How and When Anti-Racists Should Talk About Whiteness

Most white people will say they do not see color. However, it is apparent from data on voting patterns, residential patterns, dating practices, and other decisions grounded in individual choices that white Americans as a group are indeed making choices with race in mind.

How does one explain the paradox of the individual white person proclaiming that they do not see or act on race, yet when we look broadly at white people’s behavior, we detect clear and consistent patterns?

The straightforward answer is that white is the default racial identity in the United States and other multiracial European countries. Because it is the default identity, it is seen as neutral and non-racial. Therefore, while we can observe at a group level white people acting in racialized ways, the individual white person is often not cognizant they are acting racially.

Scholars of race have developed this casual observation further. There is a vast amount of literature on what is called “whiteness.” A simple description of whiteness from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is sufficient for our purposes:

“Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups of are compared. Whiteness is also at the core of understanding race in America. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.

This white-dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people, since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.”

Whiteness is toxic in everyday discourse. The use of the term activates white folks’ racial identity, and defenses are raised. This leads inevitably to several critiques, or counterarguments against the concept of whiteness and its implications. These counterarguments all have prima facie (surface) validity. But are not supported when thought through carefully.

What follows are five counterarguments and ways of addressing them.

Five Counterarguments to the Concept of Whiteness and How to Address Them

The first counterargument is to attack the vagueness of the category white. People in different regions of the country or of different immigrant origins have different patterns of life. Are Boston Brahmins who can trace their lineage back to settlers from the Colonial Era the same as Midwestern Okies whose families were 19th-century immigrants from Lithuania and Germany? What kind of common culture can they possibly have?

A second counterargument is to attack the major implication of whiteness — the notion that whiteness confers privilege. Many white folks are poor, the critique goes. How can a poor white family scratching out a living in a Rust Belt town be privileged? This critique has some merits as indeed, white people make up more of the impoverish population than any other racial group (they make up about 41% of the total impoverished population).

Both of these counterarguments fall victim to the exception fallacy. Whiteness and white privilege are all valid concepts when applied at the appropriate level of analysis. Using individual cases within the group to refute the group level conclusion is the exception fallacy.

Suppose someone says that “on average” white people believe or do X more than nonwhite people, and “on average,” white people tend to have better outcomes even in similar economic situations than nonwhites. This claim is entirely valid at the level of racial group. Pointing out variations below that level and using it to refute that trend is faulty reasoning.

In a non-politicized climate, we understand this. Claiming Germans are consuming more sugar than Australians (103 grams/day to 96 grams/day) is accurate at the level of nationality. If you are an international sugar producer thinking about new national markets, this information may be the most important. Maybe later, when developing a marketing plan, you may wish to consider other factors at a different analysis level. You may never be interested in what any individual German or Australian does.

It does not mean that the counterarguments above are wrong. White people are different by region, and white people are poor. It merely means that these counterarguments are additional claims that need to stand on their own. They answer other questions. For example, many anti-racists are white. In my view, Joe Feagin is the most persuasive voice on systemic racism. Dr. Feagin is an 82-year-old Texas-born white man. Explaining why people like Joe Feagin become anti-racists requires individual-level explanations that do not refute whiteness scholars’ group level claims. Whiteness scholars are correct in looking at these broad trends as long as statistical realities support them.

A third counterargument goes something like: “aren’t all of these things you call whiteness simply a sign of being good or being functional?” The person making this argument is likely unaware that they are baking their own notions of superiority into the claim. In other words, if one aspect of whiteness is a strong belief in technological progress, then someone saying, “well, isn’t this just good stuff, not white stuff,” is just affirming their belief in technological progress. Indeed many cultures presently and throughout history value tradition over progress. In this regard, it is enlightening to browse the research of political scientist Ronald Inglehart. Inglehart has been conducting a World Values Survey since the early ’80s.

This does not mean that those behaviors are not conducive of success in a given technological or economic system. But this again, is a different claim. Arguing that a set of behaviors is more effective within a certain set of circumstances is not the same as making the observation that a particular group of people exhibit those behaviors. The point of whiteness is not to talk about the success of a culture, but to explain the dynamics put in play when one group’s behaviors are seen as normal, and others are seen as deviant.

A fourth counterargument focuses on the characteristics that are shared by whites and nonwhites. The assertion is that “all of the things you mention are characteristics of nonwhite group X.” I see this point made often by people of color who reject the notion of whiteness. For example, “I am black, and I love science…am I now white?” Aside from being dangerously close to committing the ecological fallacy, this counterargument holds up well when comparing populations on one trend.

