In everyday speech, the word “whiteness” often names an identity, one marking people of European descent and their shared cultural attributes. Whiteness, then, functions as demographic descriptor: a category to mark on government forms, a means of identifying common ground with others of European ancestry. Used in these ways, whiteness is often naturalized and treated as transhistorical. This familiar usage evades the actual history of the term, both as an identity category and as a keyword. Within and beyond the United States, whiteness has meant different things at different times since it has been fabricated through the erasure of specific European ethnic heritages and the negation of racialized others (Baldwin 1985; Ignatiev 1995). At least since current understandings of race and ethnicity were established in the 1920s, when a person has claimed whiteness in the United States, it has meant that they need not say that they are not Italian, Irish, or English, but that they could trace such a lineage. And to say one is white is to say that one is in no way black, Asian, or mestiza/o. In this way, whiteness both signals and silences a double negation.
As a keyword and critical concept in American studies and cultural studies, scholars and activists have used whiteness less as an identity category and more as a means of naming everyday systems and cultures of white supremacy. Rather than treating white supremacy as an extreme and aberrant position, embodied in the violence and rhetoric of paramilitary groups and rightwing politicians, critical race scholars and antiracist activists underscore that white supremacy is instantiated in everyday life and identity as an ideology, a discourse, and a set of policies. Whiteness describes the ideology through which people of European descent are positioned as both the norm and ideal of human life, a position against which others can be measured and found lacking (Mills 1997; Dyer 1997). The discourse of whiteness ranges from the explicit racialist thinking of David Duke and other white supremacists to the subtler rhetorical practices of calling unarmed subjects of police violence “thugs” and colorblind narratives such as “Blue Lives Matter” (Haney López 2014, 4; Bonilla Silva 2017). In terms of policy, whiteness has its roots in the enslavement of African peoples, the expropriation of Indigenous lands, and restrictive immigration and naturalization laws, but it can also be found in the legally enforced school and housing segregation of the early-to-mid-twentieth century and the intergenerational transfer of wealth and school choice initiatives that disproportionately negatively impact families of color today (Lipsitz 2018). In essence, the term whiteness makes legible complex systems of ideology, language, and policies that have long produced an identity built upon the erasure of European ethnic heritage as well as the marginalization of communities of color.
Though use of the term was not widespread until the late eighteenth century, the pre-history of U.S. whiteness can be traced back to the seventeenth century, the arrival of enslaved Africans, and the emergence of the slave codes. The fear of slave uprisings like those in Barbados as well as Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia spurred the creation of slave codes that codified whiteness as a racial identity against blackness; whites regardless of class could marry, own weapons, travel freely, and were afforded other rights, but unfree black people could not. Since its inception, however, whiteness has expanded who may be counted within its ranks even as it has been constituted by an exclusion of others. During the nineteenth century, virulent anti-Catholic nativists attacked Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, particularly within the Eastern U.S. cities. People of Irish descent were cast as nonwhite and compared to black U.S. Americans and other communities of color. By adopting the identity label “white,” ethnic European workers in the U.S. aligned themselves with white elites and spurned common cause with black workers (Roediger 2007). In the U.S. Southwest, Mexican Americans also faced the exclusive and expansive dynamics of whiteness. Legally identified as white, Mexican Americans were often socially ascribed a non-white status, facing segregated schools and businesses as well as civic disenfranchisement in many parts of the Southwest (García 2009; Gómez 2018). As a legal strategy, Mexican Americans used “whiteness” to identify and lay claim to civil rights goals of equality with Anglo Americans (García 2009).
