Theories of Degeneration: Racial Teleologies in the British Colonies of the Eastern Seaboard and in Oceania

Heidi Nicholls, University of Virginia

Studies of U.S. white Christian nationalist movements have demonstrated how these movements draw from apocalyptic and conquest narratives. However, most accounts that historicize white Christian nationalism exclude the existence and racialization of Indigenous peoples during and after the creation of the United States. They also fail to account for the literal and continual periods of conquest that inform U.S. nationalism today. Building on recent scholarship by Kanaka Maoli scholar Maile Arvin and calls within sociology to theorize race with the context of settler colonialism, this paper traces how theories of degeneration informed the formation of whiteness in relationship to Indigenous peoples and Native nations and settler colonial processes. I compare discourses of degeneration on the eastern seaboard prior to the American Revolution to those constructed during the 19th century in Oceania. Within the British colonies of the eastern seaboard, theories of degeneration make clear how settler-colonists’ anxieties of religious, civilization, and racial decline impacted the construction of whiteness and the racialization of various Native nations. On the other hand, theories of degeneration in Oceania allowed settler colonists to position Polynesians and Hawaiians as nearly white in order to solidify their efforts to claim Hawai‘i and Oceania for the United States. In both contexts of U.S. empire, the specific construction and deployment of whiteness supported settler colonists claims to indigeneity and sovereignty in ways that were also anti-Black.

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 Presented in Session 171. Empire, Citizenship and Racial Subjectivity