pages:…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen. What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither an European nor the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations.He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds… . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of populations which has ever appeared.No longer a European, the American represents a new race made from the stock of various European nations. No mention is made of Africans or Indians, perhaps because this new American race does indeed receive new prejudices from the new mode of life it has embraced. Crevecoeur candidly describes the process by which the American race originated as a white race; or rather, the way in which the descendants of Europeans constructed a myth of themselves as a white race with special claim on the answer to the question “What is an American?” An American was a white man.
Every POC should read this.