Excerpted From: Marissa Jackson Sow, Fighting for Whiteness in Ukraine, 56 Creighton Law Review 129 (March, 2023)(34 Footnotes)(Full Document)


MarissaJacksonSowWhen I moved to London in 2008 to study for my LL.M., I lived with a middle-aged couple who were rather resolutely racist. My father, a dear friend of theirs, had confided me into their care because he had not realized that he was not their dear friend, but rather their dear Black friend. I had come to live with them in the weeks before Barack Obama was to be elected president of the United States and as the British National Front was gaining political steam in England. I was studying human rights law at the London School of Economics and at twenty-three years of age, I was navigating my own tightropes between privilege and marginalization from a place of Americo-centrism and naivete. After a faculty advisor told me that I should take the opportunity to see more of Europe while in London, I booked several weekend trips via budget airlines to various European countries.

One of the hosts remarked, on multiple occasions, that she couldn't believe that I was able to travel even more than she, “a proper White woman” could. This overtly racialized phrasing surfaced in her speech often, not just in comparison and contrast to me(an improper Black woman), but to people she considered to be a bit less white than she--including people from Spain, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean. Such racial tiering is commonly reflected in ideals of beauty and value held within White communities that privilege rosy skin, blonde hair and blue eyes over brown eyes, brown hair, and browner skin; Protestantism over Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism; and Northern and Western European origin over Mediterranean heritage.

Readers of Orwell's Animal Farm will remember the famous swine proclamations that, “four legs good, two legs better” and “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Likewise, McMurtry-Chubb recalls for her readers that in the antebellum United States, economic ordering and racial formation required that different tiers of Whiteness be on offer to different people, and that statutes and court rulings played an essential part in calcifying the tiering of Whiteness that persists in American society today.

This Essay extrapolates beyond the United States to explore the tiering of Whiteness internationally. The global reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides clear insights into how hierarchies of Whiteness continue to operate globally, how they are bargained-for, and how these Whiteness contracts--while somewhat fluid--reinforce a highly racialized, and extremely resilient, geopolitical order.

Part One of the Essay contextualizes the concept of the “race unequal” within the frameworks of racial contracting and racial tiering--making the case that not only is inclusion within Whiteness bargained-for, but that levels of Whiteness are also up for negotiation. Part Two of the Essay digs deeper into the concept of racial tiering, focusing on wartime racial contracting in Ukraine as a case study of how the levels and benefits of Whiteness are negotiated and sorted. Thereafter, the Essay concludes, highlighting the significance of racial tiering, in and of Ukraine, and proposing that such racial hegemonies be abandoned.

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“Capitalism sorted White men in the plantation economy by whether their labor was in direct competition with enslaved or in support of planters' acquisition and maintenance of land and the enslaved--potential competition with planters outside of the planter class was neither desirable nor marketable.”

Race Unequals paints a clear picture of how the trade and management of Black people's bodies worked as consideration for White men who were negotiating their place within the fraternity of Whiteness amongst themselves. Race was, and--as evidenced by the discrimination against non-White Ukrainian refugees in Ukraine--remains a bright line demarcating who is fully human and who is not, who should be entitled to property, freedom of movement, humanitarian aid, and more. But within the exclusive club of Whiteness, other systems of hegemonies exist--geopolitical, gendered, and class-based, among still others. Within the context of the American plantation economy, exploitative employment contracts prevented overseers from competing with planters for economic, social, and political power, whereas in the context of contemporary global geopolitics, Ukraine is disadvantaged vis-à-vis nations such as the United States because it is dependent upon its contracts with Western powers--contracts that it must negotiate with far inferior bargaining power due to geography, history, and the structuring of international law and finance.

The construction of Whiteness resembles a bit of the game of chicken and egg: it is not clear whether contracting authority and proprietorship--understood in the international affairs context as geopolitical and economic power-- facilitate one's membership into the fraternity of global Whiteness, or rather, if one's membership in the fraternity of global Whiteness facilitates a nation's access to, and control of, contracting authority and proprietorship. It is clear, however, that one creates the other, and vice versa, and that even partial exclusion from Whiteness and its benefits has concrete, costly, and even deadly consequences for those excluded therefrom.

Contracting of tiered Whiteness in and by Ukraine is significant because, as with the negotiations for greater degrees of Whiteness by southern overseers, such negotiations are directly impacted by the law. As McMurtry-Chubb sets forth in profound detail, Whiteness is a system--legal, political, social, and economic all at once. It is hegemonic, competitive, and exclusive, and many people raced as White will still be subordinated to a lower-tiered Whiteness because racial capitalism--and racial liberalism--so require. Tiered Whiteness is not proof that some who are raced as White benefit from less White privilege than others and are thus less complicit in White supremacy than members of their respective White planter classes. Rather, the existence of tiered Whiteness should compel those striving for it to consider that liberation lies, perhaps, in banding together to deconstruct and disavow the system of Whiteness, along with the oppression, constraints, and humiliation it promises them, instead of engaging in Hunger Games-style battle for the possibility of negotiating some of Whiteness's scraps.


Assistant Professor, University of Richmond Law School; Juris Doctor, Columbia Law School(Certificate in Foreign and Comparative Law); LL.M, with merit, London School of Economics and Political Science; B.A., Northwestern University.