Entry by Lauren Nader
‘In sociology, whiteness is defined as a set of characteristics and experiences generally associated with being a member of the white race and having white skin. Sociologists believe the construct of whiteness is directly connected to the correlating construct of non-White people as “other” in society. Because of this, whiteness comes with a wide variety of privileges’ (Cole, 2014).
In essence, it highlights the notion that whiteness is superior to blackness. A White person is not pre judged based on the quality of being light skin-toned whereas a Black person is. It can be perceived as a social construct because in a world where racism exists, is also a world where whiteness and blackness both endure a range of different attitudes towards them. In fact, sociologists have discovered that a white skin tone and/or being identified as White means being regarded as normal within the United States and Europe (Cole, 2014). In relation to this, it is often argued that ‘‘persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalised’ (National Museum of African American History & Culture, 2019). Alongside the concept of whiteness, comes white supremacy in which if society perceives White as the preferred race then this superior race will acquire more power. Their dominance will result in higher status jobs being allocated to them such as within politics such as Presidents and Prime Ministers, within education such as Vice-Chancellors of universities and Principals of schools.
When studying the history of whiteness, it is important to explore the treatment and rights of both Black and White people and how they contrast over a period of time. In the early 17th century, Shakespeare translated these contrasts within his play Othello, a tragedy set in Venice in the Ottoman period about a Black Moor who falls in love with a White woman however allows his jealous inferior Iago manipulate him into believing his wife’s unfaithfulness, which eventually leads to his downfall. Within the play, ‘Othello is consistently referred to as the devil or the black devil. Iago urges Brabantio to take action “or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.” In the final scene, Emilia tells Othello after Desdemona’s death, “Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.” Othello’s final identity, despite his positions as a general, civil servant, hero and leader, is that of the devil’ (Chen, 2018). It is clear that Othello symbolised darkness and immorality through his depiction of a Black devil. During this time, Europe was a continent of racism that emphasised the idea that Black was wrong and White was correct; White always represented purity whereas Black was almost always ambiguous but often led to the notion of dirtiness and insignificance (Adler, 1974, p248). This highlights the fact that whiteness has always seeked advantage over blackness, almost in a way that proved that society was historically built for white people to flourish.
During the early 1900s within the United States, an individual would be given the right to vote ‘if they naturalised and, before 1920, were men’ (Painter, 2010). The process of American naturalisation is one that is completely disturbing yet unsurprising when it comes to learning about the racial injustices that people of colour faced. This is the ‘process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a lawful permanent resident after meeting the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)’ (USCIS, 2020). However, the criteria for the process of naturalisation was favoured for white men, in fact it was only approved if a candidate was white and male. As a result, men who originated from countries outside the US and may have been slightly darker than the typical fair skinned male, would do what they can to prove they were white. Even though they would now be typically described as yellow or brown skinned, they did not want to be defined through any other ethnicity rather than White American. This shows the sheer segregation that existed within 20th century America, and the detrimental effects that this would have had on Black people, who even if they wanted to become an American citizen, they could even be considered. They were punished for their skin colour, and thus constantly seen as insufficient by society.
When exploring whiteness it is important to look at how it can affect change. For example, the notion of whiteness existing within social justice movements:
“Black women are often overlooked in people’s conversations about racism and sexism even though they face a unique combination of both of these forms of discrimination simultaneously,” said lead researcher Stewart Coles, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s Department of Communication and Media. “This ‘intersectional invisibility’ means that movements that are supposed to help Black women may be contributing to their marginalization” (Goodman, 2020).
Should White people be advocating for a certain cause such as Black women’s rights then they should make this clear in order to prevent a message of solely women’s rights being communicated. Feminist movements must actvely show that it is not simply anti-sexism that they are striving for however particularly fighting for equality for Black women. It can be suggested that this distinction is often made unclear (please read the womanism entry for more information on this). It is easier for White women to to become involved in activism because they are more likely to be acknowledged and listened to by society in general. It should be acknowledged that by no means does this mean that no one cares about Black women, as this would be completely unfair towards those White allies that do, nonetheless they are significantly less likely to be regarded should they require support. In terms of social movements, ‘in 2014, Black women created #SayHerName to push people to acknowledge that Black men are not the only ones killed by police at a disproportionate rate’ (Lindsey, 2020). It is once again Black women who are fighting for their voice, and the ones struggling to be heard. With Blackness comes an immense amount of challenges, and these challenges should be dealt with by both Black and White individuals. It is not only a Black woman’s fight or a Black person’s fight but also a White person’s fight. It is everyone’s fight regardless of whiteness and blackness, colour should not be a factor involved but rather perceived as a positive impact towards diversifying social injustices. It is a humanity problem rather than a certain race’s problem and therefore whether directly affected or not everyone should adopt an empathetic attitude towards social injustices. It is disturbing to learn that ‘Black Americans are 3.24 times more likely than White Americans to be killed by police’ (Harvard T.H. Chan, 2020). Such a high statistic mirrors their continuous battle to survive in a society that seems to want them to fail.
