Whiteness: A Review of Literature


A literature review of current research concerning the study of Whiteness was conducted to determine both the aspects of Whiteness as well as its future. The literature review revealed Whiteness to have several complex characteristics; however, a few main themes throughout the literature were present. Those themes, such as Whiteness as invisibility, Whiteness as normative, and Whiteness as a nonracial identity, are discussed further in this review. This study, after reviewing the literature currently available on the subject of Whiteness, then proposes areas in which research on Whiteness could be expanded to increase the knowledge of both Whiteness and its relationship with other races.

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    To fully understand Whiteness, the fluidity of its dimensions, and the limitations it places on both “Whites” and “non-Whites,” one must first understand the complexities of the paradigm of Whiteness and its penetration of everyday life in America.

    Rather than being seen as a cultural identity, “whiteness, as an analytical object, [has been] established as a powerful means of critiquing the reproduction and maintenance of systems of inequality” (Hartigan, 1997, p. 496). Rooted in a long history of racial oppression and dominance, Whiteness is often confined by its limited perception as merely privilege and social power (Hartigan, 1997). Although White privilege is an undoubted reality in American society, it is simplistic to reduce the concept of Whiteness to this single aspect. Whiteness cannot be simply defined as the background against which minorities are described, but instead must include the wide range of subtleties that encompass White culture, influence how Whites live, and ultimately the perception of Whiteness by both Whites and others (Brodkin, 2001).

    Many areas of study have attempted to tackle the difficult and controversial subject of Whiteness, leading to a recent surge in Whiteness studies and literature; however, many have run into obstacles. As discovered in the literature reviewed here, researchers have wrestled with the definition of Whiteness studies (Hartman, 2004).


    In hopes of further clarifying the definition of Whiteness, a survey of Whiteness literature was conducted from both White and non-White perspectives. From this research, several key aspects of Whiteness have been established. These include the racial ramifications of Whiteness, societal definitions of Whiteness, and the current place for Whiteness among other races.


    A precept of White culture is the belief that white is normative. The characteristics of Whiteness, including culture, language, and appearance, are assumed to define humanity. “Others” that may deviate from that normative definition are therefore regarded to be less than human. Many scholars of Whiteness pay particular attention to the deeply ingrained doctrine of Whiteness as norm (Frankenberg, 1993; Garner, 2006; Hartigan, 1997; McIntosh, 1998; Trechter, 2001; Ware & Back, 2001; Wilson, 2002). This doctrine is so deeply ingrained that it can be found as an unconscious distinction in everyday speech between “people” and “people of color” or between “Mexican” music and “regular” music (Frankenberg, 1993). These distinctions further underline the culture of Whiteness as standard. Many believe that the installation of Whiteness as norm into White culture is a direct derivative of “color blindness” (Wilson, 2002).

    Color blindness in this context does not mean that Whites see all people the same, but rather Whites see all people as the same as themselves. Therefore, if Whites live a racially privileged life, they do not understand that other people of different races do not experience the same privileges, for according to White perception, privilege has become the norm. A significantly negative consequence of this color blindness is the inability to see the deep-rooted effects of racism on others (Frankenberg, 1993).

    Racism shapes the lives of those outside the White norm, and, by being unable to recognize the reality of this covert form of racism, Whites are unaware of the need to change the status quo. This compounds the normative perspective of Whiteness in that it becomes easy for those who inhabit “white space” to assume their perception of racism, or lack thereof, is the perception of all people: “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal” (McIntosh, 1998, p. 3).

    The concept of Whiteness as normative culture reinforces a cultural assumption that Whites are “nonracial.” Whiteness, as understood by those that see it as normative, is humanity, therefore making race, in juxtaposition to Whiteness, abnormal. Race is thus posited as a category of difference or deviance from social norm (Hartigan, 1997).

    To appreciate both how Whiteness is perceived by others as well as how it is perceived by Whites themselves, it is important to understand the underlying concept of Whiteness as invisible, or a racially and culturally neutral experience. Whiteness, as a cultural definition, is an absence of culture (Dyer, 1997).

    The consequences of Whiteness as an absence, or racial invisibility, are two fold. First, Whiteness as absence is a lack of cultural distinctions (Frankenberg, 1993; Trechter, 2001). In other words, any cultural practices that white people may possess remain not as culture but, again, as normative practices (Frankenberg, 1993). This has both positive and negative ramifications. White is not defined within itself but rather by what it is not, such that Whiteness, in its invisibility, becomes the normative practices against which “others” are measured (Garner, 2006). Being absent of other cultures, Whiteness has room to be more pure and clean, ultimately becoming or being seen as a culture that emphasizes its absences rather than presence (Dyer, 1997; Trechter, 2001).

