This page is intended to stimulate discussion, and comments may not necessarily reflect the views of BRJA.

Whiteness – What is it? IVORY_NoraHowell_2010

Many of us think of whiteness as race.  Afterall, it’s one of the “race” options on the U.S. Census and on standardized tests.  Yet scientists have shown, based on their advanced understanding of genetics, that race has no biological basis.  Rather, race is a constructed social concept, institutionalized in the 18th century, and used by a dominant group to categorize human beings into separate and hierarchical groups.  Thus whiteness is more than skin color or ancestry. When we talk about whiteness we are not necessarily talking about white people. As a social construct, whiteness often operates without the intentional actions, or even the knowledge, of white people.

A Very Brief History

In the United States, the concept of whiteness and race began at first contact between European colonists and First Nations lands and peoples in the late 1400s.  The colonists’ had a belief in their own moral and cultural superiority, which was later articulated in the idea of Manifest Destiny.  This provided the basis for “whiteness” as it is today. Larry Adelman’s A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites explains how whiteness has historically operated.


  • Ignorance: Today in the U.S., other than perhaps a chapter on enslavement and a paragraph on Custer, few (white) people are taught about the way whiteness has been historically used to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, particularly First Nations peoples and Afrikan descendants.  Today in the U.S., we white folks are largely ignorant of our cultural legacy, and oblivious to the ways in which whiteness still operates.  Part of the way white culture works is by justifying privileges and benefits as self-deserving.  White people don’t usually see life in racial terms – that is one of the privileges of whiteness.  Questioning the fairness of the system is discouraged, often to avoid the guilt and shame that may arise when we face the historical roots of racism.
  • Privilege: Many of us are familiar with the term “white supremacy” and associate it with 19th-century Klan members and a few extremists groups.  Yet the United States is a society that was built on the idea of the superiority of white people, and remains a society operating on those white supremacist assumptions, holding white culture – attitudes, behavior,  beliefs, standards, history, values, and more – superior to others and as the standard for other groups to meet.  Thus being white, even today, means having white privilege: the concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and power to shape the norms and values of society which white people receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a racist society.  White privilege is sustained by structural racism (the unconscious and conscious development and maintenance of unfair structures that benefit whites to the detriment of people of color).


White Culture – What Are Its Characteristics?


Whiteness – What It Can Be

  • Responsible:  Racism in the U.S. is primarily a result of widely held assumptions about the superiority of white culture and the cultural structures that secure it.  As white people, we have three options:
    • We either actively participate in racism.
    • Passively accept racism, or
    • Actively oppose racism. To actively oppose racism we can begin by asking, “What is my responsibility toward those structures as a white person?”  “How do I deal with the inherent unfairness of privilege?”  “What, if anything, do I have to give up?” “How can I train myself to see structural racism and how do I disentangle myself?”
  • Anti-racist: Your organization, institution, government agency, or house of worship doesn’t have to be diverse to be anti-racist.  Even all white spaces can be anti-racist! Ask us how.
  • Accountable: We need to compare our good intentions with their outcomes.  Are we really helping?  Ask those who are impacted.
  • Taking the back seat: We don’t always have to be the conveners/leaders/deciders.  How about supporting organizations led by people of color who are already doing the work?
  • What we can do

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