WHITES (Social Science)

The issue of whiteness is intimately tied to the issue of social construction. Whiteness is a social construction that serves to empower some and disenfranchise others. The fact of the social construction is often masked as a referent to biological categories. As Grace Elizabeth Hale points out, "Long before they [whites] conceived of regional differences, early Americans linked skin color to the origins of peoples, using it to distinguish various nationalities and ethnicities of African, Native Americans, and Europeans" (Hale 1998, p. 4). David Roediger suggests that "the term white arose as a designation for European explorers, traders, and settlers who came into contact with Africans and the indigenous people of the Americas" (Roediger 1991, p. 21). The early uses of the term white were to distinguish Native Americans and Africans from Europeans.

According to Karyn McKinney, "Before it became popular to write of the ‘social constructions of whiteness,’ African American scholars, such as W. E. B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison had recognized race as a social rather than biological trait, and the fact that one ‘becomes,’ rather than is born, white." Ellison and other black scholars also highlighted the observation that the quickest way for an immigrant to "become" white, and thus feel "instantly American," was to learn to deride African Americans (McKinney 2005, p. 11).

The historical boundaries of whiteness continue to change over time. As Matthew Frye Jacobson (1998) has noted, the historical construction of whiteness was tied to the political notion of "fitness for government," and the process of defining who was or was not white occurred largely as a result of legal decisions in the determination of citizenship (Haney-Lopez 1996). Furthermore, Joe Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Pinar Batur suggest:

Those called "whites" in the United States and across the globe are really not white in skin color but rather are some shade of brown, tan, pink, or mixture thereof. These truer-to-life skin colors, however, are not generally associated with the qualities—such as purity, innocence, and privilege—to which "white" skin is often linked. White people do not exist in the flesh; they are a social construction. (Feagin et al. 2001, p. 2)


W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) considered the economic aspects of embracing the ideology of whiteness. He brilliantly developed a concept for analyzing class—the psychological wages of whiteness. This concept spearheaded contemporary scholarship on the process of immigrants embracing the category of white in America. The psychological wage of whiteness meant that:

The white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, was compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them (DuBois [1935] 1969, pp. 700-701).

As Noel Ignatiev suggests:

The hallmark of racial oppression [is the reduction of] all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the dominant group____ It follows, therefore, that the white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it. (Ignatiev 1995, p. 1)

McKinney further notes that "in the United States whiteness is so central a social reality, so ‘normal,’ that most whites of all ages rarely examine the reality of their white identities and privileges. For most whites, including scholars and commentators, even the term ‘American’ seems to conjure up the image of a white person" (McKinney 2005, p. xii).


The Irish became white, according to Ignatiev, when they immigrated to America "in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [because] they were fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave" (Ignatiev 1995, p. 2). The Irish, upon arrival, found themselves thrown into the neighborhoods, status, and categorization of African Americans. They quickly discovered the importance of skin color and adopted the ideology of a racial hierarchy that was pervasive in America. The Irish made a conscious choice to enter the white race.

To the Irish, embracing the country’s racial ideologies offered the benefit of a degree of privilege and citizenship that was not provided to African Americans. Becoming white meant that they were not restricted to working and selling their goods in segregated areas. "It meant that they were citizens of a democratic republic and they could vote,live where they wanted to live, and spend without racially imposed restrictions. In becoming white the Irish ceased to be Green" (Ignatiev 1995, p. 3).

The Irish did not just become white because they wanted to be white; Brodkin suggests that they were assisted and supported by Jacksonian Democrats and the white elite. The willingness of the Irish to participate in organized racial violence against African Americans also contributed to their being accepted into the white racial hierarchy (Brodkin 1998, p. 65). According to Roediger, the Irish worker embraced white supremacy and thus gained popularity in America: "The success of the Irish in being recognized as white resulted largely from the political power of Irish and other immigrant voters" (Roediger 1991, p. 137).

The techniques utilized by the Irish to become white resemble the ways in which American Jews became white. For the Jews, becoming white was based on the assistance of the federal government and their willingness to embrace the white racial hierarchy and ideology. According to Brodkin, who is Jewish, all the members of her family had to learn the ways of whiteness through years of socializing with whites. "The myth that Jews pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps ignores the fact that it took federal programs to create the conditions whereby the abilities of Jews and other European immigrants could be recognized and rewarded rather than denigrated and denied" (Brodkin 1998, p. 50). Jews embraced the country’s racial hierarchy, and they received aid from federal programs set in place after World War II (1939-1945). Many of the programs were designed to discriminate against African Americans who had served in the war. Jews became white and enjoyed the benefits of federal programs such as the GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration, and the Veterans Administration. These programs overlooked and denied benefits to African Americans. And like other white ethnic groups had done in the past, to prove their commitment to embracing their white status, Jews engaged in racial violence that targeted African Americans and other people of color.


Brodkin and Ignatiev attribute becoming white to acquiring political, social, and economic acceptance, as well as assimilating into the American lifestyle. However, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out, "When race emerged in human history, it formed a social structure (a racialized social system) that awarded systemic privileges to Europeans (the peoples who became ‘white’)____ Since actors racialized as ‘white’—or as members of the dominant race—receive material benefits from the racial order, they struggle (or passively receive the manifold wages of whiteness) to maintain their privileges" (Bonilla-Silva 2003, p. 9). Those who have become white, such as the Irish, Jews, and some white Latinos, go on to embrace the white racial hierarchy and ideology of the dominant society. Joe Feagin similarly points out:

In its use for human groups, the word "white" was originally defined by the English colonist mainly in contrast with "black"…. White defined who the European Americans were, and who they were not. Whiteness was indeed a major and terrible invention, one that solidified white thinking into an extensive and racialized either/or framework and that came to symbolize for whites the "ownership of the earth" and "civilization." (Feagin 2006, pp. 14-15)

"Moreover," according to Feagin, "whites are collectively so powerful that they pressure all new immigrants groups, including immigrants of color, to collude in the white-racist system by adopting not only general white ways of doing and speaking … but also the white racial frame and its view of the racial hierarchy of U.S. society" (Feagin 2006, p. 292). New immigrants who come into the United States strive to speak, dress, and act white based upon the white racial hierarchy that decides who is white and who is nonwhite. Furthermore, buying into the cultural attributes of whiteness includes internalizing and supporting antiblack sentiment.

Chris Cuomo and Kim Hall suggest that because of the role of whiteness "in justifying and maintaining racism and colonialism in the United States (and, now, most of the world), whiteness is uniquely located on the racial map. For whites to fail to consider whiteness as a historical, constructed, and dynamic category is to risk treating it as normal (rather than normalizing), uniform (not immeasurably variable), paradigmatic (instead of fundamental to racism), and given (rather than dutifully maintained)" (Cuomo and Hall 1999, p. 3). In the early years of the twenty-first century, the historical techniques of becoming white are being adopted by new Latino immigrants who, for the purpose of reaping the benefits of whiteness, classify themselves as white.

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