The Invisibility of Whiteness

As Jason Katz argues in the film Tough Guise: Violence, Media, & the Crisis in Masculinity, the way in which domination operates is that the dominant group is often rendered invisible and thus is unexamined. When we talk about race we normally think about African American, Latino, Asian; when we talk about sexual orientation we think homosexual, bisexual, transgender; when we talk about gender we think female. Rarely do we really look at the dominant group -- as if white isn't a racial category, as if heterosexual isn't a sexual orientation, and as if males don't have a gender. So if we're talking about racial issues specifically, part of what it means to be white is to not have your personal character flaws or actions attributed to your race.

A person example...

A couple of weeks ago in one of my sociology classes, the professor asked the class to define whiteness/white culture in the United States. Some of the characteristics that people listed were leisure, wholesome, and Brittney Spears. The professor then asked everyone to define Filipino culture. With relative ease, the class came up with a multitude of traits such as nurses, FOBs, gold diggers, lumpia, hard-working, family-oriented, and, according to one white woman's high school experience, Filipinos are seclusive.

It was then that I raised my hand and said, "I find it interesting that some of us look at Filipinos as seclusive, or self-segregating, and not whites, when whites are one of the most segregated racial groups [gated communities for example]. When we see a group of people of color we think 'Hey, they're sticking amongst each other. They're self-segregating.' But when we see a group of white people we think, 'Oh, those are just some people.' We don't talk about whites in racialized terms."

I also noticed how difficult it was for people in the class to define whiteness/white culture. In explaining as to why this might be so, Ruth Frankenburg, author of the book White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, argues that white culture is “invisible” because it is constructed as “normal.” Because whiteness is seen as the norm - as the standard against which all others are measured, "white culture has no definition, only those who deviate from the norm have ‘culture.’”

Interestingly enough as I was contemplating about what other examples I could use to illustrate this idea, I came across an article in the New York Times entitled, "Obama Pins Hopes on Oprah Factor in South Carolina." In it the writer states the following:

Ms. Winfrey’s show and persona generally transcend race (the vast majority of her 8.6 million daytime viewers are white). Mr. Obama has tried to do the same with his campaign. But Sunday, Ms. Winfrey referred both directly and indirectly to what she called a “seminal moment” in the nation’s history. It was clear she was talking about the chance to elect the first black president.

What the writer here implies is that Oprah's personality as well as her show are "race neutral" because most of her viewers are white. Likewise, Obama has opted for a more "universal" (meaning white) appeal. "Transcending race", according to the writer, means tailoring your image and persona so that it appeals to mostly white people -- as if whites do not belong to a racial group. Because both Oprah and Obama are now reaching out to blacks, their actions are viewed as racial.

If we are truly aspiring to achieve racial justice then we need to look at racism (and by that I mean a system of ideas embedded into our institutions which gives whites unearned advantages over people of color) as a white problem rather than just a problem that people of color face.


Anonymous said...

bravo tocayo! I wonder if you feel like me... the only one in classes saying these things and then marginalized and accused of hating white people and being too angry or too out there. Wish I heard more voices like yours in my law classes.

Unknown said...

I wonder why white is wholesome in people's eyes. Why is it when a minority group decides to do something together it is seen as racist and closed off. White people as you say do this all the time. I remember in college this girl asked me why we had black colleges and universities, that they were no longer needed. I told her the same reasons we have this predominantly white university. Why don't white kids apply and attend a HBCU? The majority will never fully understand the minority. They have the luxury of not thinking about race.