Politics & Society

Notes on White Racial Identity


Jennifer Delton


As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.

              — James Baldwin


Skidmore College recently expanded its opportunity program, which increased both the diversity of its student body and the level of racial tension on campus. Minority students have complained about feeling marginalized and targeted, and there have been several incidents in which townspeople-and even a few students-have made racist comments. There is great concern about what is being called the “campus climate,” and some have charged the college with failing to foster a “culture of inclusion.”

Oddly enough, it was this concern about inclusion that led to the creation of a “white racial identity group” for faculty of white extraction. The purpose of this group was, as the email heralding its arrival explained, for white faculty members to “learn more about how we affect campus climate and the experiences of our students, faculty and staff of color-and about what we might choose to do differently.” The white racial identity group was roundly mocked and derided, at least in private. Am I white enough to join? Will there be a “whites only” sign on the door? Finally, a place where I can be with my own kind! Behind the mockery, however, was a very real discomfort with the idea of white people thinking of themselves as a race. Historically when that has happened it hasn’t gone well for non-white folks.

As an historian of race in America, I am of course interested in whiteness. I studied it in graduate school, and it has informed the books I have written. Although serious historians have overwhelmingly rejected “whiteness” as a useful analytical category, I remain open to certain aspects of it. I am interested in why white people have sought to subvert a system of white supremacy from which they presumably benefit. I am interested in why so many whites hate being white and have sought refuge in hip-hop, blues, jazz, the civil rights movement, or multiculturalism. I am interested in how whiteness came to be associated with cultural inauthenticity and death, as in works by Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others. I am interested in all those who have chosen to transcend, reject, sidestep, or ignore the ethnic or racial identity they were born with and to create themselves anew, sometimes as black or brown, but mostly as white, suggesting that even though the United States has been a racially stratified society it has also been racially fluid.

What I am not interested in is whiteness as pedagogy, whiteness as consciousness-raising, whiteness as a way to reprimand people for not being more penitent of their privilege. I am even less interested in using whiteness as a way to “learn more about how we affect campus climate.” I have always been wary of using the lessons of whiteness to “redesign the social system,” as whiteness proponents call on us to do.

At its most harmless and possibly beneficial level, the literature on white racial identity seeks to help whites understand why non-whites (mainly black people) tend to think everything in American society is “racial” and why they, as whites, do not. But that is just the beginning. The overriding assumption informing this literature is that once white readers are made aware of how “racial” American society is, and how they benefit from the privilege of not being “raced,” of being the “norm,” of being dominant, they will seek to reform or even overturn the system that so unfairly advantages them. In this sense, the literature of white racial identity has a political agenda. In “White Racial Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack,” an essay distributed to the Skidmore white racial identity faculty group, Peggy McIntosh writes that “disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. Individual acts [of anti-racism, presumably] can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.” What is necessary is an entirely new social system. Such an agenda, as offered in such calls to action, is not open to the back and forth of intellectual debate; it is something people of presumed good will must absorb and disseminate.

Indeed, the premises of this literature make it very difficult to challenge without appearing to be invested in or blind to the exercise of one’s own privilege. The selections we read for the initial meeting of the white faculty group, all taken from the 2005 book White Privilege: Es­sential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, tell white readers that it may be uncomfortable to hear that they have unseen, unearned privileges; that they may be confused; that they may “seek ways to deny responsibility for benefiting from white privilege.” Others may feel guilt. The authors assure readers that these are all natural responses, given how insidiously invisible whiteness is and given that they have been taught not to think of whiteness as a race. But once the facts are pointed out to them, once the blinders are lifted from their eyes, it is assumed they will want to change things. If they do not, they will necessarily become like those whites who are resistant to the message, who, as Paula Rothenberg writes, “have been benefitting from it for so long that they can no longer distinguish between their privilege and their sense of who they are.” These writers acknowledge that some whites may not experience the full effects of their white skin privilege because of their class (if they are poor), their gender (if they are women), their sexuality (if they are gay), or their ethnicity (if they are Jewish, Hispanic, or perhaps Irish) but that these factors don’t make the essential privilege any less real. Some even suggest that focusing on these other differences is a way for whites to deny that white privilege is at work. To deny your white skin privilege, to complicate it, to question the underlying premises of the arguments, makes you complicit in the system.

