Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Psyche and Society in the Slave Construction of Race

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Psyche and Society in the Slave Construction of Race

Article excerpt

In post 1960s scholarship, students of race in the Americas agreed that there were no inherent differences among the earth's peoples and that race had therefore been constructed. They also agreed that one of the products of this construction, blacks, were not a people to whom things happened, but instead were full often aggressive participants in their own history. This paper rests on the assumption that if race was constructed, and if blacks fully participated in their history, then it reasonably follows that the people now called blacks played a role in the construction of race.

The paper examines the different ways in which soon-to-be whites and soon-to-be blacks built race. It demonstrates that the fact that the two peoples came to agree on the importance of race has not only obscured the distinct ways they constructed it, but the very different meanings they assigned it.

As the people now called white and the people now called black worked hard in constructing race it makes little sense to call them whites or blacks before they completed their work. Colonists in the Americas later became white, so just as it essential to understand how people with widely varying European ideas about themselves chose whiteness, it is essential to see they were not white before they agreed it was important to be white. Whiteness did not exist in Europe, where people divided themselves, often with ugly, vicious, and violent consequences, along regional, geographic, ethnic, religious, and other lines. But while literate Europeans avidly and often pruriently read of exotic peoples in the Mid-East, Asia, and Africa, they had no conception of race. Race was invented on the western side of the Atlantic.

From a psychological perspective there are three distinct arguments as to why American settlers constructed race. In the first argument race was constructed on the basis of a straightforward rational calculation of self-interest. A host of Marxist scholars of which Genovese (1971) is an example, and such non-Marxists as Bennett (1970) and Morgan (1975) suggest that slaveholders and their supporters created race as part of a deliberate plan to prevent poor whites, Native peoples, and blacks from joining together against them. From this perspective, there were no hidden psychological motives, no unconscious attempts to reconcile ego/super-ego demands, nor any need to bolster self by dominating the other. Jordan (1968), on the other hand, argued that the formation of race was an "unthinking decision" in which slaveholders accidentally created racism in the course of developing working communities. He does concede, however, that the rapid and strong Anglo-American commitment to racism had its roots in long standing English ideas about, and fears of, blackness. Black was evil, ugly, and bad, while white was beneficent, beautiful, and good. These ideas about color, Jordan argues, were deeply rooted in English culture so that it was easy for the colonists to adopt racism when confronted with Africans and with the manifest reality that enslaving Africans was in their economic interest.

Although Jordan thinks that racism was an accident in which psychological forces may have played a role, there is a third argument that rests entirely on psychological explanations. Kovel (1971), for example mirrors Jordan. He acknowledges the rational calculations of self-interest that led settlers to develop racism, but suggests there were other, stronger, and deeper psychological forces at work. Welsing (1972), however, centers her explanation of the development of racism solely on psychological forces. Others while not using Welsing's argument that a deep white disgust with black's dark color explains racism agree with her that psychological forces are central in the understanding of the construction of race.

The Settler Context for Race Construction

Despres (1998: 180-181) frames the issue this way:

   Perhaps the most difficult questions that may be
   posed regarding ethnicity and ethnic group relations
   questions that have to do with the problem of
   ethnogenesis. … 
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