Race, like religion, is a moving target; a constantly evolving constellation intimately connected to both self-identity and the articulation of power. Most scholars today agree that race is a “social construct,” and that it has no basis in human biology. By this, they mean that our social definitions of race have no equivalent in nature. Yet, despite the fact that race is constructed, it impacts our everyday lives in intimate ways. It is a profoundly embodied experience that structures our social interactions and our perceptions of others. Still, race is not merely embodied: it is also a political strategy intertwined with religion.
Each racial category has an origin story. Take “white,” for example. In colonial North America, European colonists did not initially think of themselves as “white.” Instead, they used terms like “Christian” or “English” to describe themselves. In the Barbados Slave Code of 1661, the first comprehensive English slave law in the Americas, English colonists called themselves “Christians,” while they referred to enslaved and free Africans as “negroes” or “slaves.” The term “negro,” from the Spanish “black,” acknowledged the precedent of Spanish slavery. The word “white” was of little importance.
How and why was “whiteness” created? If we look closely at archival records, we can often see why.
On September 9, 1677, a formerly enslaved man named Charles Cuffee was baptized in an Anglican church in Barbados. In the 1670s, whiteness was not an important racial category, but by the 1690s, this had begun to change. When free black men like Cuffee joined the Anglican Church, they were making a claim for themselves: as free Christians, they had acquired most of the markings of citizens. According to Barbadian law at the time, Cuffee would have been eligible to vote in elections and, at least hypothetically, run for office if he could acquire enough property. When Cuffee’s baptism brought this possibility to the attention of slave-owning Christians, they introduced whiteness into law. They replaced the word “Christian” with the word “white” in their law books. In 1697, the Barbados Assembly passed an act that, for the first time, made whiteness a prerequisite for voting in the English colonies. Twelve years later, lawmakers refined their definition of whiteness further. A 1709 law clarified that a “white” person could have “no extract” from “a Negro,” thereby establishing a “one drop rule” as the definition of whiteness and laying a new foundation for slavery and social oppression that made race seem like a natural category—something that was innate.
The creation of whiteness occurred at slightly different times and through different processes throughout the early modern world, but the example of Barbados is instructive. What we can see through the life of Charles Cuffee is the codification of whiteness as a legal category. Slave-owning politicians actively created the category of “whiteness” as part of a political strategy to protect slave ownership and to restrict the voting rights of free blacks. This history reveals not only the interconnection of race and religion, but also the elasticity of both concepts.
The boundaries of whiteness—like other racial categories—have expanded and contracted over time. In the United States, Jews as well as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were sometimes considered “white,” while at other times they were not. Still, the fact that the term “white” replaced the word “Christian” should give us pause. What does it mean that whiteness—and white supremacy—are intimately tied to a Christian heritage? Even before white people were considered a “race,” Christians used their religious identity to exclude Jews and Muslims from political rights.
The Christian legacy of whiteness has not disappeared. In the nineteenth century, white scientists integrated race, and whiteness, into their theories of biology, making race seem like a natural phenomenon. As they did so, they embedded Christian ideas into their theories about racial difference. Terence Keel has shown how Johann Blumenbach, the European scientist who popularized the term “Caucasian” as a component of whiteness, drew on Christian intellectual history to create his racial theories.
Today, the religious legacy of race is somewhat shrouded. The United States Census Bureau defines race as “a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups.” The list of races, as of 2020, includes “White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or some other race.” Yet, while the Census Bureau defines race as a “social group,” scholars have demonstrated how individuals have pushed back against these official racial categories. In New World A-Coming, Judith Weisenfeld shows how people of African descent rejected the definition of race on census forms. They used alternative forms, such as “Moorish American” and “Ethiopian Hebrew” to represent their own sense of identity and belonging.
Shifts in racial categories have occurred from both “above” and “below.” The introduction of whiteness in the Barbadian law books was a “top down” shift intended to protect slavery and the privileges of slave-owners. More recently, activists in the United States have lobbied to add new racial categories to the census in order to gain recognition and visibility. G. Cristina Mora has shown how “Hispanic” was added as an ethnic—rather than racial—category to the census in the 1970s, after Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other activists argued that the racial classification of “white” did not accurately reflect their racialized realities. Currently, activists are lobbying the Census Bureau to add a “MENA” category to represent people of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
As the meaning of race continues to evolve, it is worth remembering not only the political import of racial categories, but also the intimate connection between race and religion. While current debates about the US Census seem divorced from “religion,” this framing obscures both the long history of religion as a “proto-racial” category, and the continued importance of what Judith Weisenfeld calls the “religio-racial.” Both religion and race structure and organize our worlds, and our sense of belonging. Being attuned to their history—and their ongoing evolution—is essential for recognizing the lived experiences of race and religion, and for pursuing a more equitable society.