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

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Theories
  • Whiteness as Evolving Social Formation
  • Whiteness, Social Policy, and the Law
  • Global Whiteness
  • Whiteness as Politicized Group Identity
  • Whiteness and Overt White Nationalism
  • Everyday Structures of Whiteness
  • Discourse, Cognition, and the White Imaginary
  • Whiteness and Emotion
  • Whiteness and Intersectionality
  • Whiteness and Popular and Media Culture
  • Whiteness and Formal Knowledge Production
  • Whiteness, Education, and Pedagogy
  • Resisting and Challenging Whiteness
  • Whiteness Anthologies

Sociology Whiteness
Cara Cancelmo, Jennifer C. Mueller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0231


Across studies of racialized modernity, critical scholars since W. E. B. Du Bois have recognized that no analysis of racism is complete without studying the social dynamics surrounding whiteness. To be sure, studies of racism frequently center on racially subordinate groups——in terms of the discrimination they experience or, worse, as the source of racial inequalities and social problems. Scholars of whiteness, however, turn their attention to the myriad ways this fictional social construction works to reinforce white power, privilege, and wealth at the level of everyday, institutional, and global experience. Notably, though the term invokes ideas related to skin color, whiteness refers more specifically to a structural position—that is, to a racialized social identity that is positioned as superior relative to other “races” within a system of racial hierarchy. Indeed, because race is socially constructed—and not biological—whiteness can be understood as the result of social and cultural processes, rooted in a global history of European colonialism, imperialism, and transatlantic slavery, and maintained today through various institutions, ideologies, and everyday social practices. Whiteness embodies both a material reality—connected to the disproportionate economic and political power wielded by those racialized as white, as well as a symbolic reality—shaped by the cultural meanings attached to whiteness as a form of inflated value, morality, aesthetics, and civilization. White people thus derive both literal and psychological advantages from whiteness through societal norms, traditions, and institutions—conditions that mask and obscure the unjust nature of white domination. Indeed, the ideological component of white supremacy is profound: whiteness is regarded as the norm or standard in society, and yet the advantages that racial dominance accrues to white people are widely unacknowledged and ignored by white people. Du Bois perhaps cut closest to the core, describing whiteness as something that acquired an almost religious character in the modern world. As he wrote in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk”: “I ask soberly: ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”

Foundational Theories

The following are examples of foundational theories in the field of whiteness studies. Originally published in 1920, Du Bois 2003 presents one of the earliest takes on whiteness, as both an externalized global social formation and an internalized (if false) sense of superiority and related action—themes taken up later in Mills 1997; Feagin, et al. 2001; hooks 1992; and Lipsitz 2006. A classic and much reproduced essay, McIntosh 1988 draws on the author’s lived experiences to theorize the many unearned privileges of whiteness. Relatedly, Frankenberg 1997 stands as one of the earliest academic anthologies to highlight the multiple constructions and meanings of whiteness. Garner 2007 maintains the case for whiteness as a pivotal conceptual framework, while Twine and Gallagher 2008 provides an overview of the evolving field of whiteness studies—from the foundational work of Du Bois to contemporary “third wave” scholars.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 2003. The souls of white folks. In Darkwater: Voices from within the veil. By W. E. B. Du Bois, 55–74. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

    First published in 1920. DuBois locates whiteness as born from the history of the relationship between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and explains that whiteness operates as a learned superiority and as a justification for racial capitalism because whiteness is akin to morality and “the ownership of the earth.” Through this analysis, DuBois names an enduring truth about the souls of white folk: whiteness is a false ideal that—in addition to inflicting great suffering on the “darker” races—imprisons white people.

  • Feagin, Joe R., Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur. 2001. Sincere fictions of the white self. In White racism: The basics. 2d ed. By Joe R. Feagin, Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur, 186–217. New York: Routledge.

