A Primer on and Critique of the term “Whiteness”

Neil Shenvi has a helpful article explaining the meaning of the term “whiteness” within critical race theory and how it differs from common usage. That difference causes big time problems. From Shenvi’s conclusion:

Exploring the historical conception of ‘whiteness’ and its connection to racism is a worthwhile subject. At one point, it did indeed connote or at least suggest “membership in the superior racial caste.” However, few if any Americans today would endorse that understanding. Consequently, the antiracist is taking a morally neutral term and using it to express a deeply evil concept. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Of course, in principle, we are free to define terms however we want as long as we’re consistent. But the goal of language is effective communication. If I insist on defining “moron” to mean “French hockey player,” I shouldn’t be surprised if a roomful of French hockey players is offended by my definition! We should choose words that convey our meaning as clearly as possible and -as Christians- as charitably as possible.

To minimize the possibility of misunderstanding, a simple solution is available: substitute the phrases “white racial superiority” or “membership in the highest racial caste” for the term ‘whiteness.’ Since these phrases already carry extremely negative connotations (with good reason!), the antiracist runs no risk in confusing their hearers.

This is a helpful article. Read the rest here.

Last year, I read Richard Delgado’s and Jean Stefanic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, and I noticed some of the same problems of usage. “Whiteness” is used to refer to a hegemonic social construct, but it is also used right alongside the term “white” as a racial category. Sometimes it is unclear whether Delgado and Stefanic are criticizing whiteness or people with white skin. For example:

Many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent. The interplay of meanings that one attaches to race; the stereotypes one holds of other people; the standards of looks, appearance, and beauty; and the need to guard one’s own position all powerfully determine one’s perspective. Indeed, one aspect of whiteness, according to some scholars, is its ability to seem perspectiveless or transparent (p. 91, underline mine).

Delgado and Stefanic obviously employ “white” to refer to skin color in the first instance. While the later use of “whiteness” would seem to be referring to a hegemonic social construct, it is unclear if that is all that it means. Is “whiteness” only referring to a social construct in the second instance? Delgado and Stefanic have just said that “no white member of society seems quite so innocent.” That seems to suggest that all people with white skin to some degree share in the culpability of whiteness as a social construct. If that is the case, doesn’t whiteness implicate all people with white skin?

In any case, this terminology can be very confusing at best and positively divisive at worst. I think Shenvi’s suggestions for speaking more clearly would do a great deal in providing clarity to our conversations about these sensitive issues.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes