The Concept of Whiteness

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Much has been spoken and written about white identity, white privilege, racial hierarchy and various issues of racism. The study of whiteness in the US is not a recent phenomenon and has been extensively studied and explored by researchers, both white and non-white. Scholars and intellectuals of colored race have long explored ‘the ways of white folks’ (Rasmussen, 2001). Earlier studies in race and ethnicity were all done from a sociological point of view. Over the past decade, the approach has become multi-disciplinary involving disciplines such as literary criticism, history, sociology, geography, education and anthropology (Arnesen, 2001). This essay explores the meaning of whiteness, the invisible nature of whiteness, the privileges it bestows, the reasons for white superiority and its consequences, evolution of the concept of whiteness and changing racial awareness in modern times.

Interpreting Whiteness

According to Vron Ware, different writers conceive whiteness in different ways; they suggest that white identity may be discovered, accepted, retained or completely abolished. White writers writing about whiteness face a dilemma- while identifying and analyzing whiteness, they may epitomize the concept of ‘race’ that they intend to question. In other words, whiteness becomes something they claim and single out for critique.  At the same time, they also wish to escape from the system of race privilege that they are criticizing. They must ‘expose and destroy the technologies of white power while deliberately stepping beyond safe limits to create politics for social justice.’(Goldberg & Solomos, 2002). In society, whiteness is most often perceived as privilege and social power. This thinking became stronger with European expansion and colonization of Asian and African nations, and the beginning of African slave trade (Frederickson, 2003).

Racial Awareness and Privileges of being White

Sociological evidence shows that there is a lower degree of self awareness among white Americans when compared to other racial groups. Being white in America is considered ‘normal’. This makes whiteness “invisible” and leads to the general assumption that whites do not have a race, and any reference to or discussion of race must involve people of color (Roediger, 1994). What is the reason behind this lack of self-awareness among white Americans? The answer lies in the progression of the concept of white supremacy in America through the ages.

European conquerors settled on American soil and drove out the natives from their territory. Racial differences and claims of superiority of whiteness were used as justification for invasion and domination of non-white people. Racial categories were created to maintain boundaries between the dominant and the enslaved population. According to the Naturalization

Act of 1790, only white immigrants had the right to apply for citizenship. Being white gave one a claim to privileges and symbolized freedom and independence. White citizens had education, employment, safety, security and basic civil rights. (Roediger, 1991)

 Richard Dyer says that whiteness becomes invisible to those who are caught up in its glare. In a white supremacist society, white appears normal and the ways of talking, thinking and behaving that are thought to be white become the norm for measuring everything else.(Goldberg & Solomos, 2002). Whites in the US have always enjoyed privileges and have not been subjected to racial discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage due to race. They are, therefore, less aware of their racial identity. White people are not seen as a race; they function as a norm of humanity (Doane Jr., 1997). The words of a white woman interviewed by Ruth Frankenberg (1993, p. 198) express this feeling explicitly. She says, “They are different, but I’m the same as everybody else.”

 Peggy McIntosh (1988), in her classic paper, lists some privileges enjoyed by her as a white person in daily life which colored people in America often cannot count upon. These include renting/buying a house in the area of her choice which she can afford, expecting the neighbors in such a neighborhood to be neutral or pleasant to her, being able to use her checks and credit cards without her skin color working against her financial reliability, never being asked to speak for all people of her racial group, going into a public place without fearing that people of her race cannot get in, buying magazines, greeting cards, dolls and picture books featuring people of her race and being sure that if a traffic cop pulls her over, it is not because of her race.

            This discussion also brings into focus the concept of color blindness, which means that while living a racially privileged life, white people often fail to understand that people of other races do not enjoy the same privileges as they do. They are unable to perceive the deep seated effect of racism on others. A direct derivative of color blindness is racial invisibility, according to which whiteness is invisible, racially neutral and has no culture (Frankenberg, 1993).

Racism: Reasons and Consequences

The colored writers of twentieth century USA have been emphasizing that racism in US was not a ‘Negro problem’ but a problem among whites. W.E.B. Du Bois has explored the cost of whiteness to white workers. He says that even though racist thought had bad consequences for colored people, it had even worse consequences for white workers. It distorted their aim and ideal, it made them want power over other men and made them hate niggers. To quote James Baldwin, famous novelist and essayist, “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” (Roediger, 1994, p. 6).

