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Whiteness refers to the nature and social impact of white racial identity. “White” is best understood as a position in a racialized social structure; that is, it is a label that is meaningless outside of a social system where racial categories influence access to social, political, and economic resources and in the absence of other socially constructed identities such as “black” or “Asian.”
Historically, the subject of whiteness was overlooked by mainstream social science in favor of an emphasis upon the “problems” of immigrants and minorities. When whiteness was taken into consideration, it was not as the focus of study, but as the mainstream or baseline against which other groups were compared. One significant exception to this line of thought was presented in African American sources such as the works of W. E. B. Du Bois and those compiled by the editors of Ebony magazine (1966) and David Roediger (1998). That this literature was overlooked is perhaps best understood as a reflection of the historical marginalization of the contribution of African American writers to the study of race relations.
Whiteness studies emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in such fields as history, sociology, critical legal studies, cultural studies, anthropology, and education. In sharp contrast to earlier work in the field of race and ethnic relations, whiteness studies involves an explicit focus upon the socially constructed nature of white racial identity and the role of whiteness in the reproduction of racism and racial inequality. This serves to emphasize that whites are an important racial collectivity and that it is important to understand how whites perform as racial actors (see Lewis 2004). Seminal early works included Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991), Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters (1993), and Peggy Mcintosh’s “White Privilege” (1988); these works were the vanguard of a large body of literature that flourished after 1995. Why whiteness studies emerged when it did is best explained by a combination of factors, including the continuing challenge to white supremacy in the post—Civil Rights era, the changing racial demography of the United States, the decline of white ethnic identities, and intellectual trends that emphasized the social construction of race and the examination of identities.
Major ideas and concepts that emerged from the field of whiteness studies are (1) the importance of white racial invisibility and white privilege, (2) the social and political impact of whiteness, and (3) the historical evolution of whiteness. White racial invisibility is the observation that for most white Americans under most circumstances, white racial identity has little or no social meaning. This “hidden” nature of whiteness is closely connected to the fact that white understandings and practices have historically constituted the social and cultural mainstream of American society. In essence, to be white is to be not different, to be “just like everyone else.” White invisibility is also linked by many writers to white privilege, the unearned and invisible benefits (e.g., being viewed as an individual) that whites experience in everyday life (Mcintosh  2002).
A second core insight of whiteness studies has emphasized the effect of white invisibility on racial politics and the reproduction of racial inequality. The hidden nature of whiteness has made it more difficult for many whites to understand the experiences of racial minorities and the persistence of racial inequality. This has led to the emergence of what many writers have termed color-blind racial ideology (see Bonilla-Silva 2001), the claim that racism is a thing of the past and that race no longer matters in American society. From the color-blind perspective, racial inequality is due to the failure of individuals to take advantage of opportunities for mobility. Carried to an extreme, it even leads to the claim that white Americans experience significant race-based economic and cultural victimization (see McKinney 2005).
The social and political effects of whiteness have also been studied at the institutional level. As Cheryl Harris observed in “Whiteness as Property” (1993), whiteness can be viewed as “property” in that it has historically embodied social and economic benefits for whites. The historian Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action Was White (2005), chronicled how New Deal and other mid-twentieth-century programs widened the economic gap between white Americans and peoples of color. Other writers have highlighted how the government’s urban, housing, and fiscal policies have resulted in the systematic and unequal accumulation of wealth by white Americans.
A third focus of whiteness studies has been on the evolution of whiteness. Much of this analysis has been historical, as scholars such as David Roediger (2005), Noel Ignatiev (1995), and Matthew Frye Jacobson (1998) have traced how immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe initially faced both discrimination and an uncertain racial status but later “became” white and were absorbed into the dominant racial group. This argument is not universally accepted, as other writers (e.g., Guglielmo 2003) have asserted that groups such as Italians were “white on arrival,” and that their whiteness made it easier to be accepted into American society. What is less contentious is that European immigrants learned what it meant to be white in the United States, especially with respect to establishing themselves in contrast to African Americans.
Another element of the evolution of whiteness has involved the construction and reconfiguration of racial boundaries and the meaning of whiteness. As Ian Haney Lopez has documented in White by Law (1996), the question of who was (and who was not) white was socially contested and was frequently adjudicated by the courts. With the passage of time, white ethnic identities and intragroup boundaries have dissipated, leading to the emergence of a more generic white, European American identity (see Doane 1997). Future changes may continue to redefine whiteness. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva asserted, social and demographic forces may lead to the expansion of “white” identity to include some Latino and Asian American groups, as well as persons claiming a multiracial identity (2003).
Critique and Future Directions
While relatively new, whiteness studies is not without its critics. One charge leveled at whiteness studies, and at the study of racial groups and categories in general, is that the attention paid to whiteness tends to essentialize it as an objective and omnipotent social force. Whiteness studies has frequently been guilty of viewing whites as a homogeneous, monolithic social entity where certain qualities are ascribed to all whites. Clearly, while whiteness involves a shared social context that influences individual and group behavior, there are significant intragroup differences that determine how whiteness is perceived and experienced (see, for example, Hartigan 1999). In addition, as Margaret Andersen observed in “Whitewashing Race” (2003), authors writing on whiteness have tended to emphasize white identity and privilege while deflecting attention from key issues of power, inequality, and racism.
Whiteness studies faces many challenges in the future. Clearly, whiteness cannot be understood in isolation— apart from racism and racial inequality. It is also essential to study the complexity of whiteness; that is, to explore how variations in factors such as class and situation produce differences in the social role of whiteness. Equally important is the need to keep abreast of changes in the nature and expression of whiteness. Past studies have highlighted moments when whites, both individually and collectively, became racially self-conscious actors, especially as a defense in the face of perceived challenges or threats from other groups (e.g., anti-Civil Rights movement backlash, various anti-immigrant movements). As U.S. society and its institutions become more diverse, the social and political meaning of whiteness will continue to evolve. If the field of whiteness studies is to make a meaningful contribution to understanding race and ethnic relations, then it must successfully confront these issues.
- Andersen, Margaret. 2003. Whitewashing Race: A Critical Perspective on Whiteness. In White Out: The Continuing Significance of Race, eds. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 21–34. New York: Routledge.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post–Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. “New Racism,” Color-Blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America. In White Out: The Continuing Significance of Race, eds. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 271–284. New York: Routledge.
- Doane, Ashley W. 1997. Dominant Group Identity in the United States: The Role of “Hidden Ethnicity” in Intergroup Relations. Sociological Quarterly 38 (3): 375–397.
- Du Bois, W. E. B.  1969. Darkwater. New York: Schocken.
- Editors of Ebony. 1966. The White Problem in America. Chicago: Johnson.
- Du Bois, W. E. B.  1956. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Russell.
- Frankenberg, Ruth. 1993. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Guglielmo, Thomas A. 2003. White on Arrival: Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Haney Lopez, Ian F. 1996. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press.
- Harris, Cheryl I. 1993. Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review 106: 1707–1791.
- Hartigan, John. 1999. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.
- Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 1998. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Lewis, Amanda. 2004. “What Group?” Studying Whites and Whiteness in the Era of “Color-Blindness.” Sociological Theory 22 (4): 623–646.
- McIntosh, Peggy.  2002. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, ed. Paula Rothenberg. New York: Worth.
- McKinney, Karyn D. 2005. Being White: Stories of Race and Racism. New York: Routledge.
- Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.
- Roediger, David R., ed. 1998. Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken.
- Roediger, David R. 2005. Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. New York: Basic.
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