What does it mean to be human? How can wide variation among humans in culture and physical appearance be explained? These were some of the questions that, as far back as antiquity, catalyzed theories about a hierarchy among humans in which the people considered to be the most beautiful and best civilized were ranked as superior. Drawing on the religious symbolism of “light” versus “dark” (purity versus contamination, saintliness versus heathenism) and the notion that outward physical attributes reflect inner moral qualities, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European historians, travelers, and naturalists propagated notions of the primordial and perfect human as fair skinned—white. The resulting ideas about what it is to be fully human were based on western European (male) interests, lifestyles, sexual desires, and beliefs (D. Goldberg 1993; Balibar 1994; Dyer 1997; Painter 2010). British colonists brought these ideas with them to their Caribbean and North American colonies, and from that point to the present day, the category “white” and the privileges granted people identified as white have been cornerstones of politics and culture in the Americas, if not always visibly so.
Despite centuries of effort by social and natural scientists to ground race and racial purity in nature, a genealogy of the keyword reveals multiple, socially constructed meanings for “white.” The term emerged in the Americas as early as the first European settlements and, though continually shifting in meaning, became embedded in national and class identities. It first distinguished “civilized” and “hardworking” colonists from “savage” and “lazy” Indians (Roediger 1991); then it replaced the religious justification for slavery in order to assert the moral superiority of “whites” over “blacks” (Fredrickson 1981). As the demographics and politics of the new nation changed, so too did the meanings of whiteness and the conditions under which one could claim a legal identity as white. The US Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship to “free white persons.” Although “white” was considered a scientific category, the courts varyingly adjudicated the whiteness of plaintiffs on nonscientific grounds. Asian Indians, for example, were considered “Caucasian” but in the famous case of United States v. Thind (261 U.S. 204 (1923)) were denied “white” status because their skin color belied “common knowledge” of what “white” was (Haney López 1996). Working-class Irish, Italians, and Poles were allowed to naturalize on the basis of being “Caucasian” but until the early twentieth century were not fully accepted as “white.” To take advantage of the political and economic opportunities of whiteness, some working-class ethnics adopted the racial ideologies and demeanors of whiteness, thus distinguishing themselves as a “free” and “white” labor force from the “bounded” and “black” (descendants of) African slaves (Baldwin 1985; Saxton 1990; Roediger 1991; Theodore Allen 1994; Jacobson 1998).
Until the early 1970s, scholars who similarly identified as white and with whiteness paid attention neither to the historically contentious meanings of those terms nor to their social-cultural effects. The dominant (white) academic literature on race tended to focus on blacks and other subordinated peoples as the occasion of the “race problem” and to define white racism as the effect of individual prejudice. The structures and institutions that privileged whites as a whole were not examined, and white people were frequently unmarked in the literature, often referred to simply as “the people,” “Americans,” or the “dominant group.” This absence of “white” as descriptor, which leaves white racial identity, culture, and power positioned as a norm, may best be explained by Richard Dyer’s luminous comment, “white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular” (1988, 44).
Not everyone took whiteness for granted, however. From as early as the late 1700s, writers, scholars, and revolutionaries of color throughout the Americas challenged white ideological and cultural domination. In the United States, African American, Latino, and other writers and scholars of color were at the core of that critique (Roediger 1991, 1999; Painter 2010). David Walker, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ernesto Galarza, James Baldwin, Julian Samora, and many others argued that whiteness is an ideology of domination that confers privilege and that it commits psychological and physical violence against people of color. Those who are deemed white might receive a “public and psychological wage” of status and privilege (Du Bois  1998, 700), but the “price of the ticket” is self-delusion and moral decrepitude (Baldwin 1985).
Since the 1970s, versions of what is now called critical white studies have drawn on this legacy. The civil rights movements of the 1960s gave rise within some legal scholarship to critical race theory, a race-conscious and activist-oriented approach to understanding and redressing race and racism in US law and society (Delgado and Stefancic 1995). By the early 1990s, critical white studies emerged as an offshoot of critical race theory with the mission of analyzing whiteness—the constellation of identities, processes, and practices that systematically privilege white people and reproduce white domination. Formative works in this new field drew from history, cultural studies, and sociology (Roediger 1991; Morrison 1993; Frankenberg 1993); today, scholarship on whiteness crosses national perspectives and multiple disciplinary boundaries.
