Examining Whiteness

In NNM SURJ, we are always investigating what whiteness is, how we benefit from it, and how it functions as a social construct. The following statement is a work in progress. We'd love to discuss this with you!

As white people coming to or continuing work for racial justice, it is important that we understand race. This can be more complex than many of us have imagined in the past. Our language around race and racism tends to be rather two dimensional. In order to understand “whiteness,” it is necessary to expand our vocabularies and deepen our understandings.

Three important words to understand are prejudice, discrimination, and racism. It is common to hear people substituting one of the words for the other (most often, “racism” is used to describe “prejudice” or “discrimination”). Unfortunately, Webster does not provide an accurate definition of these words as they are used in social justice frameworks. As a first step in understanding whiteness, familiarizing oneself with the nuances of these words is essential. This link will guide you to working definitions understood by Northern New Mexico SURJ. 

Another distinction that needs to be made is the difference between “white people” and “whiteness.” White people are just that; people with what we call “white” skin. This racial marker is no more significant to who the person is than hair or eye color. However, this racial marker does influence how society as a whole will treat a person. Just as what we call “black” skin influences how a black person will be treated, white skin influences how a white person will be treated.

The treatment of white skinned people in the USA today is a clue to the system of whiteness. This system has historic roots which are important to understand. In the 16th century, the construction of whiteness was introduced in the Colonies on Turtle Island (the so called “New World”). The wealthy upper classes conveyed privilege to poor white people in an effort to divide the indentured class and prevent general uprising. This move to privilege some of the indentured class over others, is the beginning of what we understand as “race” in the USA. While white indentured servants were privileged, black indentured servants were reduced. To the extent that slavery was normalized for black people, while white people were still given access to freedom through various avenues. This history sets the stage for what we understand as whiteness and indeed includes an understanding of blackness. Specifically; “anti-blackness,” as this binary creates the privilege of whiteness.

Today when we seek to understand whiteness, it is important to recognize how it manifests. Whiteness is a construct that serves to homogenize white ethnic diversity and difference. Using the language of whiteness affords SURJ members opportunity to experience being identified into one racialized group. The racialization process is not something any of us should be comfortable with. From this we can begin to see that when we are talking about whiteness we are also talking about blackness and colorism.

Race is, and has been, a hierarchy. It was not intended as any kind of subjective or equitable distinction between peoples. Within this hierarchy, white occupies the privileged station. Anti-blackness is the tool for maintaining white supremacy. For the white person, this racial identity threatens to displace and erase our beautiful cultures, heritages, and ethnicities. In order to resist this erasure, it is imperative for white people to form an understanding of whiteness and how that serves in the oppression of non-white peoples.

Ultimately, the liberation of white people is directly tied to the liberation of non-white people. “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” ~ Emma Lazarus

Further Reading on Whiteness in the USA

1 “Whiteness”: The origins and evolution of “whiteness” in the West https://speakfaithfully.com/2012/04/28/whiteness-the-origins-and-evolution-of-whiteness-in-the-west/

2 The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence https://www.cwu.edu/diversity/sites/cts.cwu.edu.diversity/files/documents/constructingwhiteness.pdf

3 Whiteness Studies https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiteness_studies

4 White Awake https://whiteawake.org/waking-up-to-race/

5 White Supremacy Culture https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ApaGvYT5QFGOIowvGwooCOeTEv8elAy7lwW6QnU-6XU/edit?usp=sharing