Whiteness: Definition in Sociology

The Definition of Whiteness in American Society

How white skin color determines social attitudes and constructs

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  • Ph.D., Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • M.A., Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • B.A., Sociology, Pomona College

In sociology, whiteness is defined as a set of characteristics and experiences generally associated with being a member of the white race and having white skin. Sociologists believe the construct of whiteness is directly connected to the correlating construct of people of color as «other» in society. Because of this, whiteness comes with a wide variety of privileges.

Whiteness as «Normal»

The most important and consequential thing that sociologists have discovered about whiteness—having white skin and/or being identified as white—in the United States and Europe is that whiteness is perceived as being normal. White people «belong» and are therefore entitled to certain rights, while people from other racial categories—even members of indigenous populations—are perceived and, therefore, treated as unusual, foreign, or exotic.

We see the «normal» nature of whiteness in the media as well. In film and television, the majority of mainstream characters are white, while shows those that feature casts and themes geared toward non-white audiences are considered niche works that exist outside of that mainstream. While TV show creators Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari are contributing to a shift in the racial landscape of television, their shows are still exceptions, not the norm.

How Language Codifies the Races

That America is racially diverse is a reality, however, there is specially coded language applied to non-whites that mark their race or ethnicity. Whites, on the other hand, do not find themselves categorized in this way. African American, Asian American, Indian American, Mexican American, and so on are common phrases, while «European American» or «Caucasian American» are not.

Another common practice among whites is to specifically state the race of a person with whom they’ve come into contact if that person is not white. Sociologists recognize the way we speak about people signals sends a signal that white people are «normal» Americans, while everyone else is a different kind of American that requires additional explanation. This additional language and what it signifies is generally forced on non-whites, creating a set of expectations and perceptions, regardless of whether those expectations or perceptions are true or false.

Whiteness is Unmarked

In a society where being white is perceived as normal, expected, and inherently American, whites are rarely asked to explain their family origins in that particular way that really means, «What are you?»

With no linguistic qualifiers attached to their identity, ethnicity becomes optional for white people. It’s something that they can access if they so desire, to be used as social or cultural capital. For example, white Americans are not required to embrace and identify with their British, Irish, Scottish, French, or Canadian ancestors.

People of color are marked by their race and ethnicity in deeply meaningful and consequential ways, while, in the words of late British sociologist Ruth Frankenberg, white people are «unmarked» by the kinds of language and expectations described above. In fact, whites are considered so void of any ethnic coding that the word «ethnic» itself has evolved into a descriptor of people of color or elements of their cultures. For example, on the hit Lifetime television show Project Runway, judge Nina Garcia regularly uses «ethnic» to refer to clothing designs and patterns associated with indigenous tribes of Africa and the Americas.

Think about it: Most grocery stores have an «ethnic food» aisle where you’ll find food items associated with Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Hispanic cuisine. Such foods, coming from cultures composed predominantly of people of color are labeled «ethnic,» i.e., different, unusual, or exotic, whereas, all other food is considered «normal» and is, therefore, unmarked or segregated into one centralized separate location.

Whiteness and Cultural Appropriation

The unmarked nature of whiteness feels bland and unexciting for some whites. This is largely the reason why it’s become common, starting in the mid-20th century through today, for whites to appropriate and consume elements of Black, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Asian cultures in order to appear cool, hip, cosmopolitan, edgy, bad, tough, and sexual—among other things.

Given that historically rooted stereotypes frame people of color—especially Black and indigenous Americans—as both more connected to the earth and more «authentic» than white people—many whites find racially and ethnically coded goods, arts, and practices appealing. Appropriating practices and goods from these cultures is a way for white people to express an identity that is counter to the perception of mainstream whiteness.

Gayle Wald, an English professor who has written extensively on the topic of race, found through archival research that renowned late singer Janis Joplin crafted her free-wheeling, free-loving, countercultural stage persona «Pearl» after Black blues singer Bessie Smith. Wald recounts that Joplin spoke openly about how she perceived black people to have a soulfulness, a certain raw naturalness, that white people lacked, and that resulted in rigid and stuffy expectations for personal behavior, especially for women and argues that Joplin adopted elements of Smith’s dress and vocal style in order to position her performance as a critique of white heteronormative gender roles.

