When the U.S. Census Bureau asked residents to count off for the new millennium, sharp-eyed individuals noticed a slight oddity in the form's race question: While Asians or Pacific Islanders could pick from among nine boxes (Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian, or Chamorro and Samoan), Caucasians had only one box (white). The bureau, theoretically, could have offered a similar menu for whites by including boxes for the Irish, Italians, Polish, and Germans among us. But it did not, and the choice is telling because it implies that if you're white, you're white--what more is there to say?
A lot, as it turns out. In recent years, as the president and media leaders such as The New York Times have sought to advance a national conversation about race, a new academic field has sprung up that is devoted to understanding whiteness. By studying white identity-- its history, its relation to minority identity--these scholars want to give whites the ability and vocabulary to participate in race discussions. The field is interdisciplinary, and its methodologies range widely; most observers agree it started in the early 1990s. Among the books that played a prominent role are Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, an examination of cultural representations of race in literature; David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class and Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White, two works of labor history; and Theodore Allen's The Invention of the White Race.
In whiteness studies, race and racism isn't only a matter of blacks and other minorities getting poorer service at restaurants, paranoid looks in an elevator, pulled over more often, or mortgage applications denied. Racism is also about its converse--about whites getting better service, being pegged less often as crime suspects, and being able to see fellow whites on TV, magazine covers, and so on. "As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage," wrote Peggy McIntosh in a much-celebrated 1988 essay on whiteness. "But [I] had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage." Among the many benefits she enumerated: "Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability... . I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion."
There is a good deal of this sort of writing available now, most of it being offered for the consideration of undergraduate college students. The field of whiteness studies has not exactly caught on and is still dismissed as marginal by some academics. But there are articles, college courses, and conferences, and there have been more than a half-dozen books on this topic in the past two years alone. Wading into this produces a few head-turning moments but also leads one to question whether there is something inherent in the approach of whiteness studies that will prevent it from reaching a wider audience. Indeed, there is reason to question whether the field can survive its own theoretical tensions.
That racial matters are about propping whites up as much as about knocking blacks down is poignantly illustrated in White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness by Maurice Berger, who offers a pastiche of personal reflections, interviews with friends, and literary quotations. A Jewish art historian teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City, Berger grew up in a predominantly black and Hispanic housing project on the Lower East Side. He recalls his mother's life as an example of the influence of skin color. A dark-complexioned Sephardic Jew with a Hispanic-sounding maiden name ("More than once she had been called a spic"), Berger's mother was sharply aware of how her darker skin thwarted her aspirations as an opera singer and so devoted much of her life to trying to lighten her skin. Berger describes her daily beauty regimen: "She would brush her jet-black hair, applying gobs of foul-smelling, viscous pomades in an effort to relax her tight, kinky curls into gentle waves." Afterward, she would apply foundation much lighter than her skin, finishing with "a dusting of chalky face powder." Only then would she turn away from the mirror to let her son and the rest of the world see her. The end product--"layers of greasepaint"--wasn't beautiful but allowed her to pass for white, and being white mattered.
Berger discusses white privilege in a way that is personal and emotional, even contrite in parts. In one anecdote, he wrestles with his hatred of a woman of color who beat him out of a college fellowship. This confessional mode can be effective--admission is the first step to recovery, after all--but it also has its limits. Berger is concerned primarily with individual experiences and feelings--either his own or others'. But an individualistic conception of racism hides how whites benefit systemically from whiteness. Berger wants to know what being white means--to individuals, to himself--but the hope of whiteness studies is to determine, objectively, what white identity is because whiteness scholars see the field as being part of a political movement toward racial equality. In this respect, Berger's book falls short.
White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America, an anthology of essays edited by four education professors, makes a strong political case for studying whiteness and offers the most compelling reasons for why, and why now. White Reign exposes color blindness--the popular take on race relations popularized by Reagan conservatives--as a hoax: It works only if one assumes that being white is no different from being any other race. "This collective white denial of privilege inhibits questions and public reflection on how being White may provide benefits," say the editors. Because of this mind-set, conservatives have been able to point to affirmative action programs or multicultural discussions and recast whites as victims of unfair discrimination. "When conservatives maintain that white people aren't allowed to be White anymore, many young Whites believe that a conspiracy of antiwhite minorities and multiculturalists is repressing their free expression of a white identity." Actually, the book argues, conservatives have been successful in advancing a kind of identity politics by pushing a Eurocentric cultural canon, English-language-only legislation, and a social solidarity of perceived slights.
With its tongue-in-cheek dedication, "To Strom Thurmond, William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch, and Jesse Helms," White Reign challenges liberal whites to formulate a "progressive, antiracist white identity as an alternative to the white ethnic pride shaped by the right wing." Without such an alternative, whites will either angrily drop out of the race debate altogether or, by hearkening back to an old, mythic, ethnic identity, try to relate to and participate in the race debate as oppressed members of society. But "[e]ating moussaka on holidays," White Reign argues, "does not a marginalized Greek immigrant make."
