The Definition of Whiteness

A Sociological Definition

A white man against a white background symbolizes the normal, unmarked nature of whiteness.
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Whiteness, within sociology, is defined as a set of characteristics and experiences that are attached to the white race and white skin. In the U.S. and European contexts, whiteness marks ones as normal, belonging, and native, while people in other racial categories are perceived as and treated as unusual, foreign, and exotic. Sociologists believe that what whiteness is and means is directly connected to the construction of people of color as "other" in society.

Because of this, whiteness comes with a wide variety of privileges.

Whiteness is "Normal"

The most important and consequential thing that sociologists have discovered about whiteness--having white skin and/or being identified as white--is that it is perceived as the normal or default race in the U.S. Though the nation is racially diverse and most are aware of that, anyone who is not white is specially coded through language in a way that marks their race or ethnicity, while white people are not treated this way. "European American" or "Caucasian American" are not common phrases, but African American, Asian American, Indian American, Mexican American, etc., are. It's also common practice among white people to only specifically state the race of a person they came into contact with if that person is not white. Sociologists recognize that the way we speak about people signals that white people are "normal" Americans, while everyone else is a different kind of American that requires additional explanation.

For anyone who is not white, that additional language and what it signifies is often forced upon and expected of them, whereas for white people, because we are seen as the norm, ethnicity is optional. It is something that we can access if we want to, and use as social or cultural capital. But, it is not required of a white American, for example, to embrace and identify with her British, Irish, Scottish, French, and Canadian heritage.

It is rare that she will be asked to explain where she or her parents are from in that special way that really means, "What are you?" Her whiteness casts her as normal, as expected, and as inherently American.

We see the "normal" nature of whiteness in film and television too, in which most main characters are white, and in the case where a show or film prominently features actors of color, it is considered a "Black" or "Hispanic" cultural product. Film and television that primarily features white people is "normal" film and television that is thought to appeal to the mainstream; those that feature actors of color in lead roles and casts composed predominantly of people of color are considered niche works that exist outside of that mainstream. The race of the cast members marks the work as "different." (TV show creators Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari are contributing to a shift in the racial television landscape, but their shows are exceptions, not the norm.)

Whiteness is Unmarked

While people of  color are marked by their race and ethnicity in deeply meaningful and consequential ways, white people, as the perceived norm, are "unmarked" (in the words late British sociologist Ruth Frankenberg) by the kinds of language and expectations described above.

In fact, we 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. On the hit Lifetime television show Project Runway, judge Nina Garcia regularly uses "ethnic" to refer to clothing designs and patterns that are associated with indigenous tribes of Africa and the Americas. Think about it: your grocery store has an "ethnic food" aisle, doesn't it? And, you know that that is where you go to look for food items associated with Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic cultures. All the other food, considered "normal" American food, is unmarked, while foods from cultures composed predominantly of people of color are labeled "ethnic," and thus marked as different, unusual, or exotic.

The unmarked nature of whiteness has a lot to do with the trend of cultural appropriation.

For many white people, racially and ethnically coded goods, arts, and practices are interesting and appealing because they are viewed as different from the norm. And, given historically rooted stereotypes that frame people of color--especially Black and indigenous Americans--as both more connected to the earth and more "wild" than white people--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 about 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 in her essay, “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, 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. Wald 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.

Today, a far less politically motivated form of cultural appropriation continues in the musical context. Across the country young white people appropriate clothing and iconography like head dresses and dream catchers from indigenous American cultures in order to position themselves as countercultural and "carefree" at musical festivals across the country.

The unmarked nature of whiteness makes it feel and seem bland for some, which is why it has been common from the mid-twentieth century through today for white people to appropriate and consume elements of Black, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Asian cultures in order to seem cool, hip, cosmopolitan, edgy, bad, tough, and sexual, among other things.

Whiteness is Defined by the "Other"

The previous point brings us to another important one about whiteness.

It is defined by what is it not: the racially coded "Other." Sociologists who have studied the historical evolution of contemporary racial categories--including Howard Winant, David Roediger, Joseph R. Feagin and George Lipsitz--demonstrate that what "white" means has always been understood through a process of exclusion or negation. When European colonists described Africans or indigenous Americans as wild, savage, backward, and stupid, they cast themselves in contrast as civilized, rational, advanced, and intelligent. When American slaveholders described their Black captives as sexually uninhibited and aggressive, they in contrast built an image of whiteness as pure and chaste. When white people today stereotype Black and Latino boys as bad, dangerous kids, they counterpose white kids as well-behaved and respectable. When we describe Latinas as "spicy" and "fiery," we in turn construct white women as tame and even-tempered. As a racial category devoid of any racially or ethnically coded meaning, "white" is all that it is not. As such, whiteness is something loaded with social, cultural, political, and economic significance.