Whiteness in relation to pedagogy and higher education within the UK:
It could be argued that universities were traditionally created as institutions for white middle-class men. They were built Nowadays, there is a more diverse criteria with universities ensuring that they allow a multicultural student variety. The university application process e.g. within the UK and the US now greatly consider ethnicity as universities strive for inclusion of minority races. In addition to this, university funding systems now allow for loans and grants to be provided to universities who cannot afford their tuition fees e.g. within the United States (Wintemute, 2022). Nevertheless, white middle-class individuals continue to complain that they cannot receive a place at a good university, when in fact they have the chance to enter a university in the first place without the risk of being rejected from all universities (Sackett, 2016). Their whiteness means that they will not be judged on their race and any implications that come with it for example prejudging their attitude. It is understandable that many White students are judged even though they do not come from a wealthy background and categorised as experiencing white supremacy. However, whiteness does not mean that all White students will always get what they want yet it does mean that they will find it less challenging to achieve their dreams. They will face less obstacles along the way such as those that go beyond the university setting such as within job interviews, when seeking a promotion at work, when attempting to apply for a mortgage and simply within their everyday lives.
When reflecting on the higher education system within the UK, it is important to reflect on how whiteness can negatively affect the curriculum of institutions:
Richard Dyer for instance admits to being disturbed by the very idea of what he calls white studies: ‘My blood runs cold at the thought that talking about whiteness could lead to the development of something called “White Studies” (1997: 10). Or as Fine, Weis, Powell and Wong describe: ‘we worry that in our desire to create spaces to speak, intellectually or empirically, about whiteness, we may have reified whiteness as a fixed category of experience; that we have allowed it to be treated as a monolith, in the singular, as an “essential something”‘ (1997: ×i) (Ahmed, 2007, p2).
Critical race theorists such as Ahmed, Dyer, Fine, Weis, Powell and Wong highlight the notion that by emphasising the importance of the issues of whiteness, can in fact harm equality even further. One would assume that by encouraging race to be a talking point would allow room for solutions to avoid segregation. Nonetheless, it could also backfire and lead to an even wider problem. Therefore, one must be extremely careful when speaking about issues of whiteness as every single individual responds differently when communicated to. When one would hope that a crucial discussion as such towards a social justice issue would allow for more recognition as needing change, it does not always guarantee this. Dyer’s comment that he was ‘disturbed’ by the ‘development of something called “White Studies”’, suggests that he does not believe that it should be refined to a degree or even a module for those students who select to study this (Dyer, 1997, p10). Instead, whiteness should be acknowledged by all, it is something real and destructive to many and thus should be more widely discussed.
Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality allows for individuals to acknowledge that issues of justice should be seen as separate entities. For example, skin tone and sex are both separate social constructs that deserve to be perceived as different. Within her TED Talk titled ‘The urgency of intersectionality’, she emphasises the point that ‘where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it (YouTube, 2016). The existence of double discrimination for example, for a Black woman to be prejudged based on both her race and gender, leads to an almost impossible opportunity to be seen as equal within society. Therefore, the phenomenon of intersectionality should be seen as highly significant and thus intertwined into educational institutions and their curriculum in order to encourage a proper study of social justice issues. Instead of promoting a sense of eurocentricity throughout curriculums whether this be through topics taught or the delivery of them by certain White university lecturers (unconsciously and consciously), every single lecturer should be socially aware. They must be informed of sensitive topics, and double check their research before delivering lessons in order to teach in the most appropriate and professional manner.
Furthermore, when investigating the whiteness of higher education faculties, it should be revealed that British institutions still have a lot of work to do. In fact, a recent study found that less than 1% of professors at UK universities are Black (Adams, 2020). This figure is completely disturbing because it suggests that there is a severe problem between the relationship of British universities and Black employees. The reasons must be regarded and prevented such as lower pay and discriminatory behaviour from students and other staff members. Institutions should not allow a space for racism to occur and they must work on improving their educational settings in order to promote equality. No institution should accept foul behaviour as such and must alter in order to encourage a fairer and safer environment for their Black employees and future Black employees. If they do not make these necessary changes then they risk losing all their Black employees and potentially other employees of colour. These employees should be regarded highly by their employers and thus their needs must be met and in the future met before it is too late.
Rachel Vandana Stone, Senior Lecturer in Education at Sheffield Hallam University, suggested that some of the issues related to whiteness within the British higher education system include:
- A lack of infrastructure for responding to complaints of racism by students, suggesting that issues of race are neither understood nor prioritised within higher education institutions.
- Ignorance from staff and students about what counts as appropriate and respectful behaviour and language when speaking to or about students of colour.
