Introduction to Whiteness Studies

Whiteness studies investigates the parameters of white racial identity, locating its scope and function in systems of representation. This field of study takes as its founding premise the constructed nature of identity, a poststructuralist concept heralded by race theorists who argue that race itself is not a natural or biological category but rather a social construction given meaning through historical contexts. Whiteness Studies gained academic prominence in the 1990s after minority theorists such as Toni Morrison and bell hooks challenged white critics to examine their own ‘racial’ speaking position instead of solely focusing on the ‘Other‘. The rise of multiculturalism and the pluralization of `the canon’ did much to further whiteness studies; as ethnic traditions gained visibility and strength, many critics questioned why texts written predominantly by white male authors had never been treated as `white’ texts but rather as `universal’ texts representing all people. This tendency of whiteness to occlude or erase markers of particularity is now recognized as one of its characteristics. Investigations in the field have spread from feminism, labour history and literary studies to cultural studies, psychoanalysis and beyond.

Whiteness studies owes it origins in part to all of those who have agitated against the privileges of `white skin’, who have sought to unsettle social, political and economic hierarchies based upon categories of race. While movements against social injustice have occurred across disciplines and beyond the academy, whiteness studies in its current sense finds articulation primarily through academic theorists who focus on upsetting `white privilege’ and power through the analysis of whiteness. This critical project finds its antecedents in the works of writers of colour who have examined the characteristics of white identity. Most germane for contemporary studies is the work of Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1926, Hughes published The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain that outlined the attributes of ‘ ”white” culture’, a culture distinguished by rigid ‘manners, morals and Puritan standards’ (694). For him, whiteness operates as a set of oppressive beliefs and values which could be adopted at will; he describes `this urge within the [black] race towards whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible’ (692). Hughes‘ assimilation theory finds voice in later sociological renderings of Americanization and contemporary theories on whiteness. As a historian and race theorist, W. E. B. Du Bois explores the labour arena, defining whiteness as a set of benefits white workers accrue which offset any economic disadvantages they may experience in a classed society. In his study Black Reconstruction in America, he argued that white workers received a ‘public and psychological wage’ which included `public deference’, access to public facilities, judgement in a court of law by peers of one’s racial group, better schools, etc. to compensate for economic inequities (1975, 700±1). Instead of fighting for all workers to forward the cause of democracy, white workers turned to racism for social and political gain (30). Labour historians rely on Du Bois‘s constructs to understand white working-class identity today.


Research in the history of white racism also serves as a backdrop for contemporary whiteness studies whose critics rely on a range of analytic tools borrowed from a number of disciplines – psychoanalysis, cultural studies, marxism among others – to understand the persistence of `white skin privilege’. Early psycho-cultural studies locate a combination of cultural and psychological forces as the source of white identity. Winthrop Jordan‘s White Over Black serves as a case in point. Jordan outlines the ways Elizabethan concepts of blackness and darkness, whiteness and light (to symbolize evil and good respectively) informed the imaginary constructs of colonizing Europeans who perceived African- Americans as sexualized primitives and Native Americans as errant savages. Like others who followed, Jordan relies on psychoanalytic theory to show how a certain psychic splitting and projection occurs, an interpretative process which remains in vogue even if the psychological explanations for such projections vary. Jordan’s approach garners criticism for being ahistorical and dependent on the concept of a collective psyche whose existence cannot be supported (Saxton 1990, 11-12). Many historians turn instead to a socio-economic approach, one which finds its most well regarded and comprehensive example in Edmund Sears Morgan‘s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. According to Morgan, racism did not originate overseas but rather found root on American soil among legislators who sought to control the labour force through racial division. Fearing the combined uprising of African-American slaves and European-American bond-labourers following Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the Virginia Assembly passed a series of acts meant to ‘foster the contempt of whites for blacks and Indians’ (1975, 331). Sounding much like Du Bois, Morgan argues that such laws provided ‘social, psychological, and political advantages’ to white labourers to encourage them to align their loyalties with Anglo slave holders (1975, 344). While Morgan‘s work retains wide currency, he fails to consider the persistence of racism and white identifications under other economic and social circumstances. Theorists such as David Roediger and Alexander Saxton instead rely on ideological arguments to more completely explain the existence of racism, strategies now widely adopted by whiteness critics. Saxton, for example, argues that racism is not simply economically driven but rather constitutes a system of beliefs and values which shape ‘reality’. Like Morgan, Saxton gives weight to economic benefits but, turning to the theories of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, stresses more completely the manner in which social identities are constructed through scientific, historical, religious and economic discourses intended to sustain class hegemony (1990, 13-15). In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, he points to the origins of racism in the mid-fourteen hundreds when Western Europeans sought to expand and conquer in their desire to accumulate capital. He writes, ‘Since Europeans were generally white- skinned, while the peoples they encountered are generally dark, for three and a half centuries basic human relationships centered on the domination of whites over people of color’ (14). Racism became a series of discourses which supported such hierarchies, modern north american criticism and theory expressed through the religious and scientific theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (15).

