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 identities and the value Whiteness derives from those differences allows for societal evaluation of non-white groups. Indeed, because value is placed on Whiteness, members of non-white groups form social movements that transmute the meanings of negative identities into positive ones. An easy example is the American Civil Rights movement, which challenged the low status accorded to African Americans. Southern segregationists and racists everywhere saw the Civil Right movement as a threat to their own White social identity and the value placed on Whiteness. Thus, they formed (and continue to engage with) White supremacist collective action (Ku Klux Klan, Skinheads, neo-Nazis, White Separatists, etc.) to maintain an elevated status of Whiteness. So, then, the value and privilege associated with Whiteness depends on other social categories being degraded.

It is important to understand what membership in and identification with a particular group means in the real world — -to understand that identities have context and history. The impact of social identity on both dominant and subaltern groups is evident through the effect it has on those groups’ self-esteem, social status, and attitudes toward other groups. All around the world, identities are wrapped up in region, place, and conflict which necessarily ties those who claim certain identities to particular histories and ways of thinking, being, and doing. Recognizing this allows us to examine the true essence of identity and meaning.

Putting Whiteness Under the Microscope

Although scholars and writers like Cornel West, James Baldwin, Stuart Hall, and bell hooks have all looked at whiteness, Richard Dyer took a sustained look at the ubiquitous yet invisible nature of whiteness in his essay “White,” from 1988 and later in his book, White: Essays on Race and Culture, an analysis of media representations of whiteness in the West. In the latter work, Dyer argued that, in Western culture, the essential everydayness of whiteness allows white people to “create the dominant images of the world,” and yet be unable to see that “they construct the world in their image.” [2] Dyer’s work here is the fountainhead of an emerging field, White Studies. By looking to “re-orient ethnicity,” Dyer sought to bring into fruition the study of Whiteness as a valid field of cultural inquiry. In his essay, “White,” Dyer emphasized the role of Blackness in demarcating Whiteness. Here, Dyer set an ambitious goal of “making Whiteness strange.” [3] He also complicated essentialist understandings of Whiteness in terms of race by analyzing Whiteness through the articulation of gender and class. Throughout, he situated Whiteness within the historical and cultural conditions that have made White identity — -in Western society and beyond — -the standard par excellence by which all others are measured (beauty, power, reason, etc.). Indeed, in her book, Yearning, bell hooks noted in her critique of Whiteness that she wanted White people who are giving “Blacks their take on blackness to know what’s going on with Whiteness.” [4]

A major criticism of Whiteness studies is that it places Whiteness at the center where it has always resided. [5] Dyer noted this when he referred to the “green light problem,” where White people are given the go ahead to continue to focus on themselves.” Likewise, he argued that White Studies runs the risk of “me-tooism,” where White people claim victimization. [6] Notwithstanding the criticism, the critique of Whiteness lays bare one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of the dominant culture during the Civil Rights era and even today — — what Dyer argued is “the assumption that white people are just people” — — that what they do and say is “the normal.” Dyer rightly noted that this assumption rests upon two simple assertions: 1) to study and to be interested in the race question means that one is interested in racial imagery other than that of White people; and 2) intimate to White culture is the notion that White people are “just people,” and this necessarily means that those deemed non-White are something else. [7]

Overall, Dyer considered Whiteness a paradox because White is both a combination of colors and yet no color at all. It describes a racial designation that has universality, without ethnicity, which allows White people to not be racially marked. He argued that White people are represented everywhere but not as “represented to themselves as Whites.”[8] This allows those possessing Whiteness to be inoculated against stereotyping because White is infinite in variety and representative of humanity. In other words, because they are represented as the norm, many White people do not consider themselves as “variously gendered, classed, raced, sexualized, and abled.” Indeed, they do not see themselves within “the context of race — -they are the human race.”[9] Dyer argued that his goal is to undermine White authority and dislodge Whiteness from positions of power. He wrote:

There is no more powerful position than that of being “just human.” The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that — — they can only speak for their own race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of race. The point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge them from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges, and sufferings. In its train, dislodging them by undercutting the authority with which they speak and act in and on the world.[10]

Dyer here emphasized his desire for a White critique that undermines White authority and dislodges Whitemeds from its position of power. In order to fully complete this task, there must be a way put forward in theory and practice that will allow for living with Whiteness. The scholar Henry Giroux argued in 1997 that there should be a holistic approach that includes a critical analysis of Whiteness that addresses its historical legacy and complicity in racial exclusion and oppression but that it is important to go beyond revealing Whiteness as an ideology of privilege and domination, mediated largely through the dynamics of race. The goal should also be to link identity and difference to a broader vision of racial democracy. In other words, the task should be to find a way so that both White and Non-White “have a stake in their racial identity, but one that allows each to assert a view of political agency in which they can join with diverse groups around a notion of democratic public life that affirms racial differences through a re-articulation of cultural, social, and political citizenship.” [12]

Indeed, it is only when we recognize and attend to the fundamental role of Whiteness as an identity — -seeing White people as racial actors — -do we begin to understand how racial identities and hierarchies work in society.

References

[1] Armstrong, Jan. (2003). Power and prejudice: Some definitions for discussion and analysis. Course Notes. University of New Mexico. https://www.unm.edu/~jka/courses/archive/power.html

[2] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. London and New York: Routledge, Pg. 9.

[3] Ibid, Pg. 4.

[4] hooks, b. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, Pg. 54.

[5] Erickson, P. (1995). “Seeing white.” Transition 67, Pg. 166.

[6] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. London and New York: Routledge, Pgs. 10–11.

[7] Ibid, Pg. 10.

[8] Dyer, Pg. 3.

[9] Dyer, Pg. 11.

[10] Dyer, Pg. 10.

[11] Erickson, Pg. 185.

[12] Giroux, H. (1997). “Racial politics and the pedagogy of whiteness.” In M. Hill (ed.). Whiteness: A critical reader. New York: NYU Press, Pg. 310.

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.

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