Is the United States making progress in the quest to transcend its White-supremacist history? After the end of Jim Crow and legal racial segregation, the debate was over how and to what degree racism endured in less visible ways, with some arguing that the United States had become a “post-racial” society? That debate evaporated with the re-emergence in the political mainstream of overt White supremacy, articulated on websites such as Daily Stormer, and thinly veiled appeals to White identity, given journalistic labels such as “White ethno-nationalism,” which fueled the election of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential race and the strong showing of anti-immigration parties throughout Europe. Today, analyses of racism and advocacy for racial justice must continue to account for the more subtle realities of a White-centered world but also contend with that open White supremacy.
Both of these tasks require a focus on Whiteness. That is obvious when White people claim that status and mobilize politically around it, whether in neo-Nazi groups or more mainstream political formations. But Whiteness is also crucial to understand the more centrist/liberal practices of the dominant culture. Whiteness is a racial category that is meaningful not only for those who embrace it but for all White people, and pathology of Whiteness is the central problem of our racial system.
Paradoxically, shifting Whiteness to the center of the analysis offers a way to de-center Whiteness by making visible the category of White, challenging the unspoken assumption of White-as-norm, and stripping away Whiteness’s always-present claim (whether explicit or implicit) of superiority. The goal is the recognition that the color of the race problem is White — racial conflict is a product of historical and ongoing claims of White supremacy. Though originally crafted and imposed by White elites, White supremacy eventually was accepted by most of the White community. The end of racism, whether in its overt or more subtle manifestations, requires the end of Whiteness. To end Whiteness, it first must be identified and analyzed.
This essay is focused on the idea of Whiteness, not on the consequences of White supremacy on non-White people. The evidence of those consequences is clear and dealt with throughout this volume. Studies from sociology and psychology demonstrate that White people, including those who reject racism and White supremacy, often act in the world based on White-supremacist assumptions. Extensive data outlines the racialized disparities in wealth and well-being that have long existed in U.S. society and endure decades after the significant legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. The focus here will be on the concept at the core of those realities, looking primarily at the United States, where these ideas developed most distinctly and remain most visibly at the center of contemporary social life.
Like many concepts deployed in the study of complex social realities, “Whiteness” can illuminate or obscure reality depending on framing and focus. In this essay, the focus will be primarily on questions of power and wealth; I will use a political and economic framework. The modern notion of Whiteness was created by elites who wanted to maintain and deepen political and economic power, and White supremacy today protects the status and wealth of a range of Whites. Out of that political and economic system, White people have developed collective practices to shore up White control (the culture of White supremacy) and come to hold certain ideas and experience certain emotions about race (the psychology of White supremacy). Those cultural and psychological factors are important, but to most effectively analyze Whiteness, White supremacy, and White privilege, we must remain grounded in the political and economic sphere. This is crucial in a period in which popular terms such as “multiculturalism” and “diversity” often signal a focus on the cultural and psychological that minimizes or ignores political and economic dimensions.
What are white people?
White people often have White skin, which actually is not really White, of course, but a pale/pinkish/off-White shade that has come to be labeled as White. Associated with that skin pigmentation are a variety of other physical traits regarding, especially, the shape of noses and lips and the texture of hair. White people typically can trace their ancestors to Europe, especially the United Kingdom, northern Europe, and Scandinavia — what many think of as the places that are the source of the people who are most authentically White. But being White is not really about how people look or where our ancestors came from.
White people are most clearly defined as those people living in a White-supremacist society who are understood to be White by other individuals, especially those who make and/or execute political, economic, and social policies in the institutions of that society. People are White, in this sense, when they are perceived as being White by a police officer, by the person interviewing job candidates, or by the loan officer of a bank. A person is White if people with power believe the person to be White.
This means that people whose physical attributes may make it hard to categorize them in racial terms can be perceived as White in one situation and not in another; such decisions about racial classification result not just from qualities in the individual who is being evaluated but from the expectations of those doing the evaluating. A fair-skinned person with White and black ancestors might be classified differently by two different police officers, for example. Markers other than physical appearance also are relevant; light-skinned people who would be categorized as White based on physical appearance can shift into the Latina/Latino classification after someone hears them speak with an accent.
