Whiteness Studies

Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of academic inquiry focused on the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as ‘white,’ and the social construction of ‘whiteness’ as an ideology tied to social status.  By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and it has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.

Pioneers in the field include W. E. B. Du Bois (‘Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization,’ 1890), James Baldwin (‘The Fire Next Time,’ 1963), Ruth Frankenberg (‘White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness,’ 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (‘Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,’ 1992) and historian David Roediger (‘The Wages of Whiteness,’ 1991).

A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism (skeptical interpretations of culture) and historicism (contextualism), in which the very concept of racial superiority is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 19th century, critics of the concept of race have questioned if human races even exist and pointed out that arbitrary categories based on phenotypical characteristics are chosen, and that the idea of race is not about important differences within the human species. Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert L. Krizek write about whiteness as a ‘strategic rhetoric,’ asserting that whiteness is a product of ‘discursive formation’ and a ‘rhetorical construction’ in the essay ‘Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.’ Nakayama and Krizek write, ‘there is no ‘true essence’ to ‘whiteness’: there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location.’

Major areas of research include the nature of white identity and of white privilege, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity. Many scientists have demonstrated that racial theories are based upon an arbitrary clustering of phenotypical categories and customs, and can overlook the problem of gradations between categories. A reflexive understanding of such presumptions also informs work within the field of whiteness studies.

Studies of whiteness as a unique identity began with black people, who needed to understand whiteness in order to survive. An important theme in this literature is, beyond the general ‘invisibility’ of blacks to whites, the unwillingness of white people to consider that black people study them anthropologically. James Weldon Johnson wrote in his 1912 autobiography that ‘colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.’ Author James Baldwin wrote and spoke extensively about whiteness, defining it as a central social problem and insisting that it was choice, not a biological identity. In the ‘The Fire Next Time,’ a non-fiction 1963 book on race relations in America, Baldwin suggests that ‘White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.’ A major black theory of whiteness connects this identity group with acts of terrorism—i.e., slavery, rape, torture, and lynching—against black people, who were treated as sub-human.

White academics in the United States and the UK began to study whiteness as early as 1983, and this phenomenon created the idea of a discipline called ‘whiteness studies.’ The ‘canon wars’ of the late 1980s and 1990s, a political controversy over the centrality of white authors and perspectives, led scholars to ask ‘how the imaginative construction of ‘whiteness’ had shaped American literature and American history.’ The field developed a large body of work during the early 1990s, extending across the disciplines of ‘literary criticism, history, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore.’

As of 2004, according to ‘The Washington Post,’ at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of New Mexico, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with research on post-colonial theory and orientalism taking place in the Arts and Humanities, Sociology, Literature, Communications, and Cultural and Media Studies faculties and departments, among others (e.g. Kent, Leeds). Also heavily engaged in whiteness studies are practitioners of anti-racist education, such as Betita Martinez and the ‘Challenging White Supremacy’ workshop.

Whiteness studies draws on research into the definition of race, originating with the United States but applying to racial stratification worldwide. This research emphasizes the historically recent social construction of white identity. As stated by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1920: ‘The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.’ The discipline examines how white, Native, and black identities emerged in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan have traced the evolution of the legally defined line between ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ to colonial government efforts to prevent cross-racial revolts among unpaid laborers.

Macquarie University academic Joseph Pugliese is among writers who have applied whiteness studies to an Australian context, discussing the ways that Indigenous Australians were marginalized in the wake of British colonization of Australia, as whiteness came to be defined as central to Australian identity. Pugliese discusses the 20th-century White Australia policy as a conscious attempt to preserve the ‘purity’ of whiteness in Australian society.

In 1965, drawing from insights from W.E.B. Du Bois and inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Theodore W. Allen began a forty-year analysis of ‘white skin privilege,’ ‘white race’ privilege, and ‘white’ privilege in a call he drafted for a ‘John Brown Commemoration Committee’ that urged ‘White Americans who want government of the people’ and ‘by the people’ to ‘begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges.’ From 1967 to 1969 various publications of the pamphlet, ‘White Blindspot,’ containing pieces by Allen and Noel Ignatin focused on the struggle against ‘white skin privilege’ and significantly influenced Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the New Left.

In 1974-1975 Allen extended his analysis of ‘white privilege,’ racial oppression, and social control to the colonial period with his ground-breaking ‘Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race’ in 1974/1975, which ultimately grew into his seminal two-volume ‘The Invention of the White Race’ in 1994 and 1997. In his historical work Allen maintained: that the ‘white race’ was invented as a ruling class social control formation in the late 17th-/early-18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies (principally Virginia and Maryland).

