According to the Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter, as the west became secular, race supplanted faith as the new, ostensibly scientific answer to the question of what it meant to be human. Whiteness—in opposition to its antithesis, blackness—became the basis of European identity, operating as a retrospective justification for European exploitation of the rest of the world. What is race? At heart, it’s an empty place, a pretext. Yet it must be filled with content: cultural habits, physical attributes, aptitudes, and so on. The conceptual incoherence of race is advantageous to white supremacy, as the benefits of whiteness can be extended or retracted pretty much expediently. This is how Jewish people, for example, once considered a subhuman burden on European civilization, have survived to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their newfound white brothers in the fight against brown Muslims. One cannot live the truth of race, because it has no truth, but we all live its terrible emptiness.
Anti-blackness and white supremacy are co-constitutive, as Oyeyemi sketches out with remarkable gentleness. The US, founded on the innovative concept of the secular state, drew on a racial rather than religious model of birthright to make use of the barbaric free inputs of slavery. If whiteness was how Europeans reinvented colonial pillage as racial destiny, then America is where this “rational” anti-blackness reinvented itself as national culture.
whiteness, like new snow, wants to disavow its birth in blood and dirt and present itself as a clean slate on which history-as-progress can be written.