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Summary Article: WHITENESS from Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society

Whiteness can be defined as the result of a social and cultural process that situates White people in a place of power and privilege because of their skin color and White racial identity. This entry discusses how White privilege is defined and how scholarly discussion about it has developed over time.

Kincheloe suggests that White people in the United States after 1680 were able to gain social, political, and economic power over Black people because of slavery. Slavery was one of the systems that contributed to the racialization of non-White people into a place of marginalization, oppression, and subordination. In many respects, then, whiteness is a social construction that ideologically and institutionally plays a key role in determining how racism operates in social and political arrangements in Western societies. Through a social and cultural process, those with White skin color hold power and privilege over those who are non-White in U.S. society. Furthermore, the power and privilege that White people hold as a collective group is systemically entrenched within society’s social, political, economic, and cultural institutions.

Attitudes and social practices that favor Whites, as well as the resulting advantages that Whites have in society’s institutions, have also been labeled White racism. There is more to whiteness than White identity and racial privilege, however; it relates to a system and process that keeps those who are in dominant positions from recognizing or understanding how inequalities and racism operate in society.

To understand the history of how White people historically came to be in a position of power in society, one can look to whiteness studies, an area of ethnic studies that examines the economic, political, and social history of White people and how their norms, values, and culture hold power in U.S. society. This research emerged in the 1990s as a key component of antiracism, that is, understanding whiteness as being linked to racism. To focus on the concept of whiteness, however, is controversial among those who study racism. Scholars have shown concern that whiteness studies may celebrate White people or reinforce problems of White guilt, rather than using the concept of whiteness as a strategy to dismantle White privilege. Furthermore, some scholars see the view of racism as being between White and non-White people as a false binary approach that denies the complexity of whiteness as encompassing an intersectionality of social locations other than race; they note that whiteness can also include privileges based on gender, class, ability/disability, and sexual orientation.

People who are White are able to maintain their position of power and privilege through social and cultural processes that are not necessarily conscious, intentional acts. Rather, whiteness is a set of language, norms, and values that operate in society without people recognizing that what they do reflects the interests of a particular group of people in society. Whiteness is able to maintain its power by never having to name itself and therefore fails to be under the scrutiny or criticism of others.

Underlying whiteness is what is known as a “White” culture. Many people who are White would deny that “White culture” exists. In fact, White culture is often referred to as “neutral,” “fair,” and “just.” When anyone questions White culture or tries to name the values and norms underlying it, typically White culture is viewed in terms of being different from that of non-White people. When non-White people try to name their cultures, values, needs, and aspirations, they are often seen as having special interests that introduce bias and values into the system. In addition, whiteness continually establishes itself as the norm by always defining “others” but never itself. Finally, whiteness is universalized as the way things are and ought to be. In other words, the social and cultural process that creates whiteness can be simultaneously everywhere, but also nowhere.

Some authors have argued that the failure on the part of White people to see themselves as racialized beings has contributed to the perpetuation of racism. The significance of the concept of whiteness is to have White people look at themselves and at the complexities of how they, too, are implicated in the structures of society that create and perpetuate racism. To address these issues, an examination of whiteness and its implications for White people can lead to a form of White consciousness that moves beyond White identity and into the complexities of how White people are able to take responsibility for the problem of racism in society. In sum, whiteness, as a conceptual and analytical tool, can be used to unravel the complexities of how people whose identity is “White” are put into a racial and cultural position that creates systems of domination and subordination.

Within whiteness studies, some argue for the abolition of the White identity: That is, they say there should be no place for a White identity because such an identity reinforces the power and dominance of Whites. In contrast, others argue the need for a positive, antiracist White identity. A White person with an antiracist White identity would demonstrate critical self-reflexivity and humility in everything that he or she does. In everyday life, those with antiracist White identities would take action by, first, listening to the voices of those who are racially marginalized in society and, second, finding ways to dismantle their privileged social location. Such people with antiracist or non-White identities are commonly known as “White allies.” Whiteness, in these instances, becomes a strategy and tool that is constantly challenged and dismantled.

    See also
  • Critical Race Theory; Haole; Privilege; Racism; Whiteness, Measuring; Whiteness and Masculinity; White Privilege; White Racism

Further Readings
  • Doane, Ashley “Woody”; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. 2003. White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. New York: Routledge.
  • Kincheloe, Joe L.; Shirley R. Steinberg; Nelson M. Rodriguez; Ronald E. Chennault. 1998. White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • McIntyre, Alice. 1997. Making Meaning of Whiteness: Exploring Racial Identity with White Teachers. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Nakayama, Thomas K.; Judith N. Martin, eds. 1999. Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity. London: Sage Publications.
  • June Ying Yee
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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