What Is Whiteness?

Should people be proud of membership in a group marked by power and privilege?

Posted Jun 13, 2020

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Source: Purchased from iStockPhoto

Given the many current discussions on race and racism, I have been asked by well-intentioned White Americans if it is appropriate to be proud of having a White identity. This is a good question that deserves a good answer.  After all, if one was "Born White," why would that be a bad thing? To understand the meaning behind the concept of "White Pride," it helps to first understand something about the history of Whiteness.

The concept of Whiteness was imported from Spain and Portugal during the slavery era, where Whiteness was defined as a way to contrast one’s identity as different from slaves. This was devised to create a deliberate hierarchy, to define who was privileged and who was property or a second-class citizen (Wood, 2015). The concept of race continues to define people in this way, socially though not legally anymore, albeit with stubbornly disparate outcomes (Salter, Adams, & Perez, 2018).

Culture and ethnicity are good.

In the course of studying race and culture, I have come to understand that race is a destructive thing, as it categorizes people into castes based on their appearance and presumed ancestry. Ethnicity and culture are good things as they are built by a group for the well-being of that group, but not race, which is defined by the dominant culture and imposed upon non-dominant groups. This is why we sometimes refer to certain groups as “racialized.” This is akin to words like “marginalized” or “stigmatized” – generally a negative thing.

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Source: Purchased from Shutterstock

What is Whiteness? An unfairly privileged exclusionary category, based on physical features, most notably a lack of melanin.

While one can be proud of one’s German heritage, French Canadian culture, American nationality, or African American ethnicity, one should not be proud of one’s Whiteness. Whiteness is a forced group membership that originated by oppressing people of color.  And, it causes psychological and spiritual damage to White people just as it damages non-Whites. White Americans are imbued with Whiteness from infancy, they do not choose it for themselves. People who look White and who have immigrated to America are generally afforded Whiteness upon arrival, whether they want it or not.

You may have heard the term White guilt. Many White people are reluctant to define or even discuss Whiteness due to the unpleasant feelings it can evoke of guilt and shame (DiAngelo, 2011). Shame is a particularly toxic emotion due to the lengths at which people will go to avoid this feeling, which typically includes blame-shifting, aggression, and other forms of hostility. It may also lead to self-harm to atone for wrongs done, or other dysfunctional behaviors to distract from the weight of the shame. This is why it feels so uncomfortable when White Nationalists talk about “White Pride.” For most of us, it just doesn't seem right. Continuing to accept unjust benefits that ultimately come at the expense of others is antisocial and unethical. It causes the beneficiaries (e.g., White Americans) to have a stake in not acknowledging, seeing, or changing the problematic status quo. Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

What about Black pride?

People may then ask why is it okay to be proud of being Black but not White. This is because pride in Blackness represents pride in the accomplishments and resilience of a racialized group in the face of continual oppression. It is healthy for Black people to celebrate these small victories to maintain their self-esteem, despite pervasive social messages of inferiority. Further, most African Americans were forcefully deprived of their original diverse identities and had no choice but to forge a new ethnic identity as a single group. And, according to US Census criteria, one cannot claim an African American ethnic identity without being racially Black, confounding the constructs of race and ethnicity.

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Black people come in all shades.
Source: iStockPhoto

Generally, Americans considered Black can be of any skin shade and ethnicity, even if mostly of European ancestry. This is not the case with Whiteness, which is an exclusionary category. The term “White” is a euphemism, as White people have a range of skin shades. White people do not have actually White skin unless they have an extreme medical melanin deficiency (e.g., albinism). Likewise, people might call me Black or dark-skinned, but in reality, my skin tone is medium brown. Rejecting the construction of Whiteness has nothing to do with whether or not a person likes their actual skin color. You can like light-colored skin and still dislike Whiteness.

Certainly, there have to be better ways of describing human beings without the use of racialized terms. We could develop a system of referring to people descriptively by skin shade, when salient, and eliminate racial groupings altogether. The problem is that “eliminating racial groupings” is often interpreted to mean we simply don’t talk about race, even while we treat others unequally (knowingly or unknowingly), which only worsens the problem. For example, many countries that eschew formal American notions of race actually have very racialized societies and biases (e.g., Canada, Germany, France, etc.), with little to no data on the scope of the problem (Faber, Williams, & Terwilliger, 2019; Quillian et al., 2019).

It's not just a minority issue.

Because Whiteness is a third-rail, people of color have had to do much of the work in describing and defining the concept of Whiteness (e.g., Helms, 1990). Since White-dominated societies created this system and continue to use it, it is important that all members of our society share in the responsibility of understanding and fixing it. There may be no quick and easy solution, but as a first step, White people are encouraged to break the silence and start talking about it, simply because you can’t fix what you can’t openly discuss. It is hoped that those who are able to see the tragedy of Whiteness will reject it. This means not only personal work to reduce individual bias, but becoming a true White ally. This means speaking out against racism, dismantling structures that reward Whiteness, and working to build systems that promote equity for everyone.

Contributors: M. T. Williams, Ph.D. ,& S. C. Faber, Ph.D.

References

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3 (3), 54-70.

Faber, S. C., Williams, M. T., & Terwilliger, P. R. (2019, July). Implicit racial bias across ethnic groups and cross-nationally: Mental health implications. In M. Williams & N. Buchanan (discussant), Racial issues in the assessment of mental health and delivery of cognitive behavioral therapies. World Congress of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (WCBCT), Berlin, Germany.

Helms, J. E., & Carter, R. T. (1990). Toward a Model of the White Racial Identity Development. In J. E. Helms (Ed.), Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice, 49-66. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Quillian, L., Heath, A., Pager, D., Midtbøen, A. H., Fleischmann, F., & Hexel, O. (2019). Do Some Countries Discriminate More than Others? Evidence from 97 Field Experiments of Racial Discrimination in Hiring. Sociological Science, 6(18), 467-496. doi: 10.15195/v6.a18

Salter, P. S., Adams, G., & Perez, M. J. (2018). Racism in the structure of everyday worlds: A cultural-psychological perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 150–155.

Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2016). Racial/Cultural Identity Development in people of color: Therapeutic implications, Chapter 11. In Sue, D.W. & Sue, D. (Eds.), Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (7th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Williams, M. T. (2020). Managing Microaggressions: Addressing Everyday Racism in Therapeutic Spaces. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190875237

Wood, P. H. (2015, May 19). The Birth of Race-Based Slavery. Slate.  Excerpted from Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America by Peter H. Wood. Published by Oxford University Press.