On Whiteness: Perspectives from Haas Institute Staff and Scholars

In response to the questions What does it actually mean to be “white”? Is there a white identity? And does it come with a set of benefits that others don’t get?" If white privilege is a real thing, what should that mean for everyone about how we interact? Staff and scholars from the Haas Institute offered the following brief perspectives.
 

I like what James Baldwin once said, "No one was white before he/she came to America.  It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country."  Aside from the shifting meaning of whiteness historically, I would emphasize the following point.  As the question states, "It is, perhaps, one of the greatest cultural benefits of being white in America: you rarely have to think about it."  True, but it may also be true that whiteness is losing it transparency, obvious nature, and "racelessness."   I think we should talk about increasing white racial anxiety and how it’s expressed in different domains— in culture, in relationships, in terms of health and well-being (remember the middle-aged, working class whites who are depressed and dying?) and, most obviously, in politics.  In many ways, the rise of Trump and the shifting mood of the conservative electorate is all about white racial anxiety.  The other side of the coin is the question of what a white "anti-racist" politics would look like, and what does it mean to be "allies" to groups of color. – Michael Omi

I've been struck by how the current election cycle has crystalized the white racialization project in this country.  It not so much about white people but about a politic of fear and anxiety that is aimed at all, albeit poor white males are drawn to it most but we are seeing that white racialization is not exclusive. – Olivia Araiza

White racial anxiety is largely because of the separation of whites from a shared humanity. The way to decrease racial anxiety amongst white people is to center racial equity as necessary for the restoration of a whites as fully human, fully loving and compassionate, not only as an “ally” to people and communities of color, but recognizing the ways in which oppressive structures and systems fundamentally damage the oppressor as well. I have seen too many white people experience short-term interest in racial equity when it is viewed as something they / we are doing for other people, as missionaries or social workers, but not recognizing the absolute necessity for our own humanity.   – Julie Nelson

I think that a part of white privilege (of course among other things) is the ability to be judged and seen as an individual until you're interested in being seen as part of a larger group. I think that's why so many people reject the umbrella term "white" or "whiteness" (and in my experience, a lot of people get very offended being called white, even if that is how they would self-identify). That privilege seems to only be extended to select individuals that have passed the "smell test." It's like when a white person says "you're different from most Black people," or "you're not really Latino," or anything like that. People of color are often seen as part of some little understood group instead of as an individual. The privilege lies in saying things like "I don't see color," or "I only judge people by their character," which is not in fact true. Someone who doesn't like what is being said about "whiteness" can always retreat into the individual self, not wanting to take part in, or being responsible for "whiteness" on the whole. Many of us do not have that same liberty. Additionally, some of us tend to push away allies or would-be allies because it doesn't always feel like a collective fight. And that stems from anxiety and distrust on both sides.  – Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

Talking about white people makes people nervous, obviously, so I've always found it helpful to distinguish between white as defined by biological markers such as blue eyes and blond hair or European dissent, and whiteness, the worldview that elevates some over others. By talking about whiteness as a problem, rather than whites, I'm able to stress that all of us have an interest in fighting whiteness, including people of color who are often offered a version of the privileges associated with whiteness. – Ian Haney Lopez

I tend to define whiteness not by what it is, but by how it functions.  I view whiteness as an exclusionary force that seeks to police and demarcate a host of boundaries and opportunities in society. As such, whiteness defines itself largely by what it is not. Stephen Menendian

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.