However, when we start to tally differences in values, beliefs, and life patterns between groups, we start to see that these groups diverge. These quantifiable differences start to have the look of a qualitative difference between groups. As the saying goes, quantity has a quality of its own.

And so yes, Mexican-American immigrants will share many practices and beliefs with their gringo peers. Both groups, for example, may be dedicated to achieving the American Dream through hard work. But only someone who is willfully blind or willfully ignorant will assume that there are not many observable differences between the two populations. We can consider levels of religiosity, beliefs about what it means to be an Americans, marital and family patterns, and so on.

For this reason — quantity has a quality all its own — most whiteness research is qualitative. It is the only way to collect the type of information that shows the differences between racial groups and the impact of whiteness on those differences.

There is a fifth, and final counterargument. Whiteness is characterized by hate, the counterargument goes, and white people themselves must be hateful by extension. Therefore, whiteness is racist towards white people. This, I believe is the most rhetorically powerful argument and tends to be the one that hijacks all rational discussion of whiteness.

I can show how the counterargument works using a part of the NMAACH description of whiteness above:

Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.”

This can then be re-articulated as white people see nonwhite persons as inferior or abnormal.

This, of course, is not what whiteness scholars —of which a large percentage are white — mean when they talk about whiteness. Instead, the claim is that white people are socialized, by virtue of being born into the United States, into seeing white people and white culture as good and the norm. This creates a hierarchy of value. Things not associated with whiteness are viewed as less good and abnormal.

Suppose we find that white Americans expect marriages to be based upon the individual’s choice, and the decision to marry should be based on love. In that case, it is not unreasonable to assume that white Americans will find arranged marriages less “good” and see them as “abnormal.” This should not be seen as a moral indictment but a reasonable conclusion grounded in what we know about human behavior.

However, the whiteness-as-reverse-racist argument is rhetorically powerful. Just the word whiteness is unappealing for a society — especially whites — that professes to be colorblind. The concept also suffers from the iceberg problem — there is so much under the surface that needs to be explained before one can really understand that this is not about hate.

People who wish to push back against social justice efforts use this counterargument liberally. This includes podcasters, politicians, and writers that are anti-social justice (or anti-woke). Writers for outlets like Quillette, Areo, and New Discourses rarely discuss the term in the context and manner in which it was intended (the writer is rarely an academic studying race). Usually, the term becomes low lying fruit to condemn all anti-racism efforts.

Imagine a black diversity trainer standing up in front of a white audience, claiming that white people are “evil.” This is an incorrect application of this idea and may suggest more about the activist having an ax to grind than with the concept of whiteness itself. Nevertheless, an anti-social justice actor will circulate clips of this trainer proclaiming the “evil” of white folks. This video then becomes the preferable representation of whiteness, anti-racism, and social justice more broadly.

Shelving Whiteness

I am becoming very judicious in my use of the term whiteness. I suggest other people advocating for anti-racism do the same. I am not arguing for the abolition of the term whiteness. Indeed, one cannot understand how race operates in American society without looking at the impact of whiteness. We cannot understand how and why white people at a group level exhibit the patterns they do, why they are so resistant to race-based policies, and why people of color express a sense of “othering”, without incorporating whiteness into that explanation.

Instead, I am arguing for its shelving.

Anti-racists and other social justice advocates should only refer to whiteness when two conditions are met:

(1) They are interacting with people sympathetic to social justice

(2) There is adequate space to develop one’s ideas

In those situations, you can take the concept of whiteness off the shelf and address the common counterarguments above.

Don’t tell someone on Twitter or Facebook that it is because of their “whiteness” that they think the way they do. Your assertion may have support both theoretically and empirically, but it serves no practical purpose. You are only ever providing your interlocutor with the opportunity to levy the counterarguments above. As I have mentioned, these arguments have prima facie validity. The interlocutor can simply say your assertion is “racist.” In that small social media window, with no context, it will appear so.

Meanwhile, the counterarguments — although adequate refutations — take much more time to generate. All you have done is provide a space for anti-social justice activists to congregate and share each other’s counterarguments (I speak from experience).

I even suggest that diversity trainers should be careful when they decide to talk about whiteness. Although I am not a diversity trainer, I cannot imagine any training session being able to discuss whiteness with any clarity. The audience is likely starting from a low floor of understanding, and the allotted time — maybe an hour, perhaps an afternoon — is really not enough. It is also not a sympathetic audience. They may be interested in diversity, but they will be far less interested in understanding their white racial identity and how it impacts their lives. Unless American sentiments change drastically, it seems that the better course of action is to talk about diversity without talking about whiteness. It can be done.

I will deploy the shelving analogy one last time. By only opening the jar of whiteness when we absolutely have to, we can keep its valuable contents from spoiling.

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store