Although the terms “multi-racial” or “bi-racial” are used frequently today to describe people with parents from different racial groups, in the political and economic sense there are few people who straddle racial categories in ways that defy classification. A person may have relatives from many different racial categories and hence be multi-racial in cultural terms, in the sense of having connections to different traditions and practices. But in interactions with others, a multi-racial person is most often going to be treated based on the perceptions people have of the racial group that they assign to the person. In such cases, the actual family history of the multi-racial or bi-racial person is irrelevant to the perceptions of others. There are some mixed-race individuals whose characteristics are so ambiguous that others will be unable to categorize them, but that is rare.
Beyond such individual ambiguity, entire groups of people who were not initially classified as White in the United States — the Irish and Jews, along with immigrants from parts of southern and eastern Europe — “became” White by accepting the structure of a White-supremacist system. For example, Noel Ignatieff has described how Irish were the targets of intense bigotry and discrimination when they first came in large numbers to the United States but strove as a group to have themselves identified as White to secure a place in the United States’ racial hierarchy. At the collective level, therefore, “White” also is not a description of biology but a term that simply means an identifiable group of people are perceived as White by those with power.
Where did the idea of whiteness come from?
Despite the common assumption that human beings have always categorized each other on the basis of race, the practice is relatively recent. The creation of modern Whiteness, and accompanying rigid notion of racial categories, is connected to the “divide and conquer” strategies that elites throughout history have used to control the majority of a population and maintain an unequal distribution of wealth and power.
In the early years of the British colonies in North America, indentured servants, typically working under harsh conditions, made up the majority of the labor force. Eventually slaves began arriving from Africa, often working alongside those indentured servants. Rigid racial categories had not yet been created, there were no clear laws around slavery, and personal relationships and alliances between the indentured servants and slaves were not uncommon. As the workers from England began to demand better conditions, the planter elite saw those alliances as a serious threat to their power. The “solution” was to increase the use of African slaves and separate them from poor White workers by giving the Whites a higher status with more opportunities without disturbing the basic hierarchical distribution of wealth and power. This successfully undermined the alliances of blacks and Whites, leading White workers to identify more with wealthy Whites while blacks were increasingly associated with the degradation inherent in slavery.
This strategy of elites, written into law in the slave codes, undermined solidarity between poor blacks and Whites and proved to be a model for not only disrupting connections between White and all non-White workers, but also for pitting different non-White groups against each other. The limited benefits that elites bestowed on White workers have been referred to as “the wage of Whiteness,” which is in large part psychological — White workers in this system get to think of themselves as superior to non-Whites, and especially blacks, no matter how impoverished they may be or how wide the gap between their lives and the lives of wealthy White people.
A powerful summary of this comes from the film Mississippi Burning, in which a Southern-born White FBI agent in the United States tries to explain the state’s racial politics to a Northern White colleague. The Southerner tells the story of how his father, jealous of the success of a nearby black farmer, poisoned that neighbor’s mule. The father told his son, “If you ain’t better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?” Challenged by his Northern colleague not to make excuses for racism, the Southerner says he is simply describing his father, “an old man who was so full of hate that he didn’t know that being poor was what was killing him.”
Notions of White supremacy also were important in White people’s campaign to eliminate indigenous people in what is now the United States and in other parts of the Americas. If native peoples were less than fully human, or at least inferior humans to Europeans, then the extermination of those people and the expropriation of their land could be presented as the inevitable triumph of a superior group and, therefore, morally justified. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt defended the expansion of Whites across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”
From these roots emerged an increasingly well-developed notion of White supremacy that became codified in law and embedded in cultural practices, with disastrous consequences not only for people of indigenous and African descent but also every other non-White group. Although there have been several points in which the United States has been in a position to renounce this White supremacy — such as the abolition of slavery after the Civil War and the end of apartheid in the 20th century Civil Rights Movement — Whiteness and White supremacy has “survived U.S. history,” to borrow historian David Roediger’s phrase. White people’s belief in their special status has demonstrated an incredible tenacity; even when it is widely agreed to be morally bankrupt and intellectually indefensible, the idea of Whiteness and the accompanying White-supremacist system remain deeply woven into the fabric of society.
