What is whiteness?

White vs. whiteness

  • White, as a term describing people, refers to light-skinned people of European descent.
  • Whiteness refers to the construction of the white race, white culture, and the system of privileges and advantages afforded to white people in the U.S. (and across the globe) through government policies, media portrayal, decision-making power within our corporations, schools, judicial systems, etc.

What is whiteness?

A socially and politically constructed behavior.

Whiteness has a long history in European imperialism and epistemologies. It does not simply refer to skin color but an ideology based on beliefs, values, behaviors, habits, and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color. Whiteness represents a position of power where the power holder defines social categories and reality—the master narrator. (Adapted from STAND Framing and Learning Anti-Racism. Understanding Whiteness, Alberta Civil Liberties Research Center)

Critical White Studies defines “whiteness” as a broad social construction that embraces white culture (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Wise, 2011), history (Roediger, 2005), ideology (Leonardo, 2009), racialization (Helms, 1990), expressions and economic experiences (Lipsitz, 1998; Oliver & Shapiro, 1997), epistemology (Mills, 2007), and emotions and behaviors (Thandeka, 1999), and nonetheless reaps material, political, economic, and structural benefits for those socially deemed white. These material benefits are accrued at the expense of people of color, namely in how people of color are systemically and prejudicially denied equal access to those material benefits. (Matias (2014:142). “And Our Feelings Just Don’t Feel It Anymore”: Re-Feeling Whiteness, Resistance, and Emotionality. Understanding & Dismantling Privilege, (4)2:134-153.)

“Whiteness” as an ideology derives from the historical practice of institutionalizing “white supremacy.” Beginning in at least the seventeenth century, “white” appeared as a legal term and social designator determining social and political rights. Eventually, it was used widely to decide who could vote or be enslaved or be a citizen, who could attend which schools and churches, who could marry whom, and who could drink from which water fountain. These and thousands of other legal and social regulations were built upon the fiction of a superior “white” race deserving special privileges and protections. (Jay (2005:100-101). Whiteness Studies and the Multicultural Literature Classroom. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee)

Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival. Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life rather than being the object of others’ domination…implemented by force and ratified by law. (Cheryl I. Harris (1993:1716). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8):1707-1791.)

Toni Morrison has used the following metaphor to describe the invisibility of whiteness:

“It is like the fishbowl that contains both fish and water. Whiteness, in other words, provides the very context for meaning-making. It supplies the norms and categories against which all groups are measured. But the categories of whiteness are invisible as a constraint because we keep focusing on what is inside them – the water and the fish, rather than the fishbowl itself.” (Thompson (2001). Summary of Whiteness Theory.)