During the countercultural revolution in the ’60s, a far less politically motivated form of cultural appropriation continued as young white people appropriated clothing and iconography such as headdresses and dream catchers from indigenous American cultures in order to position themselves as countercultural and «carefree» at musical festivals across the country. Later, this trend in appropriation would move on to embrace forms of African cultural expression, such as rap and hip-hop.

Whiteness is Defined by Negation

As a racial category devoid of any racially or ethnically coded meaning, «white» is defined not so much by what it is, but rather, by what it is not—the racially coded «other.» As such, whiteness is something loaded with social, cultural, political, and economic significance. Sociologists who’ve studied the historical evolution of contemporary racial categories—including Howard Winant, David Roediger, Joseph R. Feagin, and George Lipsitz—conclude the meaning of «white» has always been understood through a process of exclusion or negation.

By describing Africans or indigenous Americans as «wild, savage, backward, and stupid,» European colonists cast themselves in contrasting roles as civilized, rational, advanced, and intelligent. When slaveholders described the African Americans they owned as sexually uninhibited and aggressive, they also established the image of whiteness—especially that of white women—as pure and chaste.

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Throughout the eras of slavery in America, Reconstruction, and well into the 20th century, these last two constructs have proven especially disastrous for the African American community. Black men and youths suffered beatings, torture, and lynching on the basis of even the flimsiest allegation that they’d paid unwanted attention to a white woman. Meanwhile, Black women lost jobs and families lost their homes, only to later learn that the so-called trigger event had never taken place.

Continued Cultural Stereotypes

These cultural constructs live on and continue to exert influence in American society. When whites describe Latinas as «spicy» and «fiery,» they, in turn, construct a definition of white women as tame and even-tempered. When whites stereotype African American and Latino boys as bad, dangerous kids, they counterpose white kids as well-behaved and respectable—again, whether these labels are true or not.

Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the media and the judicial system, in which people of color are routinely demonized as vicious criminals who deserve «what’s coming to them,» while white offenders are routinely regarded as merely misguided and let off with a slap on the wrist—especially in cases of «boys will be boys.»


Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

In 1995, Noel Ignatiev, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Harvard, published his dissertation with Routledge, an academic press. Many such books appear, then disappear, subsumed into the endless paper shuffling of the academic credentialling process. But Ignatiev was not a typical graduate student, and his book, “How the Irish Became White,” was not meant to stay within the academy. A fifty-four-year-old Marxist radical, Ignatiev had come to the academy after two decades of work in steel mills and factories. The provocative argument at the center of his book—that whiteness was not a biological fact but rather a social construction with boundaries that shifted over time—had emerged, in large part, out of his observations of how workers from every conceivable background had interacted on the factory floor. Ignatiev wasn’t merely describing these dynamics; he wanted to change them. If whiteness could be created, it could also be destroyed.

“How the Irish Became White” quickly broke out of the academic-publishing bubble. Writing in the Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter called it “the most interesting history book of 1995.” Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and death-row inmate, provided an enthusiastic back-cover blurb. Today, many of the ideas Ignatiev proposed or refined—about the nature of whiteness, and about the racial dynamics that unfold among immigrant workers—are taken for granted in classrooms; they influence films, literature, and art. But Ignatiev found it hard to accept the academic rewards that came with his book’s success. Committed to radicalism, he spent much of his time in academia doing what he had done on the factory floor: publishing leaflets and zines about the possibilities of revolutionary change.

He was still at it on October 27th, when Hard Crackers, a journal that Ignatiev edited with a collection of friends and old collaborators, threw a launch party for its latest issue, at Freddy’s Bar, in Brooklyn. Wearing a white Panama hat and a loose-fitting suit, Ignatiev spoke briefly: Hard Crackers, he said, had been founded with the conviction that American society was a “time bomb,” and that its salvation could only come through the stories and actions of ordinary people. In that spirit, the journal published short, memoir-driven portraits of working Americans, in the style of Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel.” This portraiture served a political purpose. Ignatiev and his fellow-editors hoped to provoke small but potentially explosive moments of revelation in their readers—to create instants of autonomy which, they thought, might allow those readers to forge coalitions with other seekers of “a new society.” This philosophy, inspired by the work of the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, had run through all of Ignatiev’s work as a radical youth, a radical factory worker, and then, finally, a radical scholar.

