Whiteness studies

Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of inquiry that has developed beginning in the United States, particularly since the late 20th century, and is focused on what proponents describe as the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of "whiteness" as an ideology tied to social status. Pioneers in the field include W. E. B. Du Bois ("Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization", 1890; Darkwater, 1920), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, 1963), Theodore W. Allen (The Invention of the White Race, 1976, expanded in 1995), Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992) and historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991). By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and it has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.

A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present that is inspired by postmodernism and historicism, in which the very concept of racial superiority is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 19th century, some writers have argued that the phenotypical significances attributed to specific races are without biological association, and that race is therefore not a valid biological concept.[1] Many scientists have demonstrated that racial theories are based upon an arbitrary clustering of phenotypical categories and customs, and can overlook the problem of gradations between categories.[2] Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert L. Krizek write about whiteness as a "strategic rhetoric," asserting, in the essay "Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric", that whiteness is a product of "discursive formation" and a "rhetorical construction". Nakayama and Krizek write, "there is no 'true essence' to 'whiteness': there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location."[3] Nakayama and Krizek also suggest that by naming whiteness, one calls out its centrality and reveals its invisible, central position. Whiteness is considered normal and neutral, therefore, to name whiteness means that one identifies whiteness as a rhetorical construction which can be dissected to unearth its values and beliefs.

Major areas of research in whiteness studies include the nature of white privilege and white identity, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity.

Development of the field

Studies of whiteness as a unique identity could be said to begin among black people, who needed to understand whiteness to survive, particularly in slave societies such as the American colonies and United States.[4][5][6] An important theme in this literature is, beyond the general "invisibility" of blacks to whites, the unwillingness of white people to consider that black people study them anthropologically.[4] American author James Weldon Johnson wrote in his 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that "colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them".[7][8] Author James Baldwin wrote and spoke extensively about whiteness, defining it as a central social problem and insisting that it was choice, not a biological identity.[9][10] In The Fire Next Time (1963), a non-fiction book on race relations in the United States, Baldwin suggests that

"White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."[11]

A major black theory of whiteness connects this identity group with acts of terrorism—i.e., slavery, rape, torture, and lynching—against black people, who were treated as sub-human.[12]

White academics in the United States and the United Kingdom (UK) began to study whiteness as early as 1983, creating the idea of a discipline called "whiteness studies".[13] The " canon wars" of the late 1980s and 1990s, a political controversy over the centrality of white authors and perspectives in United States culture, led the scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin to ask "how the imaginative construction of 'whiteness' had shaped American literature and American history".[14]:430 The field developed a large body of work during the early 1990s, Fishkin describes it extending across the disciplines of "literary criticism, history, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore".[14]

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, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with research on post-colonial theory and orientalism taking place in the Arts and Humanities, Sociology, Literature, Communications, and Cultural and Media Studies faculties and departments, among others (e.g. Kent, Leeds). Also heavily engaged in whiteness studies are practitioners of anti-racist education, such as Betita Martinez and the Challenging White Supremacy workshop.

One contribution to White Studies is Rich Benjamin's Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. The book examines white social beliefs and white anxiety in the contemporary United States—in the context of enormous demographic, cultural, and social change. The book is often taught as a primer in White Studies on white racial identity in a "post-racial" US.[15]

Another major contribution to whiteness studies is the analysis of whiteness as a phenomenon, not just localized to the US and Western Hemisphere, but also in the context of other post-colonial metropoles such as the Netherlands. Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race excavates the immutability and fluidity of white identity and its relationship to innocence in the context of post-colonial Netherlands in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Wekker identifies white innocence as a contemporary construction and denial [aggressive national forgetting] of the Netherlands role and proximity to European imperialism, racial stratification and hierarchy, and its contributions to the making of contemporary constructions of national belonging and cultural normativity (autochtoon vs. allochtonen).

In Wekker’s analysis, although a majority of the residents of the Netherlands are migrants, the process of stratifying Dutch from “Other” is facilitated through skin tone and non-Christian religious practices (“deviant”, non-White religions). In Wekker’s account, the process of racialization is reserved for mid-to-late twentieth century migrant groups [i.e. Muslims, Black Surinamese, Black Antilleans], interchangeably as a means of delineating groups outside the constructed immutable “norms” of Dutch society. Ultimately, Wekker is illuminating the cultural and rhetorical maneuvering that occurs within Dutch popular culture, educational spaces, and national discourses that facilitate a normalizing, non-identity to whiteness and how this very concept is intricately connected to a longer historical nineteenth-century racial grammar that accompanied imperial expansion.[16]

History of whiteness

Whiteness studies draws on research into the definition of race, originating with the United States but applying to racial stratification worldwide. This research emphasizes the historically recent social construction of white identity. As stated by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1920: "The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed."[17] The discipline examines how white, Native, and African/black identities emerged in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan[18] have traced the evolution of the legally defined line between "blacks" and "whites" to colonial government efforts to prevent cross-racial revolts among unpaid laborers.

Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter, in her 2010 book The History of White People,[19] says the idea of whiteness is not just a matter of biology but also includes "concepts of labor, gender, class, and images of personal beauty".(p. xi) The earliest European societies, including the Greeks and Romans, had no concept of race and classified people by ethnicity and social class, with the lowest class being slaves, most of whom were European in origin.(p. xi) Race science, developed in Europe in the 1800s, included intense analysis of different groups of Europeans, who were classified as belonging to three or four different races, with the most admirable being from northern Europe.(pp. 215–6) From the early days of the United States, whiteness was a criterion for full citizenship and acceptance into society. The American definition of whiteness evolved over time; initially groups such as Jews and southern Europeans were not regarded as white, but as skin color became the primary criterion, they were gradually accepted. Painter argues that in the 21st century the definition of whiteness - or more precisely the definition of "nonblackness" - has continued to expand, so that now "The dark of skin who happen to be rich ... and the light of skin from any (racial background) who are beautiful, are now well on their way to inclusion."(pp. 389–90.)

Academic Joseph Pugliese is among writers who have applied whiteness studies to an Australian context, discussing the ways that Indigenous Australians were marginalized in the wake of British colonization of Australia, as whiteness came to be defined as central to Australian identity.[20][21] Pugliese discusses the 20th-century White Australia policy as a conscious attempt to preserve the "purity" of whiteness in Australian society.[22][23] Likewise Stefanie Affeldt considers whiteness "a concept not yet fully developed at the time the first convicts and settlers arrived down under" [24] which, as a social relation, had to be negotiated and was driven forward in particular by the labour movement. Eventually, with the Federation of Australia, "[o]verlaying social differences, the shared membership in the 'white race' was the catalyst for the consolidation of the Australian colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia".[25]