Ghosts of eugenics' past: 'childhood' as a target for whitening race in the United States and Canada

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While in modernity childhood was increasingly invested with emotional and intellectual energy, it also became a site of scrutiny and intervention, so that philosophers, scientists, and humanitarians pursued the improvement of humanity and the human condition through management of ‘the child’. In the first half of the twentieth century, such attention settled on children deemed to present both problems and opportunities for the improvement of the race, as eugenics came to dominate discussions of human progress. This paper examines the significance of childhood as a resource for human futures and technologies of ‘eugenics’ insofar as they target children: specifically, the development of intelligence testing, institutions of separation, and involuntary sterilisation in the United States and Canada. In these discourses and technologies of eugenics, childhood appears as a reserve of human potential which, appropriately regulated, may be harnessed to ‘build a better future’. The paper also considers the perspective of survivors of these practices who experienced their childhood and future possibilities as having been expropriated from them by the state. By considering these governmental and personal registers side by side, the paper sheds light on the perceived social utility of childhood, as well as the particular character of loss experienced by those whose childhoods were subject to state intervention.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCritical race and whiteness studies
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Jun 2019


  • critical child studies
  • Eugenics
  • Colonialism
  • Stolen Generations
  • Race
  • Whiteness studies


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