It’s an ugly term now, but at one time, it meant something more condescending than violent, though often violence got justified by the perceived superiority of one race over others.
We have bandied this phrase about a great deal this year on campus and outside the campus gates. In my post I’m not so much pointing fingers as I am exploring a question: where and when did these words first get paired? When did they first acquire a negative connotation rather than a patronizing one?
As usual, I begin with the OED. a first recorded usage appears in the 1824 publication Emancipation, nine years before that occurred in the British Empire. I lack enough context to judge the nature of the quotation, “It may be too late by any means, however wisely and honestly attempted, to reduce them to order and obedience under White supremacy, or even among themselves.”
Presumably, the author writes about those soon to be emancipated. If that were the context, it is condescending: what would come to be called “the white man’s burden” for the recently enslaved becomes one of making these people docile and obedient. That presumes they are less civilized than the author of the piece.
On the other hand, the next OED example casts white supremacy in a negative light. In Thirty Years in India, H. Bevan writes that “The security of our empire in the East would be greatly strengthened if..our functionaries would abandon, or at least conceal, those notions of White supremacy, which are frequently absurd, and always offensive.” The quotation dates from 1839. Certainly, by the 20th Century, our term became associated with hateful ideologies.
Who first coined the phrase remains obscure, though I’m certain scholars have unearthed that first instance and its growth afterward.
Bevan had a more modern vision of what we today decry, than did others of the era. Today our term has a nearly universal association with hatred, bigotry, and fascism, excepting those extremists and terrorists who view it in a positive manner.
So where will our term go in the future, as both Europe and the United States become majority-minority societies? We shall see.
As always, please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.
Image of protester courtesy of Lorie Schaull at Flickr.