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Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of inquiry that has developed beginning in the United States, particularly since the late 20th century, and is focused on what proponents describe as the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of "whiteness" as an ideology tied to social status. Pioneers in the field include W. E. B. Du Bois ("Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization", 1890; Darkwater, 1920), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, 1963), Theodore W. Allen (The Invention of the White Race, 1976, expanded in 1995), Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992) and historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991). By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and it has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.
A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism and historicism, in which the very concept of racial superiority is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 19th century, some writers have argued that the phenotypical significances attributed to specific races are without biological association, and that race is therefore not a valid biological concept. Many scientists have demonstrated that racial theories are based upon an arbitrary clustering of phenotypical categories and customs, and can overlook the problem of gradations between categories. Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert L. Krizek write about whiteness as a "strategic rhetoric," asserting, in the essay "Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric", that whiteness is a product of "discursive formation" and a "rhetorical construction". Nakayama and Krizek write, "there is no 'true essence' to 'whiteness': there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location." Nakayama and Krizek also suggest that by naming whiteness, one calls out its centrality and reveals its invisible, central position. Whiteness is considered normal and neutral, therefore, to name whiteness means that one identifies whiteness as a rhetorical construction which can be dissected to unearth its values and beliefs.
Major areas of research in whiteness studies include the nature of white privilege and white identity, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity.
Studies of whiteness as a unique identity could be said to begin among black people, who needed to understand whiteness to survive, particularly in slave societies such as the American colonies and United States. An important theme in this literature is, beyond the general "invisibility" of blacks to whites, the unwillingness of white people to consider that black people study them anthropologically. American author James Weldon Johnson wrote in his 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that "colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them". Author James Baldwin wrote and spoke extensively about whiteness, defining it as a central social problem and insisting that it was choice, not a biological identity. In The Fire Next Time (1963), a non-fiction book on race relations in the United States, Baldwin suggests that
"White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this--which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never--the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."
White academics in the United States and the United Kingdom (UK) began to study whiteness as early as 1983, creating the idea of a discipline called "whiteness studies". The "canon wars" of the late 1980s and 1990s, a political controversy over the centrality of white authors and perspectives in United States culture, led scholars to ask "how the imaginative construction of 'whiteness' had shaped American literature and American history".[attribution needed] The field developed a large body of work during the early 1990s, extending across the disciplines of "literary criticism, history, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore".[attribution needed]
As of 2004, according to The Washington Post, at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with research on post-colonial theory and orientalism taking place in the Arts and Humanities, Sociology, Literature, Communications, and Cultural and Media Studies faculties and departments, among others (e.g. Kent, Leeds). Also heavily engaged in whiteness studies are practitioners of anti-racist education, such as Betita Martinez and the Challenging White Supremacy workshop.
One contribution to White Studies is Rich Benjamin's Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. The book examines white social beliefs and white anxiety in the contemporary United States--in the context of enormous demographic, cultural, and social change. The book is often taught as a primer in White Studies on white racial identity in a "post-racial" US.
Another major contribution to whiteness studies is the analysis of whiteness as a phenomenon, not just localized to the US and Western Hemisphere, but also in the context of other post-colonial metropoles such as the Netherlands. Gloria Wekker's White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race excavates the immutability and fluidity of white identity and its relationship to innocence in the context of post-colonial Netherlands in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Wekker identifies white innocence as a contemporary construction and denial [aggressive national forgetting] of the Netherlands role and proximity to European imperialism, racial stratification and hierarchy, and its contributions to the making of contemporary constructions of national belonging and cultural normativity (autochtoon vs. allochtonen).
In Wekker's analysis, although a majority of the residents of the Netherlands are migrants, the process of stratifying Dutch from "Other" is facilitated through skin tone and non-Christian religious practices ("deviant", non-White religions). In Wekker's account, the process of racialization is reserved for mid-to-late twentieth century migrant groups [i.e. Muslims, Black Surinamese, Black Antilleans], interchangeably as a means of delineating groups outside the constructed immutable "norms" of Dutch society. Ultimately, Wekker is illuminating the cultural and rhetorical maneuvering that occurs within Dutch popular culture, educational spaces, and national discourses that facilitate a normalizing, non-identity to whiteness and how this very concept is intricately connected to a longer historical nineteenth-century racial grammar that accompanied imperial expansion.
Whiteness studies draws on research into the definition of race, originating with the United States but applying to racial stratification worldwide. This research emphasizes the historically recent social construction of white identity. As stated by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1920: "The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing,--a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed." The discipline examines how white, Native, and African/black identities emerged in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan have traced the evolution of the legally defined line between "blacks" and "whites" to colonial government efforts to prevent cross-racial revolts among unpaid laborers.
