Why is white such a problematic term

The more I think about it the more I realise Ta-Nehsi Coates is into something. White is probably as loaded as the n-word. My reasoning below:

Before 1492 Europe had some but limited contact with other civilisations (Marco Polo, Greco-Roman antiquity, trade) therefore there wasn’t a sense of definition. Since the Old Word, for the most part, is racially continuous the ethnic distinctions are for the most part slight. Most Greeks are lighter-skinned than most Turks but it’s a stretch to call the former white and the latter not. Everyone blends into one another, not excacy but even so just enough to make for hazy lines.

After 1492 when Europeans encounter another civilisations entities and meets/imports them into the New World; new racial terms are required. Turk & Christian aren’t enough because slaves could be either faith.

So the term white arose in a milieu of European domination (Europe may have initially sought out the world to trade but eventually like all cultures it turned to domination).

In this sense white turns out to be ethnic dominator labels like Turk or Arab (most Muslims in the Indian East trace their ancestry, whether real or fictitious, to either of these groups never to Persians as an example). However since one drop rule didn’t really exist anywhere else (Arabs have huge dollops of SSA ancestry making them descendants of both slaves & slave-holders) it makes white a very loaded term and a holdover of half a millennia of domination.

The ancient Greeks & Romans blended into their populations; do we have any unadulterated relics of their colonies to the existing day? Such stark racial terms (black, white etc) ellide the common truth that Humanity is One and that humans have always commingled & co-existed with one another, one-drop rule is the exception as opposed to the rule.

Again I could be wrong but most of human history is myth and if we have the right myths, maybe we could evolve in a better direction?

27 thoughts on “Why is white such a problematic term”

  1. Interesting points. I’m certainly more pursuaded by your elaboration on “white” than TNC’s sermonizing.

    You focus here on the semantics of the term rather than on its pragmatics, but I’m skeptical that changing the ideology around whiteness could generate substantial change in the underlying racial realities when the non-whites involved are very distant in terms of behavioral norms / inclinations / values / culture / etc. (ie if the causal arrow points from biology to ideology more than the reverse).

    Partly what drives that intuition is contrasting race relations in North America vs South America. It seems to me that in the latter the “we are one humanity” notion has much more purchase…but that’s possibly because they actually are one (many generations of mixing of genes and memes) to a degree that the north is not.

    1. I think we can use geographic terms; European, African, Asian. I think even Negroid/Mongoloid/Caucasian are hopelessly outdated and frankly offensive (I see myself as an Iranified Desi).

      I think these colour terms like black, white and brown aren’t really helpful. The irony with us being Brown Pundits but especially the dichotomy between black & white seems to really plague the US. It’s all about gradations and once we drop race we can focus on colorism (which is easier to tackle on its own).

  2. such eldritch prose!

    west asians defined themselves as ‘white’ in comparison to south asians ‘black.’ (though obv not black like africans, i don’t think we were ever called ‘abed’). when europeans 1st arrived in 18th century they differentiated btwn white muslims and black muslims (ashraf vs convert). the white muslims europeans though they had natural affinities with. they also termed japanese white cuz of their lightness and advanced character.

    overall the narrowness of white to europeans occurred in the 19th century.

    1. I had to google Eldritch ?
      Light is different to white; I think the hard racial boundaries aren’t as persistent in Indian Muslim community as you think.

      Ashraf is also a wealth marker, everyone becomes a Siyyid with a little bit of money.. pure lineages are very rare even among the “Ashraf”; strange how we never hear that term in Pakistan.

      White has very strong political and cultural connotations; half a millennia of colonial domination is implicitly loaded in that phrase.

    2. Also Europeans called the “Ashraf” classes “white” (before annihilating quite a fair few of them in the sack of Delhi) when they would have been considered light-skinned and fair. Colourism is different to racism and a lot depends on nomenclature!

  3. An interesting perspective is of Classical Greeks on Indian appearance. Here’s Megasthenes, the Seleucid ambassador in Chandragupta Maurya’s court, on how Indians looked like to him in his Indika (quoted later by Roman historian Arrian in Anabasis Alexandri, Book VIII):

    “The appearance of the inhabitants, too, is not so far different in India and Ethiopia; the southern Indians resemble the Ethiopians a good deal, and, are black of countenance, and their hair black also, only they are not as snub-nosed or so woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; but the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians in appearance.”

