106 White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness
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106 White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness RUTH FRANKENBERG Fundamentally a relational category, whiteness does have content inasmuch as it generates norms, ways of understanding history, ways of thinking about self and other, and even ways of thinking about the notion .0£ culture itself. We need to look more closely at the content of the normative and attempt to analyze both its history and its consequences. One step in this direction is antiracist writers' increasing use of the terms Euro-American or European American alongside African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino, and Chicano. Using "European American" to describe white Americans has the advantage that it parallels and in a sense semantically equates communities of a range of geographical origins in relation to the United States. By the same token, however , this gesture"deracializes" and thus falsely equalizes communities who are, in terms of current reality, unequally positioned in the racial order. "European American," when it replaces "white," rather than being used alongside it, evades much of the racial dominance of European Americans at the present historical moment. If the cultural dominance of whiteness were complete and unquestioned, it would perhaps go entirely unnamed. However, there are constantly struggles over the inclusion and exclusion of specific groups of people as well as over white domination, whether it is structural , institutional, or cultural. In times of perceived threat, the normative group may well attempt to reassert its normativity by asserting elements of its cultural practice more explicitly and exclusively. For example, although the social movements for racial equality that have continued from the 1960s to the present have generated only relatively modest steps toward social change, various forms of backlash in response to them by individuals and groups have sought to assert earlier forms of cultural and racial normativity. These have included campaigns for "English only" laws in states where public institutions already conduct business only in English, controversies over educational curricula, and the resurgence of white supremacist political movements. At this time in U.s. history, whiteness as a marked identity is explicitly articulated mainly in terms of the "white pride" of the far right. In a sense, this produces a discursive bind for that small subgroup of white women and men concerned to engage in antiracist work: if whiteness is emptied of any content other than that which is associated with racism or capitalism, this leaves progressive whites apparently without a genealogy. This is partly a further effect of racist classification that notes or "marks" the race of nonwhite people but not whites. Copyright © 1993 by The University of Minnesota Press. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material White Women, Race Matters 633 To my mind, there is no immediate solution to this problem. Purely linguistic solutions cannot be effected in a political vacuum. To call Americans of European descent "white" in any celebratory fashion is almost inevitably today a white supremacist act, an act of backlash . In fact, only when white activists and cultural workers name themselves racially in the context of antiracist work does naming oneself as "white" begin to have a different kind of meaning. Much work remains to be done in actually making visible and undermining white culture 's ties to domination. This is perhaps a more urgent priority than looking for the "good" aspects of white people's heritage. Satisfying our desire for a "nonugly" white tradition requires, as much as anything, the creation of a different political reality, a different balance of power, or, at the very least, an active white antiracist movement that could generate a countercultural trajectory and identity. In contrast with the white supremacisms of the far right, my continuing to use "white culture" and "white cultural practice" as descriptors of the things white people do or the ways white people understand themselves should not, of course, be taken as suggesting that any practice or activity engaged in by white people is "white" in an inherent or timeless sense. Rather, as with all human activity, current cultural practices of white people in the United States must be viewed as contingent, historically produced, and transformable through collective and individual human endeavor. Nor can we view "white culture" or "white cultural practice" as a uniform terrain, such that one might expect all white people to identify in similar ways with the same set of core beliefs, practices, and symbols. The borders of white identity have proven malleable over time. The same is, I suggest, true of white culture: through processes of...