“Forgotten White Slavery”

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).[1] 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.[2]

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”?

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Black Worker;” “The White Worker,” in Black Reconstruction in America (pp. 3-31).

[2] Harris, Cheryl, “Whiteness as Property,” in Critical Race Theory, pp. 276-291


3 thoughts on ““Forgotten White Slavery”

  1. What a great set of questions!!!

    I do have a couple of suggestions about some texts that might shed light on this question. The most obvious is Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674810839). This book does a really good job of comparing practices of slavery around the world, and suggests that there was something unique about the practices that existed in the American South. What Patterson suggests is that ALL slavery requires a kind of ‘social death,’ where the enslaved person is separated from their natality (birth) and then separated from a future of their own choosing. Generally, to recover from the social death of slavery takes generations: that is, it takes that long for the stigma and effects wear off for the descendants of the enslaved. What made slavery in the United States (and the enslavement of blacks in the New World by whites) different was that it wasn’t just social stigma that differentiated masters from slaves, but the color line, so that even when no longer enslaved, people of color suffered the stigma and dishonor of enslavement even when freed.

    Compare that to the situation of the Irish, who were (in actual fact) pretty much slaves of the British. Some scholars argue that the British learned how to be masters by enslaving the Irish in fact. Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race suggests that there is are differences between national oppression and racial oppression. What is fascinating in the American context is that Irish emigrants – people who viscerally hated the British for the horrors British colonization had perpetrated on the Irish (the potato famine was a manufactured crisis: all the food grown in Ireland was exported rather than feeding the people) – pretty quickly became “white.” And once they became white, they allied with the primarily British stock in the US to perpetrate racial oppression.

    One more text that might be interesting to consider is Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color. His argument is there is an ‘alchemy of race,’ whereby the closer not-quite-whites get to black people, the whiter they become. So because the Irish were poor when they arrived, they lived next the poor inhabitants in American cities – and the poorest were blacks. So by living close to blacks, the whiteness of the Irish was emphasized rather than their racial difference (‘Celtic’ races were inferior to Anglo-Saxons in the racial hierarchy of the time).

    These, though, are all scholarly arguments about the way racial formation – and racial privilege – were formed over time. They don’t necessarily help in the heat of the moment when we might be trying to suggest that there is a different *quality* to the oppression experienced by people of color (particularly blacks) in the US today. What do you all think? What might be the best ways to respond to the question posed by Candase’s friend? How, for example, is the experience of being a poor white person different than being a poor black person in the US: what are some tangible ways that those two experiences are different?


  2. Holy fuck (am I allowed to write that here?). I know this is tangential to the post’s point, but it’s something of great contention that, if overcome, I think would be a great step to fixing opportunity inequality in the United States. There are so many assumptions in Billy Oh Really’s argument about the cause of the correlations (side note: Bill’s viewer demographics is 40% 65+ years old. Perhaps the only benefit of mortality and the passing of time [besides, you know, events occurring, etc.]), which I think are mostly false. Such that, I think it’s more logical to believe that having less income forces the necessity of short-term economic attainment, which is not focusing on obtaining a Ph.D. Therefore, the claim that it’s because underprivileged kids don’t have a culture where “education is paramount” falsely frames the result as if it were the cause. Bad! Terrible! Gah! I know more convincing arguments and data exists, and that I’ve seen some of it at one point or another.

    Surely the white man is much less associated with underachievement than the black man, truly unfairly. And I do think it’s intrinsically connected to the historical enslavement of black people by white people in the United States. Bill glosses over the fact that we’re talking about United States, and *white people weren’t enslaved in the United States*. Indentured, yes, but the practice evaporated with the influx of the black slave. At the (white) founding of the territory to be named the United States, pretty much everyone was poor, and a few people were ultra –freaking-rich. Thereafter, economic and political enfranchisement continued to expand, but has been historically and is today far from universal. Political and economic participation contributes to the view of achievement, which has been systematically denied to certain social groups. Therefore, certain social groups are unfairly targeted as underachieving because of current and historical institutions which have undermined their ability to achieve. So, to bring this back to its point, understanding the pervasiveness of slavery’s affect should be taken contextually, for neither white nor black has any inherent meaning. White slavery does not have nearly the power of black slavery in the U.S. because whites weren’t really slaves here, or, if I’m wrong about this, their status as slave has not transcended to systematically exclusion from political and economic opportunities to nearly the same degree.


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