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Whiteness studies is a controversial field of study, popular mostly in the United States, and the UK, which began appearing as early as 1983 (see the works of Marilyn Frye). As of 2004, according to The Washington Post, at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and University of Massachusetts Amherst currently offer courses in whiteness studies. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlaps with research on post-colonial theory and orientalism within faculties and departments such as sociology, English literature, cultural studies and media studies.

The central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history in which the very concept of race is said to have been created by a white power structure in order to justify discrimination against nonwhites. Advocates of whiteness studies argue that whites do not see their own whiteness racially, but regard race as something that "others" have; by emphasizing "whiteness," they seek to change white peoples' view of their own racial identity. Major areas of research include the nature of white identity and of white privilege, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change in white identity.

History of Whiteness[]

Whiteness studies draws on research over the last forty years into the definition of race, almost entirely within the American context. This research emphasizes the social construction of white, Native, and Black identities in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan [1] have traced the evolution of the legally defined line between blacks and whites, and between slaves and indentured servants to colonial government efforts to prevent cross-racial revolts among unpaid laborers. Also of interest is the slow and uncertain inclusion of various ethnic groups, especially Italian, and European Jewish as well as Polish, Portuguese, and other white "ethnics") into the white race. [2] More recent scholarship by Thomas Guglielmo [3] has further circumscribed this field, arguing that Italian immigrants in Chicago at the early twentieth century were marked as racially undesirable as Italian, but were consistently accepted as white nonetheless.

Macquarie University academic Joseph Pugliese [4] is among writers who have applied whiteness studies to an Australian context, discussing the ways that Indigenous Australians were marginalized in the wake of European colonization of Australia, as whiteness came to be defined as central to Australian identity. Pugliese discusses the 20th century White Australia policy as a conscious attempt to preserve the "purity" of whiteness in Australian society. [citation needed]

White privilege[]

Writers such as Peggy McIntosh have sought to enumerate the social, political and cultural advantages accorded to whites in American society. They argue that these advantages seem invisible to most whites, but obvious to others. They often call for whites to acknowledge, renounce or betray these privileges by using them against racism.

Critics counter that most persons living in poverty in the U.S. are white [5] and that the only group with a growing poverty rate are likewise non-hispanic whites [6]

Schools of thought[]

Critical White Studies[]

Coming out of the legal studies field of Critical Race Theory, theorists of Critical White Studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. The field inherits from Critical Race Theory a focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power.[7]

Race Traitor[]

One group of people involved in these discussions advocate a strategy they call race treason, and are grouped around articles appearing in the journal Race Traitor. The adherents' main argument is that whiteness (as a marker of a social status within the United States) is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to what they consider an oppressive social order. This loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: suppression of slave rebellions, participation in patrols for runaways, maintenance of race exclusionary unions, participation in riots, support for racist violence, and participation in acts of violence during the conquest of western North America. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of "white skin" (or as physical anthropologists would deem this construct, the phenotype of historical North Atlantic Europeans) as a marker for social consent. With sufficient "counterfeit whites" resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this tradition argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. Without such a period, they argue, progress towards social justice is impossible, and thus "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity".

In Race Traitor, the editors cite as basis for their proposed actions a call by African American writers and activists--notably W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin--for whites to break solidarity with American racism. Since that racism involves the awarding of various forms of white privilege, some have even argued that every white identity is drawn into that system of privilege. Only identities which seek to transcend or defy that privilege, they argue are effectively antiracist. This essential argument echoes Baldwin's declaration that, "As long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you," in an essay in which he acknowledges a variety of European cultures, a multiracial American culture, but no white culture per se which can be distinguished from the maintenance of racism.

Race Traitor advocates have sought examples of race treason by whites in American history. One historical figure consistently valorized by Race Traitor (a publication favorable to the tenets of whiteness studies) is John Brown, a Northern abolitionist of European descent who battled slavery in western territories of the United States and led a failed but dramatic raid to free slaves and create an armed anti-slavery force at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Visions of praxis cited by Race Traitor writers range from anti-racist unionism (such as DRUM in Detroit), collaboration in urban uprisings, and documenting and interfering with police abuse of people of color. Joel Olson has written about a theoretical vision in his book The Abolition of White Democracy.

Whiteness and Femininity[]

The study of whitness was taken up by white feminist theorists responding to black feminisms' demands that 'White Women Listen!' (Hazel Carby, 1997) and the critique of the feminist 'sisterhood' as elliding social, cultural and racial differences. This was the subject of an interdisciplinary conference held at York University, in 1998, the proceedings of which were later published in White?Women by Raw Nerve Books [1].


  1. Jordan, Winthrop. 'White Over Black'
  2. See, for example, Roediger, David. Wages of Whiteness, Working Toward Whiteness); Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness; Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White, and Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color.
  3. Guglielmo, Thomas. White on Arrival
  4. Dr Joseph Pugliese's page at Macquarie University
  5. [ Zimmerman, Julie N. Rural Poverty: Myths and Realities]
  6. BBC News: US poverty rate continues to rise
  7. See, for example, Haney López, Ian F. White by Law. 1995; Lipsitz, George. Possessive Investment in Whiteness; Delgado, Richard; Williams, Patricial; and Kovel, Joel.

Further reading[]

  • Eric Arnesen (2001), "Whiteness and the Historian's Imagination," International Labor and Working-Class History 60: 3-32
  • Allen, Theodore W. (1994), The Invention of the White Race: Volume One; Racial Oppression and Social Control, New York and London, Verso.
  • Carby, Hazel (1997), 'White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood', in Heidi Safia Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism: A Reader, London and New York, Routledge.
  • Connor, Rachel and Crofts, Charlotte (1998), 'Assuming White Identities: Racial and Gendered Looking Across the Literature / Media Divide', in Heloise Brown, Madi Gilkes, Ann Kaloski-Naylor (eds), White?Women, York: Raw Nerve Books.
  • Davy, Kate (1997), 'Outing Whiteness: A Feminist Lesbian Project', in Mike Hill (ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader, New York and London, New York University Press.
  • Peter Kolchin, "Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America," Journal of American History 89 (2002) 154-73.
  • Donaldson, Laura E. (1992), Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire, London, Routledge.
  • Dyer, Richard (1997), White, London, Routledge.
  • Gaines, Jane (1986), 'White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory', Cultural Critique, 4, 59-79.
  • Kaplan, E. Ann (1997), Looking For the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, New York and London, Routledge.
  • Lott, Eric (1997), 'The Whiteness of Film Noir', in Mike Hill (ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (1997), New York and London, New York University Press, 81-101
  • Roediger, David R. (1991), The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, New York and London, Verso.
  • Shohat, Ella (1991), 'Gender and the Culture of Empire: Towards a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema', Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 13 (1-2): 45-84.

See also[]

External links[]

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