“Unwhitening the World”: Rethinking Race and International Law

International law was invented in 1789 when Jeremy Bentham introduced the term to replace the outmoded “Law of Nations.” Since then, international lawyers have spent a lot of time thinking about whether international law is in fact law, and little or no time considering how international law is international, or what international actually means. In this Article, I want to suggest that, with the reinvention of international law in the late nineteenth century, the term international came to incorporate elements of both the terms world and global: as an imaginary, a world international lawyers lived inside (and produced), and a global perspective they took of (and used to take from) its Others.

In particular, I aim to show that this “international” was a racial imaginary—a White International (or “White World” in W.E.B. Du Bois’s terms)—that emerged from and reinforced Global White Supremacy. This White World was consecrated as the de jure international order with the founding of the League of Nations after World War I, and the sociopolitical system of Global White Supremacy (or “Racial Contract” in Charles Mills’s terms) underpinning this “international” survived its formal demise with decolonization.

The whiteness of this “international”—both historically and in the present—has been rendered invisible to most international lawyers, however, in part because of the current conceptualization of race by both mainstream and critical accounts of the discipline. In order to begin to unwhiten it, Part I of this Article rereads existing historical and theoretical accounts of the discipline, arguing that aside from the racial aphasia that characterizes the mainstream, critical scholarship is prone to either overparticularize, or underhistoricize, the role that race has and continues to play.

Part II of this Article then reconsiders the reinvention of international law in the late nineteenth century, arguing that it was only thinkable and possible because of the racial imaginary—the “White World” or the “international”—that its founders (that is, the Men of 1873) assumed and reproduced, one that was based on a particular biological conceptualization of race. It aims to show how, paraphrasing W.E.B. Du Bois, the Men of 1873 discovered that they were white and international, and, by that token, wonderful, at the same time.

In Part III, this Article turns to the Black Internationalist fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois and George Schuyler to show how, in Dark Princess and The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World, respectively, these scholars not only recognized this “white international” as a sociopolitical system of Global White Supremacy, but they also set out to map its conditions of making and unmaking. This Article ends by considering how Black Internationalist fiction more generally might be read for what Charles Mills calls “alternate clocks and maps of global racial resistance” and as tools for unwhitening both the international and the world.

About the Author

Christopher Gevers is a Lecturer at the School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal.