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Notes from Asad Haider


On Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

McIntosh writes “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tool and blank checks.” The knapsack is carried by an individual navigating an entirely open social field. It contains tools that enable the individual to navigate this field with greater effectiveness than those whose knapsacks are comparatively empty. The resources contained in the knapsack constitute whiteness as privilege, because the knapsack is carried by an individual who belongs to the white identity.[1]

[It is assumed that] If the knapsack of privileges is carried by an individual already identifiable as white, then whiteness must be understood as a biological trait. The falseness of this notion is evident: the people who are currently described as white have a wide and complex range of genetic lineages, many of which were previously considered to be separate “races” of their own…In reality, whiteness itself is constituted by the contents of the knapsack. The constitution of whiteness as identity and its constitution as privilege are simultaneous: the knapsack’s provisions confer not only advantages but also identity upon its bearer.[2]

On the “white race”

This racial phenomenon is not simply a biological or even cultural attribute of certain “white people”: it was produced by white supremacy in a concrete and objective historical process. As Ted Allen wrote on the back cover of his The Invention of the White Race: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there.”

Allen was pointing to the fact that the word white didn’t appear in Virginia colonial law until 1691. Of course this doesn’t mean there was no racism before 1691. Allen’s argument was to show that racism was not attached to a concept of the white race. There were ideas of the superiority of the European civilization, but this did not correspond to differences in skin color.[3]

The historical record quite clearly demonstrates that white supremacy and thus the white race are formed within the American transition to capitalism, specifically because of the centrality of racial slavery. But we must resist the temptation, imposed on us by racial ideology, to explain slavery through race. Slavery is not always racial…it is a form of forced labor characterized by the market exchange of the laborer. There are various forms of forced labor, and the first form in Virginia was indentured labor, in which a laborer is forced to work for a limited period of time to work off a debt, often with some incentive like land ownership after the end of the term. The first Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619 were put to work as indentured servants, within the same legal category as European indentured servants. In fact, until 1660 all African-American laborers, like their European-American counterparts, were indentured servants with limited terms of servitude. There was no legal differentiation based on racial ideology: free African-Americans owned property, land, and sometimes indentured servants of their own. There were examples of inter-marriage between Africans and Europeans. It was only in the late-seventeenth century that the labor force of the American colonies shifted decisively to African slaves who did not have limits on their terms of servitude.[4]

The Euro-American ruling class had to advance an ideology of the inferiority of Africans in order to rationalize forced labor, and they had to incorporate European populations into the category of the white race, despite the fact that many of these populations had previously been considered inferior.[5]

[1] Haider, Asad. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. Verso Books, London, 2018: 45.

[2][2]Ibid, 46.

[3]Ibid, 51.

[4]Ibid, 53.

[5]Ibid, 56.


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