Whiteness studies

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. Pioneers in the field include 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). By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and whiteness has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.

A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism and historicism, 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.[1]

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.[2] A reflexive understanding of such presumptions also informs work within the field of whiteness studies.[citation needed]


Development of the field

Whiteness emerged as a focus of inquiry within the academy, primarily in the United States and the UK, as early as 1983.[citation needed] 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."[3] 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."[4]

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, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, 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, Cultural and Media and Studies faculties and departments, amongst 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.

History of whiteness

Whiteness studies draws on research over the last forty years into the definition of race, almost entirely within the American context (though see Bonnett, A. 2000 White Identities). This research emphasizes the social construction of white, Native, and black identities in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan[5] 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[6] 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.[citation needed]

White privilege

Writers such as 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" (188).[7] McIntosh calls for Americans to acknowledge white privilege so that they can more effectively attain equality in American society. 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" (192).[8]

Schools of thought

Critical White Studies

An offshoot of Critical Race Theory, theorists of Critical Whiteness Studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. Currently, there is a great deal of overlap between Critical Whiteness Studies and Critical Race Theory 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.[9] 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.

Race Traitor

One group of people involved in these discussions advocates 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 what they consider 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 by Race Traitor (a publication favorable to the tenets of whiteness studies) 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 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. Joel Olson has written about a theoretical vision in his book The Abolition of White Democracy.


Writer David Horowitz draws a distinction between whiteness studies and other disciplines. "Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women's studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil."[10]

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."[11]

Regarding the Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC), a think tank for Whiteness Studies, Kay noted that CSWAC co-founder and executive director Jeff Hitchcock has stated that: "There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of colour... We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today... which damage and prevent the humanity of those of us within it."[11]

Kay also 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."[11]

Whiteness and architecture

It is only recently that 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.[12]

See also


  1. ^ http://academic.udayton.edu/race/01race/race.htm
  2. ^ http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327156.500-return-of-the-race-myth.html
  3. ^ Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Interrogating "Whiteness," Complicating "Blackness": Remapping American Culture," American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3. (Sep., 1995), p. 430.
  4. ^ "In this essay I will provide a brief overview of over a hundred books and articles from fields including literary criticism, history, cultural studies, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore, all published between 1990 and 1995 or forthcoming shortly. Taken together, I believe, they mark the early 1990s as a defining moment in the study of American culture." Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Interrogating "Whiteness," Complicating "Blackness": Remapping American Culture," American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3. (Sep., 1995), pp. 428-466.
  5. ^ Jordan, Winthrop. 'White Over Black'
  6. ^ Dr Joseph Pugliese's page at Macquarie University
  7. ^ McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". Paula S. Rothenberg. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Sixth Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2004. 188-192.
  8. ^ McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". Paula S. Rothenberg. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Sixth Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2004. 188-192.
  9. ^ See, for example, Haney López, Ian F. White by Law. 1995; Lipsitz, George. Possessive Investment in Whiteness; Delgado, Richard; Williams, Patricia; and Kovel, Joel.
  10. ^ Darryl Fears, "Hue and Cry on 'Whiteness Studies'", The Washington Post, June 20, 2003.
  11. ^ a b c Blaming whitey by Barbara Kay, National Post, September 13, 2006, (retrieved on October 13, 2008).
  12. ^ For studies of whiteness and architecture, see Martin A. Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Dianne Harris and D. Fairchild Ruggles, eds., Sites Unseen: Landscape and Vision (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); Lesley Naa Norle Lokko, White Paper, Black Marks: Architecture, Race, Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Leland Saito, The Politics of Exclusion: The Failure of Race-Neutral Policies in Urban America (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009); Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