There is plenty to question, though, if one is an observant, thinking person of any race. There is, for starters, the central argument that white people have the privilege of being the norm, of being the dominant race. While members of other races can recall when they first discovered they were “different,” whites (it is claimed) cannot. This is because whiteness is unremarkable, “it was always everywhere,” it is uncritically accepted as “the norm throughout society.” This is all quite true. Whiteness is the norm in a white majority society, which is what the United States has been since its founding. Other races have constituted minorities. That is why we refer to them as “minorities” and “other races.” There is nothing insidious or mysterious about this. The situations described in Peggy McIntosh’s “knapsack” of privilege - that whites can count on finding people like themselves represented in the media, that whites can expect to find hairdressers who know how to cut their hair, that whites can find stores that sell their food and music (whatever that is) - all of these so-called privileges are a result of the fact that whites constitute a preponderant demographic majority of 80 percent. African Americans, on the other hand, make up only 13 percent of the population nationally and are statistically nonexistent in many areas of the country. So it makes sense that hairdressers in Galway, New York, for instance, do not know how to style or treat black hair. The marketplace has worked very well in this regard. If there are enough people in an area who will pay for ser­vices and goods, there will be someone willing to provide these services and goods. With the development of niche television markets and cable channels, there are more African American oriented shows on TV. But given that blacks are a minority nationally, and given that the purpose of TV programming is to assemble potential buyers for advertisers, it makes sense that there are not more shows that cater to black audiences on national networks.

Still, despite their minority status, blacks and black culture are well-represented in American society - to a far greater degree than their population or McIntosh’s knapsack would suggest. Black musicians dominate the pop charts. Black athletes dominate sports franchises. Black performers like Oprah, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Monique, Denzel Washington, Will Smith and many, many others have huge, bankable crossover appeal. Although some African Americans have felt ghettoized in these areas, as if they were fulfilling stereotypes, popular culture and athletics are perhaps the most visible, dynamic, and influential cultural arenas in American society. But African Americans are also represented in Congress, in the military, in the State Department, in the cabinet, in the presidency itself. African Americans direct mainstream films, write for mainstream journals and TV shows, head major corporations, appear in mainstream advertising, deliver the news and weather, and speak forthrightly as public intellectuals. It is difficult today to speak of black people as somehow separate from mainstream American society or culture, as Peggy McIntosh insists on doing. Even in the 1940s, at the height of segregation, many foreign observers and not a few Americans regarded American culture - with its jazz, blues, jitterbugging, and peculiar food and speech patterns - as “mongrel,” or, more positively, “cosmopolitan.” Either way, it was not entirely white.

Given how visible blacks are in popular culture and society at large, it is hardly surprising to find that both whites and blacks think African Americans are a larger percentage of the population than they actually are. In The Ordeal of Integration (1997), sociologist Orlando Patterson presents polling data that shows that whites and blacks exaggerate the size of the black population and drastically underestimate the size of the white population. These misperceptions contribute both to white peoples’ resentment that large numbers of blacks are taking “their” jobs through affirmative action and to black peoples’ sense that whites enjoy an unearned dominance. As Patterson writes: “If the average Afro-American goes around thinking that Euro-Americans [whites] are a minority of only 45 percent of the population, the fact that Euro-Americans appear to domi­nate all the major institutions of the nation must be a source of constant rage.” I think something of the same sort is going on in the literature of whiteness studies, which is based on the premise that white dominance is unnatural and insidious in a society where most of the people are white. I am not denying that whites have “rigged the playing field” in ways that have specifically disadvantaged blacks, especially in terms of jobs, loans, education, housing, drug laws, etc. But, interestingly, none of the read­ings we read for the white racial identity group discussed these specific inequities.1

Instead, they focused on the advantages whites gain from being “the norm.” That seemed to be the fresh perspective they were supposed to offer. But being the norm is surely the least indictable offense for which whites may be criticized, as there is nothing they can do about their majority status as things now stand.

