[Trigger Warning: racism]
Yesterday, Yahoo News showed me a link entitled “‘White’ slaves used for 1860s fundraiser propaganda” with the description “Lighter skinned slave children of mixed race heritage were used as part of a fundraising campaign to help struggling African American schools in 1860s New Orleans. Campaign organizers believed the lighter complexioned children would help boost donations to their cause.”
It was a photo series from the Library of Congress depicting light-complexioned mixed-race children dressed up like dolls and looking solemn, with their names, slave status, and city of origin at the bottom. I found the photos themselves very interesting, as well and the historical and cultural background to them. I have a problem with the headline.
First of all, race doesn’t really scientifically exist. Setting that HUGE GAPING PROBLEM aside, the quotes around white in the title imply that, though these kids may look very light-skinned and “not black” – whatever that is, they are “really” not-white. Um, you do understand the term “mixed-race,” right? It means more than one? And presumably these kids are a “mix” of white and black, yes? Which means they are just as much white as they are black, if not more so. It smacks of blood-quantum racist ideology to say that these kids aren’t “really” white (even though they look it! Oh DEAR. We must tell you they are Not White so you do not accidentally mistake them as such!), that they are “really” African-American (black).
The other issue I have with the headlines, and American history more generally, is the continual erasure of white slaves in our history. Americans had plenty of white slaves, many of whom sold themselves in indentured servitude hoping for a better life, and many of whom who forcibly kidnapped (often by British authorities) and sold to American colonies.
African slavery and white slavery were indeed different. I am not arguing that they were the same, nor am I starting some “Oh noez what about teh white slaves?” Oppression Olympics.
But the narratives around African slavery in the US are still permeated with racist thinking. There’s a sense, around slavery, of “well, white people were wrong to do that, but they were racist towards black people,” sometimes with the sickening condescension of “and they thought they were giving them better lives!” Ignoring white slavery lets people sit complacent with this narrative, that slavery was “justified” at the time based on what people knew and thought about RACE. Whereas taking white slavery into account would require people to question the race paradigm and talk about the fact that some people just thought they deserved to own other people, regardless of race. Or bring a class dimension into it. Or do any complex thinking at all. The suffering that was initially inflicted on lower class whites imported to the colonies became a system that absorbed whatever new labor source was most profitable. When not enough white slaves and servants could be found, the African slave trade started booming.
So – “fully” white and slave are not mutually exclusive, and we need to complicate our awareness of the history of slavery in the United States and around the world. Also, mixed-race does not mean “not-white” unless it also means “not-(other race).” Got it?
(P.S. I am indebted to Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.)