Why is whiteness so hard to shake?
Roediger’s analysis reminds us that White-defined and -dominated institutions, and White people individually, must confront the gap between stated ideals around racial justice in a post-civil rights society and the actual working of that society. This leads to troubling observations about the White community in general. While it is easy to condemn the bigotry of those White people who are overtly racist — those whose conception of Whiteness has never moved beyond the 19th century — the more vexing questions concern “polite” White society that rejects the ugly expressions of White supremacy but has been unable and/or unwilling to take serious steps to remake society on egalitarian principles.
It is widely accepted that race is real in social terms — political, economic, and cultural systems treat race as if it were a coherent way of categorizing humans — and that race is a fiction in biological terms. Work on the human genome reveals some patterns that correlate with our ancestors’ continent of origin, but there are not distinct races. As discussed in chapter 1 of this volume, modern scientific evidence clearly shown that there is one human race, and the people who are part of it have various kinds of physical differences.
So, there is a scientific consensus that the idea of biological race is incoherent and a professed moral consensus that rejects the claim that people in one socially constructed racial group could be inherently superior to others. Why, then, does White supremacy continue to structure U.S. society and so much of the world? Why do people in the socially constructed category of “White” — even those who would agree with the scientific and moral consensus — avoid the implications of the relevant data about the unjust distribution of wealth and power? Why do White people hold onto a sense of themselves as White when at the same time they condemn White supremacy? If the concept of Whiteness has no meaning outside of White supremacy, why do White people who believe in justice have so much trouble letting go of Whiteness?
Given the complex interplay of the political, economic, cultural, and psychological, no simple answers are likely, but patterns can be identified. In societies in which people believe there always will be hierarchies, it appears to be in one’s self-interest (defined in material terms with a short-range view) to accept the hierarchies and try to climb to, or stay in, the highest position possible. The potential rewards for this are access (or the promise of access) to wealth, greater social status, and an inflated sense of self-esteem. Only a small percentage of White people are wealthy, of course, and many White people in contemporary U.S. society do not work or live in positions of high status. So while all three types of rewards are available only to a relatively small group of White people, even the poorest and most vulnerable Whites can extract some social value from Whiteness — the state of being White, of being on top in a racial hierarchy.
The complexity of this is captured in the term “White trash,” a slur used to describe White people with few financial resources and/or low social status. For such people, one response to the cruel hierarchy from which the insult emerges would be to openly reject White supremacy and make common cause with the people of color who are at risk in similar ways — to reject the “White” and embrace the “trash” as a source of solidarity and strength. Yet no sustained cross-racial movement of the dispossessed has taken root in that segment of the White community in the United States, despite the potential for political success of such a grassroots strategy.
Whiteness has the capacity to dull the moral sensibilities of privileged White people, while at the same time providing some way for those without wealth or status to dull the effects of life near the bottom of the hierarchy. Again, the tenacity of the idea of Whiteness is striking.
White reactions to “white privilege” in the u.s.
In a White-supremacist society, White people will have advantages that are not a product of any individual effort or ability but are built into the structure of society. We call this White privilege. That is hardly a radical claim, yet it continues to be controversial in many sectors of U.S. society.
Overt White supremacists argue that White people are now victimized in the contemporary racial order, although there is no data to support such a claim of “reverse racism.” Others invoke the idea that U.S. society is a meritocracy and reject the possibility that things they have accomplished could be in any way the product of such privilege. And many of those who concede that racism is still a serious problem attempt to divert attention from White privilege by suggesting that racial justice can best be achieved by adopting a “color-blind” approach to social life and public policy. Such a claim is coherent only if there existed a truly level playing field on which we could safely ignore color without fear that we would unconsciously replicate White-supremacist patterns. But because of Whites’ historical advantages in the accumulation of wealth, along with contemporary manifestations of unconscious racism, such a level playing field does not exist. To claim to be color blind, then, is to endorse blindness when assessing the effects of color and, therefore, to lend tacit support to White supremacy.