    There are negative ramifications of this cultural absence as many Whites experience feelings of loss and emptiness when confronted with their lacking culture. African Americans, Chinese Americans, and Hispanics all have clear, rich, and historical cultures. As Whiteness is by definition not these races, and therefore absent of their cultures, often Whites lack a sense of culture in a culturally defined world.

    The invisibility of Whiteness is really only experienced by Whites, in the sense that Whites see themselves as racially, and at times culturally, absent. Therefore, it is hard for Whites to process the racial reality of other people. The domination of Whites over “others” resides in the ability to remain or appear unseen. The invisibility results in the creation of more space or difference between Whites and “others” (Dyer, 1997).

    Whites, therefore, are often blind to White privilege, or conversely the lack of privilege to non-Whites, and blind to a system that sustains such blatant and damaging privilege. Much of what is responsible for Whites’ blindness to racial privilege is the tendency for Whiteness to not be recognized as a racial identity (McIntosh, 1998).

    In not recognizing Whiteness as a racial identity, a further contrast is drawn between “others” that are seen as racial. Within the practice of defining Whiteness in opposition to others, a primary form of that contrast is not merely “race” versus white, but blackness, as a head representation of otherness, versus white (Hartigan, 1997). Not recognizing Whiteness as racial therefore creates negative connotations for those that do fall into a racial category, such as saying Whiteness is normative or human, and all other are racial. This dichotomy ultimately classifies “racial” as something other than human. Wilson (2002, p. 394) states, “As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.”


    Classification of Whiteness as nonracial plays an integral part in the cultural absence of Whites, carrying with it both positive and negative connotations. Whereas Whiteness is nonracial, a negative tint covers those that are racially classified. Conversely, a nonracial identity can be a hardship on Whites smoothly integrating into a racial world, as Whites often lack an ability to understand racial construction as a result. Whiteness, for many Whites, is defined not within a specific race but rather as a nationality. Whites are Americans; others are only racial subgroups of that American identity (Hartman, 2004).

    Despite the extensive study already conducted on the emerging field of Whiteness, much further research is necessary. Some issues that have yet to be fully addressed from the limited survey of research done here include a dissection of the very definition of culture. Historically, culture signified all that was White (i.e., high society, sophistication, and refinement). All other cultures were inferior to White culture and therefore not even recognized as “culture.” Modern cultural definitions, however, have shifted to typically denote ethnic cultures, and as a result tend to exclude Whiteness. This is a necessary development to help in closing the gap of privilege between Whites and non-Whites.

    Additional study should include more specified research of Whiteness separate from studies done on Whiteness in relation to other races. Whiteness has intricate cultural traditions and traits that are typically denied in depth, as they are merely seen as normative traditions, an issue addressed in the present research. To further cultural understanding of Whiteness as well as of Whites toward non-Whites, an initial understanding of the very ethnic and cultural traits that establish the foundation of Whiteness is integral.

    A final area of interest that could yield particularly relevant information on Whiteness is a survey of modern media. Many scholars (Dyer, 1997) have already tackled the cinema, studying Whiteness from a technical angle of issues dealing with film quality, stage lighting, character representation of Whites versus non-Whites, and total screen time of Whites versus non-Whites. An area that has seen little light, however, is that of media’s very representation of Whiteness. Modern media has become increasingly aware not only of racial relations between Whites and non-Whites but of societal impressions of Whiteness itself. To end on a note from the recent film, The Good Shepherd (2006):

    Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something…we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the [African American], they got their music. What about you people, [Whites], what do you have?

    Edward Wilson: The United States of America and the rest of you are just visiting.


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    • Dyer, R. 1997 White. New York, NY: Routledge.
    • Frankenberg, R. 1993 White women race matters: The social construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
    • Garner, S. 2006 The uses of Whiteness: What sociologists working in Europe can draw from U.S. research on Whiteness. Sociology, 40, 257–275.
    • Hartigan, J. 1997 Establishing the fact of Whiteness. American Anthropologist, 99(3), 495–505.
    • Hartman, A. 2004 The rise and fall of Whiteness studies. Race and Class, 45(2), 22–38.
    • McIntosh, P. 1990 White Privilege and Male Privilege. Working Paper, No. 189. Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
    • Trechter, S., & Bucholtz, M. 2001 White noise: Bringing language into Whiteness studies. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), 3–21.
    • Ware, V., & Back, L.  2001 Out of Whiteness: color, politics, and culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
    • Wilson, J. 2002 Invisible racism. Critique of Anthropology, 22(4), 387–401.