Why Talk About Whiteness?

We can’t talk about racism without it

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 11.29.50 AM
Until you can recognize that you are living a racialized life and you’re having racialized experiences every moment of every day, you can’t actually engage people of other races around the idea of justice
— Whitney Dow, documentary filmmaker, director and producer of The Whiteness Project

Dow’s work, among other activism and scholarship focused on whiteness, has the potential to stimulate meaningful conversations about whiteness and move white folks past emotions like defensiveness, denial, guilt and shame (emotions that do nothing to improve conditions for people of color) and toward a place of self-empowerment and social responsibility.

Whiteness, History and Culture

Why does whiteness fly beneath the race radar? The normalization of whiteness and the impenetrable ways it protects itself are cornerstones of the way institutions function in the United States.

This poses a challenge for educators committed to racial justice. We know it’s important to make space in our classrooms to explore students’ cultures and identities, but when it comes to white students, many are left with questions about how to talk about group membership and cultural belonging. These questions stem in part from the fact that, while it’s true that whiteness is seen as a social default, it is not true that whiteness is the absence of race or culture.

Whiteness—like all racial categories—is a social construct as its meaning is culturally and historically contextual. Indeed, the physical characteristics we now associate with whiteness have been artificially linked to power and privilege for the purpose of maintaining an unjust social hierarchy.

As white people become more conscious of whiteness and its meaning, they may simultaneously struggle with two aspects of identity:  the search for cultural belonging and internalized dominance. The search for culture draws some white people to multiculturalism and appreciation of other cultures and heritages as well as their own.

One place to start is by acknowledging that generations of European immigration to the United States means that our country is home to the most diverse white population anywhere in the world. Differences between Jewish, Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish or German culture matter—a lot—to those who identify as ethnic whites. Part of “seeing” whiteness includes caring about these rich histories and complicating our discussions of race by asking questions about the intersection of ethnicity and race.