    A common villager from Haryana or from the Nile Valley don’t look too different even now:



    1. Yesterday the owner of the restaurant is a “Dar” (it’s a Kashmir Muslim name; don’t know if you guys have that name). He was playing with his grandson, who I had assumed was half-English but in fact was Dar on both sides. Also he was from Sialkot (which along with Lahore & Amritsar were also heavy concentration of Kashmiri Muslims).

      The owner then told me his daughter looked Persian and hence why her child (his grandson) did too. South Asia is such a complex place ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think white post-1492 has a very different meaning to the Pre-modern one. Othello the Moor was more an Arab than SSA but I could be wrong there.

      1. Yes, Dar (with retroflex /d/) is a Kashmiri Muslim surname (from Skt. “Damara”, one of the old agrarian feudal classes of Kashmir). [Lot more on this topic in my next post on Kashmiri Muslims].

        Kashmiris (Muslims & Pandits – genetically indistinguishable) have very little to do with Iran/Persia. They just sometimes happen to look similar in my opinion.

        E.g. here’s Fali Nariman (India’s ex-solicitor general and ex-Supreme Court advocate) – an Irani Zoroastrian ethnically:

        and here’s Sanjay Kaul (currently one of India’s supreme court judges) – a Kashmiri Pandit and my relative via my mum’s side:

        I can assure you there’s no Persian in the latter ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. Yes that’s what I mean; attributing Iran when there is no need to, Pandit blood explains everything!

          1. This guy you met seems to have been thoroughly Punjabized. Willing to bet he wouldn’t be able to tell Kashmiri apart from Polish. Many of these Punjabis I’ve noticed try to find Central Asian or other ancestry for themselves.

            Kashmiri Muslims, by which I mean the genuine articles in Kashmir (Kashmiri-speaking, kabargah-eating, phyeran-wearing, kaanger-carrying type) do not concoct such stories about themselves generally.

            Though some idiosyncratic exceptions exist, e.g. the urban legend that Kashmiris have partial descent from Jews. But none of the usual C Asian/Turk/Persian drivel…

            BTW that Jewish story is bollocks too:

          2. There is a huge Kashmir Muslim community in Punjab; Punjabised or not but they are the Srinagar lot. Nawaz Sharif belongs to that ilk I believe and they’re sort of like a caste.

            Omar would be better to comment on Punjab matters.

            I had a Kashmir Muslim over on his way back to Srinagar; they seem a particularly angry lot (from what he told me and he was an Ivy League academic). Faith before flag & all that..

            I remember we were sitting in a restaurant and my wife joked she was going to order the Pork dish (she’s a Sindhi from Chennai); he was so affronted that he deliberately ordered a beef dish. Not that it matters for her as she is an atheist but to be fair I found it quite offensive; a pig is harms (unclean), a cow is divine (godly). I didn’t serve beef at my wedding even though my in-laws were happy to, I don’t think people should eat beef in front of Indians (I could be wrong).

        2. yeah, no persian needed. btw, i’ve heard pandits and kamboj express the idea of persian ancestry. but, the groups are genetically related along a cline. shared indo-iranian ancestry ~4,000 years ago.

          1. // iโ€™ve heard pandits and kamboj express the idea of persian ancestry //

            If by Pandits you mean Kashmiri Pandits, then absolutely not. The cool thing about K Pandits is that our history from before (and through) the Islamic period is so well documented that such notions can barely fly.

  4. I had to google Eldritch ?

    TNC used it in his most recent article.

    Light is different to white; I think the hard racial boundaries arenโ€™t as persistent in Indian Muslim community as you think.

    my point is that muslims in their texts explicitly define themselves as white, and the people of india as black. eg “kabul has many black slaves.” “the people of india are black-crows”.

    almost all indian muslims would be defined as black in this context. the “white muslims” that the british were talking about were turco-iranian of near pure ancestry. as you know the mughals brought people directly from central asia for generations.

    today most ashraf are presumably of mixed ancestry. though i once did meet a white skinned brown haired former nawab (or descendent of) from UP whose family had clearly remained endogamous.

    even today pakistanis are considered dark indians by iranians, as you know.

    1. Cousin marriage is very different to endogamy. I think the racial distinctions among South Asian Muslims is more Latin American than either North American or Sanskrit (where endogamy was the practise).

      The model is more best to marry one’s cousin unless there is a much better match out there.

      The reason why Persians look down on Paks is cuz Paks make such fools of themselves (the jokes my Mashadi & Iraqi friends would make of Pakistani & Indian Shi’ite pilgrims doing Ziarat is understandable to some degree).