Central to this process was the ruling-class plantation bourgeoisie conferring ‘white race’ privileges on European-American working people; these privileges were not only against the interests of African-Americans, they were also ‘poison,’ ‘ruinous,’ a baited hook, to the class interests of working people. White supremacy, reinforced by the ‘white skin privilege,’ and was the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the US. Though Allen’s work paved the way for ‘whiteness studies,’ and though he appreciated much of the work that followed, he also raised important questions about developments in those areas and he personally shied away from the use of the term ‘whiteness’ which, if he used it at all, would be put in quotation marks.

Laura Pulido, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, writes about the relation of white privilege to racism: ‘White privilege [is] a highly structural and spatial form of racism.. I suggest that historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege and have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism.’ Pulido defines ‘environmental racism’ as ‘the idea that nonwhites are disproportionately exposed to pollution.’

Writers such as feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh say that there are social, political, and cultural advantages accorded to whites in global society. She argues that these advantages seem invisible to white people, but obvious to non-whites. For instance, ‘I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untouched way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.’ McIntosh calls for Americans to acknowledge white privilege so that they can more effectively attain societal equality. She argues, ‘To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.’

White privilege is also related to ‘white guilt,’ the individual or collective guilt felt by white people for the racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and presently. As Shannon Jackson, a scholar in Performance Studies, writes in the article ‘White Noises: On Performing White, On Writing Performance,’ (1998): ‘The rhetorics of white guilt are tiresome, cliché, disingenuous, and everywhere. And now that the stereotype of ‘the guilty white’ is almost entrenched in its negativity as ‘the racist white,’ people actively try to dis-identify from both.’

An offshoot of ‘Critical Race Theory’ (which argues that racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of the American society), theorists of ‘Critical Whiteness Studies’ seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. Currently, there is a great deal of overlap between the two fields as demonstrated by focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power. There is a frequent misunderstanding whereby Critical Whiteness Studies is subsumed within Critical Race Theory even though the latter preceded the former by more than half a century. Some trace the origins of Critical Whiteness Studies to W.E.B. DuBois’ ‘The Souls of White Folk’ chapter in ‘Darkwater,’ and fields such as History and Cultural Studies are primarily responsible for the formative scholarship of Critical Whiteness Studies.

One group of people involved in these discussions advocated a strategy they call ‘race treason,’ and are grouped around articles appearing in the journal ‘Race Traitor.’ The adherents’ main argument is that whiteness (as a marker of a social status within the United States) is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to an oppressive social order. This loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: suppression of slave rebellions, participation in patrols for runaways, maintenance of race exclusionary unions, participation in riots, support for racist violence, and participation in acts of violence during the conquest of western North America. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of ‘white skin’ (or as physical anthropologists would deem this construct, the phenotype of historical North Atlantic Europeans) as a marker for social consent. With sufficient ‘counterfeit whites’ resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this tradition argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. Without such a period, they argue, progress towards social justice is impossible, and thus ‘treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.’

In ‘Race Traitor,’ the editors cite as the basis for their proposed actions a call by African-American writers and activists—notably W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin—for whites to break solidarity with American racism. Since that racism involves the awarding of various forms of white privilege, some have even argued that every white identity is drawn into that system of privilege. Only identities which seek to transcend or defy that privilege, they argue, are effectively anti-racist. This essential argument echoes Baldwin’s declaration that, ‘As long as you think you are white, there’s no hope for you,’ in an essay in which he acknowledges a variety of European cultures, a multiracial American culture, but no white culture per se which can be distinguished from the maintenance of racism.

‘Race Traitor’ advocates have sought examples of race treason by whites in American history. One historical figure consistently valorized is John Brown, a Northern abolitionist of European descent who battled slavery in western territories of the United States and led a failed but dramatic raid to free slaves and create an armed anti-slavery force at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Visions of praxis (practical application) cited by ‘Race Traitor’ writers range from anti-racist unionism (such as DRUM in Detroit), collaboration in urban uprisings, and documenting and interfering with police abuse of people of color. Political scientist Joel Olson has written about a theoretical vision in his book ‘The Abolition of White Democracy.’

More recently, architectural historians have devoted sustained attention to the construction of whiteness in the built environment. Studies have grappled with the exclusionary nature of the architectural profession, which erected barriers for nonwhite practitioners, the ways in which architects and designers have employed motifs, art programs, and color schemes that reflected the aspirations of European-Americans and, most recently, with the racialization of space.

Several writers and educators have forwarded criticism of  whiteness studies. Writer David Horowitz draws a distinction between the field and other disciplines: ‘Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women’s studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil.’ Barbara Kay, a columnist for the ‘National Post,’ has sharply criticized Whiteness Studies. She wrote that Whiteness Studies, ‘points to a new low in moral vacuity and civilizational self-loathing’ and is an example of ‘academic pusillanimity.’ According to Kay, Whiteness Studies ‘cuts to the chase: It is all, and only, about white self-hate.’]

