Like water to the proverbial fish, whiteness has been largely invisible in the ”modern world system” of European creation. This invisibility is somewhat unique among the racial categories. The uniqueness does not consist of the ”normalization” of whiteness: the idea that whiteness is the ”default” racial status, that whites are ”just people” who ”don’t have a race.” Nor does its uniqueness consist in the “transparency” of whiteness: the way in which whiteness is taken for granted in the world’s powerful countries and thus not seen, like water by the fish. In many places, especially where one racially defined group predominates, that group’s raciality is relatively invisible. Think of much of Africa, Han China, or Yamato Japan.

No, the uniqueness of whiteness’s invisibility lies in the contradictions therein: while whiteness partakes of normality and transparency, it is also dominant, insistently so. And it is also beleaguered, nervous, defensive. These qualities in turn belie claims for the “normality” of whiteness, the default status of the concept.

Whiteness can hardly be hidden in a social system based on racial domination, one in which races are necessarily relational matters. White supremacy has never gone unresisted, for one thing, so whites (colonists, settlers, planters, etc.) have always had to ”circle the wagons”: they had to theorize whiteness, defend its ”purity,” and justify their rule. They had to take up their ”White Man’s Burden,” carry out their ‘Mission Civilisatrice,” fulfill their ”Manifest Destiny.”

From the early days of conquest and slavery, from the early phases of European empire building right down to the present, there has been white unease about the very white supremacy employed to organize and justify European rule. ”What if…, what if…” Resistance. What if the blacks, the natives, the kaffirs, the wogs, rose up against us? (Indeed, they often have done so.) What if they treated us as we have treated them? In white horror at the Haitian revolution, at Sepoy, at the Mau Mau, at Nat Turner, at the revolt of the Muslim Males of Bahia in 1835, at the putative barbarity of the Algerian revolution (and in endless other instances), we see the inner fears and guilt that accompany white rule.

Migration. How can we keep ourselves from being swamped” by the rising tide of color”? Lothrop Stoddard (1920) and Madison Grant’s (1916) bestsellers contemplated with dread the declining fortunes of European rule, conceiving whiteness as a fortress, a laager, besieged by the lesser breeds who sought to immigrate, to overrun the advanced” outposts of civilization, to drag down all the higher accomplishments of Europe and its avatars. North American nativism of course preceded their panicky alarums by more than a century (Higham 1955). Mrs. Thatcher revived the “swamping” metaphor in her campaigns, and it continues to thrive under the careful tending of Le Pen, Haider, Fini, Tom Tancredo, and many other politicians in every white dominated metropole in the world.

Sexual purity. Miscegenation is a threat to whiteness authored by whites, notably white men, themselves. ”Carnal knowledge and imperial power” (and slavocratic power too) have always gone together, as Stoler (2002) has most effectively demonstrated. Danger, race mixing ahead! Rape and concubinage, the problematic and ambiguous identities of mixed race off spring, the thrill of desire for the racialized ”other,” and the constant risk that whites will ”go native” (Torgovnick 1991) have always represented a risk to white purity, and thus white identity itself.

So despite numerous claims of universality, racelessness, and ”colorblindness” (Bonilla Silva 2003), whiteness is not only still present but also racially particular in its own right. ”White” is a racial category, and ”whites” something of a racial group, of course partaking of huge variation across space and time. But what is ”whiteness,” anyway?

In much radical literature, largely recent but not without precedent, whiteness is portrayed entirely in the negative: as the explicit absence of ”color,” of raciality. Whiteness substitutes for class consciousness, subverting it by racially linking rulers and ruled. The social fact of not being black, not being ”of color,” is seen as its essential quality. Ignatiev (1995), Lott (1993), Roediger (1991), and others have advanced this analysis, drawing to various degrees on Du Bois’s account in Black Reconstruction (1935) of the ”psychological wage” derived by the North American white worker from the choice of racial rather than class identity. Whiteness arises as if to say, ”I may be poor and exploited, but at least I’m white.” Morgan’s (1975) history of Virginia colonialism takes a similar view.

Other currents dispute this view at least in part, noting the problematic and partial character of the ”achievement” of whiteness by many European immigrants (Jacobson 1998) and the weird reversals of white supremacist obsessions with purity and beleagueredness that echo in such arguments. Some have argued that ”white trash” is itself a distinct racial category, pointing to the persecution of the supposedly ”feeble minded” during the heyday of eugenics, and the continuing contempt expressed for the white poor today (Wray & Newitz 1997). But the most telling objection to the idea that whiteness is a purely negative racial category, and hence something that could be ”abolished,” is the recognition that racial identity is relational in character. However socially constructed the creation and perpetuation of racial identities may have been, these identities can no more be discontinued than can such other similarly situated human attributes that we now see as fundamental: gender, class, and nation, for example.

Beyond this, racialization is notoriously synthetic and absorptive. In forging its whiteness, Europe incorporated a great many of the characteristics of those over whom it ruled, imparting to them in turn many of its own qualities: not only resources, not only migrants, not only diseases, not only gametes, flowed in both directions across various racial divides, but so too did language, technology, and knowledge, both sacred and profane.

Thus the chief distinction between the racial category of whiteness and other racial designations is not some supposedly all encompassing negativity of white identity; indeed, the claim that whiteness is merely the ”absence of color” is quite questionable. Rather, the concept’s problematic nature stems from its continuing (if often flexible and today often disavowed) involvement with domination. To adapt Lincoln’s formulation: whiteness cannot forever endure half asserting itself, and half denying itself. A whiteness that abandoned its ambivalent claims to ”colorblindness” (another way of reclaiming invisibility) and that recognized that its gestation and development, right down to the present, have been tainted by ”unfair gains, unjust enrichments, and unearned advantages” (Lipsitz 1998), could perhaps redeem itself by breaking decisively with that history. Could whiteness not be reinvented by such means as practical measures of redistribution and thoroughgoing racial democratization? After all, there have been many anti racist whites; from where did their motivations arise? Might not white people yet achieve admission to a pluralist global community that acknowledged racial difference but refused racially based stratification or hierarchy? Since history has not ended, the final judgment on such questions has yet to be made.


  1. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003) Racism Without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Rowman & Little-field, Lanham, MD.
  2. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1977 [1935]) Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860 1880. Atheneum, New York.
  3. Grant, M. (1936 [1916]) The Passing of the Great Race; Or, The Racial Basis of European History. Scribner, New York.
  4. Higham, J. (1955) Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860 1925. Rutgers Univer­sity Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  5. Ignatiev, N. (1995) How the Irish Became White. Routledge, New York.
  6. Jacobson, M. F. (1998) Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  7. Lipsitz, G. (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
  8. Lott, E. (1993) Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford Univer­sity Press, New York.
  9. Morgan, E. S. (1975) American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Norton, New York.
  10. Roediger, D. R. (1991) The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.
  11. Verso, New York. Stoddard, L. (1920) The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. Scribner, New York.
  12. Stoler, A. L. (2002) Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  13. Torgovnick, M. (1991) Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  14. Wray, M. & Newitz, A. (Eds.) (1997) White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge, New York.

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