In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Whiteness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Personal Reflections
  • Imagining Whiteness across the Color Line
  • Historical Construction of Whiteness
  • Whiteness and Class
  • Whiteness, Immigration, and Assimilation
  • What Counts as White: Changing Racial Categories in the Census and Beyond
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the Construction of Whiteness
  • White Privilege, Power, and Identity
  • Work-Shopping Whiteness and Anti-racism

African American Studies Whiteness
Melissa Stein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0063


Whiteness as a conceptual framework—and whiteness studies, the interdisciplinary field it precipitated—largely developed from two overlapping scholarly strands that sought to “reverse the view” of how we think, and talk, about race. Though both activists and scholars had long described the insidious effects of racism and discrimination on people of color, and the pervasive disadvantages they faced in US society, in 1989 women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh flipped the script to interrogate the generally unseen, and unearned, advantages white people carry with them in every aspect of life. Her now classic article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” articulated the concept of “white privilege” for a broad audience, and it was quickly adopted for classroom use by many secondary and university instructors. What made the article particularly useful in the classroom was her inclusion of a list of privileges demonstrating the range of ways in which whiteness is constructed as a normative and neutral category, such as “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.” Her article continues to be in heavy use in classrooms and anti-racist workshops, while McIntosh herself has revisited the concept of white privilege, as well as male privilege, in numerous publications. A similar trend of reversing the view emerged from historians and literary scholars beginning in the 1990s. Previously, scholarship on race was dominated by studies examining how Europeans and European Americans viewed black people in particular, and to a lesser extent groups from indigenous, Asian, or Latin American descent. This focus was exemplified by numerous foundational texts on racial thought, many of which emphasized the rise of scientific racism in the 19th century, including William Stanton’s The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815–1959 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); John Haller Jr.’s Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859–1900 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971); and George Frederickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). In response, historians began to interrogate the changing meanings of whiteness over time, both politically and culturally. Within that new historiographic turn, some historians focused on the ways in which the parameters of whiteness were tied to patterns of immigration and assimilation, while others looked to the role of social class in the development of the nascent and often amorphous racial category, while still others even more literally reversed the view to examine how African Americans have viewed white people historically.

General Overviews

Publication of a wide range of general overviews, textbooks, and edited anthologies has accompanied the rapid growth of critical whiteness studies as a scholarly field from the 1990s onward. Many of these volumes—a number of which developed from conference proceedings—summarize the state of the field for an academic audience or move the field in a new direction geographically, thematically, or theoretically, while others are designed specifically for classroom use. While many are deliberately interdisciplinary, others examine whiteness through a specific disciplinary lens, such as philosophy-based MacMullan 2009 and Nakayama and Martin 1999, an anthology of essays by scholars in communications. Similarly, while much of the collected work in whiteness studies focuses primarily on the United States (which indeed is where the field got its start, in terms of both the geographic scope and the location of the scholars themselves), other more recent texts have deliberately pushed the conversation beyond US borders, including Garner 2007; Boucher, et al. 2009; Levine-Rasky 2002; Rasmussen, et al. 2001; and Ware and Back 2002. And several of the most broad in scope make for excellent classroom readers or introductions to whiteness studies for scholars new to the field, most notably Hill 1997, Doane and Bonilla-Silva 2003, Delgado and Stefancic 1997, and Levine-Rasky 2013.

  • Boucher, Leigh, Jane Carey, and Katherine Ellinghaus, eds. Re-orienting Whiteness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Edited anthology of historical essays by scholars from across the globe that collectively analyze whiteness as a critical aspect of empire, and an often-overlooked dynamic in the history of colonialism.

  • Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

    Expansive in size and scope, this reader is structured into eleven parts (“How Whites See Themselves”; “How Whites See Others”; “Whiteness: History’s Role”; “Whiteness: Law’s Role”; “Whiteness: Culture’s Role”; “White Privilege”; “The Ladder of Whiteness”; “The Color Line: Multiracial People and ‘Passing for White’”; “Biology and Pseudoscience”; “White Consciousness, White Power”; and “What Then Shall We Do? A Role for Whites”). Each part concludes with resources for further reading alongside commentary from the editors.

  • Doane, Ashley W., and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, eds. White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Collection of essays from established and emerging scholars in the field, representing a range of disciplines, that seeks to center whiteness studies on the “study of the systemic practices that reproduce racial inequality,” rather than reflect “the self-absorption of whites and [deflect] attention from critical and persistent issues of racism in the United States,” which they fear is a danger for the field as it expands (p. ix).

  • Garner, Steve. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203945599

    This single-authored text by British-based sociologist Steve Garner provides a broad overview of whiteness in a global context.

  • Hill, Mike, ed. Whiteness: A Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

    A broad collection of new and previously published essays organized into thematic sections on “White Politics,” “White Culture,” “White Bodies,” and “White Minds.”

  • Levine-Rasky, Cynthia. Whiteness Fractured. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    Single-authored monograph by Canadian sociologist Cynthia Levine-Rasky (who also edited Levine-Rasky 2002). Therein, she describes whiteness not as an identity but as a “locus of power,” and posits: “Rather than the question ‘who is white?’ we might ask ‘how is whiteness done?’” (p. 5).

  • Levine-Rasky, Cynthia, ed. Working through Whiteness: International Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

    As indicated in the subtitle, this edited anthology is transnational in scope, and it includes essays both contemporary and historical in focus, as well as a section on approaches to teaching about whiteness.

  • MacMullan, Terrance. Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

    Philosophical approach to the “problem of whiteness,” which MacMullan describes as “the practices, habits, and assumptions that impede human flourishing and democracy” stemming from a belief in white superiority. He further divides the problem into three facets: white privilege, prejudice against people of color, and cultural vacuity (“the cultural loss for many people who identify as white that started when whiteness as a cultural identity supplanted older, more particular cultural identities based on ethnicity and place”) (p. 18).

  • Nakayama, Thomas K., and Judith N. Martin, eds. Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1999.

    Edited anthology of essays primarily by communications scholars, and those employing similar methods or frameworks within interdisciplinary fields such as American studies and women’s studies.

  • Rasmussen, Birgit Brander, Eric Klinenberg, Irene Nexica, and Matt Wray, eds. The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

    The essays in this collection are broad in geographic and historical scope, and they are written by scholars within and outside the academy, as well as racial justice activists.

  • Ware, Vron, and Les Back. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    Co-written by two British scholars and focusing on both the United States and Great Britain, Out of Black examines historical instances in which racial boundaries have been blurred, disrupted, or refashioned.

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