What is Whiteness?

by Christopher Paslay

Anti-racists view Whiteness as an independent entity separate from any one individual, a “ghost in the machine” of society that perpetuates white privilege and oppression on its own, and thus can be attacked and deconstructed without accusations of discrimination against any one person or group —despite the fact the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white” are being targeted.

  • Whiteness (mainstream definition): The cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white.”
  • Whiteness (anti-racist definition): term to capture all of the dynamics that go into being defined and/or perceived as white and that create and reinforce white people as inherently superior through society’s norms, traditions, and institutions. Whiteness grants material and psychological advantages (white privilege) that are often invisible and taken for granted by whites.

Although most Americans adhere to the mainstream definition of “Whiteness,” anti-racists reject this definition, as it makes their attempts to deconstruct “Whiteness” anti-white, which they insist is not the case. As a result, anti-racists have used Critical Race Theory (CRT) to redefine the term completely. This involves treating an abstraction — Whiteness — as if it had a material existence. However, a closer analysis reveals this new definition falls prey to the fallacy of reification. Anti-racists view Whiteness as an independent entity separate from any one individual, a “ghost in the machine” of society that perpetuates white privilege and oppression on its own, and thus can be attacked and deconstructed without accusations of discrimination against any one person or group —despite the fact the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white” are being targeted.

Educators should adhere to the mainstream definition of “Whiteness.” The zero-sum fallacy of “Whiteness” is inappropriate in American educational settings, as it does little to empower people of color, and is based in resistance and disruption, rather than cooperation and collaboration.

The Movement to Redefine Whiteness

Trying to define the term Whiteness is like trying to define a term like love; they are both abstract concepts that do not have absolute definitions. As such, these terms can be frustratingly subjective, as different people — coming from a wide range of experiences and perspectives — may offer different interpretations. The recent push by anti-racists to take a subjective term like Whiteness and not only give it a definitive definition but also fashion it into a concrete entity with substance and form is curious, as doing so falls prey to something called the fallacy of reification, otherwise known as concretism, hypostatization and fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

As writer, economist, and whiteness studies critic Jonathan Church so aptly writes:

Whiteness Studies is devoted to the study of Whiteness as a centripetal ideology (ideology and discourse function similarly here) that supports and upholds white supremacy (i.e. institutional racism). It thus treats the de-centering of Whiteness as a key objective in the critical evaluation of social norms and institutions. But this means that Whiteness Studies — and thus the theory of white fragility — asserts that whiteness is reified in society. Reification involves treating an abstraction — Whiteness—as if it had a material existence. 

Whiteness, of course, does not have a material existence. It is not a concrete thing, and does not take up space. Still, anti-racists insist Whiteness is a problematic social construct that must be remedied, which means it exists as an independent entity with identifiable characteristics that can be adequately “deconstructed.” Supposedly, these characteristics consist of power, privilege, dominance, and oppression. Some scholar-activists, such as Robin DiAngelo, even equate Whiteness with racism itself.

Unfortunately, whiteness studies have become a battle to define and control Whiteness itself, given that the discipline views Whiteness as property and a position of status. By redefining “racism” to mean inherent white privilege and oppression, all whites become guilty by default, even those whites who are caring people free from discrimination (see DiAngelo’s good/bad binary of racism). This ultimately transforms the property of Whiteness into the commodity of racism, and enables the politically oriented whiteness studies movement to usurp so-called Whiteness to use and redistribute as it sees fit.

In essence, the battle to define Whiteness is about taking power from privileged “oppressors” (those perceived as “white”) and giving it to the marginalized “oppressed” (people of color). Only whiteness scholars can’t preach this directly, because using race to control educational resources violates Federal anti-discrimination EEO laws, as was the case when New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza held a crusade against “toxic” whiteness in the district and was sued as a result (see herehere, and here). Whiteness isn’t about individuals, anti-racists insist, it’s about racist systems and institutions, about institutionally racist policy.

Still, because many American institutions are run by white people, this is ultimately a criticism of individuals. And when it turns out that many of these individuals are compassionate and caring people, whiteness scholars circumvent this reality by insisting whites unknowingly perpetuate white privilege and white supremacy, because Whiteness makes them blind to such injustices. In other words, whiteness scholars are saying the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of whites make them unwitting racists — a situation that can only be corrected through proper White Racial Identity Development (WRID), which in essence is the political indoctrination of whites into the world of race-based identity politics and anti-racist activism; if you’re white and don’t want to be labeled a “racist,” you must fully adopt as dogma an anti-racist ideology. 

While some whites do exhibit discriminatory behaviors and attitudes, the majority of white people in 2020 America are not racist or discriminatory (Welcoming Whiteness uses a traditional good/bad definition of racism), and as studies show, do not suffer from the kinds of implicit biases whiteness scholars claim. But this doesn’t matter to whiteness scholars and social justice advocates who intend to turn the property of Whiteness into the commodity of racism. All whites must be held accountable and be on board with the deconstruction of their own cultures, behaviors, and attitudes, which will supposedly empower people of color; ultimately, however, this zero-sum approach does not empower people of color, as the control now lies with those who forward identity politics and benefit from the commodity of racism (AKA:  politiciansactivist groups, and  whiteness scholars themselves).

Nevertheless, this is at the heart of the anti-racist definition of “Whiteness,” which serves as a convenient “ghost in the machine” of society, because it can hold individual white people accountable for all manner of social ills and oppression, usurp their resources and exploit them politically, while claiming to address inequality at the “institutional” or “systemic” levels only.

Educators should adhere to the mainstream definition of “Whiteness.” The zero-sum fallacy of “Whiteness” is inappropriate in American educational settings, as it does little to empower people of color, and violates Federal anti-discrimination EEO laws.

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