A fish doesn't understand the concept of water.



This is Derek Sivers' version of a quote based on the opening of a David Foster Wallace address* to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This came to mind as I began listening to the fantastic John Biewen 14-episode podcast Seeing White produced for Scene on Radio and the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.  I had thought of myself as a pretty woke white guy, consistently progressive with a history of social justice activities beginning with civil rights work in college and most recently an instructor doing bystander intervention presentations and trainings in my community.

It turns out  I was like the fish in Wallace’s metaphor, for whom water is the omnipresent default environment, both background and foreground, woven into everything else, but so familiar it is totally invisible to him. It doesn’t require thought, action, or choice. It is just…there.

I am now about halfway through the series - for the second time. The first time was somewhat overwhelming in that I couldn’t both absorb the individual pieces and process the bigger picture.  I discovered that I had a painfully limited understanding of whiteness.  Yes, I knew that race was not real from a biologic or genetic perspective. However, I had no knowledge of where and when Western civilization invented the concept of race, or how consistently the concept of race was used (and is still being used) to create and support a white ruling class with political, social and economic power.

What follows are some pieces that stand out for me, either because they were new facts and concepts, or because they really forced me to see things differently.  This is not a high school book report and it is not a Cliff Notes version of the podcast. I urge every white person to spend the time and listen to this series. I am certain it will change your understanding of race and power in America.

  •  From a biologic and genetic perspective there is no such thing as race. We are one species (Home sapiens) and we all come from a common ancestor in Africa. Our genetic ‘sameness’ approaches 99.9%. There is more genetic variation found in a flock of pigeons than among people of different ‘races.’
  • Slavery and servitude have been around for millennia - but were not tied to race until several hundred years ago. The Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Chinese, and Africans all participated in slave trades but it was not race based. Slavery was so common in eastern Europe that our word for slavery comes from Slav.
  • Despite the fact that race is not a real thing the way ice, gravity, and paper are real things, the concept of race is all too real and durable. The concept of race and its application as a foundational element of our culture has had real and very troubling consequences, from the beginning and still ongoing today.
  • The concept of race was invented in the 1450s by Gomez de Zurara who was commissioned by the Portuguese king to write a book praising his son Prince Henry the Navigator, who was a member of the Military Order of Christ and a slave trader. This is the origin of the concept of an inferior ‘race’ that could legitimately be enslaved. Let that sink in. The book using race to justify the slave trade was commissioned by slave traders. This is a persistent theme in the podcast series: slavery (and the need to explain and justify it) caused racism, not the other way around.
  • The ideas in this Portuguese book spread widely throughout Europe and by the 17th Century, racist ideas were pervasive in England.
  • In the late 17th and throughout 18th Century, exploring and categorizing the natural world were an important part of the scientific revolution. Linnaeus described four ‘races’ and Blumenbach later described four.  American anthropologists settled on three. At one point there were 12 classification systems in use.
  • Race at this point was not a factor used to describe or control people. An example is seen in immigration records which recorded name, country of origin, age, occupation, and often religion. But not race.
  • Slavery in America began in 1619 with the arrival of 20 slaves stolen from Angola.
  • The ROLE of racism to support slavery is first seen in 1640 when three indentured servants ran away: African-American John Punch along with a Dutchman and a Scotsman. All were captured. The Dutchman and Scotsman were punished with 4 additional years of servitude. Punch was punished with life-long servitude - the first legally explicit example of slavery in America. What was going on here? The wealthier classes (i.e., European landowners) needed a consistent and reliable labor force. The American colonies were characterized by huge discrepancies in wealth, and it made sense for those in power to prevent the development of true class warfare between the rich and the poor. Instead, they gave those poor who looked like them (white) some small advantages, so their allegiance was to those in power rather than those in the same economic circumstances. This is the was a multi-class society based on whiteness began.
  • In the 1660s, as a result of the Elizabeth Key case, Virginia changed its laws to allow enslavement of Christians - vastly increasing the pool of potential slaves.
  • In 1682 Virginia law was changed so citizenship was only possible for those of European descent, beginning the process of defining whiteness as a prerequisite for citizenship.
  • In 1691, the definition of citizenship was changed from European descent to white.  At this point, the concept of race and the favored status of whiteness have been constructed and made law by white people. Over the next 100 years this concept formed the basis of both culture and law across the bulk of the colonies.
  • In 1790 we had the first US Census. Who was counted? Three kinds of white people (white males over 16, white males under 16, white females) and two other categories (other free persons, slaves).
  • In 1792 the Naturalization Act (the second act passed) said that ONLY free whites could become citizens. This limited the ability to own land, vote, access to due process, serving on juries, starting or owning a business to white people.
  • The United States, from the beginning,  was constructed with social, economic and legal systems to limit power to white people.

I could go on - and perhaps I will in later posts.  (Writing this helps me process it.) I should collect and post the books cited during the podcast as both reference and further reading. There is so much more. The attitude that white is right contributes to the way our Indigenous Peoples were treated, and the series spends some time on that. The series covers the bad science of race, including eugenics, an attempt to create a scientific foundation for racism. (As an aside, the results of the Genome Project in 2001 clearly showed that there is no genetic basis for race. None. Yet that did not change minds or the culture. Racism is part of the water we all swim in and do not notice.) I had never known about the era of racial cleansing about 100 years ago. (Do you know what happened, as just one example, in Corbin, Kentucky? Or how a benign mythology has been created to paper over that?) Or how differently racism is manifest in the South (it doesn’t matter how close they are as long as they don’t get too high) and the North (it doesn’t matter how high they get, as long as they don’t get too close)? The role of redlining? How government programs have consistently maintained or exacerbated the inequities? How fear has been used to enforce social and economic structures?

But that is enough for today. Please, subscribe to the podcast series and start listening.

*(The transcript of his speech is available here on the Wayback Machine.)