Introduction to Whiteness Studies

Dr. Gregory Jay, Professor of English
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee 53201

"It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." --Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Appalling? Enough to make you blanch? Whiteness Studies is here, a ghost haunting multiculturalism and critical race studies. What is this apparition, and what, if anything, justifies its appearance today?

Though I cannot in this space offer a comprehensive description of the field of Whiteness Studies, I will present my idea of its contents and orientation (for helpful recent anthologies see Delgado and Stefancic; Fine et. al.; and Rothenberg, in the bibliographies listed on this internet site). I believe that Whiteness Studies belongs to the general effort to create a “critical multiculturalism” as an alternative to the “celebratory multiculturalism” popular since the 1970s and still largely influential in our classrooms (especially K-12).

Critical multiculturalism concerns itself with analyzing the inequalities of power that both motivate and result from practices of racial, ethnic, gender, class, or sexual discrimination. Critical multculturalism is antiracist, dedicated to social justice and structural change, and connects U. S. ethno-racial conflict to its global contexts (see the essays collected in May, Critical Multiculturalism). Whiteness Studies attempts to trace the economic and political history behind the invention of "whiteness," to challenge the privileges given to so-called "whites," and to analyze the cultural practices (in art, music, literature, and popular media) that create and perpetuate the fiction of "whiteness."

Whiteness Studies is not an attack on people, whatever their skin color. Instead, Whiteness Studies is an attempt to think critically about how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture. Thus it includes examining how white skin preference insinuates itself into the culture of communities of color as well, where we may find everything from prejudice against darker skinned people within the community to commercial practices of white-body imitation and surgery (nose jobs, skin creams, eye-lid alteration, etc.). The transnational character of white privilege results from the legacy of European colonial imperialism, so that Whiteness Studies may be usefully articulated with theories of globalization and postcoloniality as well.

At bottom, "whiteness" is an ideological fiction naming those properties supposedly unique to "white people,” properties used to claim that they are a “superior race” and the “norm” by which others are judged. “Whiteness” is also—or above all else—a legal fiction determining the distribution of wealth, power, human rights, and citizenship among bodies denominated by this fiction (see Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness). Historically, white people are an invented "race," made up of various ethnic groups perceived to have a common ancestry in parts of Europe and self-proclaimed to be superior biologically and culturally to other "races." "White" was invented as a category when previous notions of national "races" (French, German, English, Norwegian, etc.) were lumped together to create a single powerful coalition. "White" is thus a political fiction that has been used by one social group to harm and oppress others. (See my online PowerPoint "A Short History of White Supremacy." )

Indeed, the history of the invention of whiteness may strengthen arguments against the very notion of "race" itself, since this history exposes that there is no such things as a "pure" race, and that all human population groups are historical mixtures of different ethnicities. So Paul Gilroy, for example, titles his most recent provocative book Against Race, arguing that ultimately we must abandon the term if we have any hope of progressive political change. Though contemporary genetic research has done much to discredit the notion of distinct races, we are reminded by Cornel West, Troy Duster and others that race matters and still plays a distinctive role in medical as well as social reality and cannot be ignored (see also Brown et. al Whitewashing Race).

"Whiteness" is a term derived from the historical practice of institutionalizing “white supremacy.” Beginning in at least the seventeenth century, "white" appeared as a legal term and social designator that determined who could vote, who could be enslaved, who could be a citizen, who could attend which schools and churches, who could marry whom, and who could drink from what water fountain. These and thousands of other legal and social regulations were built upon the fiction that there existed a superior "white" race that deserved special privileges and protections. Many of the legal and social regulations supporting white supremacy were still in force well into the 1960s, when the modern Civil Rights Movement fought to overturn the regime of segregation put into place after the defeat of slavery. It was only in 1967 that the Supreme Court finally overturned the last state statutes against interracial marriage.

But the power of the fiction of "whiteness" continues to the present day, distorting our laws and culture in ways we still fail to recognize. Most whites continue to vehemently deny that they benefit from their skin color. Where once “white supremacy” was a routinely publicized, accepted, and legitimated norm of socio-political and cultural discourse, it is today a silenced reality, a truth that dare not speak its name.The purpose of Whiteness Studies is to expose this silence and this fiction, to make visible the history and practices of white supremacy as found in social life, the law, literature, music, politics, and every other realm of "civilization."

I believe that Whiteness Studies must be part of the general effort to eradicate prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and racism. Such a liberation project can be strengthened by deconstructing the notion of a "white race," delegitimating the privileges given to whites, and criticizing the cultural preference given to images of whiteness. Whiteness Studies owes a great debt to the work done by generations of African American writers and thinkers, as well as to critics from many other ethno-racial groups (see Roediger, ed. Black on White). Whiteness Studies is no substitute for area studies, ethnic studies, or postcolonial studies, but a necessary complement to them. There is always the danger that Whiteness Studies will be misunderstood as just a gimmick for keeping the focus on white people, or as another attempt to put white people back in the position of privilege, or another way of avoiding the challenges presented by non-white perspectives, or simply a vehicle for "hating whitey." Teachers working to include Whiteness Studies in their courses should be aware of these dangers and take steps to avoid them as much as possible. Emphasizing critiques of whiteness, in literature and other areas, by people of color is one effective way to continue decentering whiteness even as we focus on it.a longer version of the above remarks, see my essay "Who Invented White People?"