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The fallacy of ‘whiteness’

The word is being thrown around in ways that could do more harm than good.

An antiracism protest in Barcelona, Spain, in 2020.JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

According to recent reports, public and private elementary schools across the United States have used, as part of racial equity education, an illustrated children’s book called “Not My Idea,” in which a devil with a pointy tail offers the young reader a “contract binding you to whiteness.” The contract promises “stolen land,” “stolen riches,” and “special favors”; in exchange, whiteness gets “your soul” and power over “the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones, and all fellow humans of COLOR.”

This is a striking example of the extent to which “whiteness” — once an esoteric idea limited mainly to radical academia — has gone mainstream. It’s in the headlines of popular media outlets, whether referring to politics, fashion, or the media themselves. It is said to insidiously plague everything from classical studies to film to music. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as much an establishment politician as there ever was, has even blamed it for the actions of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill rioters loyal to Donald Trump, saying that they had “chosen their whiteness over democracy.” In progressive states and municipalities, such as Seattle, government agencies have held employee training sessions with such titles as “Interrupting Whiteness.”

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For progressive activists and educators, the critique of whiteness is an essential part of moving forward on racial issues. But while the historical analysis of the evolution of white racial identity can offer important insights, “whiteness” rhetoric in the current moment is far more toxic than helpful. It easily devolves into crude stereotyping of white people and “white culture” — and, sometimes, into language that would be seen as shockingly hateful if used to refer to any other group. (One recent article on the Root compared whiteness to a deadly disease.) It reduces real problems to simplistic generalizations at a time when America’s racial dynamics are more complex than ever. It promotes a fixation on race and exacerbates racial polarization rather than encouraging us to find common ground.

In response to such criticism, progressives argue that framing the indictment of whiteness as an attack on white people is a misunderstanding, often a willful one. They point to literature that explains that whiteness is “a hegemonic system that perpetuates certain dominant ideologies about who receives power and privilege,” or an ideology that elevates certain values and behaviors and allocates privilege on the basis of skin color, or “a dominant cultural space” that excludes others. It is sometimes described as “fluid,” since who is considered white has changed over time.

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In January, New York University professor Cristina Beltrán made waves with a Washington Post essay on “multiracial whiteness” — a concept she used to explain Black and Latino Trump zealots. On National Public Radio, Beltrán made the familiar claim that “whiteness is not the same thing as white people” and that it’s best understood as ideology and culture rooted in a white supremacist legacy.

Yet quite often, the term does seem to denote nothing more than the dictionary definition: “the fact or state of belonging to a population group that has light pigmentation of the skin.” Sometimes “whiteness” is used in descriptions of physical or nonphysical spaces — a workplace, a professional or cultural field, a movie cast, an art or music collection, etc. — that are occupied exclusively or overwhelmingly by white people.

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The Seattle workshop on “interrupting whiteness” was for white employees, who were required not only to examine how they and their families had benefited from “the system of white supremacy” but to reflect on a recent incident in which they had “caused harm to a person/people of color at work.” The children’s book in which whiteness is literally a deal with the devil is built around a white child whose mother shelters her from the realities of racial oppression and claims that “we don’t see color” while engaging in subtly racist behavior, such as locking the car doors when driving through a Black neighborhood. A mailing from a New York public high school last year asking parents to reflect on their “white identities” described white people as “people who identify with whiteness.” (The text did briefly note that some benefits of whiteness may be shared by “some POC.”)

The concept of whiteness is also closely intertwined with that of “white privilege,” another term that has migrated from academic and activist discourse to the culture at large. For instance, a 2007 article in the College Students Affairs Journal about a graduate seminar on whiteness was focused primarily on the white students grappling with their privilege and “interrogating” attitudes that legitimate it.

People who question the “privilege” framework are likely to be accused of cluelessness and “white fragility.” But there are real problems with this concept, noted by progressive scholars such as University of Oregon philosopher Naomi Zack, University of California Merced sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza, and Columbia University historian Barbara J. Fields. These authors note that defining “privilege” as not being discriminated against or mistreated because of one’s race or color is a perverse logic: Equal and dignified treatment should be regarded as a basic right, not an unearned and unfair benefit. What’s more, “white privilege” discourse obscures many inequities by suggesting that white people who struggle with economic deprivation, exacerbated by poor schooling and inadequate health care, are privileged simply because they don’t experience the specific disadvantage of racial bias. (There is evidence that reading a text on white privilege makes white liberals less sympathetic to poor white people.)