At 79.6 percent of the U.S. population, whites are a smaller majority now than ever before, but this is not because the African American population has grown larger. Blacks are now 12.9 percent of the popula­tion, little more than the 10-12 percent they had been throughout the 20th century. Much of the increase in the black population, moreover, is the result of black Hispanic and African immigration. The white majority is smaller because other groups - Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Island­ers, and others, including those identifying by more than one race - have grown larger or are now counted by the census.2 Mainstream culture is likely to change in the future as the full impact of the last three decades of immigration and interracial identity sinks in, but it is not clear that the black minority will feel any more comfortable in it. As recent studies have shown, it is immigrants, Hispanics, and the multi-racial who have benefitted most from affirmative action and diversity programs designed to help native-born black Americans. To the extent that these programs help integrate immigrants of color and Hispanics into corporations, col­leges, universities, and other mainstream American institutions, thereby giving them economic advantages and privileges, native-born blacks will still feel outside or different from the dominant culture, even if it is more diverse, especially if their group continues to experience the economic inequities it does today.

The whiteness literature seeks to refocus our attention on white privilege, but a white phenotype is not necessary to acquire wealth, power, jobs, and education in the United States. The racial group with the high­est median personal income from 1990-2008 was Asian. The group with the highest median home values in 2008 was Asian. The group with the highest level of educational attainment is Asian. In terms of household income in 2008, Asians top whites. Despite historical practices and laws that have hurt Asians, especially in the western states, this group has been gaining in wealth as well as income. Asian achievement is a source of tension for those interested in whiteness and racial inequality because it suggests that white racism or privilege does not completely explain black and Hispanic underachievement. Most articles focused on racial inequality compare whites, blacks, and Hispanics, ignoring Asians altogether. If whites hold unexamined, possibly racist assumptions about Asians, and they most likely do, these assumptions have not prevented Asians from reaping the economic and educational benefits of living in the United States. Similarly, immigrants of African descent are succeeding in the United States to a higher degree than native-born blacks.

Clearly, then, the white majority is able to integrate other races, even the dark-skinned races we call black; clearly other races can do well in a white majority society, despite the persistence of racism. The problem is, as it has been historically, white Americans’ tangled relationship to a black minority that was originally brought to the United States in bond­age and has since been at the center of almost every major controversy in U.S. history, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the great migration, the New Deal’s expansion of the federal government, the era of civil rights agitation and massive resistance, the Great Society, and the Republican Party’s capture of the South.

The whiteness literature states explicitly that its primary concern is the tension between African Americans and whites. Whiteness proponents admit that their concept of whiteness is dependent on blackness, that it is a binary. The authors of Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2003) explain that the increasing number of Asians, Latinos, and members of the black middle class hasn’t changed the “ideological construction of whiteness as not black.” If this is true, if whiteness is “not black” and if blackness is defined by deprivation and exclusion, then those Asians, Latinos, and middle class blacks who’ve “made it” in American society are de facto “white.” It turns out that whiteness is a lot more diverse than we thought, and may have nothing at all, or very little, to do with race.

Yet, despite this recognition that whiteness is less about race and more about ideology, economic opportunity, and social status, the white­ness literature still insists that whiteness is a race and that whites need to own up to it. According to Rothenberg and McIntosh, white people are specifically taught not to think of themselves as having “race.” Race is something others have. Their race, whiteness, is thus invisible, or deni­able, and thus whites have the privilege of being the unracialized norm. When whites speak of a “color-blind” society, they mean a society in which everyone is like them, which is to say individuals for whom race doesn’t matter. But race does matter, say the whiteness advocates, and so not only are whites who cling to the ideal of a color-blind society denying their own race, they are denying the importance of all race. Whites, they insist, need to acknowledge that they are “raced” and that their success and achievements are due in large part to their race and the privileges it gives them. This is the goal of the literature: to get whites to admit that they benefit from their whiteness, to get them to see themselves as a race.

This is perhaps the main reason that many whites and particularly liberal whites recoil at this project. The kinds of whites who see themselves as white are, typically, members of the Ku Klux Klan or white Christian identity groups like Aryan Nations. Whites have been taught not to think of themselves as white - not to protect white privilege, but rather to promote racial and cultural tolerance, to help overcome racism. Antiracism in the U.S. has historically sought to lessen the hold of “race” over our society. Beginning in the early twentieth century, anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovits, and many others tried to teach white Americans that “race” was a social construction, a myth, a fallacy, a fiction. They did this because the prevailing system of white supremacy was undergirded by a body of accepted assumptions called scientific racism, which had deemed race to be real, natural, and immutable.