Whiteness studies also locates its historical origins in the first and second wave of Anglo- American feminism which, with its failure to attend to racial identity, enacted its own racial ideology. Instead of locating themselves as middle-class white women, activists and academics tended to focus on gender as the only significant axis of identity. In the early 1980s, women of colour such as bell hooks, Barbara Christian and Norma AlarcoÂn among others protested widely, showing how racism pervaded the (white) women’s movement that took as its primary subject, in its early years, the oppression and plight of (white) domestic housewives. Adrienne Rich suggests that early white feminists suffered from a type of ‘white solipsism – not the consciously held belief that one race is inherently superior to all others, but a tunnel-vision which simply does not see non-white experience or existence as precious or significant’ (1979, 306). French feminists, of course, were guilty of the same oversight. The privileging of gender as the initial site of oppression found its way into feminist psychoanalysis in which white feminist theorists argued that all other oppressions, such as race and class, find their origins in the recognition of sexual difference.

In the mid to late 1980s, white academic feminists responded in part by trying to build coalitions with women of colour or by shifting their attention from texts written by white women to those authored by minority writers. Such moves unfortunately left unexamined whiteness as a speaking position and inadvertently reactivated traditional hierarchies in which the ‘Other’ either became responsible for educating whites about the nature of her oppression or once again became the object of investigation. The real work on whiteness did not take place until writers such as Marilyn Frye and Peggy McIntosh sought to give voice to the nature of whiteness and white privilege. Frye offered what is now considered common sense to whiteness theorists. She writes, referring to herself and other white feminists, `[I]t never occurred to us to modify our nouns . . .; to our minds the people we were writing about were people. We don’t think of ourselves as white. It is an important breakthrough for a member of a dominant group to come to know s/he is a member of a group, . . . only a part of humanity’ (1983, 117). McIntosh outlined the contents of an `invisible knapsack’ of ‘skin-colour privileges’ benefiting those phenotypically white – again reminiscent of Du Bois’s wage – including varied images in greeting cards, dolls, toys, etc. to curriculum materials, welcoming attitudes in middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods, wide representation in courts of law and police forces, and easy access to simple items appropriate for one’s group such as hair care products and `flesh’ colour bandages (1990, 33-4).


Such observations corresponded with the work of Richard Dyer, a film critic, whose ideas now form the bedrock of the field. In his study of US and British popular films, he compares the way whiteness functions representationally in US and British culture to colour theory:

Black is always marked as a colour (as the term ‘coloured’ egregiously acknowledges), and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularising quality, because it is everything – white is no colour because it is all colours. This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power. (1988, 45)

Whiteness tends to be ‘subsumed into other identities’ (45), much like Hughes’ equation of whiteness with ‘American standardization’; whites tend to identify themselves according to nation, region, gender or class, etc. rather then race so that the explicit characteristics of whiteness studies whiteness disappear behind the definitions of the `norm’ (46). As Dyer notes, ‘Power in contemporary society habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior’ (45). Such a sense of invisibility makes it difficult to name the ways white domination operates; whites tend to experience their identities more as a case of `historical accident, rather than a characteristic cultural/historical construction, achieved through white domination’ (46).

Dyer‘s advances in film study found reflection in the scholarship of Toni Morrison who in a 1989 article in the Michigan Quarterly Review articulated the premises of her more widely known study Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. She brings whiteness to the forefront of the literary arena, asking readers to consider ways American literature is shaped by white imaginations responding to an African-American presence and more inclusively to ‘Africanism’, ‘the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify’ (1992, 6). Her work fundamentally shifted the focus for many literary critics from the conceptualization of American literature as representing `universal’ themes to a literature in which race functions as a founding marker of identity. Morrison writes, ‘Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness’ (65): `[I]ndividualism is foregrounded (and believed in) when its background is stereotypified, enforced dependency. Freedom (to move, to earn, to learn, to be allied with a powerful centre, to narrate the world) can be relished more deeply in a cheek-by-jowl existence with the bound and unfree, the economically oppressed, the marginalized, the silenced’ (64). Huck’s freedom and individuality becomes visible in light of Jim’s enslavement. Morrison’s critique centres not only on the books themselves but also on critics who historically have ignored figurations of race. Her work has revolutionized American literary studies and has spawned countless investigations, from rereadings of American `classics’ such as Melville‘s Moby Dick (racing the white whale) and Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Voyage of Arthur Gordon Pym, to surveys of whiteness in early American literature, regional literature, modernist drama and poetry, and contemporary fiction by writers of all ethnic backgrounds.

Coincident with Morrison’s breakthrough in literary analysis was David Roediger’s innovations in labour history. While Roedigger‘s The Wages of Whiteness. Race and the Making of the. American Working Class followed Alexander Saxton‘s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, it made a more lasting impact on the field. Roedigger refuses traditional marxist tendencies to privilege class over race, an act which erases the relational and integrated nature of the terms. He rejects the simplicity of earlier split-market labour theories which located fault with the ruling class for the promotion of racism. Such theories position workers, Roedigger argues, as innocent ‘dupes’ instead of participants in their own ideological becoming, constructing their identities in response to a range of economic and social pressures (1999, 9). He turns to Du Bois’s concept of the ‘public and psychological wage’ and the linguistic theories of Mikhail Bakhtin who, in Roedigger’s words, reveals the ways meaning is `socially contested . . . neither absent nor unconnected with social relations’ (15). Roedigger traces the way white workers linguistically registered racial identity in the urban North in the early nineteenth century. For example, white labourers adopted the signifier `help’ and `hired man’ to replace the word `servant’ (synonymous with `slave’ at the time) (47-8) and `boss’ to replace ‘master’ (54). Such assertions signalled their membership in a free republic and difference from the bound, servile black population of the South (49). Roedigger also makes a considerable contribution to interpretations of black minstrelsy. He argues that the popularity of minstrelsy in Northern cities in the early 1800s signalled a desire for a ‘preindustrial past’ which blacks represented (97). Driven by a capitalist regime that modern north american criticism and theory required more and more regimentation in daily living, white labourers turned to blacks to express their own desire for spontaneity. Roedigger’s work finds later comment in texts which more completely address the changing face of minstrelsy and the anxieties which surround white working-class masculinity.


Such early work on whiteness has resulted in a burgeoning of whiteness studies such that critics no longer separate race from gender or class. Advances have been made across the spectrum, most notably in gender and cultural studies. The meanings of white femininity have found critical comment, from histories on the construction of white womanhood during the suffrage, abolitionist and women’s movements to contemporary investigations into the meaning of whiteness for white women in today’s world. To a far greater extent, however, white straight masculinity has attracted critical attention, with particular emphasis placed on a culture of white male victimhood which has emerged in response to advances in feminism, civil rights and economic changes that have disempowered the working-class white male since the 1950s. Reactions against affirmative action and gay rights legislation have helped fuel an image of white heterosexual manhood as under siege. Critics have tracked this image through the popular press, film and the predominately white men’s movement of the 1980s, unpacking the ways in which white masculinity is constructed as multivalent and contested. For example, in his inaugural study White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference, Fred Pfeil challenges the belief that white straight masculinity is a ‘single, monolithic category… shot through with violence, megalomania, instrumental rationality, and the obsessive desire for recognition and definition through conquest’ (1995, viii). He suggests it functions as a ‘dialectical co- construction whose on-going identity is at least partially dependent on the very forms and modalities of femininity it seeks to dominate and control’ (ix). He argues that like other identities, ‘the modalities of white straight masculinity are multiple, and/or riven by contradictions and fissures, and and/or subject to flux and change’ (x). Such advances in gender and race theory throw in question any easy opposition between races or genders and highlight the limits of multiculturalism. If all identities result from historical change, varying according to social context, it becomes difficult to maintain the oppositions that gave birth to whiteness studies as an area of academic study.

As the field reaches the end of its first decade of study, it wobbles on its ontological moorings. Some regard it as a form of ‘vulgar multiculturalism’ in which whiteness becomes essentialized as evil (Wray and Newitz 1997, 12, note 7). Repeated characteristics attached to the category create a form of cultural racism, replacing earlier biological forms. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz argue that not all forms of whiteness function oppressively. In their anthology White Trash: Race and Class in America, the authors, paraphrasing the words of John Waters, write, ‘ “white” trash’ is not just a classic slur – it’s also a racial epithet that marks out certain whites as a breed apart, a dysgenic race unto themselves’ (1997, 2). Pointing to the eugenic studies of the early twentieth century which labelled poor whites as inferior, Wray and Newitz suggest that the category of white trash resists what one might call the `invisibility’ argument of Dyer in favour of a certain visibility – in scientific studies and more recently in the media and popular culture. Elvis becomes the white trash king and pornographic movies are analysed as a form of ‘social and moral protest’ (10). The anthology usefully draws attention to the ways ‘white trash’ as a signifier alleviates middle-and upper-class anxiety about class inequities in a democratic yet capitalist culture. Yet simultaneously it seeks to claim a place for ‘white trash’ alongside other ethnic groups. The authors write: ‘[W]hite trash is one place multiculturalism might look for a white identity which does not view itself as the norm from which all other races and ethnicities deviate’ (5). While Wray and Newitz argue that `[p]erhaps white trash can also provide a corrective to what has been called a “vulgar multiculturalist” assumption that whiteness must always equal terror and racism’ (5), they veer towards creating the very dynamics they seek to avoid. Lower-class whites become stripped of racial privileges to be located as ‘victims’, a position that belies work to date on working-class whiteness. The authors’ comments bespeak a certain desire to locate whiteness outside of its historical constructions as dominating in ways that throw the goals of the larger critical project into disarray.