Resistance to the idea of White privilege in the White community comes from across the political spectrum. Part of this is no doubt rooted in calculations of self-interest, but it seems to be in part the product of a lack of clarity in the use of the term, and the tendency for the term to be used in isolation from analyses of other hierarchies.
The claim that White privilege operates in contemporary society does not mean White privilege dictates the outcome of every interaction, but rather that it simply is one significant factor that may affect the outcome of those interactions. Take the commonly cited case of “driving while black/brown,” the experience of being targeted by law enforcement if one is perceived of driving in the “wrong” part of town or in the “wrong” kind of car. The claim is not that every black or brown person will be pulled over for no legitimate reason, or that every such interaction will result in the use of unnecessary force by an officer. Nor is the claim that White people are never treated unjustly by law enforcement officers. But there are patterns of treatment based on race; non-White people must deal with that potential threat on a daily basis in ways White people are privileged to ignore.
As the editors of this volume noted in the introduction, we can, and should, recognize the effects of other hierarchies, such as those involving sex, sexuality, and class. In certain situations a black manager could wield power unfairly over a White worker, given the inequality built into corporate capitalism. An indigenous man could sexually harass a White woman, given the power dynamics in patriarchy. A straight Latino might refuse to rent an apartment to a White gay man or lesbian, given the nature of heterosexism. Recognizing that White privilege exists does not require one to ignore how other systems of privilege operate alongside White supremacy. To claim that White people have privilege is simply to acknowledge that all other social factors being equal, non-White people face a range of hostile behaviors — from racist violence to being taken less seriously in a business meeting, from discrimination in hiring to subtle exclusion in social settings. While all people, including Whites, experience unpleasant interactions with others, White people do not carry the burden of negative racial stereotypes into those interactions. That advantage is what we call White privilege.
“White history month” and the problem of false equivalency
White people sometimes point out that there is no White History Month to balance Black History Month, or no White Student Center to provide similar services to a Latina/Latino Student Center. If race is discussed only in cultural or psychological terms, such claims may appear to have some merit. But when evaluated in the context of the distribution of power and wealth, using a political and economic framework, the frivolous nature of arguments that are based on false equivalency is clear. There is no White History Month because history in a White-supremacist society is routinely taught from the perspective of White people. There is no White Student Center because the services on a campus typically are designed to serve the needs of the dominant White student population.
Embracing White identity is not equivalent to non-White peoples’ embrace of racialized identities. Pride in being black need not come with a notion that there is something biological or essential about black people from which the pride emerges; instead, black pride can grow from the collective resistance to White supremacy that black people have maintained throughout history. A Chicano identity is a political statement about one’s refusal to accept White dominance. Asian-American and indigenous organizations can create a space where members gather without having to deal with White norms.
No such equivalent pride, identity, or space is necessary or possible for White people, whose racial identity is rooted in domination, not resistance to domination. Whiteness is not an identity rooted in actual cultural traditions but was instead constructed for political and economic domination. Individual White people can be proud of their personal achievements and feel rooted in cultural traditions from specific places in Europe. But Whiteness itself is either politically oppressive or culturally empty. White people who want to live the values of equality that we claim to hold should recognize that such a life requires we abandon our belief in, and reliance on, Whiteness.
The color of the race problem is white
In his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois suggested that the question White people so often want to ask black people is, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Because White people do not know how to formulate such a question, DuBois said they most often avoid the issue and deny reality. A focus on Whiteness can help us reverse the direction of the question.
Race problems have their roots in a system of White supremacy. White people invented White supremacy. Therefore, the color of the race problem is White. Rather than asking non-White people how it feels to be a problem, it is long past time for White people to ask ourselves: How does it feel to be a problem? What will we do about it?
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021). His other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
This essay was published as “Whiteness”, in Stephen M. Caliendo and Charlton D. McIlwain, eds., The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 25-32.
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