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The History of Whiteness

This talk examines the legal and social construction of whiteness and traces the dramatic transformation of both juridical and popular concepts of race over the course of American history. Among other things, we will reflect on a number of curiosities, including the early history of American slavery which enabled manumission via conversion to Christianity, Benjamin Franklin’s questions about the whiteness of the Swedes, ethnologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s skull collection which led to the creation of the ‘Caucasian’ race, and two long-forgotten Supreme Court cases that forced the Justices to adjudicate the ‘whiteness’ of individuals hailing from Japan and India. In the process, the talk challenges some of the conventional wisdom on race and reflects on how and why, even in a post-Obama era dubbed by many as colorblind, race may continue to play a significant role in our personal and professional lives.

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