In light of especially recent events, topics of “race” can cause uncomfortable tensions between my friends and I when we don’t see eye to eye on definitions of “justice”. In these awkward-to-navigate-without-pissing-people-off conversations, a recent event of discrimination usually snowballs into issues of stereotyping. And if the ball keeps rolling and we start to discuss root causes, eventually touching on notions of slavery. In multiple conversations, a new comeback has surfaced that I’ve never heard before.
“Black people weren’t the only ones who suffered from slavery. Everyone wants to forget that white people were slaves once too.” They continue on to suggest that white people have to work just as hard to succeed in America as people of color, adding that “success” is less about race than it is about education and social upbringing– thanks, Bill!
This notion of “forgotten white slavery” sent me on a quest for answers. Now, slavery committed against any people group is a heinous, inhumane, and disgusting crime. The long-standing and traumatic effects of slavery on a people’s history is pertinent, no matter how strong the effects may be. Acknowledging a history of slavery within a racial or ethnic lineage is an important effort of justice and peace-making. But as we study the enduring effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that create and maintain white dominance, I am skeptical towards the thought that “white slavery” could possibly have the socially and institutionally embedded consequences that “black slavery” has had in the “free world”. I, of course, make this judgment with a more thorough understanding of “black slavery” and a less in depth study of the Ottoman slave trade, or the enslavement of the Irish, etc.. Hopefully one of you can enlighten me more about this under discussed topic.
The fact is, uncomfortable statistics of racial disparities of incarceration rates, business leadership, police interaction (just google it), and university attendances are a reflection of white privilege that pervades every aspect of our society in very consequential ways. And these inequalities relate to how black laborers have historically been handed uncomplimentary positions in the American economy (as uncovered by W. E. B. Du Bois’s study of the black worker). Consequences are so extremely tangible by the African American community, that young black men are taught to do certain things and act certain ways in order to appear as less of a threat, or above the social stereotype. They do this in order to survive in a system that, even now, bids on their failure and limits their opportunities to succeed.
Economic disadvantage was the fertile ground which led to enslavement of the Irish. In today’s society where slavery is no longer legal, these hindrances are easier to overcome for the previously enslaved white man than physical appearances of brown skin that forever mark a person and associate them with underachieving qualities (thank God, this is somewhat changing). In saying this, I don’t mean to underrate anyone’s particular history. I just aim to highlight the fact that the same institution of slavery that oppressed the Irish and the Africans alike, has distinct effects as whiteness is extended to more “white races”, adopting Irish and even Jewish heritages as white. This enables them to receive certain privileges and have certain expectations that people of color cannot assume. As Cheryl I. Harris’s article explains, whiteness is a kind of property, a privilege that will never belong to the black individual, effecting their opportunities to achieve economic and social mobility.
What are your thoughts? Does “white slavery” have the same time-transcending and pervasive effects of black slavery? What about my friend’s comment was valid or invalid? Is “white privilege a facade that we all need to get over because “white’s were slaves too”?
 W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Black Worker;” “The White Worker,” in Black Reconstruction in America (pp. 3-31).
 Harris, Cheryl, “Whiteness as Property,” in Critical Race Theory, pp. 276-291