Whiteness theory

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Whiteness theory is understood as a specific approach in Whiteness Studies, examining how white identity affects a non-exhaustive list of identities in an adult's life.[1] This list includes, but is not limited to: social, political, racial, economic, and cultural identity. Whiteness Theory also looks at how whiteness is centric in culture, creating a blindness to the set of privileges associated with White identity, also known as white privilege.[2]

Whiteness Theory is an offshoot of critical race theory that sees race as a social construct. It posits that whiteness is invisible yet is associated with a system of racial privilege.[3] Whiteness Theory, however, is not to be confused with white privilege, although the privilege associated with white identity is a topic of Whiteness Theory. Critical Whiteness Theory positions whiteness as the default of American culture, and as a result of this default, white people are blind to the advantages and disadvantages of being white due to a lack of cultural subjectiveness towards whiteness.[1] Stemming from the lack of cultural awareness and empathy with racial disprivileges as a result of being white, Whiteness Theory looks at the social, power, and economic challenges that arise from blind, white privilege.[4]

Pillars of Whiteness Theory[edit]

Whiteness as Default[edit]

Whiteness is a socially constructed concept, identified as the normal and centric racial identity. As whiteness is the standard to which racial minorities are compared, whiteness is understood as the default standard.[5] Whiteness Theory establishes whiteness as default, through which social, political, and economic complications arise from whiteness and its creation of color blindness.[4] The ideologies, social norms, and behaviors associated with white culture are the comparative standard to which all races are objectified to.[6]

The defaulting of whiteness establishes a reality in which white people, as victims of their race as centric, do not experience the adversity of those with minority identification. An otherization of minorities can occur with whiteness as a default, where Whiteness Theory identifies whiteness as invisible to those who possess it, resulting in both intended and untended otherization.[7] Whiteness as default presents socioeconomic privileges and advantages over racial minorities, which also might go unrecognized by white people that are not objectified by some other standard of adversity.[5]

Whiteness as Centric[edit]

As whiteness is considered the default race of the United States, the existing cultural norms of whiteness are classified as the norms of American culture. Such classifications of white culture include stereotypical expectancies of behavior, in which a binary system is created that classifies a person's culture as either "white" or "other."[8] Majority racial status plays a major role for those of white identity creating cultural "norms," as one's behaviors and expectations of how a culture should live and interact is more easily reinforced by association with the majority.[9] Lack of awareness parallels the centric nature of whiteness as majority through self-imposed color blindness, existing through the reality of white privilege.

Whiteness Theory studies the way that white identity passively creates the otherization of color. Color is a construct that can be objectified, made from the existence of whiteness as majority and centric.[10] Such a perception whiteness as "normal" leads to an underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minority individuals.

White Identity[edit]

The idea of whiteness as "normal" reinforces the idea of racial marginalization, through which an identity of whiteness may be created through the antithesis of subjugated "otherized" cultures.[11] Much of white identity is formulated around the absence of an identity. Because there is no association towards being objectified by social, racial, economic, or judicial systems for the middle-class white identifiers, white identity for an individual may be intentionally crafted to suit the wants and needs of the individual.[12] Such a choice of "coloring in" one's whiteness is a reflection of the privileges of whiteness and a lack of diverse community association.[13]

Spherical graphic showing the intersectional paradigms of privilege and discrimination
The spheres of privilege and discrimination possibilities based on identity, notably citing whiteness as one of the platforms of dominance.

White Privilege[edit]

In the United States, white privilege exists due to the hierarchy of power distribution, where white men were granted institutional power over minorities in the establishment of the country's political, social, and economic systems.[1] White privilege resides in the idea that white people inherit a color blindness due to their majority status, refuting the existence of racism and racial privilege because of a lack of association with those realities.[14] The privileges of being in the majority are unknown by the majority, paradoxically, because they are the majority and are not subjected to the social trials of being a minority.[15] Also white people have been portrayed by the media as mentally ill, after they had committed a serious crime such as a mass shooting. This has given an unfair judgement to black shooters because of racial skin color that the media portraits them. When black people do a mass shooting they are often viewed as being a threat with criminal intent & so they are less likely to be seen as mentally ill

Lack of discrimination is an underlying principle of white privilege, as the privileges available to the white majority are not as readily enjoyed by those of minority status. Such privileges include, but are not limited to: owning/renting of property, equal racial representation in law and society, unbiased education, assumption of intellectual, social, or financial capability, unbiased credibility.[16] Privilege is multi-faceted in its existence; each of these realities and countless others are the subject of white privilege, as discrimination is faced by minority subjects while trying to enjoy such realities.

White Bias[edit]

White bias is in reference to majority stronghold that white people possess. Those of a particular racial identity (whiteness) have selective preference of granting power and privileges to those of the same ethnicity, referred to as ingroup bias.[17] Such strongholds may be categorically associated to the social, educational, economic, political, racial, and cultural privileges associated by the majority white. Institutionally power is granted hierarchically, and in majority, to those who that associate most with the power holders. Racial bias exists as a barrier to entry for many minority power seekers, where a gatekeeping effect is created by those in the majority who are reluctant to pass power onto the minority, whether through qualification-based or discrimination-based motives.[18]

Socially, institutional slavery, then racism has played a major role in the discrimination of not only African-Americans, but as well other minority affiliations as suboptimal. Economically, access to higher-paying jobs and wage gap discrimination are an ongoing discourse demanding institutional change, both as a result of white bias.[19] Politically, racial bias is seen with the highly sought after Presidential office, where America's first black president Barack Obama was not elected until 2008, being preceded by 43 white presidents by him and being followed by a white president Donald Trump as the 45th.

