Skip to main content

White Lies and Fiction

White Americans are bound by a false past.
A 19th-century engraving depicting the burning of Jamestown, Virginia, during Bacon's Rebellion.

A 19th-century engraving depicting the burning of Jamestown, Virginia, during Bacon's Rebellion.

In his recently uncovered Instagram chats, the accused Parkland, Florida, high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, fantasized about shooting Mexicans and hanging black people.

Before this feed was even discovered, the teenage white supremacist group Republic of Florida falsely claimed Cruz as one of their own. The group worked with 4Chan and Internet trolls to spread the rumor through social media.

"We may be able to double, Perhaps almost tripple [sic] our numbers," the ROF founder, known online only as Jereb, wrote afterward to The New Yorker's Charles Bethea. "So I guess we have properly 'exploited' this tragedy, Or more accurately, Benefited from the medias [sic] exploitation of it."

This exploitation hints not only at the prevalence of white supremacy in our country, but also at the ease with which false cruelties are continually marketed and inflamed. White supremacy, as both an ideology and a set of political and economic systems, is very real—but it also rests on a flawed premise.

The idea of undefiled "whiteness" is an economically motivated fiction that goes back to before the founding of our country. The United States' dominant origin story, one of freedom and abundance, denies the fact that American prosperity was established through the slavery of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

The foundation of our economy was established through unpaid labor and seized land, and is maintained still through "aliens" and others who are undercompensated for their work and denied a full and dignified presence in our patriotic narratives.

To varying degrees, these persistent and inaccurate ideologies of whiteness rely on an idea of race as a biological reality rather than a societal construct. But there is no biological marker for "whiteness." With more than 99 percent of the human genome identified, some scientists claimed in a 2016 study that there remain no genetic markers for what society has termed "race."

"Whiteness" is, instead, a legal and economic tool used to fool and foment the mob, substituting power over an "other" for economic justice. It has a long and weary history in this country.

The term was first coined in Virginia, in 1681, as a way to divide indentured servants from Great Britain from indentured servants from Africa and elsewhere. Between 1607 and 1682, nearly 70,000 indentured servants from England and Europe were imported into Virginia and Maryland to work on the tobacco plantations, where they were bought and sold by landowners like any other property.

Hundreds of indentured Africans in the colonies at this time lived alongside these indentured Europeans and had the same rights. When their indenture was up, servants were given their freedom, permitted to vote, marry, own land, and run for office—regardless of their skin tone or country of origin.

In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion had united these laborers as they demanded that Virginia's ruling elite grant them greater compensation for their labor. British forces stamped out the uprising, and lawmakers retaliated with laws that would thereafter establish "whiteness," separating British servants from those of African descent.

The first of these laws made it illegal for European women to marry Native-American or African-American men, simultaneously excluding Native- and African-American men from their previous rights, and reserving European women as biological property for European "white" men.

Laws followed in swift succession forbidding Native- and African-American men to vote, to hold public office, to gather in public places, to own weapons, or to testify against a "white" person.

My own ancestors began arriving on this continent in the very decades during which the fiction of whiteness was established. One of them was the 17-year-old milkmaid Molly Walsh from Wessex, England, who in 1680 was sentenced to indentured servitude in the New World for spilling a bucket of milk.

She came over in the hold of a boat, and was then auctioned on the block in Joppa, Maryland, where she was sold to a tobacco farmer. Molly worked through her seven years of servitude somehow without starving, dying of illness, or conceiving an unwanted landowners' child. This was rare in itself, since most indentured servants were men, and most died during their years of service.

Afterward, Molly was able to do something even more unusual: She bought, as an unmarried woman, a small plot of land at the edge of the colony. After farming alone for two years, Molly purchased two African slaves from the very dock where she had been examined and sold a decade earlier. These men helped her to clear more land and build a cabin. Two years later, after she had taught them English, she released them, and granted them free papers.

Then she married the one she had fallen in love with, the Walof Chief named Bana'Ka. It was 1690 at this point, and miscegenation laws had just been passed that made Molly and Bana'Ka's union illegal and warned that both could be captured and sold back into slavery. Molly and Bana'Ka ignored these laws, taught each other their languages, and raised four daughters.

The oldest, Mary, married an escaped slave, Robert, who was later freed and became an early African landowner in Maryland. Their descendants included Benjamin Banneker, who wrote the first almanac by an African American, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, and helped to survey Washington, D.C. His sister, Jemima (my ancestor), and her son, Aquilla Lett, moved to Ohio to establish a mixed-race community, and successfully sued the state for a public education of his "mulatto" children in 1830.

Their stories tell me something about the trajectory of history—that it doesn't move in one direction.

When Molly and Bana'Ka married on their farm in Maryland, they likely imagined that things would get better in the colonies—not that investors would begin importing hundreds of thousands of slaves, nor that their own mixed-race children would be declared crimes.

When their grandson, Benjamin Banneker, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, he imagined that his letters and almanac would make a difference, that surely we could not continue to grow our idealistic country on the injustice of slavery.

When his sister, Jemima, married the half-Native American and half-Irish Samuel Lett, they had enough vision for social improvement to inspire their son, Aquilla, to establish a mixed-race, intentional community.

But just as history does not always march evenly toward truth, neither do our personal stories. Both familial history and national history are beset by omissions and denials. The extraordinary courage of these ancestors was eclipsed by extraordinary self-interest, repression or fear, because somewhere along the way, my ancestral line broke off to become "white."

The full truth of our family, like the full truth of our country, split into the fracturing of identity and the fiction of whiteness.

America has always been populated with diverse peoples, and nearly three-fourths of the citizens of the colonies arrived as other people's property. The very idea of whiteness was a fiction meant to hide the fact that indentured servants and other poor laborers had very little in common with wealthy moguls. The laws of "whiteness" did little to immediately change the economic reality of poor laboring Americans, but wreaked terror, violence, and systemic injustice on those who were outside this term of privilege.

Better understanding this history, seeing the facts within the myth of "whiteness," will help us to more effectively address the challenges of our present moment.