The Study of Whiteness 

Roberto Rodriguez
Black Issues in Higher Education (1999)

Source: Black Issues in Higher Education 16 (May 13, 1999): 20- .


In Recent Years, A Burgeoning Number Of Publication, Articles, and Courses Devoted To The Study Of Whiteness Has Caused Some Scholars To Ask Whether This Is Serious Scholarship With A Future,Or A Passing Cultural Fancy

At a conference held late in March, students, faculty, and administrators from the tri-campus community of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges gathered together with a group of journalists to discuss the status of multiculturalism on college campuses. At one point, a panelist suggested that part of the problem on many traditionally White campuses seems to be that the majority of students, faculty, and administrators are oblivious not only to what it means to be White, but to the extent to which their Whiteness dominates the campus culture, making it uncomfortable for many people of color.

"We need to understand the attendant privileges that come with White skin in this society before we can begin to truly understand what is like for those who are outside of White culture," she said.

Discussions such as this are at the heart of what is a growing field of scholarship. Dubbed "Whiteness studies" by some, the exploration of what it means to be White in the United States and the global community is the subject of a growing body of books, articles, courses, and academic conferences.

Whiteness studies is frequently misunderstood as either part of a supremacist movement or an effort to study "White trash," says Jean Stefancic, part of a husband and wife team that edited the 1998 release on the subject titled Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror. The discipline is generally divided into two camps. One, she explains, views the study of Whiteness as an essential part of eliminating racism and White privilege. The other camp focuses on the study of White, pop culture. Stefancic is a legal research associate at the University of Colorado Law School.

Richard Delgado, co-author of Critical White Studies, goes on to explain that the former perspective is derived from critical legal theory -- a field that challenges the race/class and gender bias of U.S. laws. In this country, he says, many people believe that there's nothing wrong with our laws, and that racism simply results from mistakes or ignorance, and that the solution is simply integration. "[However,] most critical race theorists don't believe this," he says.

While there are divergent views as to the exact origin of the study of Whiteness, Delgado traces its contemporary study back to the early 1990s, explaining that it came in response to the growing interest in the study of people of color. Books like Critical White Studies, David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991), Ruth Frankenberg's White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (1993), and Alice McIntyre's Making Meaning of Whiteness: Exploring Racial Identity with White Teachers (1997) are examples of works that confronted the issue directly.

"People thought it was time to put Whites under the lens," Delgado says.

Taking a much longer view, however, Morris Jenkins, professor of Administration of Justice at Pennsylvania State University, says that the study of Whiteness began with the formation of traditional university curriculum.

"We get it without acknowledging it," he says. Which explains why, according to Jenkins, European Americans have problems with their Whiteness.

"They'll admit to being Americans, but are uncomfortable being `White,' though they accept the privileges of Whiteness."

Other scholars concur with Delgado that the study of Whiteness began because some White scholars wanted to find their place in the multicultural education movement.

Dr. David Goldberg, director of the School of Justice at Arizona State University, and a visiting professor of African American studies at the University of California-Berkeley, traces the origins back to the proliferation of race studies that occurred in the late 1980s. In addition to a few seminal texts, such as those by Roediger and Frankenberg, he cites an article that appeared in the British film magazine Screen in 1988. Titled "White," and authored by Richard Dyer, the article was about the impact of Whiteness on media and culture.

Irrespective of the field's precise origins, Jenkins, who studies critical race theory within the concept of law, says that the study of Whiteness can enhance the discipline of ethnic studies -- that it's an important component to understanding race and ethnicity. He adds that having White professors teach ethnic studies could help to "legitimize" ethnic studies in the minds of those scholars who constantly attack it as not being "real scholarship."

"I think critical White studies is a very important and critical part of new directions in ethnic studies," says Dr. Evelyn HuDehart, professor and chair of the department of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "Whiteness studies was dearly influenced by ethnic studies theories, and in turn, it is now positively influencing ethnic studies to see Whiteness as also a historically contingent and socially constructed racial category, one defined, to be sure, by privilege and power rather by marginalization and domination. But Whiteness and the other racial categories are part of the same racial order and racial hierarchy in the history of this country and in contemporary social reality."

Who's Teaching What, Why, and for Whom?

Today, a majority of the scholars studying Whiteness are themselves White. Their research ranges from trying to understand how Whites view themselves and others, to how Whites view themselves in relation to people of color, to how they define Whiteness. They also examine White culture, how Whites define race, and how they view racism and White privilege.

The criticism these scholars are attracting comes from outside as well as inside the ethnic studies community, even though in some cases these courses are taught from within ethnic studies departments. While Whiteness was not initially positioned within ethnic studies or within the study of race and ethnicity, Stefancic says, it has evolved from those fields.

"I am very critical of the domain of Whiteness studies as it has developed," says Goldberg, who, though he is often associated with the Whiteness studies movement, argues adamantly that this is not the core of what he teaches. "I teach about racism," he says, "And maybe racism is just a version of Whiteness."

Goldberg prefers to position his writings and research within the study of the structure of politics and how culture intersects with politics. He says his writings on race and racism or multiculturalism cut across disciplines, and that he didn't come to Berkeley under the guise of Whiteness studies. Instead, he came under the study of critical race theory, which is an integral part of ethnic studies at Berkeley.

"So here I am -- this White South African guy teaching Black Nationalism.... We need to look more critically at Whiteness [studies] and the academicians [who] are writing themselves into the productive domain of race studies."

Dr. C. Ayisha Blackshire-Belay, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Indiana State University, shares Goldberg's skepticism.

"[Whiteness studies] raises a lot of issues," she says. "What is its relevance? What is it to address? Who is it for? And in this point in time, why?...

"The making of [the African American studies] discipline came out of the '60s and a demand to have courses about us as a people," she says. "If White studies is being created because Black studies and Chicano studies exist, I have a problem with that. If we hadn't demanded Black and Chicano courses in the '60s, would there now be a demand for Whiteness studies?"

But Dr. Charles Henry, chair of Berkeley's African American studies program, where Goldberg currently is a visiting professor, says that there is something to be gained from expanding the amount of scholarship devoted to studying Whiteness.

"The history of racism in America has been looked at as an aberration rather than part of the mainstream democracy. Poor Whites have benefited from this aberration where racism united the White lower and upper classes," Henry says. "Whiteness studies [scholars] say that racism is not an aberration, but rather a central part of democracy and American federalism. It has a different approach that has not been a part of general courses in academia." Henry further notes that this approach, however, has been applied in ethnic studies courses.

"Another approach has been to break down Whiteness and how it is socially constructed. You can look at the Irish and the English in Europe where they are at odds; but when they got here, it [was] a different story. Why is that? Whiteness studies address that. It is an approach that hasn't been around on college campuses and it is one that students can benefit from and that research can benefit from," Henry says.

Stefancic agrees: "Many [Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jews] were a one time treated as non-White, but over the years, have become White," she says.

Dr. Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at New York University, says that it is important to distinguish between "Whiteness studies" as an organized academic program and the study of what it means to be White.

"I think it is incumbent on a number of fields to study race in all its complexity," Stimpson says, adding that at NYU, there is interest addressing what it means to be White in the English, history, and American studies departments, among others.

"The meaning of White, in America, obviously means, being [part of a] majority. Elsewhere, it means being in the minority -- a development the majority [of White people] will find hard to understand.

"I am a White woman," Stimpson adds, "the meaning of which I define in part by being in interaction with other people. I don't exist in isolation nor do my privileges exist in isolation."

The New Abolitionists

Some scholars argue that, the study of Whiteness offers liberating opportunities for both Whites and people of color.

Marion Groot, a professor at the Women's Theological Center in Boston, says that the actual challenge in Whiteness studies is twofold -- taking the struggle against racism and White privilege into the community, and combating the spiritual disease that afflicts Whites.

"All people are spiritual beings and Whites have neglected their spirituality," she says. Groot posits that because this society values material things, people, relationships, and even ancestors have been rendered secondary by many Whites.

"In White culture, we believe we're human beings, struggling to be gods," Groot says.

"That's our spiritual disease. Focusing on Whiteness forces us to look at the things in our lives. It makes us understand that the need to be valued isn't met by material things. When we do our work; we tell people that struggling against racism and White privilege isn't simply a political issue -- that it's a spiritual issue. That resonates with people."

Dr. Christine Clark, education professor at New Mexico State University and co-editor-along with James O'Donnell -- of Becoming and Unbecoming White (1999), notes that some Whites view themselves as saviors. They only feel comfortable if they are working with people of color with a victim-focused identity.

"That takes agency away from people of color," she says, adding that people of color have rarely been victims. "They have fought back for over 500 years."

This savior mentality, she says, needs to be addressed. She believes, as the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire posited, that "only the strength of the oppressed can liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor."

Clark considers herself an "anti-racist racist." In this society, she says, "You can't be White and not be racist. But you can fight against it. I was raised to enjoy privilege."

Only when White people own up to their responsibility of benefiting from White privilege, can a meaningful struggle to eliminate both racism and White privilege occur, she says.

But unlike what some scholars have proposed, Delgado says the objective in combating discrimination and White privilege is not necessarily eliminating privileges or courtesies afforded Whites, but rather, expanding them to all human beings. Some of these privileges, however, reinforce racial dominance and it is that domination and those manifestations that are not only undesirable, but should be completely opposed, he adds.

Noel Ignatiev, one of the editors of the journal Race Traitor, speaks not of eliminating racism, but of ridding society of the concept of Whiteness altogether. Ignatiev, who also is the author of How the Irish Became White, considers himself an abolitionist of Whiteness. He says that abolitionists like him aren't content with simply studying Whiteness or becoming anti-racists, but they are bent on eliminating the concept of Whiteness and the privileges that come with it.

"Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position." As Ignatiev wrote in a recent paper titled, "The Point Is Not to Interpret Whiteness, but to Abolish It," "It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the White race would not exist, and the White skin would have no more social significance than big feet." "Those in Whiteness trying to get rid of and destroy the concept of White are unrealistic," says Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University. "I hope it is just a manifestation of academic confusion. To get rid of Whiteness is an absolute impossibility because White supremacy is here. It's embedded. It's like saying I'm going to get rid of the sky tomorrow."

Ignatiev acknowledges that White privilege manifests itself in all aspects of life, particularly in society's most important institutions, including the criminal justice system, which defines criminals; the schools, which define excellence; the labor market, which provides preferences for Whites; etc.

How to eliminate White privilege, he says, is a quandary for abolitionists.

"How can this be done?" he asks. "We must admit that we do not know exactly...." But, he adds, Whites must commit a racial suicide in order to come alive as workers, youth, women, etc. To do this, the task of abolitionists "is to gather together a minority determined to make it impossible for anyone to be White." This is generally done by actively and daily challenging society's preconceived notions of race and of who is White, he notes.

Stephanie Wildman, professor at the University of San Francisco law school and author of Privilege Revealed is perplexed by this recent fascination within the academy about Whiteness and concludes that it reflects society's schizophrenic attitude toward the subject of race. On the one hand, we're supposed to be moving away from [defining people by race], she says, yet, race and hate crimes are on the increase. The primary task of Whiteness studies is to relate it to the real world.

"How do you get the message out?" she asks, defining that question as the challenge. In fact, she says just getting the message out is a victory, and that while it may not be possible to abolish Whiteness, what can be abolished are hierarchies.

"I'll still be White in 20 years. In the meantime, real people are being hurt. We're in state of emergency."

Future Forecasts

Despite the phenomenal interest in Whiteness studies, few professors engaged in it foresee a growing number of academic departments on the subject on the horizon.

While many of the early whiteness courses emerged out of the field of critical race theory, and later ethnic studies, courses addressing various aspects of Whiteness can now be found across the arts and sciences. While some conclude that the fledgling discipline should be positioned within ethnic studies alongside African American studies, Chicano studies, and the like, others argue against this.

Goldberg says he doubts the discipline will ever gain enough academic clout to build whole departments. Instead, he prefers the approach of academicians like Roediger and Lipsitz, who are not in programs promoting themselves as Whiteness studies.

"Their works are concerned with the interface of Whiteness in labor studies," Goldberg says, [meaning,] how Whiteness gets ethnicized in certain moments in specific economic and political contexts." "I would assume that the study of the complexities of race is going to grow," Stimpson says."My own hunch is that Whiteness studies, as an organized field, will probably remain very small. The study of race, I suspect, will grow and that will include the study of being White. [But] that has to be distinguished from Whiteness studies [as a stand-alone field]."

Clark, meanwhile, worries that if Whiteness studies does not challenge global capitalism and the dehumanization of all people, then it will simply amount to the left version of re-centering Whites in academe.

"I don't know where whiteness studies fits [in the academy]," Winbush says. "We are still asking questions about where Black studies fits. Should it be a program, a department, within American studies? What we do know is that it is impossible to do [ethnic] studies without discussing oppression. If those scholars approaching Whiteness studies feel that they can do it without the study of themselves as oppressors then the field will die a slow death."

"I don't know how long this interest [in Whiteness studies] will last," Stefancic says. "I don't see departments coming out of this. Some people believe that the work of universities [already] is White studies."