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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

What is Whiteness?

What do I mean by whiteness?

I’ve been getting that question a lot since writing this book, mostly from some upset folks who adhere to that identity and are concerned (OK, really angry) that I’m giving it up (or even suggesting it’s possible or desirable to give up), and sometimes by folks who are simply curious.

I have a whole chapter on identity in my upcoming book Giving Up Whiteness: One Man’s Journey (Broadleaf Books, available October 6, 2020), which you can pre-order from several links on this site.

However, in an attempt to summarize what I mean by whiteness, I offer this explanation:

“Whiteness” is a socio-cultural identity, related to but not quite the same as the simplistic modern white/Caucasian racial category assumed to describe those with relatively lighter skin tone and of ancestry from certain European regions. It carries assumptions of excellence and superiority relative to other cultures and racial categories that create a mental and emotional barrier to acknowledging and supporting the inherent equality, dignity, and worth of other human beings. Whiteness comes with a set of conscious and subconscious beliefs and justifications from several sources such as history, economics, pseudo biological science, and religion, among others.
Whiteness has been practiced with explicit methods of segregation from other races, such as race-based laws that existed in the South, Midwest, and Western states through the late 1960s, or in more subtle methods of segregation and coerced assimilation, such as limiting cultural expression and public education to a narrow European-only point of view or implementing laws that have a clear disparity of impact on sub-groups not included in whiteness identity.
Developed into a cultural and economic caste system beginning in Europe and embedded in North American colonial law in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, whiteness shaped public policy and programs throughout United States history, as well as the history of some other nations and cultures adhering to whiteness. While most of the explicit laws concerning segregation have been repealed or deemed unconstitutional, whiteness continues to shape norms of inequality and stratified social policy in our modern day in public education, housing, media, lending and financial services, law enforcement, employment and other social categories.

That’s my long definition, with credit to many others and their attempts at it. One can be considered “white” from a racial categorization perspective, but adhere to one of three of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s worldview categories of segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist. “Whiteness” – like all race and identity discussions – is complex. I’m sure there are many other good attempts at defining it, but here are some additional definitions and explorations for consideration.

The Definition of Whiteness in American Society

Cara Cancelmo, Jennifer C. Mueller – Whiteness

Nell Irvin Painter in the NY Times

In other words, taking a stance against "whiteness" is not the same as taking a stance against "white" people, unless of course they intentionally adhere to whiteness or refuse to educate themselves on its impact on others once confronted with its realities . In my own personal journey, I have decided the foundational racial category of “white” or “Caucasian” has its origin rooted so deep in a purposeful attempt to racially and culturally stratify others that I have decided to set it aside as an identity marker. In many ways, "white" was invented for "whiteness." I find more meaning and value in specific ancestral identifiers, such as British or European American, or Appalachian (where I was born and raised). Beyond a common bond of humanity with all people, I aspirationally elevate Christian or Christ-follower to my highest level of identity. I also suggest that setting aside "whiteness" would help those of us who have been stuck in its cultural identity clutches become more empowered to see others through a more powerful, anti-racist, lens of connection and equality.

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