Erasing Race

Scientific racism held that the world’s peoples could be divided into discrete races and that the biological reality of race determined not just phenotype but also peoples’ different traits (such as intelligence and morals), cultures, and achievements. As such, the different races of the world could be ranked in terms of their intelligence and worth, with such light-skinned or white groups as the Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Aryans, and Nordics at the top, and the darker skinned groups at the bottom. The idea that race defined culture had older philosophic roots, notably in the works of Herder and Hegel, and the alleged evidence provided by late nineteenth century biologists and craniologists affirmed and hardened the philosophic insights. Because race was said to define culture, inter­racial marriage and racial mixing threatened cultures and indeed nations. Interracial mixing diluted the virtues and strengths of a culture and thus had to be prohibited, first by custom and taboo and then, in the case of nineteenth century America, by law.

These assumptions justified the widespread social and economic inequities of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, inequi­ties between native-born white Americans, on the one hand, and blacks and different immigrant groups on the other. According to the ideology of white supremacy, it was not the legacy of slavery or widespread anti­-immigrant and anti-black discrimination that kept blacks and immigrant groups at the bottom of the social scheme, but rather their own cultural and biological inadequacies. Native born whites were at the top because their biological assets, i.e. their race, secured them that place. The result­ing inequities, while regrettable, were natural. The ideology of white supremacy was not necessarily incompatible with the Lockean ideology of equal opportunity that was at the heart of American democracy, and which held that all men are created equal and free to use their God-given talents and aspirations to transcend their station in life. Clearly, people of other races, lesser races, did not have the God-given talents and aspi­rations that would’ve allowed them to transcend their race. According to the ideology of white supremacy, race was the one received condition that could not be transcended or overcome. Unlike family background, social status, or class, race was permanent, real, inescapable.

Throughout the nineteenth century, African Americans like Da­vid Walker, Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, and later, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and many others, fought against white supremacy, arguing that the people of their race did in fact have the same God-given talents and aspirations as whites and indeed as all God’s children and thus had a right to the same freedoms that would allow them to transcend the historical condition they were born into, which was not a racial condition but a political one. Blacks in America were kept in an oppressed condition not by the limitations of their race but by laws and customs designed to preserve the interests of white landhold­ers, politicians, investors, and merchants. Nowhere were the political benefits of white supremacy more evident than in the establishment of Jim Crow at the very end of the nineteenth century, which disenfranchised and beggared poor white Southerners as well as blacks and which helped the rising white middle class take political power from the old slave-holding Bourbon class.

African Americans argued that the logic of white supremacy contradicted the ideas of individualism, equal opportunity and progress upon which the country was based. White supremacy condemned individu­als to their parents’ condition, after all, while American democracy was supposed to liberate them from that condition. African Americans chal­lenged white Americans to live up to the promise of their founding ideals. There were whites who listened, who, despite their own personal feelings of white superiority, understood that the founding fathers, slaveholders though they may have been, had not intended to set up a rigid racial caste system. One of these was Justice John M. Harlan, the dissenting voice on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), who famously wrote: “But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” It turned out, however , that white Americans were able to tolerate classes among citizens and quite capable of holding two incompatible ideolo­gies in their heads at once; they had been doing so since the seventeenth century, when laws in colonial Virginia declared servants from Africa and their descendents servants for life while promising certain freedoms to servants from England and their descendents.

If African Americans were to get a fair deal in this country it wouldn’t be enough to point out the contradictions between white supremacy and American democracy. No, freedom for blacks could be won only if white Americans gave up their concept of race as a significant determinant of human behavior and achievement. To end white supremacy it was necessary to destroy the explanatory power of race, to get white people to stop thinking of themselves as white and blacks as black, to get them to stop thinking that race mattered. Because scientists had reified the category of race in the late nineteenth century, it would take scientists to undo the deed in the twentieth century. Hence the key role of anthropologists and social scientists in defining the terms of antiracist activism in the United States, especially during and after World War II.

To the extent that Hitler’s regime made odious the use of race to proclaim one’s own people or nation superior to another, World War II provided the perfect opportunity for antiracists to educate the American public about the dangers of racial chauvinism and indeed “race” itself. It wasn’t just Hitler’s anti-Semitism that inspired an aversion to racial think­ing. It was as well growing fears of racial unrest at home. Blacks used the wartime rhetoric of democracy and freedom to demand recognition of their rights, while whites proved extraordinarily resistant to accepting blacks as equals in factories, army bases, and unions. The result was a wave of riots that disrupted war efforts and made visible the consequences of racial thinking. In an attempt to quell the violence and address black peoples’ concerns, churches, YMCAs, schools, unions, colleges, rotary clubs, municipal and state governments, and dozens of interracial, interfaith organizations tried to persuade white Americans to let go of the concept of race. Pamphlets, traveling museum exhibits, newsreels, bestsellers like Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement and Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal (both 1947), and movies like Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement (both also 1947): all broadcast the message that race was an artificial category with no scientific basis of the sort that whites had used to divide the peoples of the earth and perpetrate their own unearned privilege.

