55 The Social Construction of Whiteness
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55 The Social Construction of Whiteness MARTHA R. MAHONEY Race is a phenomenon always in formation. Therefore whiteness, like other racial constructions, is subject to contest and change. Whiteness is historically located , malleable, and contingent. Arguments about the contingency of white privilege, and its dysfunctionality for white working people, may seem counterintuitive. Most writers emphasize what whites gain-the existence and benefits of privilege-or what whites lose-the costs of change for whites-rather than looking at transformative interests for whites. Yet some struggles that brought antiracist consciousness to the defense of shared class interest succeeded, historically, even under the formidable difficulties of formal segregation , and fomentation of race hatred1 My goal is to identify those points about whiteness that are most susceptible to change-especially those points that reveal potential for undermining the construction of privilege and subordination and for uniting whites, along with people of color, in opposition to privilege. Although race is not '"a natural division of human-kind,"2 race derives much of its power from seeming to be a natural or biological phenomenon or, at the very least, a coherent social category. For whites, residential segregation is one of the forces giving race a "natural" appearance: "good" neighborhoods are equated with whiteness, and "black" neighborhoods are equated with joblessness. This equation allows whiteness to remain a dominant background norm, associated with positive qualities for white people, at the same time that it allows unemployment and underemployment to seem like natural features of black communities . Race is also a relational concept. It describes social and cultural groups in relation to each other.3 The concept of race acquires meaning only in the context of historical development and existing race relations. Therefore, the construction of whiteness as "naturally" employed and employable, and blackness as "naturally" unemployed and unemployable, are both examples of the way in which concepts of whiteness and blackness imply whiteness as dominant and blackness as "Other." Both become part of the way of thinking about race in America. Recently, social and legal theorists have begun to "interrogate whiteness,"4 a project made difficult in part because explicit discussion of whiteness is usually associated only with white supremacists. We especially need to identify those moments in time and points in social understanding at which shared social interests exist, rather than treat white privilege as a fixed and frozen artifact. Ruth Frankenberg divides whiteness into a set of "linked dimensions": a location of structural advantage and race privilege; a "standpoint" from From "SEGREGATION, WHITENESS, AND TRANSFORMATION," 143 U. PA. L. REV. 1659, 1660 (1995). Copyright © 1995 The University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material The Social Construction of Whiteness 331 which white people look at themselves, at others, and at society; and a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed. She explores the ways in which material existence and the way we understand and describe it are interconnected in the construction of whiteness. The interaction of the material world and the ways we explain and understand it"generates experience" and, therefore, the"experience" of lived whiteness is something continually constructed, reconstructed, and transformed for white people. Whites have difficulty perceiving whiteness, both because of its cultural prevalence and because of its cultural dominance. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo describes "culture" as something perceived in someone else, something one does not perceive oneself as having.s What we ourselves do and think does not appear to us to be "culture," but rather appears to be the definition of what is normal and neutral, like the air we breathe, transparent from our perspective. Like culture, race is something whites notice in themselves only in relation to others.6 Privileged identity requires reinforcement and maintenance, but protection against seeing the mechanisms that socially reproduce and maintain privilege is an important component of the privilege itself. Peggy McIntosh conceptualizes white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack" of provisions, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, compasses, and blank checks.? [See Chapter 47. Ed.] The privilege that facilitates mobility and comfort in ordinary life is particularly difficult for whites to see. From the position of people of color, white privilege is neither transparent nor invisible, its reproduction through many conscious and unconscious acts not at all mysterious. Opening a bank account appears routine, as does air travel without police stops, or shopping without facing questions about one's identification-unless the absence of suspicion is a privilege of whiteness. White privilege therefore includes the ability to not-see...


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