Further reading

  • Allen, Theodore W. (1994), The Invention of the White Race: Volume One; Racial Oppression and Social Control, New York and London, Verso.
  • Anderson, W. (2002) The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press
  • Arnesen, E (2001), "Whiteness and the Historian's Imagination," International Labor and Working-Class History 60: 3-32
  • Berger, Maurice (1999), "White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness", New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Bonnett, Alastair (2000) White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives Harlow, Prentice Hall
  • Brander Rasmussen, B., Klinenberg, E., Nexica, I. and Wray, M. (Eds)(2001) The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, London: Duke University Press
  • Bush, Melanie E L (2011) Everyday Forms of Whiteness: Understanding Race in a "Post-Racial" World. (2004) Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Carby, Hazel (1982), 'White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood', in Heidi Safia Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism: A Reader, London and New York, Routledge.
  • Connor, Rachel and Crofts, Charlotte (1998), 'Assuming White Identities: Racial and Gendered Looking Across the Literature / Media Divide', in Heloise Brown, Madi Gilkes, Ann Kaloski-Naylor (eds), White?Women, York: Raw Nerve Books.
  • Davy, Kate (1997), 'Outing Whiteness: A Feminist Lesbian Project', in Mike Hill (ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader, New York and London, New York University Press.
  • Donaldson, Laura E. (1992), Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire, London, Routledge.
  • Dyer, Richard (1997), White, London, Routledge.
  • Gaines, Jane (1986), 'White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory', Cultural Critique, 4, 59-79.
  • Garner, Steve. (2007), Whiteness: An Introduction, London: Routledge
  • Hage, G (1997) White Nation: fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society, Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press
  • Hale, Grace Elizabeth. (1999), Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South 1890-1940. New York, Vintage Books.
  • Harris, Cheryl L. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 106, No. 8, 1710-1791.
  • Hill, Mike. (2004) After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority. New York: NYU Press.
  • Hill, Mike. (1997) Whiteness: A Critical Reader. New York: NYU Press.
  • Hund, Wulf D., Jeremy Krikler, David Roediger (eds.) (2010), Wages of Whiteness & Racist Symbolic Capital. Berlin: Lit.
  • Kaplan, E. Ann (1997), Looking For the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, New York and London, Routledge.
  • Keating, AnnLouise. (1995) 'Interrogating "Whiteness," (De)Constructing "Race,"' College English, Vol. 57, No. 8 (Dec.), 901-918.
  • Kolchin, P. (2002) "Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America," Journal of American History 89, 154-73.
  • Lipsitz, George (2006) "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics", Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Lokko, L.N.N. (Ed)(2000) White Papers, Black Marks: Architecture, Race, Culture, London: Athlone
  • Lott, Eric (1997), 'The Whiteness of Film Noir', in Mike Hill (ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (1997), New York and London, New York University Press, 81-101
  • MacMullan, Terrance (2009), The Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
  • McIntosh, Peggy (2004), "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg, Sixth Edition. NY: Worth Publishers, 188-192.
  • Moreton-Robinson, A. (Ed)(2004) Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi (2005), "White," The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, ed. Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1725-26.
  • Preston,John (2007), 'Whiteness and Class in Education', Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Roediger, David R. (1991), The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, New York and London, Verso.
  • Sashedri-Crooks, K. (2000) Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race, London: Routledge
  • Shohat, Ella (1991), 'Gender and the Culture of Empire: Towards a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema', Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 13 (1-2): 45-84.
  • Smitheram, J. and Woodcock, I. (2007) Architecture, Whiteness and Terror Politics, in Loo, S. and Bartsch, K. (Eds) Panorama to Paradise: Scopic Regimes in Architecture and Urban Theory, Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand (SAHANZ), Adelaide: University of SA (CD Rom publication)
  • Tatum, Beverly Daniel (2004), "Defining Racism: "Can We Talk?" Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg, Sixth Edition. NY: Worth Publishers, 124-131.
  • Tullos, Allen (1989) Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont, Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press.
  • Woodcock, I (2005) 'Multicultural Melbourne': Four Fantasies of Whitespace, in Long, C., Shaw, K. and Merlo, C. (Eds) Suburban Fantasies: Melbourne Unmasked, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, pp. 84–106
  • Young, Robert. (1990) White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge.

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