Whiteness is an ever-shifting category. How the definition of whiteness has changed in America is the subject of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race and White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. The books use divergent methods to arrive at the same conclusion: Whiteness is a racial category that is socially constructed and, hence, entirely arbitrary. "Caucasians are made and not born," argues Matthew Frye Jacobson in Whiteness of a Different Color. As Ian Haney-Lopez writes in White by Law, a legal history of whiteness, "'White' is not a biologically defined group, a static taxonomy, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people... . 'White' is what we believe it is." The idea that races are socially constructed is an old one. Mark Twain's 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, for example, was in part about social definitions of race: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro." And her son, born by a white father, "was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by fiction of law and custom a Negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls."
What is new is a challenge to the inevitability of whiteness. If the definition of whiteness is able to shift over time, so the implicit hope of whiteness scholars goes, then it might be possible to expand it to include all people. Or, if the arbitrariness of whiteness can be established, whites may be willing to give up privileges out of a desire for a racially equal society. "Why is it that in the United States a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?" Jacobson asks. "Doesn't this bespeak a degree of arbitrariness in this business of affixing racial labels?"
Jacobson divides the history of whiteness into three epochs. During the first, starting in the late eighteenth century and culminating in the naturalization law of 1790, citizenship was intended for "free white persons" only. This was because the formulation of the law coincided with the age of exploration, the expansion of the frontier, and slave holding--all of which associated whiteness with "fitness for self government." During the second epoch--the period from 1840 to 1924--this law allowed mass immigration, a result of supply-push factors (slumps in the European economy) and demand-pull factors (American industrialization). America received the Irish fleeing the potato famine, Germans, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Italians, and Greeks, "none of whom the framers had ever envisioned swelling the polity of the new nation when they crafted its rules for naturalization." During this time, Jacobson reports, whiteness as a category began to fracture into subcategories of races--the Slavs, Hebrews, Iberians, Celts--deemed to be unfit for self-government but still white enough to enter the country. The second period ended with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act capping immigra-tion at 2 percent of the 1890 census. Whiteness subsequently changed again and morphed into a black-white bipolar structure, with the pseudo-scientific race divisions of Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negroid races marking the third epoch.
The point of the book is to show not only the flexibility of racial demarcations, but something more profound: White ethnics gained from their whiteness before they even entered the country. Had the naturalization law of 1790 not restricted citizenship to "free white persons," most white ethnics could not have entered the country in the first place. "It was their whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity, that opened the Golden Door," writes Jacobson, implicitly refuting what immigrant families had been taking for granted--that their hard work and pluck allowed them to rise socially and economically.
White by Law describes how courts joined in the social construction of whiteness. Haney-Lopez, an assistant professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley (where, ironically, a reversion to color-blind admissions has recently reduced the number of minorities entering Boalt Hall), is a proponent of critical race theory, which argues that race is "not an independent given on which the law acts, but rather a social construction at least in part fashioned by law." By tracking some 50 court cases through American history, Haney-Lopez describes how the courts struggled with the question of who exactly was white and why. Because citizenship was restricted to "free white persons," many immigrants argued that they were white and hence should be granted citizenship. The naturalization law, according to Haney-Lopez, shaped natural differences into a rigid hierarchy: To be fit for citizenship meant that one had "agency, will, moral authority, intelligence, and belonging. To be unfit for naturalization--that is, to be non-White--implied a certain degeneracy of intellect, morals, self-restraint, and political values." Haney-Lopez argues that the courts themselves did not have a real definition of who was white and who wasn't, and that the process of determining this was surprisingly muddled. For example, in Ozawa v. United States, a Japanese immigrant argued that even though he was of Asian descent, his skin was nevertheless "white" and he was thus entitled to naturalization. The court, however, argued that white persons included "only persons of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race," and since Ozawa was not Caucasian, his naturalization was denied. Within three months, another Supreme Court case, United States v. Thind, established that an Asian Indian was Caucasian but maintained that this did not make him white.
The key insight of this book is that seemingly neutral institutions such as the law can produce racist outcomes nevertheless. The court's decisions influenced reproductive choices (female citizens rarely married noncitizens, for fear that their status would be stripped) as well as housing choices. "Law thus defines, while seeming only to reflect, a host of social relations." And more indicting: "Unconscious racism undergirds the current legal construction of race in two interesting ways. First, it fosters the racially discriminatory misapplication of laws that themselves do not make racial distinctions. Second, it engenders the design and promulgation of racially neutral laws likely to have racially disparate effects." For example, Haney-Lopez reports that prosecutors seek the death penalty against Latinos four times more often than they do for whites for similar crimes and 14 times more often when whites are murdered than when Latinos are.
