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9.3: Whiteness- White Privilege, White Supremacy, and White Fragility

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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. 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 (2014) 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.

    The Three I’s of Oppression

    The three I’s of oppression describes multi-dimensional domination.

    Interpersonal oppression is when someone is being oppressed by another person, thus inter + personal. Violently attacking someone on the street is a form of interpersonal oppression. Attacking someone specifically due to race is interpersonal racism. Name-calling, microaggressions, verbal insults, and verbal or physical assaults, are some examples which demonstrate interactive exchange within interpersonal oppression. Microaggressions have increasingly been researched amongst people of color communities as a way to explain oppression that isn’t always considered a “macro” oppression like institutional racism but something usually more interpersonal and “less severe” like a verbal insult or slights. Filipino American psychologist Kevin Nadal is one who has lead research on microaggressions against Filipinx Americans specifically, and Asian Americans generally. With Asian Americans, one thing that some expressed was treating Asian Americans as foreigners as if many hadn’t been born here. Many say that even though they are called “micro”aggressions, they can still cause deep psychological impact especially when experienced constantly and that they can often feel larger than “micro” in impact. While seemingly disconnected, interpersonal oppression or racism can largely be in relationship to the Institutional. Because of the policies that frame how to operate with people, individuals can treat one another according to certain laws and procedures.

    Internalized oppression is when a person internalizes negative messages, stereotypes, etc. that are associated with some aspect of them. For example, if they are a person of color and hate their skin color or hair texture, this could represent internalized racism that they somehow learned in their lifetime. Colonial mentality is when one believes in the inferiority of colonized peoples or the inferiority of some aspect within being a colonized or formerly colonized people. One example of this is if an English-speaking country colonized another country and colonizers teach them that English is superior, then believing that English is better than their language(s) in part shows that this colonial mentality accepts the superiority of the colonizer. Even though institutional and interpersonal oppression seem to be the most damaging and harmful of the oppressions, decolonial scholars importantly point out the extreme dangers of internalized oppression. When a person believes themselves to be inferior, this contributes to their continual subjugation and oppression as not believing they have power and agency. When people absorb ideas and beliefs of a group, they will perpetuate or challenge these ideas in regard to themselves, their family, and others. This helps to complete the cycle between the I’s.

    Institutional oppression (detailed later in this chapter) is oppression within organizations, societal institutions such as government, health, media, schooling, and more. According to Omi and Winant (2015), institutional oppression is one that is largely seen through laws, policies, and protocols. In this way, institutions function largely without needing constant surveillance that guides every movement because when rules are created, people for the most part will follow them. Institutions also operate seemingly invisibly in this way by standardizing functions and symbols so that they are universally known. Institutional oppression within laws can exclude people from immigrating to the United States and it can also decide who is criminalized or otherwise different. The Immigration Act of 1924, for example, placed quotas on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and completely denied immigrants from Asia.

    In the 1970s, education scholar Caroline Persell named the three I’s of oppression and included societal oppression to be in a system called the “structures of dominance” that worked together to uphold oppressive ideologies in a cycle. Societal oppression are the societal values and beliefs, or ideologies, that can serve to uphold dominance for some and subordination for others. In her model of structures of dominance, institutions shape the way that people interact with one another, and therefore impacts how one sees themselves. This then translates into group values and beliefs. She specifically uses this model for education in the way that educational policy and rules impact teacher-to-student behavior and student-to-teacher behavior, and counselor-to-student behavior, etc. Then this influences the way the students see themselves, the way teachers see themselves, etc. and gets absorbed into existing and new pathways for societal beliefs. There are more ways that oppression operates within the dimensions according to Persell’s structures of dominance, but one of the most significant of her ideas within this model reflect how structures of dominance don’t just self-maintain oppression, but in particular it upholds the domination of the ruling class within education and throughout society.

