Whiteness Essay

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Despite numerous claims of universality, racelessness, and ”colorblindness” (Bonilla-Silva 2006), whiteness is not only still present but remains racially particular in its own right. ”White” is a racial category, and ”whites” something of a racial group, of course partaking of huge variation across space and time.

Whiteness has been largely invisible in the ”modern world-system” of European creation, especially in the nations of the global North and West. This invisibility is somewhat unique among the racial categories. Contrary to many common sense notions, the uniqueness of whiteness does not consist of its ”normalization”: the idea that whiteness is the ”default” racial status, that whites are ”just people” who ”don’t have a race.” Nor does this uniqueness consist in the ”transparency” of whiteness: the way in which whiteness is taken for granted in the world’s powerful countries and thus not seen. In many places, especially where one racially-defined group predominates, that group’s raciality is also relatively invisible. Rather, the uniqueness of whiteness’s invisibility lies in the contradictions therein: while whiteness partakes of normality and transparency it is also dominant. And it is also beleaguered, nervous, and defensive. These qualities in turn belie claims for the ”normality” and ”transparency” of whiteness, the default status of the concept.

Whiteness can hardly be hidden in a social system based on racial domination, one in which races are necessarily relational matters. White supremacy has never gone unresisted, for one thing, so whites (colonists, settlers, planters, etc.) have always had to ”circle the wagons”: they had to theorize whiteness, defend its ”purity,” and justify their rule. They had to take up their ”White Man’s Burden” (note the gender element), carry out their ”Mission Civilizatrice,” fulfill their ”Manifest Destiny.”

Thus the chief distinction between the racial category of whiteness and other racial designations is not some supposedly all-encompassing negativity of white identity; indeed the claim that whiteness is merely the ”absence of color” is quite ridiculous. Rather the concept’s problematic nature stems from its continuing (if often flexible and today often disavowed) involvement with domination.


  1. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006) Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 2nd edn. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
  2. Jacobson, M. F. (1968) Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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