Since the first appearance of “white” in U.S. law, the term has been closely related to both “immigration” and “citizenship.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship to “free white persons,” thus excluding Indigenous and Asian peoples as well as indentured servants and free blacks. The 1868 ratification of the 14th amendment opened up birthright citizenship for people of African descent, while subsequent laws and legal findings allowed for birthright citizenship and naturalization for Latin Americans who could claim whiteness via European heritage. However, the meaning of whiteness in immigration law was often under contestation. In 1923, the Supreme Court denied Bhagat Singh’s claim to US citizenship on the grounds that he was a “high caste Aryan, of full Indian blood.” Here, Singh’s claims to citizenship vis-à-vis the label and identity of white were rejected and the boundaries of whiteness and citizenship were fortified. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that naturalized citizenship was legally disentangled from claims to whiteness as an identity. Indeed, today the terms “white,” “citizen,” and “American” are often conflated in U.S. popular and political culture with dangerous and devastating consequences.
In the past four decades, “whiteness” has become a much more frequently used word in academic scholarship. There is even a field of study, “critical whiteness studies,” which initially emerged from the black intellectual tradition. Throughout the twentieth century, major black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, and James Baldwin wrote about whiteness as a means of naming, understanding, and contesting enduring systems of racial inequality. During the late 1980s and 1990s, critical whiteness studies exploded in U.S. race scholarship, particularly in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and media studies. In this scholarship, “whiteness” was often framed in relation to other terms of analysis. Drawing on the work of Du Bois, David Roediger examined how white workers in the nineteenth century received social and psychological benefits – the “wages of whiteness” – by asserting their whiteness against the marginalization of black laborers (2007). Others advanced the term “white privilege” to describe how whiteness was built upon a system of unearned advantages that often went unrecognized by its recipients (McIntosh 1988); deployed whiteness along with “racial contract” to describe an epistemic dysfunction wherein whites may be unable to see the structural inequalities of the racial world their ancestors fashioned and that contemporary whites have maintained (Mills 1997, 18); linked whiteness to the legal category of “property” (Harris 1993; Lipsitz 2018), and excavated the role that whiteness has played in the constitution of literature, culture, and national identity (Dyer 1997; Morrison 1992). Notably because critical whiteness studies originated in the black intellectual tradition, some of these scholars relied upon a black/white binary, using “whiteness” to describe primarily an opposition to and a rejection of “blackness.”
After this intellectual surge, explicit use of whiteness as a term of analysis briefly receded as other frameworks garnered attention. At the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, whiteness scholarship is experiencing a resurgence, in part due to the ways in which whiteness has returned to the foreground of popular and political culture in the United States. The twenty-first century rise in Islamophobia, anti-Latinx nativism, and anti-blackness (particularly surrounding the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency) coalesced with the creation of online social network communities that spawned more public, widespread interrogations of whiteness, white privilege, systemic racism, and other related concepts. The candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency was also surrounded by a rise in and articulation of an identity politics defined by the grievances and injuries felt by whites, white nationalism, and campaigns of harassment based on perceived threats to whiteness. This constellation of circumstances has fostered greater mainstream media coverage of whiteness. The New York Times is one example. It mentioned “whiteness” 153 times between 2010 and 2014, and 1,745 times between 2015 and 2019, an increase of 1,040%. Within American studies and cultural studies, “whiteness” has also experienced a revival through the impact earlier writers have had on a new generation of scholars. In the past 15 years, the keyword “whiteness” and the analytical possibilities that it opens up have found strong footing in rhetoric (Ratcliffe 2006; Kennedy, Middleton, Ratcliffe 2017), psychology (Spanierman et al. 2009; Fryberg and Watts 2010), and education (Castagno 2014; Matias 2016; Cabrera 2018), in addition to the fields within which it took root during the 1990s.
Recognizing that in a multiracial society whiteness’s relationship to various marginalized communities gives it dynamic shape, recent scholarship has explored the keyword “whiteness” and its relationship to communities of color beyond the black/white binary. At the intersection of psychology and Indigenous studies, the term has been used to identify the boost white people receive to their self-image when primed by imagery of Native peoples as sports mascots (Fryberg and Watts 2010). The field of Chicanx studies offers an even more complex path for interrogating whiteness. Some scholars have illustrated how Mexican descent people have at times claimed a form of whiteness and belonging in the U.S. through the mythos of Spanish ancestry or legal definitions of the term (Nieto Phillips 2004; García 2009), while others have demonstrated how popular and political representations of Mexican-descent people are deployed to construct whiteness as coterminous with (Anglo)Americanness (Bebout 2016). These are but a few exciting trajectories for how the term “whiteness” has propelled scholarship within American studies and cultural studies that demonstrate its emergence from the black intellectual tradition and its movement beyond a black/white binary.