    Race and Children

    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)


    Figure 9.3.1 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.

    little girl with her baby doll
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1.5}\): Vintage Children, Little Girl with Doll. (CC BY-NC 2.0; chicks57 via Filckr)

    Scholar Robin Bernstein wrote a book on race and childhood where she demonstrates how white children are seen as more racially innocent than Black children. This is evident in children’s toys and especially dolls where white dolls have had angelic appearances with rosy cheeks, delicate curly blond tendrils, and blue eyes. Bernstein illustrates how this innocence is not just one that displays so-called innocent appearances, but also defines the way that we understand whiteness and blackness especially in this age. This is especially significant because there is often a regard for treating race and racism as “very political” and “inappropriate” for younger ages. The idea of racial innocence as non-political attempts to lay personal blame on people of color for any discrimination or oppression instead and deflects from structural causes. De-politicizing race and feigning a non-connection to innocence reinforces attempts to deny discussing race with children. A common sentiment is the desire to not want to teach children about race because they are perceived as young and impressionable. This misconception actually obscures the fact that children can experience racism at a really young age and as discussed about the doll test below, they can distinguish at an early age as well.

    Ideology and Hegemony

    Ideology is a set of beliefs such as within a group. Ideologies are a part of all societies and contribute to how they define and distinguish who they are. Ideologies are often used to delineate who belongs and who does not, by sometimes attempting to require members of society and groups to practice and embrace such beliefs. In Ethnic Studies, it is recognized how sometimes ideologies spouted by elitist members in society can be harmful to the rest of the population, especially when they disregard the humanity of others, devalue their labor and cultures, and attempt to erase other cultures and way of life.

    Sidebar: Ideology

    One example of ideology is whiteness as the standard for beauty

    .blonde blue eyed barbie doll

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1.7}\): "Then and Now® Bathing Suit Barbie® - Made in China". (CC by NC-ND 4.0; Dolls N' Stuff via Flickr)

    Related to ideology, hegemony is the dominance of one groups’ beliefs over others. When dominating beliefs are the standard or norm within organizations and institutions, it then establishes power for the dominant group and therefore helps to solidify dominant practices and beliefs within laws and policies that then are applied to everyone. Antonio Gramsci first introduced the concept of hegemony as cultural hegemony to explain the structured domination/subordination relationship. For example, Bates (1975) remarked how Gramsciʻs hegemony could “eliminate class struggle” by squashing it with such dominant norms and beliefs (p. 351). These laws and policies that uphold dominant beliefs as the norm often oppress marginalized populations.

    Sidebar: Dr. and Mamie Clark, the Doll Test

    black and white image of a young Black child pointing at Black and white baby dolls being held by their heads in the hands on a white man; received in black frameDr. Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark were influential African American psychologists known for their pioneering research on racial segregation and its impact on children's self-esteem and identity. Their famous "doll tests" in the 1940s provided empirical evidence of the psychological harm caused by racial segregation, as African American children often preferred white dolls over black dolls, revealing the internalized prejudice and negative self-perception imposed by segregation. This research played a crucial role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which led to the desegregation of American schools in 1954, as it demonstrated the harmful effects of racial discrimination on young minds and underscored the need for change in educational policies and practices. The Clarks' work contributed significantly to the civil rights movement and continues to be influential in the fields of psychology and education.

    In the doll test white and Black children were shown dolls, identical except for color, and were asked various questions about the dolls to test their racial perceptions. The questions included “what doll was the bad doll?” or “what doll is the pretty doll?” while being shown the Black and white doll. Many times the children associated being bad, inferior, and ugly with the Black doll and being good, beautiful, and smart with the white doll. For many, it can be astonishing to witness the choices being made especially when the skin color of the dolls being seen as negative is often the same skin color as the child.

