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.”

In my book, that makes white identity mannish, which means white womanhood has a mannish quality. I’m sure that sounds counterintuitive or like some form of gaslighting. But I’ve entertained C. Riley Snorton’s statement that “To feel black in the diaspora, then, might be a trans experience.” And I think Damon Young had a point when he said “Straight Black men are the white people of Black people.”

I’m saying white womanhood is a male experience or an experience with maleness. And oddly, white identity wants and needs to ascribe a mannish quality to women who aren’t white. But it’s really the opposite. The tropes of whiteness are actually true of whiteness. White feminism is tomboyism. Look at the history. The early intentions and expressions of tomboyism and white feminism have white dominance in common.

The history of white identity and white womanhood help to contextualize and explain some of the issues with white feminism. White feminism is a mannish feminism that constantly betrays Black women because white identity has no femininity. None.

White feminists don’t choose race over gender; they choose the gender of their race, which is maleness, white maleness. White feminists choosing whiteness is a gendered selection. Susan Collins voting with the white male patriarchy is a gendered selection.

At the very least, relative to me, a Black gay man, white identity has no femininity. Look at what Frank B. Wilderson III writes in his book on Afro-Pessimism:

"White femininity and White masculinity occupy the same structural position vis-à-vis a man or a woman of color."

Structurally, there is a male aspect and influence to white identity that has never ended and extends to white women. That’s one reason I can’t celebrate a white woman being the first (white) woman to govern a state.

In a sense, white women are implicated in white maleness. But I still want to know what Baldwin would have put on white women. White men may have started it, but white women have long been co-creators of whiteness. If white men became white by slaughtering, poisoning, torching, massacring, and raping, what’s on the list for white women?

Enter Abigail Elphick. She provides the answer.

Elphick is the white woman who attacked Ijeoma Ukenta in a New Jersey Victoria’s Secret. From the video Ukenta took, we see Elphick chasing, attacking, screaming, shaking, lying, feigning, accusing, policing, quivering, crying, and all sorts of damseling.

Some look at the video and point to her privilege. But Elphick was not merely “weaponizing her white privilege.” Neither were the white men Baldwin says went around slaughtering, poisoning, torching, massacring, and raping. That was race making, and Elphick was doing the same. Elphick was birthing new shades and levels of whiteness.

Look at what Steve Martinot says in “The Machinery of Whiteness” and think about Elphick:

"The violence served to increase the sense of threat, and with it the demand for white solidarity, which necessitated greater violence in turn. This cycle of paranoia (a sense of threat), solidarity, and violence...generated its sense of white racialized identity. That cyclicity is the structure of white racialized identity as such. It is from this cyclicity that the concept of whiteness, and thus race, was born."

The girl was making whiteness on the spot. Because white identity is a spooked identity tormented by paranoia of its own making, Elphick was at her whitest when she wrongly felt threatened, when she violently chased Ukenta, and when she demanded white solidarity.

Elphick could’ve just said, “I feel white” because Ukenta said the opposite. According to The Root, Ukenta said she felt like the N-word for the first time.

That’s what I mean by race making. And that’s the paradox Baldwin wanted us to understand — when whites do something to others, they do something to themselves. Don’t miss what Elphick did. She conjured white identity. She shows us again how white women got white, and how white women stay white.

Elphick is a face of white terrorism. She is all the white in every white woman. Lynchings, false allegations, and police protection are the basics of the white in white women. Origin stories provide important context, especially when they’re ongoing.

But what does this mean for white women who reject white identity?

Given the mannish history of white identity, it would be feminine of white women to repudiate, reject, and work to undo white identity. That’s why I am commuting my sentences against Rachel Dolezal. Keep in mind, there are many Dolezals, and keep in mind, that commuting is not the same as reversing.

I found Dolezal guilty of fabricating Black identity. Black identity is, in part, a claim to justice that Dolezal is not entitled to claim. However, Baldwin has more points I must consider. Baldwin said, “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you.”

I must apply Baldwin’s point here too. But it does not follow that not thinking you’re white means that you call yourself Black. There is a place called too far. Dolezal was wrong in calling herself Black. She was not wrong in thinking she’s not white. And according to Baldwin, hope is there.

I know many people want to dismiss and ignore Dolezal. I was in that number. But I have to side with Baldwin who also said people who think they’re white are “irrelevant.” That means Dolezal is relevant. She has “significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.”

At least she does not think she is white.

The point is not that race is a social construct and that we can do with it whatever we want. The point is that being white is a moral choice based on a genocidal lie for the necessity of denying Black presence and justifying Black subjugation, as Baldwin says. It is as David Roediger says, “Whiteness is not only false and oppressive, it is nothing but false and oppressive.”

Two wrongs do not make a right, but at the very least Dolezal got herself out of one wrong. In being wrong, she got something right. Dolezal has got some kind of hope most white women do not.

I think it is time we have more disdain for white identity itself than we have for those who are deranged, deceitful, and desperate enough to try to escape it. Too many people have yet to comprehend how big of a problem white identity is by itself.

But the ways white women got white should make it clear.

A version of this piece was originally published in my newsletter on July 22, 2021.

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