Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building the World We Dream About: An Anti-racism Multicultural Program

Handout 2: Whiteness Defined

By Dr. Gregory Jay, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. March 17, 2005. Read this piece online.

"Whiteness... " is not an attack on people, whatever their skin color. Instead, [it] is an attempt to think critically about how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture. Thus it ... examines how white skin preference insinuates itself into the culture of communities of color as well, where we may find everything from prejudice against darker skinned people within the community to commercial practices of white-body imitation and surgery (nose jobs, skin creams, eye-lid alteration, etc.).

At bottom, "whiteness" is an ideological fiction naming those properties supposedly unique to "white people," properties used to claim that they are a "superior race" and the "norm" by which others are judged. "Whiteness" is also—or above all else—a legal fiction determining the distribution of wealth, power, human rights, and citizenship among bodies denominated by this fiction. Historically, white people are an invented "race," made up of various ethnic groups perceived to have a common ancestry in parts of Europe and self-proclaimed to be superior biologically and culturally to other "races." "White" was invented as a category when previous notions of national "races" (French, German, English, Norwegian, etc.) were lumped together to create a single powerful coalition. "White" is thus a political fiction that has been used by one social group to harm and oppress others.