Macquarie University academic Joseph Pugliese is among writers who have applied whiteness studies to an Australian context, discussing the ways that Indigenous Australians were marginalized in the wake of British colonization of Australia, as whiteness came to be defined as central to Australian identity. Pugliese discusses the 20th-century White Australia policy as a conscious attempt to preserve the "purity" of whiteness in Australian society. Likewise Stefanie Affeldt considers whiteness "a concept not yet fully developed at the time the first convicts and settlers arrived down under"  which, as a social relation, had to be negotiated and was driven forward in particular by the labour movement. Eventually, with the Federation of Australia, "[o]verlaying social differences, the shared membership in the 'white race' was the catalyst for the consolidation of the Australian colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia" 
In 1965, drawing from insights from W.E.B. Du Bois and inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Theodore W. Allen began a forty-year analysis of "white skin privilege", "white race" privilege, and "white" privilege. In a piece he drafted for a "John Brown Commemoration Committee", he urged that "White Americans who want government of the people" and "by the people" to "begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges". From 1967 to 1969 various versions of the pamphlet, "White Blindspot", containing pieces by Allen and Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev), focused on the struggle against "white skin privilege" and significantly influenced Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and sectors of the New Left. By June 15, 1969, the New York Times was reporting that the National Office of SDS was calling "for an all-out fight against 'white skin privileges'".
In 1974-1975, Allen extended his analysis of "white privilege", racial oppression, and social control to the colonial period with his ground-breaking Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race. With continued research, he developed his ideas as his seminal two-volume The Invention of the White Race published in 1994 and 1997.
For almost forty years, Allen offered a detailed historical analysis of the origin, maintenance, and functioning of "white-skin privilege" and "white privilege" in such writings as: "White Supremacy in U.S. History", (1973);"Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race" (1975);"The Invention of the White Race," Vol. 1: "Racial Oppression and Social Control" (1994, 2012);"The Invention of the White Race," Vol. 2: "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America" (1997, 2012); "Summary of the Argument of 'The Invention of the White Race'" Parts 1 and 2 (1998);"In Defense of Affirmative Action in Employment Policy" (1998);"'Race' and 'Ethnicity': History and the 2000 Census"(1999); and "On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness" (Revised Edition)";
In his historical work, Allen asserted that:
Laura Pulido writes about the relation of white privilege to racism.
"White privilege [is] a highly structural and spatial form of racism ... I suggest that historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege and have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism."
Pulido defines environmental racism as "the idea that nonwhites are disproportionately exposed to pollution".
Writers such as Peggy McIntosh say that social, political, and cultural advantages are accorded to whites in global society. She argues that these advantages seem invisible to white people, but obvious to non-whites. McIntosh argues that whites utilize their whiteness, consciously or unconsciously, as a framework to classify people and understand their social locations. In addition, even though many white people understand that whiteness is associated with privilege, they do not acknowledge their privilege because they view themselves as average and non-racist. Essentially, whiteness is invisible to white people.
"I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untouched way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (188).
McIntosh calls for Americans to acknowledge white privilege so that they can more effectively attain equality in American society. She argues,
"To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects" (192).
White privilege is also related to "white guilt". As Jackson writes in the article, "White Noises: On Performing White, On Writing Performance" (1998), "The rhetorics of white guilt are tiresome, cliche, disingenuous, and everywhere. And now that the stereotype of 'the guilty white' is almost entrenched in its negativity as 'the racist white', people actively try to dis-identify from both."
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An offshoot of critical race theory, theorists of critical whiteness studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. There is a great deal of overlap between critical whiteness studies and critical race theory, as demonstrated by focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, and the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power.
In the early 21st century, architectural historians have published studies related to the construction of whiteness in the built environment. Studies have grappled with the exclusionary nature of the architectural profession, which erected barriers for nonwhite practitioners, the ways in which architects and designers have employed motifs, art programs, and color schemes that reflected the aspirations of European-Americans and, most recently, with the racialization of space.
Whiteness and privilege continue in education after Jim Crow versions of the segregationist ideology have lost their legitimacy due to legal and political failures. Privacy and individualism discourses mask white fear and newer forms of exclusion in contemporary education according to scholar, Charles R. Lawrence III.
Writer David Horowitz draws a distinction between whiteness studies and other analogous disciplines. "Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women's studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil." Dagmar R. Myslinska, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, argues that whiteness studies overlooks the heterogeneity of whites' experience, be it due to class, immigrant status, or geographical location.
Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post, has sharply criticized whiteness studies, writing that it "points to a new low in moral vacuity and civilizational self-loathing" and is an example of "academic pusillanimity." According to Kay, whiteness studies "cuts to the chase: It is all, and only, about white self-hate."