    The doll test was only one part of Dr. Clark’s testimony in Brown vs. Board – it did not constitute the largest portion of his analysis and expert report. His conclusions during his testimony were based on a comprehensive analysis of the most cutting-edge psychology scholarship of the period.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Doll Test, Harlem, New York" by Gordon Parks, Minneapolis Institute of Art is licensed under CC BY 4.0


    Racialization is assigning a racial category to someone especially that has not had a designation before (Omi and Winant, 2014). This typically refers to the way that people were categorized historically such as laws that dictated who can identify as white. In a general sense, racialization is designating a race to someone even if it is a different designation from what they actually identify themselves as or a different designation from what someone else has told them. For example, people might racialize mixed race people differently if they are deemed racially ambiguous. People may also racialize people based on their own contexts. For example, if someone has dark skin and curly hair and they’re walking around New York City, one might automatically think the person is Dominican due to the presence of Dominican people in New York City that might have dark skin and curly hair. This means that their context, or the conditions around them, influence how they racialize others. Even when someone or a group is racialized by others, not only does it mean that a lot of times such signification is not accepted by the individual or group, but that such characterization of a racial group is often forced onto minoritized groups.

    Since colonization, U.S. nationality has been marked as one who is white. In Ronald Takaki’s opening chapter of A Different Mirror (2008), he recalls how his midwestern taxi driver sees his Asianness as foreign despite Takaki being born in the U.S. The taxi driver reveled at his remarkable English skills. This is one example of how white is seen as “American.” Takaki discusses this phenomenon as a master narrative that says nonwhite is foreign and does not belong. The prevalent belief in this master narrative or metanarrative also contributes to promoting the U.S. flag as super patriotic and representing traditional ideals and values that counter multiculturalism and other progress such as within gender, sexuality, and class struggles. When there is a metanarrative that “American” is limited to white, it creates a standard for legislation that uphold rights for those who promote these values.

    Normalization of Whiteness and Color-Blind Racism

    The normalization of whiteness helps to create a standardization of whiteness. As discussed on the next page, #oscarssowhite was used to point out how the Academy Awards showcases white actors and actresses way more than nonwhites. The normalization of whiteness helps the standardization of whiteness because when whiteness is normalized, it is held with greater esteem and therefore becomes the “standard” in which all must strive toward.

    Protesters holding a sign reading unlearn racism
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2.5}\): Unlearn Racism. (CC BY-NC 2.0; Joe Brusky via Flickr)

    It is the dominance of whiteness that had made whiteness into something so normal. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva identified this color-blind racism in Racism Without Racists, Bonilla-Silva asserts that there is no doubt that the majority of white people in the U.S. subscribe to the doctrines of color-blind racism. Bonilla-Silva (2007) argues that the rhetoric of color-blind racism as "the current and dominant racial ideology in the United States, constructs a social reality for people of color in its practices, which are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial" (pg. 3). He argues further that this race rhetoric supports a racial hierarchy that maintains white privilege and superiority; race and racism are structured into the totality of our social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege. Further Bonilla-Silva states,

    Instead of relying on name calling (using racial slurs), color-blind racism otherizes softly ("these people are human, too"); instead of proclaiming that God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests they are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing interracial marriage as wrong on a straight racial basis, it regards it as "problematic" because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples (Bonilla-Silva, 2007).

    In summary, Bonilla-Silva (2007) explains that this color-blind racism perpetuates white dominance and privilege in a more passive way than racism was carried out in the past, and often those who display color-blind racism think they are not racist.

    In his book, How the Irish Became white, Noel Ignatiev wrote that white chauvinism amounts to the practice of white supremacy. Ignatiev explains that whiteness rests on the notion of whiteness as equated with a higher social class, thereby eliminating any possibility of class consciousness, awareness of one's class status. White individuals connecting with their whiteness rather than their class commonalities with working class populations leads them to voice, "I may be poor and exploited, but at least I'm white" and not Black (Whiteness - Sociology of Race - iResearchNet, 2020). This is the psychological wage of whiteness that DuBois wrote about in 1935. Whiteness has thus been understood as the absence of color, the absence of culture, the absence of racialization which has also made it extremely difficult for white Americans to really see their whiteness. Yet, of course people of color tend to easily see whiteness.

    The final section of this chapter discusses social change and resistance with regards to whiteness. For example, the abolition of whiteness is discussed as necessary for the advancement of humanity. Yet, in order to abolish whiteness, it would need to not only be seen by whites, but be seen as unusual and detrimental to the human race.

    Sign with the words I gave up my whiteness in the interest of humanity
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2.7}\): Original creation by the co-author, Janét Hund.

    White Privilege

    It is important to discuss the advantages that U.S. Whites enjoy in their daily lives simply because they are white. Social scientists term these advantages white privilege, informing that whites benefit from being white whether or not they are aware of their advantages (McIntosh, 2007). White privilege is the benefit that white people receive simply by being part of the dominant group. McIntosh wrote that whites are carefully taught not to be aware of their race, rather to be unaware of their unearned assets and advantages. Using the analogy of an invisible knapsack, McIntosh created an initial list of 26 and later expanded to 52 the benefits of whiteness that white Americans carry in their backpacks. For example, whites can usually drive a car at night or walk down a street without having to fear that a police officer will stop them simply because they are white. They can count on being able to move into any neighborhood they desire to as long as they can afford the rent or mortgage. They generally do not have to fear being passed up for promotion simply because of their race. College students who are white can live in dorms without having to worry that racial slurs will be directed their way. White people in general do not have to worry about being the victims of hate crimes based on their race. They can be seated in a restaurant without having to worry that they will be served more slowly or not at all because of their skin color. If they are in a hotel, they do not have to think that someone will mistake them for a bellhop, parking valet, or maid. If they are trying to hail a taxi, they do not have to worry about the taxi driver ignoring them because the driver fears they will be robbed. If they are stopped by the police, they do not have to fear for their lives.

    Social scientist Robert W. Terry (1981) once summarized white privilege as follows: “To be white in America is not to have to think about it. Except for hard-core racial supremacists, the meaning of being white is having the choice of attending to or ignoring one’s own whiteness” (pg. 120). For people of color in the United States, it is not an exaggeration to say that race is a daily fact of their existence. Yet whites do not generally have to think about being white. As all of us go about our daily lives, this basic difference is one of the most important manifestations of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States. While most white people are willing to admit that nonwhite people live with a set of disadvantages due to the color of their skin, very few are willing to acknowledge the benefits they receive.

    Whites in the United States infrequently experience racial discrimination making them unaware of the importance of race in their own and others’ thinking in comparison to people of color (Konradi & Schmidt, 2004). Many argue racial discrimination is outdated and are uncomfortable with the blame, guilt, and accountability of individual acts and institutional discrimination. By paying no attention to race, people think racial equality is an act of color-blindness, and it will eliminate racist atmospheres (Konradi & Schmidt, 2004). They do not realize the experience of not “seeing” race itself is racial privilege.

    Thinking Sociologically

    In her 1988 article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh introduced the following 26 daily effects of white privilege in her life.

    1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
    2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
    3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
    4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
    5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
    6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
    7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
    8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
    9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
    10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
    11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
    12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
    13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
    14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
    15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
    16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
    17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
    18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
    19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
    20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
    21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
    22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
    23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
    24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
    25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
    26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.

    Which one(s) of these most strike(s) you, and why? Which, if any, are least relevant in our contemporary time period? What other daily effects of white privilege would you add to the list?

    Black Like Me

    In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white writer, changed his race. Griffin decided that he could not begin to understand the discrimination and prejudice that African Americans face every day unless he experienced these problems himself. So he went to a dermatologist in New Orleans and obtained a prescription for an oral medication to darken his skin. The dermatologist also told him to lie under a sun lamp several hours a day and to use a skin-staining pigment to darken any light spots that remained.

    Griffin stayed inside, followed the doctor’s instructions, and shaved his head to remove his straight hair. About a week later he looked, for all intents and purposes, like an African American. Then he went out in public and passed as Black.

    New Orleans was a segregated city in those days, and Griffin immediately found he could no longer do the same things he did when he was white. He could no longer drink at the same water fountains, use the same public restrooms, or eat at the same restaurants. When he went to look at a menu displayed in the window of a fancy restaurant, he later wrote,

    I read, realizing that a few days earlier I could have gone in and ordered anything on the menu. But now, though I was the same person with the same appetite, no power on earth could get me inside this place for a meal (Griffin, 1961, p. 42).

    Because of his new appearance, Griffin suffered other slights and indignities. Once when he went to sit on a bench in a public park, a white man told him to leave. Later a white bus driver refused to let Griffin get off at his stop and let him off only eight blocks later. A series of stores refused to cash his traveler’s checks. As he traveled by bus from one state to another, he was not allowed to wait inside the bus stations. At times, white men of various ages cursed and threatened him, and he became afraid for his life and safety. Months later, after he wrote about his experience, he was hanged in effigy, and his family was forced to move from their home.

    Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington, 1963.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington, 1963. (CC PDM 1.0; via Library of Congress)

    Griffin’s reports about how he was treated while posing as a Black man, and about the way African Americans he met during that time were also treated, helped awaken white Americans across the United States to racial prejudice and discrimination. The Southern civil rights movement, which had begun a few years earlier and then exploded into the national consciousness with sit-ins at lunch counters in February 1960 by Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, challenged Southern segregation and changed life in the South and across the rest of the nation.

    White Supremacy

    “White Supremacist Held Without Bond in Tuesday’s Attack,” the headline read:

    "In August 2009, James Privott, a 76-year-old African American, had just finished fishing in a Baltimore city park when he was attacked by several white men. They knocked him to the ground, punched him in the face, and hit him with a baseball bat. Privott lost two teeth and had an eye socket fractured in the assault. One of his assailants was arrested soon afterwards and told police the attack “wouldn’t have happened if he was a white man.” The suspect was a member of a white supremacist group, had a tattoo of Hitler on his stomach, and used “Hitler” as his nickname. At a press conference attended by civil rights and religious leaders, the Baltimore mayor denounced the hate crime. “We all have to speak out and speak up and say this is not acceptable in our communities,” she said. “We must stand together in opposing this kind of act” (Fenton, 2009, p. 11).

    Arising in the late 1860s after slavery was abolished in the U.S, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) originated in resistance and white supremacy during the Reconstruction Era. Its members' belief in white supremacy has encouraged over a century of hate crime and hate speech. For example in 1924, the KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.; the KKK had 4 million members out of a national population of about 114 million. In the words of DuBois a century ago: “the Ku Klux Klan is doing a job which the American people, or certainly a considerable portion of them, want done; and they want it done because as a nation they have fear of the Jew, the immigrant, the Negro.”

    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.

    According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, white nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites. These supremacist groups include the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and Christian identity groups. Contemporary white supremacist sympathizers have characterized some of President Trump's Cabinet appointees (e.g., Steve Bannon, Larry Kudlow, and Stephen Miller) as well as violent counter-protestors at the anti-police brutality protests since the George Floyd murder in 2020. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia climaxed in the killing of one anti-racist white protester. President Trump shortly thereafter stated that there were good and bad people on both sides. In 2019, following the white supremacist killing of 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, the white supremacist manifesto continued with a shooter in Poway, California at a Jewish synagogue and a gunman in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas who left 23 dead, mostly Latinx victims.

    Can Non-White People Be Racist?

    While we are accustomed to thinking about white supremacy in terms of the aforementioned violent hate groups or white nationalist or white power groups, Bonilla-Silva (2007) and DiAngelo (2018) inform us that we should be more concerned with the insidious white supremacy that surrounds our entire society and exists in us, particularly white Americans. According to DiAngelo (2018), white progressives maintain white supremacy - largely through their silence and discomfort with addressing race and racism. Building upon the works of Bonilla-Silva (2007) and Takaki (1993), Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl (2015) defines White supremacy as "systematic and systemic ways that the racial order benefits those deemed white and operates to oppress people of color."

    Omi and Winant (2014) bring up the idea that non-whites can also be racist, and Lipsitz (2006) 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.

    Possessive Investment in Whiteness

    Part of the idea here is to recognize proportionality. While there are low-income white people, for example, the majority of white people aren’t poor and those that are typically aren’t poor due to racism. Additionally, while we understand racism as racial discrimination, many scholars in Ethnic Studies specifically emphasize the structural connection within the definition. In the 1990s, Ethnic Studies scholar George Lipsitz coined the term Possessive Investment in Whiteness, or PIW. PIW is a way to explain how white people are encouraged to “buy” into whiteness, promote it, maintain it, uplift it, and exclude access from others. Possessive Investment in Whiteness is to embrace the category of whiteness as a community that embraces white skinned hierarchy in order to obtain advantages that go deeper than everyday privilege. These advantages range from creating laws/policies/procedures that benefit white as a privileged class, that maintains generational wealth by excluding non-whites and profiting from structured discrimination. Part of the maintenance of PIW requires a normalization of whiteness (such as white as the standard of beauty), and adherence to the status quo. Because PIW is embedded in societal structures, it is also self-maintaining and replicating. One example of this is redlining which is explained further in the sidebar below (for more information about related structural racism please see the Racial Wealth Gap).

    Chart in the form of a pyramid showing the levels of racism from Covert White Supremacy at the base to Overt White Supremacy at the top.  At the bottom was verbal denial and at the top were hate crimes and murder.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): White Supremacy. (Chart adapted by Jonas Oware and LBCC SOCIO 11 Honors from the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence)

    As shown in the figure below, Strmic-Pawl (2015) visualized white supremacy in the form of a flower: the roots or foundation of racism in the U.S. (e.g., slavery or Native American genocide), the stem or historical events and processes (e.g., Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow Laws), and the bloom or contemporary U.S. (anti-Asian hate crimes or police brutality such as the killing of George Floyd). Each petal represents a different form of racial inequality. Though petals may fall off, this loss does not kill the plant (of white supremacy). This is akin to the replacement of slavery with Jim Crow and then the prison industrial complex as a way to control Black men, so eloquently explained in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.

    A drawing of a flower.  Strmic-Pawl visualized white supremacy in the form of a flower: the roots or foundation of racism in the U.S. (e.g., slavery or Native American genocide), the stem or historical events and processes (e.g., Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow Laws), and the bloom or contemporary U.S. (anti-Asian hate crimes or police brutality such as the killing of George Floyd). Each petal represents a different form of racial inequality. Though petals may fall off, this loss does not kill the plant (of white supremacy). This is akin to the replacement of slavery with Jim Crow and then the prison industrial complex as a way to control Black men, so eloquently explained in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The White Supremacy Flower. (Reprinted with the kind permission of Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl; Artist: Ali Cohen; From Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl; More Than a Knapsack: The White Supremacy Flower as a New Model for Teaching Racism)

    White Fragility

    In her introduction of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (2018) writes:

    We consider a challenge to our racial world views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable. The mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial confit, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. The white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety. It is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.

    Now, the concept of white fragility, an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy, has been injected into both our sociological and societal discussion. According to DiAngelo (2018), society is structured in a way to prevent whites from experiencing racial discomfort, which generally results in whites not having difficult conversations about race - which is exactly the behavior that produces and reproduces white supremacy. DiAngelo (2018) posits that "white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color." Ultimately, DiAngelo (2018) explains that white individuals must develop their racial stamina to have difficult conversations about race, actually listen to the voices of people of color, and refuse to remain silent when white supremacy is exposed.

    Woman Placing Her Finger Between Her Lips.  Her mouth is taped shut.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): white Silence = Death has been a rallying phrase amidst the anti-police brutality protests following George Floyd's murder in 2020. (CC PDM 1.0; Kat Jayne via Pexels)

    Key Takeaways

    • Whiteness is considered normal, transparent, and invisible - in addition to conferring dominance.
    • Due to color blindness and a lack of class consciousness, many (white) Americans lack an understanding of whiteness and racial inequality.
    • White privilege is something that white Americans benefit from though many are oblivious to the daily effects of white privilege.
    • In both covert and overt ways, white supremacy is systemically and systematically impact the racial order, benefiting those deemed white and operatomg to oppress people of color.
    • Many whites experience white fragility, an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy.

    Contributors and Attributions