      Don’t go gaga over Iran; Persians are like cats, you have to treat them hot & cold to get their respect, I would know loll

      1. why are you bringing up cousin marriage? bengalis don’t do cousin marriage very much at all and have not historically (this is clear in the genetic and anthropological data). you seem to be addressing a point i didn’t even make.

        my point is that during the time of european contact the west/central asian origin muslims had a racial consciousness, and they were clear in their superiority of feeling to the black muslims who were converts. this came up with tipu sultan, who was a brown-skinned muslim. the white muslim old nobility didn’t have much of an issue with disposing of any support toward him since he was an arriviste.

        the modern upper class muslim classes are much more mixed than was the case in the 18th century, when there was a constant stream of migration from iran and central asia.

        ps i have read that the color terms common in northern india date back to the mughal period.

  5. half a millennia of colonial domination is implicitly loaded in that phrase.

    also there wasn’t a half a millennia of colonial domination. as late as 1750 europeans occupied subordinate positions in relation to then native populations, and the racial aspect of the british presence only became stark with the arrival of cornwallis and his retainers decades after the conqust of bengal.

  6. I think white post-1492 has a very different meaning to the Pre-modern one. Othello the Moor was more an Arab than SSA but I could be wrong there.

    yeah, you don’t have a good sense of the time span. white supremacy is a much narrower than you are projecting. non-european actors could and did dictate to europeans as late as the 18th century. eg omani destruction of the portuguese power in the western indian ocean.

    1. I am speaking of generalities; common history is that the Modern Era is the Era of European supremacy. We can get in the granularities of it but the High Cultural understanding is that Europeans really got on top (in the world) 1492 onwards. Even if they were subordinated in the East they were busy ascending in Latin America. White reflects that combined reality.

      I appreciate you are MUCH more knowledgeable that I but I’m peddling in generalities to make a point that most people, if they know their history will think like this:

      Celts (Boudica King Arthur)
      William the Conqueror
      Merry Tudors
      Elizabethans (beginning of dominance)
      White People rule till WW2
      World is now free & equal

      That is the rough understanding of history that is implicit in our cultural understanding. It would go a VERY long way to explain Britain’s extraordinary fascination with WW2; our Raganarok so to speak when the apogee of the British Empire crumbled to defeat the dark forces one last time (I’m mixing my metaphors here but you can get the gist)..

      1. common history is that the Modern Era is the Era of European supremacy. We can get in the granularities of it but the High Cultural understanding is that Europeans really got on top (in the world) 1492 onwards. Even if they were subordinated in the East they were busy ascending in Latin America. White reflects that combined reality.

        you are spreading false information. most people don’t know any history. before 1700 european colonialism was tenuous and very thin on the ground across much of north and south america. there were almost certainly more native peoples in north america before 1700 (lower 48) than european settlers. the spanish conquest of maya city-states continued into the 1600s. some groups like the mapuche of southern chile were never conquered by the spanish (conquered by chilean state!).

        the ideology of white supremacy as we understand it today only began to cohere around 1700 in the USA. the laws banning intermarriage in the southern states btwn blacks and whites date to this period.

        i don’t think 200-300 years is an appropriate gloss when people can barely keep track of basic facts.

        basically, you are pushing back the origins of white supremacist ideology centuries before it makes any sense to.

        1. Let me concede on this technicality but such is the overwhelming superiority & dominance of European civilisation is that even in that “shorter” span of 200-300yrs, it was the Absolute World power (also I’m treating Christendom it as a white/western bloc).

          My point is that even misremembered and wrong history influences interactions, racial or otherwise. We are discussing the weight and potency of the term “White”, I used 1492 as a careless shorthand but even if we were to use another marker (say Indian Mutiny in 1857), it doesn’t really make a difference. Even the 90years between 1857 & 1947 was drastic enough to leave a lasting impact on South Asian about the strength of the colonial power.

          White Privilege is informed by some memory of historical domination; the timespan of it matters but not as much. It also wasn’t a brief history in time, virtually every global cultural has been touched and transformed by European civilisation (Commodore Perry and Japanese) simultaneously. Whites were on top in the Interwar years and I could be very wrong but that is the impression of popular culture/history, which percolates to the common culture and influences how peoples deal with one another.

          1. White Privilege is informed by some memory of historical domination; the timespan of it matters but not as much.

            to some extent for your purposes, yes. but i want to be clear that the facts are important because they are relevant in other contexts. if they go unchallenged falsehood percolates.

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