Whiteness and Power
White supremacy describes structural hierarchies in society that translate the subjective meanings attached to various races and groups into differential relations of power. These relations of power are organized around the idea of white superiority, or the perception of whiteness as the norm and standard against which other races and ethnicities are defined. It is maintained through legal, social, political, and cultural systems enforcing racial dominance through the unequal distribution of power across society. White supremacy works through and exacerbates inequalities around other social constructs such as class, gender, sexuality, and geography. For instance, while identity groups such as white women or white LGBTQ+ persons can enjoy a degree of the privileges and benefits that come with belonging in the white majority group, they also face degrees of violence and exclusion for their respective differences from the white heterosexual man of property who is held as the default norm of whiteness. Another example is how white supremacy historically led to the class-based impoverishment of white workers and laborers in the United States, who accepted unequal distribution of economic privileges in exchange for the racial privilege of being considered white in opposition to black slaves (Roediger 13).
Whiteness in racial societies operates as a kind of property right. The legal scholar Cheryl Harris has defined whiteness within a racial caste society as a form of property, where being white comes with a set of privileges and benefits that are not only protected by law, but which function as a type of property right (1731). In other words, not only does the law protect whiteness by upholding unequal distribution of rights and privileges based upon one’s racial identity, one’s whiteness actually functions as a form of property through the common right to exclude. Race studies scholar Ibram X Kendi defines white supremacy as maintained by racist policies, namely a set of “written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines” governing people in such a way as “to produce or sustain racial inequity between racial groups” (Antiracist 18). It also includes more subtle forms of discrimination that negatively characterize non-white people as “other” through subjective interpretations of their appearance, actions, characteristics, or backgrounds. These subjective meanings are broadcast through media, film and television, the internet, and through academia. Whiteness thus becomes the norm against which the differences of all other racial and ethnic groups are measured. As such, whiteness in society is both invisible and hypervisible—it shapes standards of beauty, agency, morality, and political efficacy, but it is itself defined as the absence of race, namely, racial purity (Reddy 61). This paradoxical junction of visibility and invisibility has been maintained in film, television and media. Film scholar bell hooks has noted that twentieth century media erased the black woman’s body in film and television, norming a phallocentric mode of spectatorship that repeatedly signals white women’s bodies as desirable in exclusion to other women (118). While media representation has significantly changed, Hollywood has traditionally maintained white supremacy by enforcing the separation between its celluloid images of beauty and the black female Other (hooks 119).
Politically, white supremacy has had a complex relationship with the evolution of democracies in Europe and North America. White supremacy can be enforced by overtly racialized regimes such as the Jim Crow-era South in post-Civil War United States or apartheid-era South Africa prior to Nelson Mandela’s election. Electoral systems in racialized societies such as the United States and apartheid South Africa are politically democratic for the master race but exclusionary towards subordinate groups (Cleaver xxii). White supremacy also takes more subtle forms along the spectrum of political beliefs in a given society. While politically right wing groups can overtly subscribe to ideas of white superiority, white progressives’ sympathies for minority groups can blind them to the continuous work in “self-awareness, continuing education, relationship-building, and actual antiracist practice” that needs to take place in order to overcome deeply rooted frameworks of racial superiority fostered by systems of white supremacy that we have internalized since birth (DiAngelo 51). White fragility in such progressives includes a range of “emotions such as anger, fear, guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal” in response to situations perceived as provoking racial stress and discomfort, such as civil rights protests (43). Such emotional responses reinforce white supremacy by repelling the challenge to the status quo and maintaining white dominance within the racial hierarchy (43-44).
White supremacy coalesced as a system of thinking in the late medieval and early modern Europe, when rapidly expanding trade and colonization in Asia, Africa, and later, the Americas, led Europeans to search for ways to differentiate themselves against the variety of civilizations they were encountering. During the European medieval ages, religious difference was perceived as a form of racial identity, where European Catholics defined themselves against racialized stereotypes of religious others including Jews, Muslims, other Christian sects, “pagans,” etc. (Heng 187-191). As an example, in medieval romances such as The King of Tars, conversion to Christianity of a non-Christian antagonist could result in the literal whitening of his skin. During the Renaissance, the concept of race was in a state of flux, with many different ideas of bodily difference coexisting together. These included humoral racism (the idea that one’s bodily appearance was defined by the balance of “humors” in the body which was affected by one’s diet, environment, geographical location etc.); scriptural racism (the idea that one’s race is a result of Biblical punishment or blessing, as in Noah’s son Cham becoming black due to his sin against his father); and emerging biological ideas of race (the idea that one’s race is an unchanging biological essence transmitted through family lineage). These multiple ideas of race were influenced by the emergence of the “nation” in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe as an imagined community that was beginning to sway over other kinds of identity such as religious affiliation or familial kinship. Multiple and conflicting ideas of race in the early modern period also reflected the fact that European kingdoms did not yet wield hegemonic power over other areas of the world. For instance, in sixteenth century England, emerging ideas of white supremacy conflicted with other ideas of self-identity where the English saw themselves as another “race” among other racial groups in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas (such as the Lombards, the Normans, Ethiopians, etc.). The relativism of whiteness as “superior” was also challenged by early modern European translations of ancient Roman texts where early modern European stereotypes of non-white groups as barbarians and ethnic others were found to be used by the Romans to describe northern Europeans themselves. For instance, literate Englishmen and English women could read the Roman author Pliny’s descriptions of the ancient Britons during the Roman campaign to conquer Britain as barbaric, streaked with tribal markings in blue pigment, and with “frosty” white skin as compared to the temperate sun-warmed color of the Roman soldiers (Floyd-Wilson 25-41).
Whiteness only came to take on the characteristics of the invisible “norm” through the evolution of notions of biological race. This racial ideology climaxed in the late eighteenth-century through the influence of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as in the nineteenth century through the expansion of European and North American colonialism over Asia, Africa, and other regions of the world. White supremacy became perceived as a natural and moral right through the hardening of the idea that one’s race was a biological essence transmitted through one’s blood and defined by conjoined physical and moral characteristics. In the ideology of race as biological essence, one’s skin color and physical traits connoted certain moral and spiritual values. Racial groups in the eighteenth century came to be organized in hierarchical taxonomies where whites occupied the top of the pyramid and were considered to possess the ideal traits of beauty, intelligence, and moral virtue. Other races’ relative degree of claim to these traits was determined by their distance from whites on the racial taxonomy. This taxonomic organization of races was not only considered to be a science, it also gave rise to a number of pseudo-sciences that have since been debunked, such as phrenology (namely, measuring the craniums of different races and class groups to measure their mental traits).
Cleaver, Kathleen. “Introduction.” The Wages of Whiteness by David. R. Roediger. 1991. Verso, 2007, xix - xxv.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s so hard for white people to talk about race. Beacon Press, 2018.
Floyd-Wilson, Mary. Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern English Drama. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Goldberg, David Theo and John Solomos, editors. A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002.
Hall, Kim. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Cornell University Press, 1995.
Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review, vol, 106, no. 8, 1993, pp. 1709-91. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/1341787.
Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.
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Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2016.
Reddy, Maureen T. “Invisibility/Hypervisibility: The Paradox of Normative Whiteness.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, vol. 9, no. 2, 1998, pp. 55-64.