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7.2: Defining Whiteness and White Supremacy

  • Page ID
    • Teresa Hodges

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    Whiteness vs. the Other

    Whiteness is something that was created by juxtaposing Europeans with Native peoples and other non-Europeans. Michael Omi and Howard Winant (2014) define racial formation as the process in which racial identity is created and experienced (p. 109). Non-Europeans were "othered" in order to maintain a superiority of whiteness. Since encountering Native peoples in the 15th and 16th centuries in what is now the United States, white settlers used to judge Native peoples’ appearances as backwards with "dark devil skin," even as sexually loose and therefore immoral. Relatedly, white settlers would see Africans as dark and therefore opposite of them, having protruding lips and often created caricatures with images of dark people with huge lips. In both instances, white settlers saw these peoples as “heathen” and “uncivilized” and therefore used this to justify why they needed to conquer Native lands and enslave Black people, as both were seen as unfit to take care of themselves. This idea of "unfit to take care of themselves" was promoted through an infantilization of nonwhites meaning they were described as childlike and therefore unable to take care of themselves (see Takaki, 2008 or Zinn, 2009, or others for more information about these initial racializations). The sidebar below shows an example of infantilization that was extended to relate to other people and serve as justification for conquest and rule, just like it had been used against Native Americans and Black Americans. Something identified as racial, whether having direct association to a racial group, whether true or not or even something like having a motive to designate something racially, is what Omi and Winant call racial projects. In defining racism, they state that racial projects can be defined as racist if “it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on racial signification and identities” (Omi and Winant, 2014, p. 128). In this way, the combination of racial association or label with “structures of domination” can mean that racism requires a notion of superiority tied to a particular group.

    Uncle Sam as teacher scolding students representing Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines while other students read silently
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): School begins / Dalrymple, 1899. (Public Domain; Louis Dalrymple via Library of Congress)

    Sidebar: "School Begins"

    In Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) from the Library Congress, school children are deemed savages and Uncle Sam is teaching the class. It portrays different places such as Cuba, Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, etc. as childlike and unruly. This picture is used to show how these places need the care and guidance of the United States through direct policy and governance. Specifically, these places became a part of U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and as the U.S. exercised dominance through narratives of saviorism, or the idea that these places need the U.S. to “save” them from their uncivilized and unfit-to-rule selves. The authors of The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons (2014) gathered some of these images as a look at U.S. imperialism, or rule that extends over an empire and dictates matters of economic, political, social, cultural rules of another country. Hawai'i is included in this and actually became a state but many are unaware that the U.S. imprisoned Queen Liliʻuokalani of Hawaiʻi in her home and forcefully took over Hawaiʻi so that’s how it became a state. Many sovereignty activists are legally battling the mainstream depiction of Hawaiʻi annexation narratives that exclude the violent takeover of their lands and are imprisoned. Scholar Noenoe Silva discusses how the Queen of Hawaiʻi was compared to Black Americans and deemed unfit the rule. The U.S. created caricatures of her that likened her to racist Black caricatures. These images of imperialism gathered in The Forbidden Book shows the long history of "othering" and conquest that links Black, Indigenous, and people of color histories and realities and help to unmask hidden truths about race, U.S. imperialism, and white supremacy.

    Scholar, activist, Chicana feminist Elizabeth Martinez explicitly defines white supremacy as a system that promotes privilege and power of whiteness for white people through institutional entities (see: What is White Supremacy by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez). White supremacy is rooted in African enslavement, Native American removal and genocide, imperialism and war in Asia, and land dispossession of Mexico. These linkages to various non-European groups in these historical ways is not uncommon knowledge amongst Ethnic Studies scholars. Martinez distinguishes white supremacy from the term "racism," because white supremacy points out how racism is systemic and not only "as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination." White supremacy, therefore, points out a power relationship rooted in exploitation and maintaining the wealth, power and privilege of a few.

    Omi and Winant bring up the idea that non-whites can also be racist, and Lipsitz points out that non-whites can invest in whiteness as well. However, it is important to point out that a lot of scholarship in Ethnic Studies doesn’t always use the words white supremacy. For example, they might talk about white elitism, white as dominant, etc. Even if scholarship does not explicitly name white supremacy as that, everything that helps to perpetuate the maintenance of white dominance is a part of the system of white supremacy. Part of this stems from how the concept of whiteness was created in order to distinguish European colonists from Native Americans and people of color, in particular to distinguish itself as superior. Therefore, talking about whiteness has been a way to explain that the construction of whiteness is constantly created and re-created in order to try to maintain superiority. Further, whiteness operates within a system and also works representationally.

    This page titled 7.2: Defining Whiteness and White Supremacy is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Teresa Hodges (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .