Book Review: Traces of History by Patrick Wolfe

cover68165-mediumRace is a social construct.

[please note that I use the author’s original British spellings of certain words in quotes]

“…racialisation represents a response to the crisis occasioned when colonizers are threatened with the requirement to share social space with the colonised.”

“…race denotes certain peoples as being out of place, rendering the subordinate populations concerned inherently dirty, as we see in the ubiquitous linkage of race and hygiene.”

“Race […] is a trace of history: colonised populations continue to be racialised in specific ways that mark out and reproduce the unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted these populations.”

While it’s obvious that nationality is a product of where you grew up or where you or your ancestors are from, race was invented in order to oppress – whether by enslavement, ostracization, assimilation, or elimination.

This screams a lot of truth:

“As it emerges in the late eighteenth century, race is a classification concept with two general characteristics. First, it is hierarchical. Difference is not neutral: to vary is to be defective, in concert with the degree of variation alleged to obtain. Second, it links physical characteristics to cognitive, cultural, and moral ones…”


One purpose of racialization is colonialization.

In Australia, the point of racialization was to be able to define a group of people (who originally lived on the land), so that colonizers could confine that group to missions and reservations and keep the land for themselves. It also allowed for the systematic erasure of a group of people by such means as kidnapping their children and assimilating them in to non-native families.

Of course, in the US, we racialized the indigenous peoples for our own gain.

Preaccumulation is ”…the historical endowment that colonizers bring with them and [the] Natives’ countervailing historical plenitudes…” Or, colonists bring with them a plenitude of resources and experience, which continues to grow – while they use, take, and shrink resources available to the Natives whose land they are occupying.

That’s probably way overly simplistic, but maybe it conveys the idea.

In fact, our history turns Native peoples into Nature and part of the very resources of the land, denying them humanity and allowing us to live guilt-free on stolen ground.

“The distinction between dominion and possession presupposed a long-held asymmetry whereby Native entitlements were held to be axiomatically inferior to those enjoyed by Europeans (or Christians).”

I.e., by nature of who we were, we were more entitled to this land than they were. The only things we left open to the American Indian were removal and assimilation.

“Time and time again, on the Plains, the US cavalry was sent into Indian country to protect encroaching Whites from attack by its Indian owners.”

In other words, the US government went into Indian territory to help Whites fight Indians who were merely defending their homes.

Like the author says, this was conquest.

One Georgia volunteer stated, of the Trail of Tears, “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousand, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”

It’s ironic that some of the excuse we used for taking their land was that they weren’t tied to the land as farmers, but were hunters and gatherers. Though they were the ones that taught the settlers to grow corn and tobacco. Two of the biggest money-making crops to this very day. There’s an interesting appropriation for you. Andrew Jackson even asked if “the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?”

(I think I got more out of the chapter on the American Indian because I just read so much about the dispossession of the Creeks.)

This is our history:

“We have already noted the tension between African American and Native American orientations to the US civil rights movement. As observed, that tension is reflected, as it continues to reflect, the respective historical experiences of chattel slavery and territorial dispossession. Yet the mutuality between the two is complete. As Ronald Takaki needed no more than a sentence to explain: ‘In order to make way for White settlement and the expansion of both cotton cultivation and the market, some 70,000 Choctaws, Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles, and Chickasaws were uprooted and deprived of their lands, and hundreds of thousands of Blacks were moved into the Southwest to work the soil as slaves.’”

Because in early America, one of the purposes of race was to identify people who could be kept as slaves. Anyone, regardless of parentage, was black of they had so much as a drop of black blood in their background. At this time, there was no free Black or mixed blood – there was only Black (slave) and not Black (free). (And of course is still used to determine who to use systems like Jim Crow against. Jim Crow and racism are not dead in the US, in case you didn’t know.)

Racialization of the Jews led to the “demonic extreme” of anti-semitism in the Nazi era.

In Brazil, Blacks have been discriminated in similar ways to the US; natives, more like Australia.

The book presents a fascinating thesis and gives some amazing and well-researched support for it.

And gives some hope – since there was a beginning to race, there can be an end.

But one of the problems I had was the extreme academic-ese the book was written in. You get an idea above, but here’s another example sentence:

“The tide of history canonises the fait accompli, harnessing the diplomatic niceties of discovery to the maverick rapine of the squatters’ posse within a cohesive project that implicates individual and nation-state, official and unofficial alike.”

It was a bit difficult to wade through some of these sentences.

But, ultimately worth it.

Thanks to NetGalley and Verso Books for a copy in return for an honest review.


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