- Gaps in interest or understanding relating to black history and culture – for example, the politics of colonialism, the contribution made by soldiers from the Commonwealth to both world wars, or the knowledge of indigenous populations (Stone, 2021).
Essentially, the current education system can be seen as flawed because of the continuation of the presence of institutional racism. It should be a system built on equality in order to allow all students, regardless of their ethnic background and skin colour, to have the same opportunities. All of those who have a stake in this system must receive the accurate training that teaches them how to see diversity as a positive rather than negative. Kalwant Bhopal, Professorial Research Fellow and Professor of Education and Social Justice at the University of Birmingham speaks about whiteness in the sense that ‘to dismantle it, there is a need for radical action from universities, which must start by acknowledging the existence of institutional racism and white privilege’ (Bhopal, 2017). They should be willing to first recognise the problem and then learn about how to find solutions to prevent any existence of white privilege within the system. It should be a system free of any discriminatory behaviour and one that employs people of colour in processes such as application and interview processes so that they can further understand students of colour. For example, students with foreign sounding names could be turned away even before reading their application forms simply because the person reading this is racist. They could be extremely intelligent and dedicated to their future career goals yet they could be prevented from progressing because they are not White. These biases, whether unconscious or conscious, need to be worked on in order to allow a fairer university experience for Black students and other students of colour.
Adams, R. (2020). Fewer than 1% of UK university professors are black, figures show. The Guardian. [online] 27 Feb. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/27/fewer-than-1-of-uk-university-professors-are-black-figures-show
Adler, D. (1974). The Rhetoric of Black and White in Othello. Shakespeare Quarterly, 25(2), 248–257.
Ahmed, S. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory, 8(2), 2.
Bhopal, K. (2017). How to start dismantling white privilege in higher education. British Politics and Policy at LSE. [online] Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/time-to-dismantle-white-privilege-in-higher-education
Chen, A. (2018). Othello’s Inferiority Complex – Confluence. [online] Available at: https://confluence.gallatin.nyu.edu/context/interdisciplinary-seminar/othellos-inferiority-complex
Cole, N.L. (2014). Understanding Whiteness, or the Social Significance of White Skin. [online]
ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/whiteness-definition-3026743
Dyer, R. (1997). White, London: Routledge, 10.
Goodman, B. (2020). Black Women Often Ignored by Social Justice Movements. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/07/black-women-social-justice
Harvard T.H. Chan (2020). Black people more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during a police encounter | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. [online] News. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/blacks-whites-police-deaths-disparity/
Lindsey, T. (2020). Why Are Black Women So Often Relegated to the Margins? | Time. [online] Available at: https://time.com/5869662/black-women-social-change/
National Museum of African American History & Culture (2019). Whiteness. [online] National Museum of African American History and Culture. Available at: https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/whiteness
Painter, N.I. (2010). The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Sackett, T. (2016). Don’t Apply to College if You’re White, Middle Class and Male. The Tim Sackett Project. [online] Available at: https://timsackett.com/2016/05/05/dont-apply-to-college-if-youre-white-middle-class-and-male/
Stone, R.V. (2021). W is for Whiteness in higher education. [online] Available at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/w-is-for-whiteness-in-higher-education
USCIS (2020). Citizenship and Naturalization | USCIS. [online] Available at: https://www.uscis.gov/citizenship/learn-about-citizenship/citizenship-and-naturalization
Wintemute, D. (2021). Financial Aid Opportunities for Students of Color | BestColleges. [online] Available at: https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/students-of-color-financial-aid/
YouTube (2016). The urgency of intersectionality | Kimberlé Crenshaw | TED. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o
Carter et al. (2007). “What do You Mean by Whiteness?”: A Professor, Four Doctoral Students, and a Student Affairs Administrator Explore Whiteness. Indiana: Indiana University (a conversation between six people that are either students or staff at Indiana University (USA) speaking about their individual thoughts on whiteness)
Shutack, C. (2020). 103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234 (a list of productive actions that White people can undertake in order to support Black people)
YouTube (2015). What Is Privilege? | As/Is. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD5f8GuNuGQ&t=236s (a video that consists of an exercise that places participants in a position of privilege based on their answers to privilege-related questions)
Questions to ask:
- Have you ever been made to feel different because of your skin colour?
- Do you believe that your skin colour determines your success or failure?
- Can you think of any examples of whiteness that exist today globally?
- What work could you do to help break down the racial barriers that people of colour face?
Testimonies from students:
It is extremely unfair and discriminatory to classify individuals as normal or abormnal depending on the shade of their skin. It is really detrimental to one’s mental health because they will be made to believe that they are inferior and worthless. They will be less determined to achieve more in life because they will feel that no matter how hard they work, they will always be regarded as insignificant. Everyone should seek to understand that whiteness is something that is real and evident within society and something that needs to be addressed in order to abolish this social construct and instead fight for equality.