As Haney-Lopez and Jacobson describe it, white privilege is a result not of design but of complex social processes. But there is another school of whiteness studies that does not see all this as "unconscious racism." Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture and Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 do not shy away from claiming that white identity was constructed deliberately, often with the express intent to protect (and hide) white privilege while oppressing nonwhites. In Whiteness Visible, for example, Valerie Babb, a professor of English at Georgetown University, writes, "To study whiteness and its history in the United States is to study an intentional 'whitewashing' of American character that even today makes achieving racial parity difficult." At stake was the creation of something around which new immigrants could unite themselves, a project that was difficult simply because the category wasn't real. Babb writes, "Part of the difficulty in characterizing whiteness lies with its having no genuine content other than a culturally manufactured one ... the need to create a historical past, the need to create a national identity, and the need to minimize class warfare." Babb chronicles the ways in which American art and literature in the form of travel documents, world's fairs, settlement houses, etiquette books, and public school curricula all skillfully used the captivity narrative--exemplified by John Vanderlyn's Death of Jane McCrea, in which pioneers are attacked by Native Americans--and the criminal narrative of blacks attacking whites to foster a conception of whiteness that placed whites over other minorities. Thus, "conceptions of whiteness assisted in forging ties among people who had no natural ties, by inventing a series of myths to hold them together."
In Making Whiteness, Grace Elizabeth Hale contends that the end of slavery in the South after the Civil War gave whites an incentive to create a segregationist cultural system that retained the implication of white superiority in an ostensibly egalitarian nation. Backed by a commercial system that made the production and reproduction of visual imagery efficient, whites were able to use icons and images such as Aunt Jemima (who, in her early ads used to say, "I'se in town, honey") and Uncle Ben to resurrect the role of blacks as servants and, by extension, to cement the superiority of whites through advertising. The cultural imagery was often concurrently reinforced by the spectacle of lynchings, which put blacks in their place. To Hale as well as Babb, the construction of whiteness was an intentional process.
Although these books on whiteness studies are enlightening, their potential to bring whites back into the race debate is limited--which is perhaps why the field has not caught on. Instead of giving whites an identity that they can invoke in joining the "conversation on race," most of the literature shows that white identity is nothing but a hoax, a cultural fiction, formed to endow benefits on their holders. "There is Italian culture, and Polish, Irish, Yiddish, German, and Appalachian culture," says Noel Ignatiev. "There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no 'white' culture--unless you mean Wonder Bread and television game shows. Whiteness is nothing but an expression of race privilege."
In their focus on white privilege, these studies allocate guilt to the very same whites the field aims to reach and encourage to speak up. Much, if not all, of whiteness studies is ultimately about unearned advantages. Most whites will bristle at the notion that the only reason they find themselves in the position they are in is due to privilege. Yet this battle over guilt and innocence has been the very same battle that has gridlocked race discussions. As Shelby Steele notes, "Innocence is power... . I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence." Blacks certainly have engaged in this struggle, and so have whites. As Thomas Ross writes in the Vanderbilt Law Review, "The rhetoric of innocence persists as an important tool in discussions of race... . When the white person is called the innocent victim of affirmative action, the rhetorician is invoking not just the idea of innocence but also that of the not innocent, the defiled taker."
At the same time, the recognition of white privilege is bound to instill guilt. Vada Berger, for example, writes, "The truly disturbing aspect of Bakke and similar cases is the focus on the sacrifice of the 'innocent' white victim. I have yet to meet any innocent whites... . Why do whites deserve to attend the school? They deserve to attend because they scored higher on a racially biased test, one of their parents is an alumnus of the school, one of their ancestors provided large donations to the school, they attended a suburban high school where they received individual attention and/or they attended a college with an outstanding reputation... . Every accomplishment they would like to claim as their own is tainted by having been gained through their whiteness. Therefore, the truly questionable group in any medical school setting, the ones who should operate in a cloud of suspected incompetency, are the white students." Is whiteness studies then really that much different from the old liberal race-speak?
There is, it must be said, a crucial difference. Whiteness studies is a revolt against color blindness, albeit a revolt spurred by contrition. Whites may be the beneficiaries of unearned privilege, but they also have agency in this matter. Noel Ignatiev, for example, calls for whites to reject the privileges of white skin. In this abolitionist vision, "the white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society." It calls on whites to disavow their white privilege; this of course may be easier said than done--how can you fight the privilege of not being pulled over by police?--but is crucial to the abolitionist stance. "The white race is a club, which enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs... . The weak point of the club is its need for unanimity." Thus, by having a small number of whites act as "race traitors," proponents hope to collapse the white privilege system. If a racist joke is told, a white person who is a traitor should say, "Oh, you probably said that because you think I'm white. That's a mistake people often make because I look white." Because whites can't be sure who will speak up in this way, they will stop making slurs. But a solution that depends on individual goodwill rather than systemic remedy may be no solution at all. ¤