Reflections on “Whiteness as Property”

by Olive Taylor

Photo collage, 297x248mm, black and white digital media
Photo collage, 188x263mm, black and white digital media

In 1689, the renowned philosopher John Locke discussed his thinking on property-ultimately highlighting that the creation of property poses moral problems as a result of the shift from the common possession of the earth to disproportionate and unequal private appropriation of it. This inherently makes property a tool for inequality instead of promoting virtue, as Jean Jacques Rousseau discusses in his Discourse on Inequality, and nothing makes this more obvious than legal scholar and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris’s article, “Whiteness as Property.”

Harris examines how American legal system has become one that legitimizes benefits for white citizens while systematically and continually oppressing BIPOC, and suggests an analogy between whiteness and property ownership, where the law protects being white as if it were a property right. For the entirety of the existence of the United States of America– a country supposedly built to ensure the freedoms of all of its citizens and to promote justice for those who live here– BIPOC have suffered the systematic and widespread oppression that is due to them being non-white, not having access to whiteness. 

As someone who grew up in the South, I did not learn about the extent of the injustices endured by Black Americans in my public school. As countless politicians continue to pass legislation that prevents this kind of knowledge, they are only promoting ignorance and apathy toward the horrors to which this country has subjected so many of its residents. Engaging with this literature is critical for learning from the past and preventing it from repeating itself.

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