Ignatiev’s speech was energetic, funny, and shot through with brio and irony. But it included a note of reflection. Ignatiev said that he had spent most of his life around people who vehemently disagreed with everything he said; he was confident that he had always been right, but also pretty sure that being right had amounted to nothing. He seemed to be posing a difficult question for those who believe, as Ignatiev did, in spontaneous revolutionary change: How do you measure success if the revolution hasn’t yet come? A few days later, Ignatiev flew out to Arizona to see his daughter and grandchildren. On November 9th, he died, at the age of seventy-eight.

The question of what Ignatiev accomplished is especially hard to answer because his radicalism took so many forms. He was born in 1940, in Philadelphia, into a family of working-class Russian Jews. By seventeen, he had joined the Communist Party; after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Chicago to work in the steel mills. He would be a factory laborer for more than two decades, always with an eye toward provoking his fellow-workers into looking at their struggle in new ways. In 1967, he composed a letter to the Progressive Labor Party that outlined his views. “The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism,” Ignatiev wrote. “White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.” He argued that it would be impossible to build true solidarity among the working class without addressing the question of race, because white workers could always be placated by whatever privileges, however meaningless, management dangled in front of them. The only way to change this was for white working-class people to reject whiteness altogether. “In the struggle for socialism,” Ignatiev wrote, white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.”

Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of “white privilege.” But Ignatiev’s version differs from the one we often use today. In his conception, white privilege wasn’t an accounting tool used to compile inequalities; it was a shunt hammered into the minds of the white working class to make its members side with their masters instead of rising up with their black comrades. White privilege was a deceptive tactic wielded by bosses—a way of tricking exploited workers into believing that they were “white.”

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In the late sixties, when Ignatiev was still working in steel mills and factories, he and a number of collaborators started the Sojourner Truth Organization, which aimed to approach labor organizing through the lens of race. S.T.O. members entered factories with two main goals: collaborating with black and Latino worker organizations, and putting Ignatiev’s theory of white-skin privileges into action. The white workers, Ignatiev believed, were capable of repudiating their whiteness; they needed only to be provoked into consciousness. The S.T.O. hoped to accomplish this through the dissemination of workplace publications, such as the Calumet Insurgent Worker, and constant conversation. In an essay titled “Black Worker, White Worker,” from 1972, Ignatiev examined what he called the “civil war” in the minds of his white colleagues in plants and steel mills. It begins with an anecdote:

In one department of a giant steel mill in northwest Indiana a foreman assigned a white worker to the job of operating a crane. The Black workers in the department felt that on the basis of seniority and job experience, one of them should have been given the job, which represented a promotion from the labor gang. They spent a few hours in the morning talking among themselves and agreed that they had a legitimate beef. Then they went and talked to the white workers in the department and got their support. After lunch the other crane operators mounted their cranes and proceeded to block in the crane of the newly promoted worker—one crane on each side of his—and run at the slowest possible speed, thus stopping work in the department. By the end of the day the foreman had gotten the message. He took the white worker off the crane and replaced him with a Black worker, and the cranes began to move again.

A few weeks after the slowdown, several of the white workers who had joined the black operators in protest took part in meetings in Glen Park, a virtually all-white section of Gary, with the aim of seceding from the city, in order to escape from the administration of the black mayor, Richard Hatcher. While the secessionists demanded, in their words, “the power to make the decisions which affect their lives,” it was clear that the effort was racially inspired.


The Meaning of Whiteness

Pondering whiteness in the age of Obama

Posted Dec 14, 2011

About a year ago, I received an invitation to contribute a few encyclopedia-type entries for a book about race and ethnicity (information available at end of post). One of the requested topics was «whiteness,» a topic both obvious—how can a book about race not examine whiteness?—and curious, for I was quite sure that there would be no similar entries for «blackness» or «Asian-ness». Whiteness, you see, is a unique concept and explaining it poses unique challenges. Below is my attempt, in 500 words

It is customary to begin an essay of this sort with a definition, but who gets to define whiteness? In contemporary progressive circles, it is generally assumed that a group should be able to define itself, but whiteness has historically been defined by non-whites. For example, James Weldon Johnson, an African American poet and anthologist observed in 1912 that «The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.» In the past 20 years, many white writers and scholars have embraced the study of whiteness, but people of color, particularly Black writers and academics continue to make significant (at times, even primary) contributions to this area of scholarship.

