An Ancient Fear Still Defines Whiteness

The Fear's Historical Origins

Our culture gives us an image of Europeans as more rational, calm, and knowledgeable than the rest of the world. Yet a reasonable case can be made that Europeans were, are, and have been for most of the past six centuries, as a group more frightened than most of the rest of the people in the world.

In the days of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Europeans perceived -- correctly -- that they were surrounded and outnumbered by people of cultures that did not agree with them and might well assimilate them out of existence. Those Europeans who were educated in history were aware that they lived on a peninsula over which armies
had swept many times from out of Central Asia. They were aware that the much more successful civilization from which many of their languages, their civic organization, and their religion, came from, the Roman Empire, had been overthrown by barbarians from outside its gates


Europe is a small peninsula connected to Asia, and not far, as the horde rides, from the turbulent area of desert and plain from which many of the Old World's conquerors, whether Dorians or Aryans or Mongols or Tartars or Turks, have come. Several times these conquerors came close to overrunning Europe. Several other times, they did overrun it, or at least major parts of it.

Certainly they surrounded it. The German anthropologist Julius Lips, in his book The Savage Hits Back, refers to the age of discovery as "but the bursting of the chain which the colored world had put round the white".

1492 -- Discovery or Escape?

The main adversary of Europe in Columbus' day was the world of Islam, which was larger, and until the 17th or 18th century was more dynamic and technologically sophisticated. In the century before the "Age of Discovery", Europeans also suffered "the crisis of feudalism", characterized by starvation, plagues, and peasant rebellions. Just as the world depression of capitalism in the 1930s was only ended by world war, this crisis was only ended by, in the words of historical anthropologist Eric Wolf, "locating, seizing, and distributing resources available beyond the European frontiers" -- in other words, the riches and labor of Africa and America.

In Fulcrums of Change: Origins of Racism in the Americas and other Essays, Jan Carew is one writer who notes that the fall of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, happened in 1492. In other worlds, Columbus sailed from a war zone. It was far from clear that the Muslim armies would not in fact return and re-conquer Spain. Columbus, and Vasco de Gama, and the other explorers of his day, were not disinterestedly seeking discovery. They were on dophins a mission to outflank their greatest economic, intellectual, and military rivals.

When the Christian monarchy of Castile, after seven centuries of African rule in Spain, overthrew the Islamic kingdom of Granada, it also expelled the Jews who had also been part of the Iberian culture for centuries, and sent out Columbus looking for a route around or behind the powers of Africa and Islam. His voyages were not a sign of an adventurous people, of a prosperous Europe setting out to explore the world. They were the actions of régimes that still felt themselves on the defensive. And what they were defending themselves against was, above all, Islamic Africa.

Islamic Africa was not only the military but the economic power of the day. Gold from the Mali Empire was the source of the first gold coins in Europe after the Roman Empire. When Mansa Musa, King of the Mali Empire, made his extraordinary pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, giving away and spending a vast fortune, gold was devalued throughout the Mediterranean world for as much as twelve years. (That event was as close in time to Columbus' first American trip as the end of slavery in the British Empire is to us.) One is reminded of the impact of Saudi Arabian princes and businessmen at the height of the "energy crisis". The difference is that African gold was the main source of this form of wealth for Asians and Europeans for centuries. It was only when Europeans simultaneously outflanked Islamic Africa by going farther south along the African coast, and also reached sources of gold in America, that this economic power was superseded.

When Carew writes about 1492, he emphasizes not just the fall of Granada, but the burning of manuscripts and records in Granada by the conquering Spanish. Thus, he notes, the event was not only "the end of seven hundred years of African power and influence in Europe which, at its zenith, extended from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the Rhone valley of France." It was also the beginning of whitewashing of what Carew calls "Africa's civilizing mission in Europe". Part of this whitewashing involved re-casting the Moors that ruled Spain as "a 'race' of hybrid 'semites'", though their African roots were clear.

African Contact

Is Carew's "civilizing mission" a reasonable idea? Granada and the other Muslim kingdoms in Spain did reflect a moment of high culture and of tolerance for Spain, far different from the Inquisition and the empire-building that followed, let alone the years of economic decline that followed that era. Ronald Sanders, writing of the same period in Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism, writes of moments when it seemed possible that Spain would "produce an unprecedented Latin-Arabic synthesis, a rich and unique Andalusian civilization." This would have been a very different kind of contact between Europe and Africa than the one we have grown used to, and one far more beneficial for both.

And yet it may be, as African culture overcomes centuries of suppression, both in Africa and in the Americas, that we will still see that synthesis in another form. Opening ourselves to it, however, especially for those who perceive themselves as white, requires that we face and overcome an ancient fear -- a fear that we have carried with us across the planet. We have been afraid of being overwhelmed, by plague, by alien cultures, by the Other. In the process of defending ourselves, we have left behind or utterly changed everything we were defending. We have lost our ancient faiths and customs, our ancentral communities, our connection to the land and the seasons, ourcabin families that extended in time and space.

And we certainly have not succeeded in circumventing Africa. From the the imitation of African music that is our music, whether we call it Dixieland or country or rock, to the appropriation of African language and food, US culture is in fact profoundly African. It is vividly clear in such illuminating moments as the gathering of the Promise Keepers -- when hundreds of thousands of "white" men gathered on the Mall, most of them not even allowing themselves to realize that they were imitating African-American men who gathered there two years earlier at the Million Man March, as they prayed with African gestures in the shadow of African-style monuments that they thought of as Greek. And, as with any gathering of "white" people, perhaps one in three in the crowd had African ancestors and didn't even know it themselves.

As white people, we are not defending our cultural heritage, because we have almost no connection to the cultural heritage we left behind. For better or worse, we have made ourselves into people that would be totally unrecognizable to our ancestors in 1492.We are not defending ourselves against taking on aspects of other cultures. In fact we revel in doing so. Most of our wealth, in ideas as well as in resources, has come from what we have taken from other cultures, especially the ones that were here before it was America, and those of Africa. Even what we think of as our European heritage, such as Greek philosophy, was mostly filtered through to us by Muslims, and was developed by people who thought of themselves as Mediterranean and who looked to Africans as their teachers.

All we are defending is our fear. That is all that whiteness is. Fear, and the privilege of sharing in the loot that fear has accumulated over the centuries. Fear, and all the ways that living in fear has distinguished us from the rest of humanity over five centuries.

Fear has no end but courage. Fear is quite capable of  devouring the planet, of ending humanity itself. Which is logical, because ultimately that is what we fear. Humanity. Ourselves, with a darker face and a different way of praying. It is time to give up our fear, our inaccurate distinctions, our privileges, our fatal journey, and turn to the real exploration of creating a just and whole world with the others who also live in it.

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All photos and art from photographs on this site by Larry Yates. All text by Larry Yates.

Copyright 2003. Social Justice Connections. Latest Revision Date: January 2003.