race divide

The reality of race: The term ‘white people’ was invented by a playwright in 1613

Thomas Middleton’s ‘The Triumphs of Truth’ is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people’.

The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of “white people” on October 29, 1613, the date his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: “I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.” As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as “white people”.

A year later, the English commoner John Rolfe of Jamestown in Virginia took as his bride an Algonquin princess named Matoaka, whom we call Pocahontas. The literary critic Christopher Hodgkins reports that King James I was “at first perturbed when he learned of the marriage”. But this was not out of fear of miscegenation: James’s reluctance, Hodgkins explained, was because “Rolfe, a commoner, had without his sovereign’s permission wed the daughter of a foreign prince”. King James was not worried about the pollution of Rolfe’s line; he was worried about the pollution of Matoaka’s.

The concept of race

Both examples might seem surprising to contemporary readers, but they serve to prove the historian Nell Irvin Painter’s reminder in The History of White People (2010) that “race is an idea, not a fact”. Middleton alone did not invent the idea of whiteness, but the fact that anyone could definitely be the author of such a phrase, one that seems so obvious from a modern perspective, underscores Painter’s point. By examining how and when racial concepts became hardened, we can see how historically conditional these concepts are. There is nothing essential about them. As the literature scholar Roxann Wheeler reminds us in The Complexion of Race (2000), there was “an earlier moment in which biological racism… [was] not inevitable”. Since Europeans did not always think of themselves as white, there is good reason to think that race is socially constructed, indeed arbitrary. If the idea of “white people” (and thus every other race as well) has a history – and a short one at that – then the concept itself is based less on any kind of biological reality than it is in the variable contingencies of social construction.

There are plenty of ways that one can categorise humanity, and using colour is merely a relatively recent one. In the past, criteria other than complexion were used, including religion, etiquette, even clothing. For example, American Indians were often compared with the ancient Britons by the colonisers, who were descendants of the Britons. The comparison was not so much physical as it was cultural, a distinction that allowed for a racial fluidity. Yet, by the time Middleton was writing, the colour line was already beginning to harden, and our contemporary, if arbitrary, manner of categorising races began to emerge.

The scholar Kim Hall explains in Things of Darkness (1996) that whiteness “truly exists only when posed next to blackness”: so the concept of “white people” emerged only after constructions of “blackness”. As binary oppositions, whiteness first needed blackness to make any sense. The two words create each other. The scholar Virginia Mason Vaughan writes in Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800 (2005) that: “Blackfaced characters in early modern dramas are often used... to make whiteness visible.” Black and white have never referred to defined groups of people; they are abstract formulations, which still have had very real effects on actual people.

The slave trade

There is little verisimilitude in describing anyone with either term, which explains their malleability over the centuries. How arbitrary is it to categorise Sicilians and Swedes as being white, or the Igbo and Maasai as both black? This kind of racial thinking developed as the direct result of the slave trade. Hall explains: “Whiteness is not only constructed by but dependent on an involvement with Africans that is the inevitable product of England’s ongoing colonial expansion.” As such, when early modern Europeans begin to think of themselves as “white people” they are not claiming anything about being English, or Christian, but rather they are making comments about their self-perceived superiority, making it easier to justify the obviously immoral trade and ownership of humans.

Hall explains that the “significance of blackness as a troping of race far exceeds the actual presence” of Africans within England at the time. Before Middleton’s play, there were a host of imagined black characters, such as in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness (1605), which featured Queen Anne performing in blackface, as well as Shakespeare’s “noble Moor” in Othello, staged a couple of years before Middleton’s play. Understandings of race were malleable: in early modern writing, exoticised characters can be described as dusky, dun, dark, sable or black. Depictions of an exoticised Other weren’t only of Africans, but also Italians, Spaniards, Arabs, Indians, and even the Irish. Middleton’s play indicates the coalescing of another racial pole in contrast to blackness, and that is whiteness – but which groups belonged to which pole was often in flux.

The Shakespearean treatment

Consider the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In sonnet 130, he says of his mysterious paramour that “her breasts are dun”; in sonnet 12, he references her “sable curls”; and in sonnet 127 he writes that “black wires grow on her head”. As is commonly understood, and taught, Shakespeare subverted the tradition exemplified by poets such as Petrarch who conceptualised feminine beauty in terms of fairness. Part of this subversion lay in pronouncements such as the one that states that black is “beauty’s successive heir”, a contention of Shakespeare’s that can seem all the more progressive when our contemporary racial connotation of the word is considered. Thus, how much more radical is his argument in sonnet 132, that “beauty herself is black/And all they foul that thy complexion lack”. Shakespeare’s racialised language connoted a range of possibilities as to how the Dark Lady’s background could have been imagined, and the conjecture that she was based on women variously European or African indicates this racial flux in the period.

Or take Caliban, the native of the enchanted isle colonised by Prospero in The Tempest. Often sympathetically staged in modern productions as either an enslaved African or an American Indian, there are compelling reasons to think that many in a Jacobean audience would rather understand Caliban as being more akin to the first targets of English colonialism, the Irish. By this criterion, Caliban is part of the prehistory of “how the Irish became white”, as the historian Noel Ignatiev put it in 1995. None of this is to say that Caliban is actually any of these particular identities, nor that the Dark Lady should literally be identified as belonging to any specific group either, rather that both examples provide a window on the earliest period when our current racial categorisations began to take shape, while still being divergent enough from how our racialised system would ultimately develop.

Race might not be real, racism is

Yet our particular criteria concerning how we think about race did develop, and it did so in service to colonialism and capitalism (and their handmaiden: slavery). Bolstered by a positivist language, the idea of race became so normalised that eventually the claim that anyone would have coined such an obvious phrase as “white people” would begin to sound strange. But invented it was. With the re-emergence today of openly racist political rhetoric, often using disingenuously sophisticated terminology, it is crucial to remember what exactly it means to say that race is not real, and why the claims of racists aren’t just immoral, but also inaccurate. Middleton demonstrates how mercurial race actually is; there was a time not that long ago when white people weren’t white, and black people weren’t black. His audience was just beginning to divide the world into white and not, and, unfortunately, we remain members of that audience.

Race might not be real, but racism very much is. Idols have a way of affecting our lives, even if the gods they represent are illusory. In contemplating Middleton’s play, we can gesture towards a world where once again such a phrase as “white people” won’t make any sense. In realising that humans were not always categorised by complexion, we can imagine a future where we are no longer classified in such a way, and no longer divided as a result of it either.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.