Regarding the Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC), a think tank for Whiteness Studies, Kay cited CSWAC co-founder and executive director Jeff Hitchcock, who stated in a 1998 speech: ‘There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of color…. We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today… which damage and prevent the humanity of those of us within it….We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today that deny the rights of those outside of whiteness and which damage and pervert the humanity of those of us within it.’

Regarding Whitness studies more broadly, Kay wrote that: ‘[Whiteness Studies] teaches that if you are white, you are branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin. You can try to mitigate your evilness, but you can’t eradicate it. The goal of WS (Whitness Studies) is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone — eternal victimhood for nonwhites, eternal guilt for whites — and was most famously framed by WS chief guru, Noel Ignatiev, former professor at Harvard University [sic, Ignatiev was a Ph.D. student and then a tutor at Harvard, but never a professor], now teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art: ‘The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race — in other words, to abolish the privileges of the white skin.’

In addition to such criticism in the mass media, whiteness studies has also earned a mixed reception from academics in other fields. In 2001, historian Eric Arnsen declared that ‘whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings’ and that the field ‘suffers from a number of potentially fatal methodological and conceptual flaws.’ First, Arnsen writes that the core theses of whiteness studies—that racial categories are arbitrary social constructs without definite biological basis, and that some white Americans benefit from racist discrimination of non-whites—have been common wisdom in academe for many decades and are hardly as novel or controversial as whiteness studies scholars seem to believe. Additionally, Arnsen accuses whiteness studies scholars of sloppy thinking; of making claims not supported by their sources; of overstating supporting evidence and cherry picking to neglect contrary information.

A particular datum almost entirely ignored by whiteness studies scholars is religion, which has played a prominent role in conflicts between various American classes. A type of ‘keyword literalism’ persists in whiteness studies, where important words and phrases from primary sources are taken out of their historical context. Whiteness has so many different definitions that the word is ‘nothing less than a moving target.’ Arnsen moreover notes that whiteness studies scholars are entirely on the far left of the political spectrum, and suggests that their apparent vitriol towards white Americans is due in part to white workers not fulfilling the predictions of Marxist theory that the proletariat would overcome racial, national and class distinctions to unite and overthrow capitalism; he cites as an example Roediger’s afterword to the seminal ‘Wages of Whiteness,’ which asserts that the book was written as a reaction to ‘the appalling extent to which white male workers voted for Reaganism in the 1980s.’

Arnsen also argues that in the absence of supporting evidence, whiteness studies often relies on amateurish Freudian speculation about the motives of white people: ‘The psychoanalysis of whiteness here differs from the ‘talking cure’ of Freudianism partly in its neglect of the speech of those under study.’ Without more accurate scholarship, Arnsen writes that ‘it is time to retire whiteness for more precise historical categories and analytical tools.’

While Arnsen’s appraisal of whiteness studies is often scathing, in 2002 historian Peter Kolchin offered a somewhat more positive assessment and declared that, at its best, whiteness studies has ‘unfulfilled potential’ and offers a novel and valuable means of studying history. Particularly, he praises scholarship into the development of the concept of whiteness in the United States and notes that the definition and implications of a white racial identity have shifted over the decades. Yet Kolchin nonetheless describes a ‘persistent sense of unease’ with certain aspects of whiteness studies. There is no consensus definition of whiteness, and thus the word is used in vague and contradictory ways, with some scholars even leaving the term undefined in their articles or essays. Kolchin also objects to ‘a persistent dualism evident in the work of the best whiteness studies authors,’ who often claim that whiteness is a social construct while also arguing, paradoxically, that whiteness is an ‘omnipresent and unchanging’ reality existing independent of socialization.

Kolchin agrees that entering a post-racial paradigm might be beneficial for humanity, but he challenges the didactic tone of whiteness studies scholars who single out a white racial identification as negative while praising a black or Asian self-identification. Furthermore, scholars in whiteness studies sometimes seriously undermine their arguments by interpreting historical evidence independent of its broader context (e.g., Karen Brodkin’s examination of American anti-Semitism largely neglects its roots in European anti-semitism). Finally, Kolchin categorically rejects the argument—common amongst many whiteness scholars—that racism and whiteness are intrinsically and uniquely American, and moreover he expresses concern at the ‘belief in the moral emptiness of whiteness […] there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil.’

Of special interest is the fact that Theodore W. Allen, pioneering writer on ‘white skin privilege’ and ‘white privilege’ from the 1960s until his death in 2005, offered a critical review ‘On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (Revised Edition)’ and would personally put ‘whiteness’ in quotes because he shied away from the term. As he explained, ‘it’s an abstract noun, it’s an abstraction, it’s an attribute of some people, it’s not the role they play. And the white race is an actual objective thing. It’s not anthropologic, it’s a historically developed identity of European Americans and Anglo-Americans and so it has to be dealt with. It functions . . . in this history of ours and it has to be recognized as such . . . to slough it off under the heading of ‘whiteness,’ to me seems to get away from the basic white race identity trauma.’

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