What is Whiteness and Why Does it Matter?

May 31, 2021 | Whiteness

What is meant by “whiteness?” In this case, the term does not refer to the color of your teeth. Although, come to think of it, the fixation on super white teeth, is probably a manifestation of the kind of whiteness I’m focusing on here. 


What Is it?

Whiteness in the context of race is difficult to describe because it is difficult to see, especially for those of us who are white. It’s like the air we breathe. It feels like ‘just the way things are.’ Nonetheless, it is a phenomenon that has shaped our society, and the United States as a nation, from its very beginning.

In her book White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness written in 1993, Ruth Frankenberg describes whiteness as having a set of linked dimensions:

1. Whiteness is a location of structural advantage, i.e. race privilege

2. It is a “standpoint” from which white people look at ourselves, at others and at society

3. It is a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed

In other words, whiteness is endemic to our culture and typically, the hue of power itself. As Michael Eric Dyson writes in the forward to Robin D’Angelo’s’ book White Fragility: “In the equation of race…whiteness is the unchanging variable.” And, paradoxically, Dyson also describes whiteness as “a highly adaptable and fluid force that stays on top no matter where it lands.” He continues: 

“In a sense, whiteness is at once the means of dominance, the end to which dominance points, and the point of dominance, too, which, in its purest form, in its greatest fantasy never ends.”

What is the dominance to which Dyson refers? The socialized stance of domination that white people, and whiteness as cultural practice, presume over Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. This stance of dominance and real advantage is largely reflexive, as is the set of race-based social rules that govern society. According to Teresa J. Guess in her 2006 article, Social Construction of Whiteness:

“The nature of such rules is that they are only tacitly understood by actors; they become such an integral part of actors’ practical stocks of knowledge that, as procedures, they simply appear as the natural order of things.” 

By default, then, whiteness is also the standard by which everything else is judged, made so by those who held the power to do the defining. Since the founding of the United States, that power has always resided primarily with white men. Even the term ‘diversity’ centers whiteness, by pointing to that which is ‘not white.’ 

The national culture of the U.S. is thoroughly infused with whiteness with its hyper focus on the individual, consumerism and achievement – all of which are more readily available to those with light-colored skin because of generations of discrimination and violence against people of color. 

Whiteness also shows up “on top,” as Dyson puts it, in almost all spheres, including history, literature, education, politics, health care, and entertainment. It determines how seriously a patient’s health complaints are treated by physicians. It determines how much is expected of children in school. It determines which celebrity chefs get television shows. 

Each day, we see online, and in the news, numerous and new (to white people) ways that systemic racism manifests in our culture. We can no longer deny that systemic racism is a huge problem, but can we see that whiteness and white supremacy are the forces that created it and keep it alive? Can we begin to see the myriad ways it shows up in our communities, workplaces and in ourselves?