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  • Writer's pictureBreinn Richter, MBA

White Versus Whiteness

I am sure you've heard people say "the answer is simple, but not easy" and it's that exact same sentiment I take into my work with other White folks who want to explore their racial identity. The first real struggle for Whites is to claim our race as White. Next, the real work begins when we are faced with what happens once we acknowledge that we are in fact racial beings living in a racialized world.

What does it mean to be a White person living in a racialized world?

Perhaps the easiest explanation starts with a differentiation between "White" and "Whiteness". "White" is quite simply a reference to our skin color and is used as a category of race that is scientifically and biologically insignificant; whereas "Whiteness" refers to the system that provides meaning and structure to the social construction of race (social construction = we make it up in relationship with other people). Whiteness is a social construct applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity (Morris, 2016). The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behavior. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative and natural; they become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior. To put it metaphorically, Whiteness is the water we are all swimming in and your race impacts how you move through that water.

Here are some of the key features of Whiteness:

  • It is socially and politically constructed, and therefore a learned behavior.

  • It does not just refer to skin color but it is an ideology based on beliefs, values, behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color (Frye, 1983; Kivel, 1996).

  • It represents a position of power where the power holder defines the categories, which means that the power holder decides who is White and who is not (Frye, 1983).

  • It is relational. "White" only exists in relation/opposition to other categories/locations in the racial hierarchy produced by Whiteness. In defining "others", Whiteness defines itself.

  • It is fluid - who is considered White changes over time. This concept of "differential racialization" is core to Critical Race Theory (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Think back on our history here in the United States, and the dehumanization of races when it’s economically convenient (e.g. enslaved Africans, Japanese, Irish, Jews, etc.)

  • It is a state of unconsciousness: Whiteness is often invisible to White people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference which is a root cause of oppression (hooks, 1994).

  • It shapes how White people view themselves and others, and places White people in a place of structural advantage where White cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned (Frankenberg, 1993). Cultural racism is founded in the belief that "Whiteness is considered to be the universal ... and allows one to think and speak as if Whiteness described and defined the world” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 327).

Once you learn a bit about how Whiteness works, you begin to realize that race is everywhere whether you see it or not, and being White in a world built for us insulates us from any racial discomfort for as long as we let it. This is particularly difficult to wrap our heads around because as Whites we've been explicitly socialized NOT to talk about race. Think back to that time in the grocery store when you witnessed a young child commenting on a person's skin color and watching their caregiver shush them.

Because of this learned silence on the part of White folks, we lack the capacity to engage in meaningful conversations about race. And when we do manage to participate in a critical conversation, we begin to experience all sorts of emotions that come along with the possibility of having to acknowledge our complicity in upholding a system that doesn't work the same for everyone. Hop on any public school board meeting in the country to see what I mean.



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