In part because of a shift in disciplinary grounding, recent scholarship has deployed the word “whiteness” to draw attention to previously underrecognized attributes. Some have identified the ways in which whiteness shapes everyday discourse and understandings of race (Bonilla Silva 2017; Feagin 2013; Hill 2008). These language and interpretive strategies create a buffer so that white people may be protected from confronting the system of white supremacy that benefits them and is foundational to the identity of whiteness. Others have noted that “white fragility” erupts in emotional outbursts when these strategies fail to insulate them from discomforting truths (DiAngelo 2018). Other scholars have also used the term to explore the way oppression and hierarchies can become naturalized and treated as a naturalized good, a move that both relies on the vilification of racialized others and simultaneously legitimizes “white saviorism” that may range from volunteer work to U.S. military intervention (Mills 1997; Martinot 2010). Conflating “whiteness” with “goodness” has allowed many to distance themselves not just from people of color but also from aberrant and abhorrent racists, fashioning themselves as “good white people” (Sullivan 2014) and occluding their participation in systemic racism. Alongside this critique of notions of white goodness, scholars have also theorized articulations of “white victimhood” (King 2017, Bebout 2019). Although this articulation has a long history, “white victimhood” has become a dominant cultural narrative since the late 1970s. White folks are cast as an aggrieved community who are facing the challenges of deindustrialization and reverse discrimination vis-à-vis affirmative action. The discourse of white victimhood and resentment appears in the popular, political media to legitimate anti-immigrant fervor, the support of monuments to white supremacy, and the election of Trump, who ran on a campaign rooted in belief in widespread white victimization.
At first glance goodness and victimhood may appear contradictory. How can whiteness be imagined as a heroic and messianic as well as a victimized position? Here one must recognize that whiteness is not a stable identity; “whiteness” refers to a constellation of strategies, often in flux, that work in tandem to maintain power and domination in the guises of normalcy, fairness, and benevolence. One of the key attributes of whiteness is its lability (Carroll 2011). That is, whiteness can change, shift, and emphasize different, seemingly contradictory elements at a moment’s notice, depending upon the exigency of the situation. U.S. whiteness can support English-only initiatives and, in the next moment, deploy mock Spanish to deride Latinxs in the guise of multicultural inclusion. Whiteness can imagine itself as heroic savior and oppressed victim without seeing the potential of contradiction. For scholars and activists, tremendous power comes from a term that can name and make visible this complex nexus of racial power.
Since its origins in the black intellectual tradition, the term whiteness has been to used make legible the everyday practices, ideologies, and identity investments that structure racial inequality, to denaturalize the norm. This move is designed to propel white folks to choose between the comfort of oppressing others and the value of racial justice and equity. Whiteness has been key in doing this work because it names this everyday system of white supremacy and makes it recognizable. In the words of Richard Dyer, “whiteness needs to be made strange” (1997, 10). For George Yancy, this constitutes a gesture that renders the normal visible: “Look, a white!” (2012). Making whiteness legible in this way requires more than pointing out white racial identity. It requires close attention to the practices, ideologies, and identity investments that structure racial inequality vis-à-vis whiteness. While “whiteness,” “white privilege,” and “white fragility” are now part of the popular lexicon in a way that they were not in the late twentieth century, public discussions rarely go beyond an understanding of whiteness as an identity framework and critiques of whiteness remain a taboo for mainstream politicians. There is work to be done in maintaining these critiques, and scholars and activists committed to racial justice will need to continue to lead the way.