The civil rights movement, steeped in the language of human brotherhood and focused in its legislative aims on equal opportunity, con­tinued the assault on racial thinking. Race may have mattered in the past in order to shore up white supremacy, but race had no meaning in a real, modern democratic society where all people, regardless of race, religion, or national origin, were equal under the law. The new legislation won by the civil rights movement made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin in public facilities, transportation, education, employment decisions, housing, and legal situations. In other words, a color-blind standard became the law of the land. Race shouldn’t matter. To the extent that race continued to be a factor in these areas, the aim of all right-thinking, educated people, white and black, was to eradicate its unwarranted influence.

So, yes, whites have been taught to not see race, to let go of the idea that their whiteness signified anything other than an accident of birth, to see themselves and others as human beings first and foremost. In fact, to see oneself as white was often regarded as a form of racism. At the same time, antiracists taught whites not to see African Americans as black but rather as individual human beings who had more significant identifying features than their skin color or race. This is what led to white peoples’ tortured refusal to use race as a descriptor in polite conversa­tion, an avoidance much mocked today by comedians, TV sitcoms, and things-white-people-do websites.3 Thus, when Peggy McIntosh, Paula Rothenberg, and other propagators of white racial identity enjoin whites to see themselves as white, educated white people do recoil; it goes against everything antiracist educators and black civil rights activists have taught them.


Understanding the Turn to “Whiteness”

Given the long struggle to overcome racial thinking, why do so many of today’s antiracists want us to “see race”? The turn to whiteness - that is, the effort to get whites to see themselves as white - goes hand in hand with the idea that “race matters” and that color-blind policies have failed to achieve either integration or justice. Sometime in the 1990s, it became apparent that the integration process had stalled, that blacks’ economic and social position was not improving, and that whites were ever more resistant to affirmative action policies, which had been one of the most effective means of racial integration.

Most significantly, Republicans and conservatives had co-opted the color-blind ethos of the civil rights movement in order to destroy af­firmative action. All of the sudden, it seemed, conservatives, who had long opposed the civil rights movement and legislation, loudly endorsed color-blind anti-discrimination legislation and the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., as if they had always endorsed equal treatment regardless of race. Race doesn’t matter, they shouted with the zealotry of converts. Preferential policies that favor blacks, that recognize color, are unconsti­tutional and immoral, they said, echoing Judge Harlan, the old NAACP, and an entire generation taught to think that race shouldn’t matter.

At some level, then, the turn to whiteness, to getting whites to recognize their race, is a defense of the race-conscious affirmative action progress. These policies make distinctions between people on the basis of race, something that whiteness proponents seek to justify and validate. Whereas opponents of affirmative action argue that we shouldn’t judge or favor people on the basis of race, which is, after all, an arbitrary, artificial category, its proponents argue that we already favor people on the basis of race. The preponderance of people hired, promoted, admitted, rewarded, or otherwise favored in some way are white. Because we don’t see whiteness as race we may tell ourselves that we aren’t making racial distinctions, though in reality we are.

It is true that simply ignoring race, not seeing it, was not enough to actually integrate black Americans into American life. Three hundred years of slavery, segregation, exclusion, and white supremacy had left most black Americans without the education, skills, social networks, and wealth necessary to compete in the marketplace and society on the same terms as whites did. Whites, of course, had spent those same centuries acquiring the economic and social advantages that would continue to help them improve their condition. As President Johnson noted, you can’t take a person who has for centuries been hobbled by chains, set him free and expect that he can now compete fairly with the others. Most institutions, including unions, businesses, the state, and universities had in place poli­cies and customs that weren’t necessarily “racial” but happened to favor whites. For instance, unions had fought for and won seniority, which al­lowed workers to advance according to the length of time in a particular position rather than on the basis of merit or employer favoritism. Seniority had “nothing to do with race,” as the phrasing went, but it had the effect of barring blacks from advancing into skilled positions. It wasn’t their color that was the problem but rather their seniority status. Testing was another example of a policy that was originally designed to make employ­ment opportunities fairer and less arbitrary but had an adverse effect on blacks. These policies and customs were known as structural inequities and color-blind approaches were powerless against them.