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Scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women, the person most responsible for introducing the concept of “white privilege” into the language, has written that she had been trained to see racism as something that puts others as a disadvantage while ignoring the advantages she and other white people enjoy — something that she set out to correct in her work. Yet that logic, too, is fundamentally flawed. In most of McIntosh’s examples (e.g., “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed”), whites obviously benefit from not being treated badly, but it’s difficult to see how they benefit from the racial profiling and mistreatment of Blacks or Latinos. Perhaps the original “disadvantage” model that McIntosh deplored was more nearly correct.

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The main effect of the shift in focus from racial disadvantage to racial privilege — and from racism to whiteness — is to foster white guilt and self-scrutiny. “Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color,” McIntosh wrote in her landmark 1988 essay on white privilege.

It’s a short distance from this mindset to the struggle sessions of Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility” and more recently of “Nice Racism,” who wants white liberals to constantly question their alleged oppressive acts (such as inadvertently interrupting a Black person) and to strive for the impossible task of “decentering” themselves as white people while also focusing relentlessly on their whiteness and its sins. As progressive critics have noted, DiAngelo-style advocacy is not as much about improving things for Black people or other disadvantaged groups as it is about the pursuit of “white racial virtue.”

The focus on whiteness is fraught with other problems. Formulated largely in a context of Black vs. white racial politics, it is ill suited to a multiracial society where some nonwhite groups, such as Asian Americans, are now on a par with whites in socioeconomic status — and sometimes, on average, outpace white Americans. Recent years have seen a rise in progressive discourse that treats Asian Americans as havingprivilege” or “white adjacency/proximity.” Thus, a 2020 article in the left-wing magazine The Nation charges, “Too many Asian Americans have put proximity to whiteness over solidarity with Black people.” Such rhetoric has a disturbing edge when anti-Asian hate and even violence (literal, not psychological) are very real problems. Labeling Asian Americans as “adjacent” to and complicit in whiteness can, among other things, minimize their vulnerability to racism.

Meanwhile, attempts to define whiteness as a cultural phenomenon rather than a racial demographic have led to some highly questionable claims. Last year, for instance, the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture posted a chart about “aspects and assumptions of whiteness and white culture in the United States.” It included such characteristics and values as “self-reliance,” “independence & autonomy highly valued + rewarded,” “hard work is the key to success,” “plan for future,” “progress is always best,” and justice based on the principle that “intent counts.”

Ascribing whiteness to everything from the work ethic and individualism to cultural traditions such as classical music can feel profoundly exclusionary to nonwhite Americans, whether immigrant or native-born, who have embraced those values as their own. But this is only one of the ways in which the mainstreaming of whiteness as a concept does more harm than good.

The conceptualization of whiteness is rooted in the belief that most white people’s failure (or refusal) to think of their identity in racial terms is an obstacle to racial equality, since it makes white people blind to their privilege. And yet the decline of a racialized white identity has been historically associated with a decline in racism. Whites in the Jim Crow-era South were very conscious of being white.

Today, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, only 15 percent of white people say that being white is extremely or very important to how they think about themselves. By contrast, nearly three-quarters of Black people, 59 percent of Hispanics, and 56 percent of Asians say their race or ethnicity is extremely or very important to their self-perception. DiAngelo and other anti-racism advocates want to force white people to see their whiteness. But will the rise of white identity necessarily be progressive? Is it not just as likely that it will take the road of Trump-style identity politics based on white grievance — particularly if white people feel vilified or dehumanized by progressive rhetoric?

America has seen a massive shift in racial demographics over the past half century. In 1970, nearly 88 percent of the population was white — down only one percentage point from 1910. Today, that figure is down to 60 percent. While some predict a white minority by 2045, others say that this is the wrong way to think about it: What we will see is more blurring of racial and ethnic lines, including intermarriage and multiracial or nonracial identities.

Despite this progress, there is no question that we need to do more to address the continuing effects of racism. But is this the point in our history at which we should be treating whiteness, for those who have it, as an essential quality?

Cathy Young is an associate editor at Arc Digital and a contributing editor to Reason magazine. Follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.