A Google image search for the phrase “evolution” returns many versions of the iconic image of human development over time. The whiteness of these images — the fact that, unless they are silhouettes or sketches, the individuals pictured have light skin associated with white people — often goes unnoticed. For our purposes, I would like us to notice:
The whiteness in these images is just one example of a long history of discourse relating whiteness and humanity, an association that has its roots in racial science and ethical justifications of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. It matters in this context, above and beyond the the general vast overrepresentation of whites in the media and as allegedly race-neutral “humans,” because the context here is one explicitly about defining what is human, what separates humans from animals, and about evolution as a civilizing process.
By presenting whites as the quintessential humans who possess the bodies and behaviors taken to be deeply meaningful human traits, whites justified, and continue to justify, white supremacy. This is what white privilege looks lik: being constantly told by experts that you and people like you represent the height of evolution and everything that it means to be that incredible piece of work that is man (irony fully intended).
Originally posted in 2010.
Benjamin Eleanor Adam is a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he studies the American history of gender and sexuality.