The Definition of Whiteness in American Society

How white skin color determines social attitudes and constructs

A white man against a white background

Hero Images / Getty Images

In sociology, whiteness is defined as a set of characteristics and experiences generally associated with being a member of the white race and having white skin. Sociologists believe the construct of whiteness is directly connected to the correlating construct of people of color as "other" in society. Because of this, whiteness comes with a wide variety of privileges.

Whiteness as "Normal"

The most important and consequential thing that sociologists have discovered about whiteness—having white skin and/or being identified as white—in the United States and Europe is that whiteness is perceived as being normal. White people "belong" and are therefore entitled to certain rights, while people from other racial categories—even members of indigenous populations—are perceived and, therefore, treated as unusual, foreign, or exotic.

We see the "normal" nature of whiteness in the media as well. In film and television, the majority of mainstream characters are white, while shows those that feature casts and themes geared toward non-white audiences are considered niche works that exist outside of that mainstream. While TV show creators Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari are contributing to a shift in the racial landscape of television, their shows are still exceptions, not the norm.

How Language Codifies the Races

That America is racially diverse is a reality, however, there is specially coded language applied to non-whites that mark their race or ethnicity. Whites, on the other hand, do not find themselves categorized in this way. African American, Asian American, Indian American, Mexican American, and so on are common phrases, while "European American" or "Caucasian American" are not.

Another common practice among whites is to specifically state the race of a person with whom they've come into contact if that person is not white. Sociologists recognize the way we speak about people signals sends a signal that white people are "normal" Americans, while everyone else is a different kind of American that requires additional explanation. This additional language and what it signifies is generally forced on non-whites, creating a set of expectations and perceptions, regardless of whether those expectations or perceptions are true or false.

Whiteness is Unmarked

In a society where being white is perceived as normal, expected, and inherently American, whites are rarely asked to explain their family origins in that particular way that really means, "What are you?"

With no linguistic qualifiers attached to their identity, ethnicity becomes optional for white people. It's something that they can access if they so desire, to be used as social or cultural capital. For example, white Americans are not required to embrace and identify with their British, Irish, Scottish, French, or Canadian ancestors.

People of color are marked by their race and ethnicity in deeply meaningful and consequential ways, while, in the words of late British sociologist Ruth Frankenberg, white people are "unmarked" by the kinds of language and expectations described above. In fact, whites are considered so void of any ethnic coding that the word "ethnic" itself has evolved into a descriptor of people of color or elements of their cultures. For example, on the hit Lifetime television show Project Runway, judge Nina Garcia regularly uses "ethnic" to refer to clothing designs and patterns associated with indigenous tribes of Africa and the Americas.

Think about it: Most grocery stores have an "ethnic food" aisle where you'll find food items associated with Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Hispanic cuisine. Such foods, coming from cultures composed predominantly of people of color are labeled "ethnic," i.e., different, unusual, or exotic, whereas, all other food is considered "normal" and is, therefore, unmarked or segregated into one centralized separate location.

Whiteness and Cultural Appropriation

The unmarked nature of whiteness feels bland and unexciting for some whites. This is largely the reason why it's become common, starting in the mid-20th century through today, for whites to appropriate and consume elements of Black, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Asian cultures in order to appear cool, hip, cosmopolitan, edgy, bad, tough, and sexual—among other things.

Given that historically rooted stereotypes frame people of color—especially Black and indigenous Americans—as both more connected to the earth and more "authentic" than white people—many whites find racially and ethnically coded goods, arts, and practices appealing. Appropriating practices and goods from these cultures is a way for white people to express an identity that is counter to the perception of mainstream whiteness.

Gayle Wald, an English professor who has written extensively on the topic of race, found through archival research that renowned late singer Janis Joplin crafted her free-wheeling, free-loving, countercultural stage persona "Pearl" after Black blues singer Bessie Smith. Wald recounts that Joplin spoke openly about how she perceived black people to have a soulfulness, a certain raw naturalness, that white people lacked, and that resulted in rigid and stuffy expectations for personal behavior, especially for women and argues that Joplin adopted elements of Smith's dress and vocal style in order to position her performance as a critique of white heteronormative gender roles.

During the countercultural revolution in the ’60s, a far less politically motivated form of cultural appropriation continued as young white people appropriated clothing and iconography such as headdresses and dream catchers from indigenous American cultures in order to position themselves as countercultural and "carefree" at musical festivals across the country. Later, this trend in appropriation would move on to embrace forms of African cultural expression, such as rap and hip-hop.

Whiteness is Defined by Negation

As a racial category devoid of any racially or ethnically coded meaning, "white" is defined not so much by what it is, but rather, by what it is not—the racially coded "other." As such, whiteness is something loaded with social, cultural, political, and economic significance. Sociologists who've studied the historical evolution of contemporary racial categories—including Howard Winant, David Roediger, Joseph R. Feagin, and George Lipsitz—conclude the meaning of "white" has always been understood through a process of exclusion or negation.

By describing Africans or indigenous Americans as "wild, savage, backward, and stupid," European colonists cast themselves in contrasting roles as civilized, rational, advanced, and intelligent. When slaveholders described the African Americans they owned as sexually uninhibited and aggressive, they also established the image of whiteness—especially that of white women—as pure and chaste.

Throughout the eras of slavery in America, Reconstruction, and well into the 20th century, these last two constructs have proven especially disastrous for the African American community. Black men and youths suffered beatings, torture, and lynching on the basis of even the flimsiest allegation that they'd paid unwanted attention to a white woman. Meanwhile, Black women lost jobs and families lost their homes, only to later learn that the so-called trigger event had never taken place.

Continued Cultural Stereotypes

These cultural constructs live on and continue to exert influence in American society. When whites describe Latinas as "spicy" and "fiery," they, in turn, construct a definition of white women as tame and even-tempered. When whites stereotype African American and Latino boys as bad, dangerous kids, they counterpose white kids as well-behaved and respectable—again, whether these labels are true or not.

Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the media and the judicial system, in which people of color are routinely demonized as vicious criminals who deserve "what's coming to them," while white offenders are routinely regarded as merely misguided and let off with a slap on the wrist—especially in cases of "boys will be boys."

Sources

  • Ruth Frankenberg, Ruth. "White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness." University of Minnesota Press, 1993
  • Wald, Gayle. “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies” in "Whiteness: A Critical Reader," edited by Mike Hill. New York University Press, 1964; 1997