Whiteness as Unspoken[edit]

Privileges of whiteness are well known to those of minority status, but not to white people themselves. In efforts of diversity education, white people are often taught to understand the way in which minorities are discriminated against, but not how those of white identity experience a lack of discrimination – this creates an unspoken element of white identity, where white people are often fixated on the objectification of other people, but not as much on the lack of objectification of themselves.[20] The debate on meritocracy, and its legitimacy is one that facilitates patterns of racial injustice towards marginalized groups as it validates the assumption that success is solely a result of individual efforts; this disguises the social, economic, and cultural privileges intersected with all institutions that actively work to benefit whiteness.[1]

Through the objectification of minorities, race is concerted as the root motivation of such objectification. White identity goes unspoken due to its default and centric nature in culture. Whiteness is only objectified in a situation where whiteness is not normalized or considered the majority. For example, if a person of white identity is immersed in a context where people of minority are situationally the majority by quantity, then the white person (who is usually the situational majority based on quantity) is caught in an uncommon reality where their association with the majority is the subject of otherization.

Critiquing Whiteness[edit]

Communication research revolving around critical race theory seeks to understand the privileges and associations of whiteness. The critical aspect of research involves the realization of white enrichment, where white people have profited from the injustices done unto minorities (see European colonization of the Americas slavery) both knowingly and unknowingly. Systems in the United States more often than not create privileged realities where white people may succeed more than those of minority identity, also allowing those of white identity to more easily change and manipulate the system to their favor.[21]

A component of critical whiteness theory seeks to understand how white people acknowledge their privileges, as well as the corresponding positive or negative behaviors through their acknowledgements. Unique qualitative research is derived from how normative whiteness is in our culture, associated with how color blindness and privilege blindness affect interracial contexts of communication, as well as the white perception of injustices done unto minorities in America.[22]

Whiteness Theory in Communication Studies[edit]

The tenets of white privilege are incorporated into whiteness theory to understand the respective communicative possibilities of each tenet. Studying how white privilege is perceived by white people, how well white people perceive white privilege, how white people think their white privilege affects their identity, how white identity is derived from and conflicts with other racial identities, and how white privilege is perceived by minorities are all a limited set of possibilities created by whiteness theory.[23] These theoretical studies can be manipulated by the following variables of whiteness theory:

  • Centric whiteness
  • Whiteness as the default
  • Whiteness as normative
  • Whiteness and rhetoric
  • White identity
  • White racial culture
  • White bias
  • White interaction with minorities
  • Whiteness and inequality
  • White cultural cannibalism
  • Whiteness and education
  • Whiteness and politics
  • Whiteness and popular culture
  • Whiteness and gender

Whiteness Theory in Audio-visual Studies[edit]

Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing[24] explores Whiteness theory through the social, economic, racial and cultural identities of the white characters Sal, Vito and Pino. The film follows another day in the life of Mookie, an African-American man working for Sal's Famous Pizzeria, and the racial tensions that arise between Sal and Mookie's friend Buggin’ Out. Sal, Vito and Pino are an Italian-American family who own a pizzeria in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, USA. The pizzeria is thus marked as a ‘white spot’ amongst black America, representing what colonised America has become;[25] White American's are working class citizens who capitalise on Black America. This is exemplified through Pino's behaviour toward the African-American customers of the pizzeria through micro-aggressions and slurring of racist remarks while deindividuating Mookie's negative behaviour to be typical of his race,[26] “How come niggers are so stupid?”.[27] As Hughey[28] suggests a feeling of threat to the white normality, Pino attempts to exert his white privilege through his actions. For example, Pino explains that he is fed up with being around black people in this neighbourhood and suggests to his father that they sell Sal's Famous Pizzeria and move to their own neighbourhood instead. Whiteness is also shown through Sal's ‘Wall of Fame’ in his pizzeria which only showcases famous Italian-American individuals. When Buggin’ Out calls for the representation of African-American's to be included on the wall alongside the Italian-Americans, Sal refuses by replying, “Only Italian-American’s up on the wall”.[29] Sal sees his own cultural and racial identity to be central to his view of American representation and thus is an example of his Whiteness. Another example of Whiteness in the film is when a white man's car is soaked by the suburb's citizen's enjoying the water from the fire hydrant on the street. The Police ask the man to describe the men who soaked his car and he says, “Mo and Jo Black…Yeah, they were brothers”.[30] This is an example of what Memmi[26] describes as the ‘mark of plural’, where these two individuals are homogenously deindividualized and thus marked as raced rather than as individuals.

Whiteness theory is further explored in the 2006 film Blood Diamond by Edward Zwick.[31] The film follows Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler whose ticket out of Africa is a pink diamond found and hidden by a local African fisherman, Solomon Vandy. Danny Archer's Whiteness prevails throughout the film. In one scene, Danny pleads to allow Solomon to help him find his family, saying that without the help of himself and the other white people that he knows, Solomon is, “…just another black man in Africa”.[32] On several occasions Danny uses the term T.I.A. (This is Africa) when speaking to white foreigners.[33] It is clear here that the use of this term by a white man in a black country details supposed inherent raced characteristics of Africa that are different to that of the white race.[33] Hughey's [28] notion of the White Saviour is perfectly depicted in this film also. Not only does Danny Archer dedicate his time and resources to help Solomon Vandy find the diamond and thus his family, he asks for the help of other white characters such as Maddy Bowen which ultimately result in Danny Archer's sacrifice of his own life and the money from the pink diamond to save Solomon Vandy and his family from definitive death.


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  31. ^ Blood Diamond. Directed by Edward Zwick. Bedford Falls Productions, 2006.
  32. ^ Blood Diamond. Directed by Edward Zwick. Bedford Falls Productions, 2006. (0:43:02)
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