Kay noted the leanings of the field by quoting Jeff Hitchcock, co-founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC), who stated in a 1998 speech:
|"||There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of colour.... We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today... which damage and prevent the humanity of those of us within it....We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today that deny the rights of those outside of whiteness and which damage and pervert the humanity of those of us within it.||"|
Regarding whiteness studies (WS) more broadly, Kay wrote:
WS teaches that if you are white, you are branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin. You can try to mitigate your evilness, but you can't eradicate it. The goal of WS is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone -- eternal victimhood for nonwhites, eternal guilt for whites -- and was most famously framed by WS chief guru, Noel Ignatiev, former professor at Harvard University [sic, Ignatiev was a Ph.D. student and then a tutor at Harvard, but never a professor], now teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art: "The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race -- in other words, to abolish the privileges of the white skin."
In addition to such criticism in the mass media, whiteness studies has earned a mixed reception from academics in other fields. In 2001, historian Eric Arnesen wrote that "whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings" and that the field "suffers from a number of potentially fatal methodological and conceptual flaws." First, Arnesen writes that the core theses of whiteness studies--that racial categories are arbitrary social constructs without definite biological basis, and that some white Americans benefit from racist discrimination of non-whites--have been common wisdom in academia for many decades and are hardly as novel or controversial as whiteness studies scholars seem to believe. Additionally, Arnesen accuses whiteness studies scholars of sloppy thinking; of making claims not supported by their sources; of overstating supporting evidence and cherry picking to neglect contrary information.
He notes that a particular datum almost entirely ignored by whiteness studies scholars is religion, which has played a prominent role in conflicts among various American classes. He says that a type of "keyword literalism" persists in whiteness studies, where important words and phrases from primary sources are taken out of their historical context. Whiteness has so many different definitions that the word is "nothing less than a moving target." Arnesen notes that whiteness studies scholars are entirely on the far left of the political spectrum, and suggests that their apparent vitriol towards white Americans is due in part to white workers not fulfilling the predictions of Marxist theory that the proletariat would overcome racial, national and class distinctions to unite and overthrow capitalism. He cites, as an example, David Roediger's afterword to the seminal Wages of Whiteness, which asserts that the book was written as a reaction to "the appalling extent to which white male workers voted for Reaganism in the 1980s." Arnesen argues that in the absence of supporting evidence, whiteness studies often rely on amateurish Freudian speculation about the motives of white people: "The psychoanalysis of whiteness here differs from the 'talking cure' of Freudianism partly in its neglect of the speech of those under study." Without more accurate scholarship, Arnesen writes that "it is time to retire whiteness for more precise historical categories and analytical tools."
In 2002 historian Peter Kolchin offered a more positive assessment and declared that, at its best, whiteness studies has "unfulfilled potential" and offers a novel and valuable means of studying history. Particularly, he praises scholarship into the development of the concept of whiteness in the United States, and notes that the definition and implications of a white racial identity have shifted over the decades. Yet Kolchin describes a "persistent sense of unease " with certain aspects of whiteness studies. There is no consensus definition of whiteness, and thus the word is used in vague and contradictory ways, with some scholars even leaving the term undefined in their articles or essays." Kolchin also objects to "a persistent dualism evident in the work of the best whiteness studies authors," who often claim that whiteness is a social construct while also arguing, paradoxically, that whiteness is an "omnipresent and unchanging" reality existing independent of socialization. Kolchin agrees that entering a post-racial paradigm might be beneficial for humanity, but he challenges the didactic tone of whiteness studies scholars who single out a white racial identification as negative, while praising a black or Asian self-identification. Scholars in whiteness studies sometimes seriously undermine their arguments by interpreting historical evidence independent of its broader context (e.g., Karen Brodkin's examination of American anti-semitism largely neglects its roots in European anti-semitism). Finally, Kolchin categorically rejects the argument--common amongst many whiteness scholars--that racism and whiteness are intrinsically and uniquely American, and he expresses concern at the "belief in the moral emptiness of whiteness [...] there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil."
Theodore W. Allen, pioneering writer on "white skin privilege" and "white privilege" from the 1960s until his death in 2005, offered a critical review "On Roediger's Wages of Whiteness" (Revised Edition). He personally put "whiteness" in quotes because he shied away from using the term. As Allen explained,
"it's an abstract noun, it's an abstraction, it's an attribute of some people, it's not the role they play. And the white race is an actual objective thing. It's not anthropologic, it's a historically developed identity of European Americans and Anglo-Americans and so it has to be dealt with. It functions... in this history of ours and it has to be recognized as such. . . .to slough it off under the heading of 'whiteness,' to me seems to get away from the basic white race identity trauma."