Cinema and Media Studies Whiteness
Daniel Bernardi, Michael Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0125


Notions of whiteness as race and ethnicity have existed in intellectual and political discourses since at least the start of the European and American slave trade, perhaps most explicitly in the constitutional and scientific embrace and resistance to the Eugenics movement in the early 20th century. Whiteness studies as an established field of academic inquiry came into focus in the late 1980s during the height of US neo-conservatism, and it surged in the 1990s. Evolving in part from the writings of such key intellectuals as Franz Fanon and Edward Said, whiteness studies began to focus on three areas: 1) whiteness as race, 2) race outside of “nature” and thus in the context of social history, and 3) the applicability of critical paradigms used to investigate question of whiteness. These areas remain important topics among whiteness studies scholars working across a wide range of disciplines today: from labor and legal studies to feminism and sexuality studies to literary and film studies. The field of whiteness studies is as diverse in method and theoretical orientation as the racial formation it focuses on. Employing models from structuralism to post-structuralism, whiteness studies scholars have worked to illuminate the historical formation of meaning and attendant practices situated as being “invented” by early American Anglo-Saxon elites as a way of controlling labor, faith, and privilege, and maintaining power and privilege for those that pass as white. Whiteness studies scholars have worked to shed light on this “invisible” power of whiteness. Hence, the impetus behind this work is political in the broadest sense: to expose the myriad intuitional and cultural mechanisms that perpetuate social injustice historically and today. Because of the amount and range of scholarship that arose in a relatively short period, the controversial nature of whiteness, and its increasing maturity as a field of scholarly inquiry, political intellectuals and scholars alike have criticized the work and the field itself. Political figures such as David Horowitz have situated whiteness studies as liberal bias, producing a popular backlash to the field, while other scholars have focused their criticism on the methodology and arguments, suggesting that whiteness studies lacks theoretical rigor and historical specificity. Some have even suggested that the field reifies whiteness as race in its attempt to deconstruct it. These myriad approaches to and arguments about whiteness studies have produced a rich and diverse body of scholarship, an important cross-section of which is represented in this bibliography.

Bibliographies and Reviews

Scholars have both situated whiteness studies as an emerging paradigm and scrutinized it, illuminating and challenging its methods, goals, and conclusions as they work to define its boundaries and limitations. A common critique of the discipline is that it reinforces the power of what it seeks to “de-center” by placing whites, as opposed to people of color, at the center of analysis. Bonnett 1996, Giroux 1997, Arnesen 2001, and Hartman 2004 discuss rhetorical problems in the field, while Warren 1999, Pruitt 2002, and MacMullan 2005 summarize various approaches with an emphasis on methodology. Of the bibliographies, Woll and Miller 1987 (cited under Gender and Ethnicity in Film and Television) catalogues entries on representational lines (e.g., the way whiteness is positioned in film and television), while Engles 2006 comprehensively catalogues virtually every extant critical whiteness book and article across multiple disciplines to include popular accounts and criticism.

  • Arnesen, Eric. “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.” International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 3–32.

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    NNNCritical examination of working-class whiteness scholarship by labor historians such as David Rodiger, Noel Ignatiev, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Neil Foley, and Karen Brodkin. Argues that historians have “defined whiteness too loosely” and that “many of the assumptions, interpretive styles and techniques, and methodologies pursued by cultural historians of whiteness are highly problematic” (p. 25).

  • Bonnett, Alastair. “‘White Studies’: The Problems and Projects of a New Research Agenda.” Theory, Culture, and Society 13.2 (1996): 145–155.

    DOI: 10.1177/026327696013002010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNLooking at important works by David Roediger, Theodore Allen, and Ruth Frankenberg, among others, this article summarizes some crucial debates within whiteness studies during an important time in its development as a field of research and asserts some problems with the discipline, including its dominance by American scholars.

  • Engles, Tim, ed. Towards a Bibliography of Critical Whiteness Studies. Urbana: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2006.

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    NNNInterdisciplinary bibliography compiled by The Center on Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Giroux, Henry. “Rewriting the Discourse of Racial Identity: Towards a Pedagogy and Politics of Whiteness.” Harvard Educational Review 67.2 (1997): 285–320.

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    NNNSummarizes the rise of whiteness studies in the early 1990s and the conservative backlash to it. Also examines the problems that stem from the association of whiteness with domination and oppression. Giroux calls for a discourse that frames whiteness as a progressive identity in an effort to ensure “white” students have a stake in the fight against racism.

  • Hartman, A. “The Rise and Fall of Whiteness Studies.” Race and Class 46.2 (2004): 22–38.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306396804047723Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNCriticizes whiteness studies as being inherently limited by its failure to take into account class as a primary engine that has driven power relations throughout American history. Seems to sidestep the important work done on whiteness and class by Roediger, Ignatiev, and others.

  • MacMullan, Terrance. “Beyond the Pale: A Pragmatist Approach to Whiteness Studies.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 31.3 (May 2005): 267–292.

    DOI: 10.1177/0191453705051706Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNSummarizes two recent approaches in whiteness studies: eliminativists, who would abolish the idea of race altogether; and critical conservationists, who agree that race lacks a biological referent but nonetheless think that it is a useful cultural category for understanding the history of discrimination. Proposes a way to reconcile the two approaches so as to preserve values and eliminate flaws.

  • Pruitt, Christina. “The Complexions of ‘Race’ and the Rise of ‘Whiteness’ Studies.” Clio: A Journal of Literature History and the Philosophy of History 32.1 (Fall 2002): 27–50.

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    NNNReviews the canonical scholarship on whiteness, which in Pruitt’s estimation, moves beyond the initial step of simply identifying whiteness to suggest political strategies for the purpose of more “egalitarian social relations” (p. 50). Authors reviewed include Henry Louis Gates Jr., Toni Morrison, David Roediger, Mike Hill, and Howard Winant.

  • Warren, John. “Whiteness and Cultural Theory: Perspectives on Research and Education.” The Urban Review 31.2 (June 1999): 185–204.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1023235624671Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNSummarizes four different approaches within whiteness studies: social critique, textual analysis, discursive practice, and racial performance. Warren addresses what these approaches mean for education, and how “progressive educators” can use them to “continually mark the unmarked and question unearned racial privilege as the tool of the oppressor in a racist society” (p. 200).

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