How White Women Got White

Sam McKenzie Jr.
6 min readJul 22, 2021
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque

James Baldwin told us how white men became white, but he left white women out of it. Of white men he said:

"White men-from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians -became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women."

For whatever reason, Baldwin, in that instance, didn’t tell us how white women became white. The only gender he specifies in white identity is male. That makes sense because that’s where white identity began — with men.

White identity comes from European men who later called themselves white. The major racist theorists and scientists who invented race were men, white men. Race was initially a male idea, and the racist misnomer “Caucasian” comes from a European man’s sexual obsession with (white) women.

According to Nell Irvin Painter’s book “The History of White People,” the early formations of what would become white womanhood started in sex slavery. That history of white beauty is ugly. It’s not a stretch to say that the white in white womanhood comes from patriarchy, domination, and captivity.

White men also made white women by law and decree. That makes white identity a fiat currency. We can literally mark where the law changes from “English women” to “white women.” In colonial Virginia, white men first mentioned “white women” in colonial law to prohibit them from marrying Black men. All of that is proof of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ point that “White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint.”

White womanhood was initially a product of toxic (white) masculinity, and toxic (white) male sexual interests. And we shouldn’t overlook that gendered history of race. Steve Martinot says, “‘Gender’ and ‘race’ remain hierarchical social structures that have never been independent of each other. They name forms of power.”

Male is the gender that has never been independent of “the white race” or white identity. White males attempted to feminize and emasculate humanity, and they made white womanhood manly in the process. According to Nell Irvin Painter, Ralph Waldo Emerson was “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” Painter says for Emerson, “Alongside the Saxons, all others are lesser, gendered, and by default, female.”