Baxter discusses an interesting example of the highly skewed social organization in the South, the class- caste system. A caste is a social system in which members of lower strata cannot move into the upper strata and vice versa, for example, the negroes and the whites. A class is a system where members can move up and down the vertical extensions of society, for instance, the rich and the poor. Hence, an upper class negro is superior to the lower class whites in class, but inferior in caste. He may be economically superior to the poor whites, but he is still a ‘nigger’. As a consequence, such an individual is constantly attempting to determine his position and achieve equilibrium in society (Baxter & Sansom, 1972).

The core question is how and why the whites conceived a notion of superiority (Roediger, 1994). An early documented example of the concept of superiority of Caucasians is found in J.F. Blumenbach’s work, On the Natural Varieties of Mankind published in 1776.  He hypothesizes that “Caucasians are the original human race from which others have diverged. They are “the most handsome and becoming, having the most beautiful form of the skull.” (Frederickson, 2003, p. 57). Dr. S.G. Morton wrote Crania Americana in 1839, in which he claimed that the Negroes were a separate species.(Moore, 2008). Thus, these early ethnologists paved way for scientific racism by considering humans as animals who evolve and change, rather than being the children of God, as described in the Bible.

Prevalence of Racism

The society in modern day America routinely witnesses practices like residential segregation, split labor markets and school tracking. The property prices in a white neighborhood go down if an African American family moves in, while the opposite happens if a white family moves into a black neighborhood. Laborers of other races are routinely paid less than white laborers for the same work (Doane & Bonilla-Silva, 2003) and in high school, colored students are placed in courses below their abilities (Stanford News Service, 1994).

Who is White?

As the Naturalization act of 1790 stated that only white people can apply for citizenship of US, there was a lot of ambiguity about which nationalities were white. Science could not have been used as a basis for determination because ethnology uses terms like ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Aryan’ instead of ‘white’. Moreover, modern science classifies Syrians and Asian Indians as Caucasians. This view naturally clashes with those of federal naturalization officials. The legal system, in the words of Joan M. Jensen “rejected science, history, legal precedent and logic to put the constitution at the disposal of a legal fiction called ‘the common man’” – an invented figure which decided that the Irish, Latin Europeans  and  South-eastern  Europeans were white whereas the Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indians and Mexicans were nonwhite. Immigrants learned to equate whiteness with Americanism and hence struggled to be included in the white ethnicity. Irish Americans and Polish Americans became less specifically ethnic as they sought to be recognized as white rather than as Irish or Polish (Essed, 2008).

Changing Racial Awareness

In the past few decades, the meaning of whiteness in the US has been undergoing a massive change. The Civil Rights movement began in the 1950s and brought other related social movements with it. These movements redefined race politics in the US. There was a demand for basic civil rights and increased legal protection by the colored people, challenge to white domination, atonement for racial inequality and questioning of white predominance over “American” national identity and culture. The historical foundations of whiteness were challenged as were the claims of white being normal and positive while ‘other’ or ‘colored’ people are less than normal or sub-human. In other words, ‘whiteness’ can no longer remain unexamined, unquestioned and invisible as it was earlier (Doane & Bonilla-Silva, 2003, p. 15).

In the contemporary US, white people are facing an increased awareness of being white. This is the result of a series of social, economic and political changes which include a weakening domination of the US over world economy and economic recession which brought with it greater job insecurity, more competition in the job market, a shrinking middle class and a greater strain on limited resources. Due to increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries, there is increased racial diversity which has fueled insecurity among the white population. As a result, the white identity is being reasserted as a defensive reaction in response to a perceived sense of threat. Perhaps this explains the recent emergence of groups such as White Citizens’ Council and National Association for the Advancement of White People (Doane Jr., 1997).


The changing socio-political and economic scenario suggests a massive change in the perception of the concept of whiteness. Whiteness can no longer remain unmarked and invisible as it has been for centuries. The face of America in twenty first century is changing due to increased immigration of people of other races and nationalities. As a result, America has an increasing number of multiracial citizens.  There are increased demands of justice and equality from all non-white people. There is a need to do away with the social hierarchy based on color of skin which makes colored people feel inferior to white people even long after the abolition of slavery. 

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