There are several different components of whiteness. These include: 1) racial identity, 2) racial bias, and 3) racial privilege.

The «Whiteness as Group Identity» model conceptualizes whiteness as one of many different racial identities, the strength of which is determined by four factors: group size, group power, group discrimination, and group appearance. According to this model, those who are part of a group that is the numerical minority, has less power relative to other groups, experiences more discrimination, and less phenotypically resembles the majority group, should have a greater sense of racial identity, while those who are part of the racial majority (and all its privileges) should put very little emphasis on their racial identity. Indeed, though self-identified white supremacists and anti-racism activists are notable exceptions, many white Americans much more strongly prefer to identify as «American» or as a humanist than as «white».

In contrast to the neutrality of the group identity model, a number of writers and activists have equated whiteness with a racist ideology. They argue that the U.S. society is characterized by a socially created racial hierarchy that values whiteness above all others and that because whites are socialized (via family, peers, media) into this society, they cannot help but internalize some of the messages about white superiority, even if they consciously reject racist beliefs. Though controversial (especially in conservative circles), a number of cleverly designed empirical studies, most notably those using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), have supported the notion that most white people show unconscious (and therefore unintentional) bias in favor of those who are white, a bias that is either not evident or significantly smaller, in non-white groups.

Because of the racial socialization described above, the «whiteness as privilege» model posits that whiteness is characterized not so much by racial bias (i.e., racism) but by racial privilege. In her now classic «Invisible Knapsack» paper, Peggy McIntosh identified several dozen specific privileges associated with whiteness, including, for example, the privilege of learning about the important contributions of one’s people in schools, but probably the two primary privileges are 1) the privilege to assume that whiteness is the norm against which everyone else should be compared and 2) the privilege to live one’s life without ever needing to be aware of one’s whiteness and how it might be impacting their life.

In order to describe the various world-views associated with whiteness and the developmental process though which these world-views sometimes change, a number of white racial identity models have been developed, most notably by Janet Helms who argued that white individuals generally start with a racist identity and must first move away from such an identity before they can develop a non-racist identity. Helms described six different statuses: Contact, Disintegration, Reintegration, Pseudo-Independent, Immersion-Emersion, and Autonomy and posited that each status is associated with a different way of processing racial data. While research support for this particular model has been mixed, developmental models of white identity continue to be a very active area of research and discussion among psychologists.

Key Readings

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in Women’s Studies. Paper#189, retrieved from http://web.clas.ufl.edu/users/leslieh/syg2000/whiteprivilege.html

Gaertner, S.L. & Dovidio, J.F (1986). The aversive form of racism. In J.F. Dovidio & S.L. Gaertner (Eds.). Prejudice, discrimination, and racism (pp. 61 89). Orlando: Academic Press.

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Helms, J.E. (2005). An update of Helm’s White and people of color racial identity models. Handbook of multicultural counseling. In J.G. Ponterotto, J.M. Casas, L.A. Suzuki, and C.M. Alexander (Eds.). Handbook of multicultural counseling. (pp. 181-198). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications.

Brown, R. (2000). Social identity theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30(6):745-778

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1989) Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge.

McIntyre, A. (1997). Making Meaning of Whiteness: Exploring Racial Identity with White Teachers. Albany: State University Press of New York.

Thandeka (1999). White. Learning to be white: Money, race, and God in America (pp. 1-19). New York: Continuum Publishing.

This blog post appeared as an entry in the Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity, edited by Stephen Caliendo and Charlton McIlwain (Routledge Press, 2010). It is posted here with permission of the publisher. As per the permission agreement, I am required to provide a link to the eBookstore www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk and let you know that «many Taylor & Francis and Routledge books are now available as eBooks.»

