Recessive notions of whiteness

Teal Deer

TL;DR

White supremacy rests on a mental model of whiteness as recessive. I show how this strange view of whiteness is related to notions of Purity and leads to views of whiteness as special, superior, and ever going extinct.

Are you a good man, Davos Seaworth?” she asked.

Would a good man be doing this? “I am a man,” he said. “I am kind to my wife, but I have known other women. I have tried to be a father to my sons, to help make them a place in this world. Aye, I’ve broken laws, but I never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m’lady. Good and bad.”

“A grey man,” she said. “Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?”

“What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey.”

“If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

— George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

How society defines whiteness recessively

One thing that first got me thinking about recessive notions of whiteness is my partner. He is 3/4 Irish and 1/4 Ghanaian. If race/ethnicity were defined democratically, “white Irish” would win in a 3-1 vote. In addition, he generally interacted more with his Irish relatives when growing up, so he identifies with Ireland as “home” or “his team” more so than he does Ghana. However, he is overwhelmingly read as black. Despite being mostly Irish, very few people would call him white. (And not because they view Irish people to be non-white, which is a whole other topic.)

In the U.S., the racial caste system necessitated an official definition of whiteness. Depending on the state, people were considered black if they had at least 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, or one drop of (i.e. any) African ancestry. That is, in all cases, states agreed that a fairly small amount of non-whiteness shut you out of the white racial classification.

This official definition corresponded to an intuitive definition in people’s minds. The child of a white and brown person is brown. A hint of black features means that person is black. A person with light brown skin is disqualified from being white. I call this notion that whiteness is destroyed or overpowered by even a small amount of non-whiteness “recessive whiteness”.

False recessiveness creates false scarcity

One implication of the notion that whiteness is recessive is that white culture is always in danger of being wiped out. When a white person has children with a brown person, their children are brown.

In biology, recessive genes are nevertheless passed down despite their recessiveness. As a result, a recessive phenotype can reemerge in a generation even when all their ancestors have displayed the dominant phenotype.

punnett_hetero_x_hetero-svg
Remember these? Recessive traits like blue eyes can appear after a generation of people with the dominant phenotype (brown eyes).

However, the popular conception of recessive whiteness is not like the biological concept of recessiveness. Combining two brown people will never result in a white person. One’s children can only become more white by combining with someone who is more white.

As such, under this notion of whiteness, once whiteness is diluted by brownness anywhere in the world, that whiteness is gone, forever. The fate of whiteness is therefore to slowly disappear from the world. To a white supremacist, when the inheritors of white culture leave the world, their culture disappears from the world along with them.

When I read the views of white supremacists and those convinced by their ideology, this notion of disappearing whiteness is everywhere (it even has a name: white genocide). Cultures of particularly white countries like Sweden and Norway are singled out as in special need of protection and preservation. White people choosing to marry non-white people is a significant source of anxiety (you can never get that whiteness back!).

The recessive notion of whiteness creates a situation where the scarcity of whiteness increases over time. Scarcity in its turn imbues the state of being white with a sense of being special — it is rare and will become increasingly so.

(What is odd about the recessive notion of whiteness is that it is actually very possible to increase whiteness in the world. After all, the human race used to be black yet is no longer entirely that way. Light skin was a more recent adaptation to allow people to live in environments with long periods of very little sunlight. Biologically, whiteness can be and was spontaneously added to the world. (It is also, of course, possible to instantly increase whiteness in the world by relaxing definitions of whiteness to encompass more people.))

Recessiveness is a notion of purity

The notion that when two things meet, the recessive one always loses or disappears is synonymous with a notion of purity. A recessive state such as whiteness can only be maintained by an ABSENCE of interaction with any states that dominate it (such as non-whiteness).

When I think of purity, the most clear example is the notion of virginity. A virgin is someone who has never had sex. A single act of sex immediately eliminates one’s status as a virgin. Once you have sex, no amount of not-having-sex will restore the status of being a virgin again. It is only something you can lose, not something you can attain. Similar to recessive notions of whiteness, virginity can only be maintained at its current level or decrease over one’s lifetime.

Also similar to recessive notions of whiteness, the notion of purity or virginity creates scarceness in the world. Virgins are seen as “rare” and “special”.

Notions of purity prop up superiority

Purity is a weird notion to think about.

Inherent in it is a contrast between clean and dirty. In the case of virginity, to be a virgin is to be “clean” and “unsullied”. By contrast, sex is “dirty” or “base”.

Also inherent to purity is a contrast of good and bad, or superior and inferior. The state of being pure means that combining with anything else will result in a drop in quality.1 The notion of Supremacy functions the same way. If you’re The Best, to be mixed with anything else can only result in something worse than what you already are. As such, when you create a system of Purity, you also create a system of Supremacy, where the state of being pure is the highest and most respected state. In such a system, to be the best (or pure) means that the only direction you can go is down. Goodness, purity, and quality can be either maintained in its present state (in the ABSENCE of badness, dirtiness, or inferiority) or lost, but never regenerated.

The idea of white supremacy is built on these linked notions of purity and supremacy. To be white, it is not enough to be more white than not; you must be overwhelmingly free of “contamination”. In white supremacy, white Europeans represent the pinnacle of humanity’s achievement. As they combine with non-white populations, however, their greatness is diluted. As such, pessimism about the trajectory of humanity is omnipresent in white supremacist movements. Humanity is always declining, getting worse, stupider, less talented.

The next time you see someone talk about their anxieties about race, pay attention to what their conceptual model of race is. Very often people conceive of whiteness as recessive or easily dominated, which also entails thinking of whiteness as rare, special, superior, pristine, easily eliminated. But why should we think of whiteness this way? Can not whiteness be something that can co-exist with brownness/blackness, not something to be defined in opposition to and absence of them?


1 Only in a particular notion of purity. Another way of thinking of purity is to think of combining metals. Two pure metals can be mixed to form an alloy, which can have properties entirely different from the two pure metals it was created from. In this view of purity, the process of combining pure things is Synthesis, not Contamination.

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