Similarly, while anthologies, panels, special issues and articles reveal an ardent enthusiasm to eradicate ‘white skin privilege’, their very existence may have the opposite effect in the academy. In 1997, Howard Winant charged that studies that aim to ‘abolish whiteness’ may actually preserve the category in order to transcend it. Most representative of such studies was Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey’s activist/academic journal Race Traitor, an early 1990s series republished as an anthology in 1996. The authors sought to move beyond academic meditations on whiteness to actions individuals could take to `abolish’ the `white club’, `which grants privileges to certain people in return for obedience to its rules’ (1996, 35). Winant‘s charge find its echo in criticism of the rise of whiteness studies which suffers, many argue, from a certain narcissism, or willingness to dwell on racial subjectivity by those who are `white’, redirecting academic attention once again from margin to centre. Such an appropriation of margins offers white critics a new opportunity to enter the multicultural fray, having found a sanctioned enterprise for hawking academic wares on the marketable topic of race.

Despite such criticism and epistemological dangers, the future of whiteness studies remains hopeful. While many critics have investigated the ways whiteness depends on blackness for definition (either through contrast or appropriation of cultural forms), several now acknowledge the ways whiteness functions antithetically or multiply in relation to a range of other ethnic identities. The cultural studies arena has exploded with varied interrogations of whiteness in the popular media, from Rush Limbaugh talk shows to country music. In addition, critics working within gay and lesbian studies are helping shed the light on the long association of white maleness with heterosexuality. Finally, interesting work has emerged which looks at whiteness as a series of performative acts, whether that be in ethnographies, in which women of colour assume a white masculinist gaze in order to critique it, to the performance of whiteness on stage as a deconstructive act. The inventiveness of such strategies for ‘seeing’ whiteness bodes well for a future that may be textured and rich, one which moves beyond analyses of United States culture as vested completely within black and white dualities.


Sourcce: Modern North American Criticism and Theory A Critical Guide Edited by Julian Wolfreys Edinburgh University Press 2002

Further reading and works cited
Allen, T. The Invention of the White Race. London, 1994.
Babb, V. Whiteness Visible. New York, 1998.
Delgado, R. and Stefanic, J. (eds) Critical Whiteness Studies. Philadelphia, 1997.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York, 1975.
Dyer, R. `White’, Screen, 29, 4, Autumn 1988.
Frankenberg, R. White Women, Race Matters. Minneapolis, MN, 1993.
Ð (ed.) Displacing Whiteness. Durham, NC, 1997.
Frye, M. The Politics of Reality. New York, 1983.
Hill, M. (ed.) Whiteness. New York, 1997.
Hughes, L.`The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, The Nation, 122, 3181, 23 June 1926.
Ignatiev, N. How the Irish Became White. New York, 1995.
Ð and Garvey, J. Race Traitor. New York, 1996.
Jordan, W. D. White Over Black. Chapel Hill, NC, 1968.
Lopez, I. F. Haney. White by Law. New York, 1996.
Lott, E. Love and Theft. New York, 1993.
McIntosh, P. `White Privilege’, Independent School, 31-6, Winter, 1990.
Morgan, E. S. American Slavery/American Freedom. New York, 1975.
Morrison, T. Playing in the Dark. New York, 1992.
Nelson, D. D. National Manhood. Durham, NC, 1998.
Pfeil, F. White Guys. London, 1995.
Rich, A. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York, 1979.
Roedigger, D. Towards the Abolition of Whiteness. London, 1994.
Ð. Wages of Whiteness, afterword D. Roedigger. London, 1999.
Savran, D. `The Sadomasochist in the Closet’, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 8, 2, 1996.
Saxton, A. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. London,


Categories: Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, Whiteness Studies

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