For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines | Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Race — We don’t need it

The sooner we cease to identify ourselves according to race — and teach our children to cease this practice as well — the better off we all will be. I mean that, sincerely.
This is especially true in America. Where we are all, you know, Americans. Not European-American; not African-American; not Irish-American. Just, you know, American.
The sooner we figure this mystery out the better off we will be.
Racial identity is continually used against us in modern society. Whites are implicitly told they are superior, that they are the norm against which all other anomalies are weighed and compared, as this article states. We hear it just enough to subliminally reaffirm the idea in our own minds.
Blacks continually hear about how they are victims of whites in society. Held down, repressed and oppressed. Denied opportunities. This despite special college funds, scholarships, their own dedicated history month, equal opportunity employment programs. the list goes on. Asians continually hear about their own intellectual superiority and their greater work ethic. They superior study habits.
At every opportunity our political and educational masters use race to divide us, antagonize us and distract us from larger, more important issues. They keep us at each other’s throats over something as superficial as skin color. They help us to internalize their message of racial difference, racial superiority or inferiority and they use that against us.
To keep us — all of us, regardless of race or creed or skin color — repressed and oppressed. To keep us on the bottom of the pecking order, blind to the truth that we are all victims of a system that seeks to play us one against the other for the benefit of the political elite.
The Left does it. The Right does it. No one wants it to change. And so long as people continue to believe the tripe, it will never change.
We need to cease to identify ourselves by race. We need to become Americans — or French, or British or German, if that’s where you live. Become a citizen of your nation; a neighbor, a friend, a comrade to those around you. Focus on the larger, more important issues. Ask yourself who taught you that you were a victim, who told you others will make sure you never succeed. Who convinced you that you had no chance, no opportunity, no way out.
Was it the black or white or asian person next door? Or was it the black or white or asian educator or politician on the television? Because we know who profits from any message the latter puts forth.

Are you whte? Because your

Are you whte? Because your answer (color blindness) sure as hell sounds very white.

How can you think about this all day

There are people we call white and those referred to as black, some are good and some are bad. There are other broad designations such as Asian, and some of them are also good and bad.

There I finished the subject.

Racial Skepticism does not contradict ‘Race Matters’

I reject the idea that I define myself by what I’m considered to be racially. I do, however, define myself according to what I’m considered to be culturally.
I don’t think ‘Rac is a meaningful concept in any way whatsoever, and I think ‘Race’ matters only because it is an unavoidably damaging concept. There are cultural differences, but there are no cultural differences that would make communication as difficult as a racialized conception of culture would suggest.

I think, for example, that people hesitate to use racial terms is a good thing, since it suggests we are disillusioned by the notions of the human race and human races.

What is whiteness

What the heck does whiteness mean other than a description of someone’s skin color or appearing to be descendent from the peoples of Europe? As long as we continue to place too much emphasis on these trivial variations of human form, racism in one form or another will continue.

Whiteness in the Age of Baha’u’llah

Race Identity is a limiting label anachronistic in every sense of the word, to put it mildly, given the impact and urgency of the Message of Baha’u’llah and His Vision of the ‘Reality’ of being human—«The Oneness of the Human Race.
Race identity nowadays is baggage that inclines one to think strictly in terms of an artificial social construct called Race. And like Dr. Seuss’ prescient book anticipating the recrudescence of virulent racism in the Age of Trump, ‘Whiteness’ is a pernicious and debasing attachment that often and unknowingly causes those who migrated out of Africa into Europe, evolving out of environmental necessity a light skin complexion(and other accommodating physical features to adapt to the higher latitudes).
We shouldn’t disparage what Nature dictated, but neither should we elevate skin complexion to the level of apotheosis, which has become the vaguely perceptible undercurrent of «Whiteness» for those who have socially and economically benefited from such a godhood of physical features.
Shoghi Effendi, in his role as ‘Guardian’ of the Baha’i Faith, in 1938 addressed a book-size letter to the nascent American Baha’i Community, entitled «The Advent of Divine Justice». In it is a section starting around pg 38, articulating cogently and powerfully a commentary on what he called «America’s Lost Challenging Issue—the elimination of Racial Prejudice». Among the admonitions is the need for the white race to confront and gradually eradicate ‘their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority’. (pg 40)


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