Experiment 15: White Supremacy from the 19th Century Forward


I scrupulously resist analysing the past in the service of the present for most subjects. Just understanding what happened is hard enough, without relating the events to today. In the case of white supremacy, I think there's a strong case to be made that we need to connect that ideas that originated in the 19th century with the persistent beliefs of today.

To start, please consider that the category of "race" is a human construct, not based in biology. You can talk to you biology professors, but the easiest scientific way of understanding this could be statistics. Take three people, A, B, and C. A and C are of one "race" and B is of another race. Statistically, person A will share AS MUCH OR MORE DNA with person B as with person C, regardless of how any of these people appear.

Race, as it evolved in the world 19th century context, was a way for those in power to justify the exploitation of others. We see this in Japan's treatment of China, in Britain's treatment of India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa, and the Canadian, U.S. and Australian treatment of Native peoples. Most of this bigotry was expressed by people who claimed to be "white," and thus much of our understanding of race is framed as "white vs non-white." There is no "white" race, genetically, culturally or nationally, but historical contemporaries often claimed as much to justify their behavior .

To limit our discussion to one part of the historical legacy or 19th century racism, consider what constitutes a "normal" body. In the case of Sara Baartman, Dutch, British, and French colonialist treated Baartman's body as "abnormal." Theoretically this is called "othering," a mental process that treats one group as normal and as historical actors deserving attention, and another group as abnormal and "other people," not deserving full human rights (as we read in Bartmaan's case.)

Khoi-San people in particular have been used as a stand-in for white supremacist notions of "not-normal" since the 19th century. The term Hottentot has been racist slang for African at least since 1900. Consider this scene from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins where an retired naval officer unleashes fireworks on dancers whose faces are blackened with chimney dust.

In a different modern context, consider that hen Kim Kardashian decided to highlight her butt in 2014 in a photo spread at least a couple people noted the way in which the image reflected on "History’s Problem with Fascinating Bodies".

Our challenge as historians is to recognise the origins of racism as articulated with a particular time and place, while at the same time tying that history with our modern life.

So, for your Experiment this week, you are tasked with finding a credible popular historical article that uses a primary source to help analyse a contemporary discussion of racism or white supremacy. Popular history is written for a broad audience and is responsible to the field of journalism for its standards. Below are some publications that are credible, though you are welcome to find your own. Please be aware there is a great deal of actual white-supremacist writing on the web, so sticking with national-audience publications is best-practice for this exercise. I want to help you connect the past with today, not expose you to racist trolls.

Assignment: Write two paragraphs totalling 300-350 words summarising (using only your words, no quotations) and article that includes a primary source from the 19th century. Your article should relate to 19th century racism within the world colonial context. You may wish to review the Bartmaan article, the Africa Map, or previous week's readings to help provide context for your analysis of how your source relates to the wider history of racism.

Time Magazine
Slate Magazine, especially Rebecca Onion who has a Ph.D. in American Studies
Mental Floss
The Atlantic especially Yoni Appelbaum who has a Ph.D. in History
The StarTribune
The Washington Post

Please note that publications have different standards for journalism and editorials. For example, the StarTribune has mainstream journalism but slightly to the political right editorials while the Washington Post has mainstream journalism and politically left editorials.

Grading Criteria:

  1. Student selected a credible article.
  2. Article includes a primary source on 19th century racism.
  3. 300-350 analysis ties historical racism to modern topic.
  4. Student wrote paragraphs using standard usage and grammar.
  5. Student explicitly ties historical context from readings to article chosen.