One important contribution of whiteness studies has been the unveiling of whiteness as a set of cultural, political, and behavioral norms by which difference, deficiency, truth, and justice are determined. The normative character of whiteness is well illustrated in ethnographic studies revealing that most white US Americans will say that they have no racial identity, culture, or advantages as whites; they are just “normal” (Frankenberg 1993; Perry 2002). To the extent that whites see themselves as “raceless” and “normal,” they perceive their expectations, styles, and types of knowledge to be neutral and, hence, their benefits and rewards to be fairly earned. For example, cultural and behavioral expectations in school that are assumed to be neutral will benefit those students who are most comfortably versed in them—namely, whites. Students of color, conversely, can be penalized for failing to meet racially codified normative standards (Fine 1989; Delpit 1995; Fine et al. 1997; Valenzuela 1999; S. Lee 2005, 2009).
Contemporary turns toward so-called color-blind laws and ideologies, which assert that race no longer matters in legal, political, and economic institutions, help foster the illusion that white privilege is no more than an incidental effect of race-neutral meritocratic processes. Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, US law conferred on whites (propertied males, especially, but also white women and workers) singular access to full human and civil rights and protected white identity, privilege, and property (C. Harris 1993). Even progressive public policies such as the New Deal specifically advantaged white workers and home buyers (Lipsitz 1995, 2011). Today, many whites reap the benefits of past preferential treatment, including greater wealth and economic safety nets, better schools, safer and cleaner neighborhoods, and higher credit ratings (Conley 1999; Oliver and Shapiro 1995). However, in the context of color-blind laws and ideologies, race and racial privilege are deemed irrelevant for explaining or remedying those racial discrepancies in life chances (Bonilla-Silva 2003).
In an effort to expand on the claim that the everyday practical activity of whites is race based rather than race neutral, some scholars have conceived of whiteness as a performance. Those who can best perform the somatic, moral, and cultural norms of whiteness are racialized as white and benefit from racial institutional arrangements. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other eastern and southern European immigrants to the United States had to earn their inclusion in the “white race” by adopting requisite behaviors (Brodkin 1998; Roediger 1991; Ignatiev 1995). The Janus face of this dynamic emerges when youth of color face sanctions from peers for “acting white” in their styles or behaviors (Bettie 2003; P. Carter 2005; Fordham 1996; Perry 2002). White performance in these contexts is more than an expression of whiteness; it also constitutes it. From the antebellum white minstrels (Roediger 1991; Lott 1993) and white characters in literature and film (Dyer 1988; Morrison 1993; Vera and Gordon 2003) to the sanctions and rewards placed on stylistic and behavioral acts in everyday life (Hartigan 1999; Dolby 2000), performances of whiteness mark boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and provide the grounds on which white people learn what being white means and where they stand in the racial hierarchy. The conceptualization of whiteness as performance also helps illuminate class, gender, and sexual hierarchies within whiteness. The term “white trash,” for example, objectifies and sanctions poor whites for not performing the proper class decorums of whiteness (Hartigan 1997; Wray 2006).
In sum, “white” as a keyword in American studies and cultural studies has expanded contemporary understandings of race and racial inequality by turning a critical eye to white supremacy and its systemic reproduction through identity, norms, performance, and privilege. At the same time, some potential dangers lurk around current critical usages of “white” as a keyword. One is that it has been defined in so many ways that it risks losing coherence (Kolchin 2002; Andersen 2003). Also worrisome is the tendency in whiteness studies to reify whiteness as the “norm.” This threatens to calcify the notion of a norm-other dichotomy that revalidates the centrality and power of whiteness and the marginality of people of color. Undertheorized is the fluid, interdependent relationship between whiteness and other racial identities and statuses (Perry and Shotwell 2009). Positive new directions in the theorization of whiteness avoid those pitfalls by focusing on how multiple categories of difference (such as race, class, religion, and sexuality) are woven together intersectionally to define what white means (Crenshaw 1990; Wray 2006; Hartigan 1999).
“White” and “whiteness” will remain important analytical constructs as long as racial exclusion and oppression remain salient in US domestic and foreign affairs. For this reason, the continued deconstruction of normative whiteness is essential to the creation of truly liberatory identities, knowledges, and collaborative strategies aimed at social and political transformation. Shifting demographics in the United States and increasing migrations of people on a global scale have already begun to destabilize white cultural and political hegemonies in the United States and abroad. Whether those developments open possibilities for progressive change or are met with expansions or retrenchments of white identity and privilege will depend on future research and activism.