What It Means to Be White

D. Elisabeth Glassco
7 min readSep 28, 2018
Angry faces of Senator Lindsey Graham and Judge Brett Kavanaugh during Senate Judiciary hearings September 27, 2018.

Relative to that of other identities, the study of Whiteness is still in its infancy. The problem with studying Whiteness is that it is invisible, particularly in the era of so-called “color-blindness.” Whiteness is an identity just like Blackness, Asianess, Native Americaness, femaleness, Gayness, etc. But, unlike those other identities, Whiteness plays a preeminent role in constructing racial hierarchies. Much of the what we study about Whiteness concerns either how it affords those who possess it with a type of invisibility as racial actors or the privileges associated with that invisibility. That is to say, unlike, say, African Americans, who are confronted with their blackness regularly throughout their lives, Whiteness is the norm — -the default racial category. This allows those possessing it to generally think of themselves as not a race, an unmarked identity. In other words, White people are generally not looked upon as being members of a social collective. They are just people. Being a member of a social collective means people within it have a keen understanding of the way race molds their collective life experiences.

Of course, the challenge of analyzing Whiteness is to avoid essentializing it.

Essentializing means attributing natural, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined (gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic, linguistic…) groups. When we essentialize others, we assume that individual differences can be explained by inherent, biological, “natural” characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentializing results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. [1]

Just as it is with other categories of difference, what it means to be White is constantly in flux — -constantly shifting over time. Just like Blackness (or any other collective identity) cannot be critically looked upon in a vacuum — -that culture and racial discourse are not separate from material reality — -neither can Whiteness be approached this way.

The value of whiteness

How we value Whiteness and the status accorded to it — -both historically and contemporarily — -depends on comparing it to other social categories. That is to say, Whiteness’ difference from other collective…



D. Elisabeth Glassco

A native of of the great state of Mississippi and proud resident of New Jersey. Lecturer and Doctoral candidate in Media, Race, Class, and Politics @Rutgers.