White womanhood and the reproduction of whiteness

I came across an insightful article by Cecily Jones on colonial race ideologies and the centrality of gender in the reproduction of whiteness. This is a neglected aspect in debates around race and racism, in fact a common argument by many liberals remains that people are ‘free’ to marry (hence socially reproduce) within their own racial (or ‘cultural’) group, and that should not be of concern in a ‘multi-racial’ society – in other words, this narrative claims that this has to do with socio-cultural preferences, and does not by itself produce racism and racial inequality.

This perspective can be easily shown as problematic when one considers some of Jones’ observations on colonial Caribbean society:

“… while white males of all stations freely appropriated and exploited the sexuality and reproductive labour of African women, they rigorously enforced prohibitions against relationships between ‘their’ white women and all black males.

This regulation of white colonial womanhood became the essential aspect upon which whiteness would stand or fall. Sexual relations between white females and black males posed a profound threat to the racial social order. Colonial law dictated that, for unfree individuals, children followed the legal status of their mother. This ensured that African women’s bodies were the literal embodiment of unfreedom, while white wombs served as the incubators of freedom. As white males could not imagine a future population of free coloured people, they secured both their own patriarchal power and white supremacy through the regulation of white female sexuality.”

The context of former British settler colonies in Africa is different, especially when colonialism was not preceded by slave trade. Yet, in these societies white womanhood was, and in many ways still is, key in the reproduction of whiteness. This is something that liberal discourse often tends to miss in favour of a focus on race and racism as produced by prejudices and beliefs as rhetorical devices, rather than social practices involving marriage, relationships and other social institutions.

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