    In this chapter of a broader book analyzing the systemic nature of racism, Feagin, Vera, and Batur address how whites’ self-definitions undergird white racism. They argue that “sincere fictions of the white self” facilitate white people’s capacity to entertain anti-black prejudice and execute racial discrimination. These fictions operate as “personal ideological constructions that reproduce societal mythologies at the individual level,” emphasizing the morality and goodness of white people, as contrasted against the presumed deviance of people of color.

  • Frankenberg, Ruth, ed. 1997. Displacing whiteness: Essays in social and cultural criticism. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    In one of the earliest edited anthologies on whiteness, contributors approach whiteness as a concept with multiple meanings, examining how whiteness is constructed in a range of national, racial, and ethnic locations. As Frankenberg argues, the essays highlight the ways whiteness emerges as various “ensembles of local phenomena complexly embedded in socioeconomic, sociocultural, and psychic interrelations” (p. 1). In short, whiteness is theorized not as a “thing,” but rather a process—as plural, rather than static and singular in nature.

  • Garner, Steve. 2007. Whiteness: An introduction. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203945599

    Garner addresses whiteness as an analytic perspective useful for making sense of contemporary societies. He draws on sources from different cultural contexts, synthesizing empirical work on a highly theorized topic. He argues that whiteness should be understood as a multifaceted, contingent, and fluid positionality constituted by local and global power relations. Whiteness exists as an identity only while other racialized identities exist. Garner observes that whiteness may unite diverse groups of people under a dominant social location, even when white actors occupy other positions of relative powerlessness.

  • hooks, bell. 1992. Representations of whiteness in the black imagination. In Black looks: Race and representation. By bell hooks, 165–178. Boston, MA: South End Press.

    Hooks challenges the traditional object-subject divide that has defined historical relations between white and black people. She disrupts the idea that white people somehow exist outside of the black imagination—a racist fantasy held in place by the power white people have historically assumed to “control the black gaze.” She also makes clear that despite the fantasy of whiteness being invisible or, at most, representing goodness, whiteness “makes its presence felt in black life, most often as terrorizing imposition, a power that wounds, hurts, tortures.”

  • Lipsitz, George. 2006. The possessive investment in whiteness. Rev. and exp. ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Historian George Lipsitz examines the ways white people profit from whiteness, including through housing, education, employment, and health. He explores how social forces encourage white people to decide where to live and send their children to school with race as a consideration. His main assertion is that racism endures not just because of negative attitudes and beliefs, but because of whites’ active interest and investment in the maintenance of whiteness and white supremacy for their own material gain.

  • McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.

    McIntosh explains that while she had learned about the disadvantages faced by people of color due to racism, she had not been taught to see and understand the “other side” of racism that put her at an advantage. She defines these advantages as “an invisible package of unearned assets.” They include positive advantages that, in an ideal society, would be shared by all, such as being able to count on a warm greeting from new neighbors; as well as negative advantages, such as the privilege to ignore oppressed people.

  • Mills, Charles W. 1997. The racial contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    The “racial contract” is a set of agreements that white people use to differentiate themselves from racial others. This “social contract” is designed to render white people superior, and racial others inferior, by subjecting the racial other to a subordinate position in society. The racial contract is “an agreement to misinterpret the world.” The contract prescribes what Mills calls “an epistemology of ignorance,” or a pattern of cognitive dysfunction, where white people are not able to understand the racial oppression they have created.

  • Twine, France Winddance, and Charles Gallagher. 2008. The future of whiteness: A map of the “third wave.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31.1: 4–24.

    DOI: 10.1080/01419870701538836

    This article maps that trajectory of the field of whiteness studies, beginning with the foundational work of W. E. B. DuBois. The “third wave” builds on scholarship about the construction of racial identity and, fortified with previous waves’ acknowledgement that whiteness is not a static concept, focuses on the ways whiteness is “defined, deployed, performed, policed and reinvented” to maintain white privilege and white domination.

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