In addition, the early anti-discrimination laws (which were the basis of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) were vague and contradictory in ways that reveal the limitations of color-blind solutions. Hiring the friends and family of one’s current employees, for instance, was illegal if it was to maintain a white workforce but legal if it was to save time and money. Companies were prohibited from keeping records of appli­cants and employees’ race but were still expected to show evidence of nondiscrimination. Nor could they just hire minorities to show that they weren’t discriminating because the law prohibited “tokenism.” Hiring a person just because he was black was as much discrimination as not hiring him for the same reason. Employers were essentially being told that they had to hire blacks but that they couldn’t hire them because they were black. Even the equal opportunity experts admitted that definitions of discrimination were mutable and dependent on regional and industry practices.

For all these reasons, color-conscious affirmative action and diversity policies were necessary if Americans were serious about inte­grating African Americans into mainstream economic and political life. In order for integration to happen, employers and universities would have to reach out to minorities, to mentor them, to train them for advancement, to track their numbers, to set goals for their retention. Race simply had to be taken into account for any progress to occur. And so it was. And for a little while, from about 1970 to 1990 or so, such policies paved the way for a growing black middle class.

But affirmative action was a problem in a society where race wasn’t supposed to matter, in a society where racial progress meant eradi­cating racial categories altogether. Conservatives and others exploited this paradox to undermine affirmative action, forcing those who supported affirmative action and race-conscious policies to argue for the significance of race and against the color-blind standard of the civil rights movement. This strategic move gave rise to the term “color-blind racism.”

The idea of “color-blind racism” is embedded in the literature of white racial identity. It says that the belief in a color-blind society - either that we actually live in one or that we should strive to create one - is a new form of racism. To be color-blind, that is, to not see race, is a denial of both racial difference and white privilege. In his much assigned book, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, originally published in 2003, sociolo­gist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls color-blind racism “the central racial ideology of the post civil rights era.” It is a form of racism that tries to pretend that race doesn’t matter, that insists that race doesn’t matter. If race doesn’t matter, the argument goes, then whites can explain - indeed, are forced to explain - black underachievement as the failure of black people themselves. Whereas if we admit that race matters, and that whiteness is a race, then we can attribute the ongoing inequalities between whites and blacks to white racial privilege.

The idea of color-blind racism also reminds white Americans that racism and racial inequality continue to be major problems in American society despite the end of Jim Crow segregation and the successes of the civil rights movement. White Americans would love to believe that their work is done, that civil rights laws and progressive racial attitudes and a black president (of all things!) mean that the country is leaving behind this oldest of American dilemmas and that we may in fact be living in a “post-racial world.” Nothing could be further from the truth, according to the proponents of white racial identity and color-blind racism. In fact, it is the misguided belief in color-blind norms that blinds otherwise well­ meaning whites to the racism that exists all around them (in the form of white racial privilege). The widespread cultural consensus, embraced by conservatives and liberals alike, that all individuals should be treated equally without regard to race may seem like a victory for the civil rights movement but, according to Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, Rothenberg, and others, it is not that at all. That consensus is only the latest version of white supremacy.

It is difficult to tell whether people like Bonilla-Silva and Peggy McIntosh just want to point out the impossibility of color-blindness in a society so steeped in racial inequality and racism or whether they actu­ally believe that race is a real and meaningful phenomenon that shapes individual identity and group behavior in fundamental and positive ways. On the one hand, proponents of white racial identity and color-blind racism quote James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois on the artificial and ideological construction of “race,” putting the term in quotation marks, acknowledging its arbitrary, fictive nature. On the other hand, however, they insist that whites have a racial status or identity that gives them privileges. Peggy McIntosh and Paula Rothenberg even suggest that whites have their own food, music, culture, and ways of being that constitute some kind of racial identity that extends beyond white privilege.

That is, there is a way in which the rejection of the color-blind ethos is not just a strategic defense of affirmative action, not just a reminder that racism continues, but also an endorsement of and return to a racialist mentality that sees race as a primary component of human identity and culture. Leslie G. Carr’s 1997 book Color Blind Racism supports this idea. Sympathetic to a Black Nationalist perspective, Carr fears that color-blindness has the potential to erase black Americans’ unique cultural identity. Critical of those who equate racial segregation (an injustice) with racial separation (a political/cultural strategy), Carr writes: “This ignorance has ideological roots. It helps explain the position of many liberals who, in their sincere commitment to ending racism, are so certain that the only possible solution to the ‘race problem’ is the color-blind disappearance of African Americans into White America.” By erasing race, color-blindness would erase blacks, the presumptive bearers of race.

I posed this question about the ultimate goal of whiteness theories to those who showed up for the white racial identity faculty group at Skidmore. Are we to recognize white racial identity so that we may at some future date finally live up to color-blind principles and thus create a society wherein race truly doesn’t matter, OR do we really see race as a primary factor in individual and group identity and thus want to live in a society where race does in fact matter? The group consisted of people who had widely varying degrees of familiarity with the readings, but those who were most familiar with the literature of white racial identity, who taught it in their education and sociology classes, believed that race was a positive, real, constitutive factor in social life and identity and must therefore be recognized as such. In its rejection of assimilation and its emphasis on the positive contributions of different groups, this sounds a lot like multiculturalism. But multiculturalism is about celebrating different ethnicities and cultures and would seem, in essence, somewhat distinct from the agenda promoted by advocates of white racial identity.

Problems arise if you try to conceptualize whiteness as a culture to be celebrated. In the literature of white racial identity, whiteness is wholly negative. It does not include a rich cultural tradition of freedom songs, subversive folk tales, and resistance but is associated principally with unearned privilege, dominance, and greed. Peggy McIntosh refers obliquely to white food and white music but, not surprisingly, she doesn’t elaborate on what these might be. Whiteness advocates have no wish to to see whiteness as a race with cultural contributions to be appreciated and celebrated the way that black cultural traditions should be.

In their conception of whiteness, Rothenberg, McIntosh, and company tap into an older tradition of whiteness as cultural death. This tradition likewise rested on a white/black binary, one in which whiteness signified death and spiritual sterility and blackness meant life, spiritual dynamism, and the great promise of American democracy. A version of this binary is on display in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. In it, white America has forsaken its historic mission for a mess of pottage, while blacks alone remain the true representatives of man’s universal aspirations. This passage exemplifies the theme:

There are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.

Black men and women have a message for the world; whites don’t.

Sinclair Lewis’s bestselling Kingsblood Royal (1947) likewise associated whiteness with the soul-killing, material, bourgeois aspira­tions of American life. The novel tracks the experience of a white man who discovers he is 1/32 black. In becoming black, the protagonist, Neil Kingsblood, is forced to see all of the privileges afforded him by his race, which had been invisible to him as a white man; he has, as Peggy McIntosh might see it, unpacked his knapsack of privilege. He once was blind but now he sees. And he understands this experience as divinely directed: “I think God turned me black to save my soul, if I have any beyond ledgers and college yells.” Neil’s redemption requires him to renounce not only racism, but whiteness itself, signified by the middle class world that Sinclair Lewis had been targeting his entire career - ledgers and college yells, crass materialism, empty careerism, class bias, mindless conformity, the skewed value system of a people who had devoted themselves to pursuit of the dollar.

Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) also renounced whiteness, which Mailer associated even more explicitly with death in the form of concentration camps, the atomic bomb, and totalitarianism. As purveyors of western civilization, Americans were complicit in the “collective creation” of the horrors of the Second World War and the crippling, paralyzing fears and conformity of the postwar era. The only courage, Mailer wrote, “has been the isolated courage of isolated people,” those who stand outside the system, namely the hipster (white) and what Mailer called the Negro. Both had rejected or escaped the perverted values of hard work, delayed gratification, thrift, and sexual restraint and had embraced “the enormous present,” the “infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream, and despair of his orgasm.” But the white hipster was merely riding on the Negro’s coattails. As Mailer famously put it, “in this wedding of white and black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.”

James Baldwin picked up the theme in “Down at the Cross,” first published in the New Yorker in 1962 (and later published in book form as The Fire Next Time). Condemning white Americans for holding on to the idea that race matters, Baldwin reminds his readers that America is in reality not a white nation at all but contains many and varied peoples of all hues and mixtures and religions. He warns that if we persist in thinking of ourselves as a white nation, “we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.” The italics are Baldwin’s and that phrase, as we are, declares in effect that we are not white. For Baldwin, renouncing whiteness is the only thing that can save us - whites, blacks, the nation itself.

Finally, there is Henry Louis Gates’ memoir of his childhood in segregated West Virginia. Although Colored People (1994) questions the white/black binary that confines blacks to a certain set of identities, it still, nonetheless, partakes of it, setting the warm richness of black life against the cold sterility of white life. Describing how whites can sometimes spoil things, Gates writes, “Our space was violated when one of them showed up. The rhythms would be off. The music would sound not quite right: attempts to pat the beat off just so. Everybody would leave early.” Whiteness is a cultural deathtrap. Why on earth would anyone embrace it as part of his or her identity?

In the late 1990s, when the discipline of whiteness studies was really taking off, some people began to write about white cultural con­tributions in positive ways, focusing on NASCAR, country music, and white evangelicalism. Very quickly, however, they realized that these “white” cultural practices derived more from region and class than race. Just as quickly, they backed away from identifying and celebrating white culture, which brought them uncomfortably close to the views of the Aryan Nations and white Christian identity groups. The problem, then, is not just that whiteness is negative, but also that any attempt to make it into a positive racial or cultural identity necessarily butts up against the Klan and a long history of white supremacy.

African American culture developed as it did in the specific context of slavery, Jim Crow, and exclusion. The experience of racial oppression and the struggle against that condition is at the core of black identity and black culture. There is no such experience binding whites together as a culture or identity. What exactly is “the music of my race” if I am white? To the extent that whites have “culture ” or cultural identity, it derives from their specific ethnic or class backgrounds. We can readily identify the culture and mores of the Irish, Italians, Jews, Croats, Poles, Swedes, WASPs, and others, who have made a home for themselves in America and who became known as white. These ethnic cultures were, like black culture, formed within specific historical experiences. Unlike black culture , the ethnic cultures have faded as each successive genera­tion assimilated into the so-called mainstream or intermarried into other ethnic groups. To a large extent, whiteness describes what you are once you have given up, outgrown, or overcome your ethnic and class roots, your culture. Again, whiteness in some fundamental way means cultural death. Thus, it cannot be viewed positively.

The point here is that if we accept the idea that “race matters” and that this is not simply a statement of the way things are but an endorse­ment of the way things should be, then there is no place for white people - who are, let us be clear, the vast majority of people in the United States - except in a hair shirt. Maybe this is a just comeuppance, a righting of an historical wrong, but it seems stunningly misguided as a strategy for racial progress or an antidote to campus tensions. There is nothing here for whites to be part of. At least Lewis and Baldwin offered whites a way out - through renouncing their whiteness.4 But whiteness proponents insist that there is no way out; denying one’s whiteness merely reinforces its privilege. The idea of a common humanity that transcends race is, to them, simply a new form of racism. Perhaps black activists and their purported allies shouldn’t be expected to watch out for the feelings of white folks; but to tell the members of a majority racial group that they are a race and that they should start thinking like one, and then to tell them they have no usable past or culture, and that their numbers are shrinking, would seem to me to be a form of madness. One can only hope that our students really are not learning what we’re teaching them in college.


*Books discussed in this column include White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Paula Rothenberg (Worth Publishing, 2005), Michael K. Brown, et al, Whitewashing Race: the Myth ofa Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, 2003), Leslie G. Carr, Color Blind Racism (London: Sage Publications, 1997), and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,3d edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).




  1. There are books that actually do this, namely George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Temple UP, 1998) and Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White (Norton, 2006).

  2. Since 2000, the census counts white Hispanics as white and black Hispanics as black; the figures for Hispanics as a whole denote Hispanics of all races; they do not constitute a separate race. See explanation on http://quickfacts.census.gov/qf d/index.html

  3. The reader may be familiar with the Seinfeld episodes in which George Costanza professes not to notice race: “You’re black? I hadn’t noticed. I don’t really see race.” Similarly, in my graduate school cohort there was another Jennifer, who was black. I am white. But people used to go to great lengths to distinguish the two Jennifers by hair length, height, or geographical origin, avoiding the most obvious difference, which was our skin color.

  4. This idea of renunciation was picked up by the Race Traitor movement of the 1990s. Led by people like Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger, who called themselves the “new abolitionists,” the movement required that white people suffer visibly in their renunciation of whiteness in order to be free of it. Its slogan was: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”