Whiteness: An Explainer for Dummies, Part 1

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Dr. Johnny E. Williams

Professor of Sociology, Trinity College

Racism 3.0: The Same Old White Supremacy | Johnny Eric Williams | TEDxCCSU

Johnny E. Williams specializes in social movements, political sociology, cultural sociology, racism, science and religion. Professor Williams’ primary area of research investigates how culture (i.e., shared beliefs, values and meaning systems) sustains and challenges social order. He is the author of two books: African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas (University of Mississippi Press 2003) and Decoding Racial Ideology in Genomics (Lexington Books 2016). He has also authored numerous articles about the role of culture in politics, social movement mobilization and specific knowledge production.

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Examining whiteness is of utmost importance if Americans truly wish to live in a just and peaceful society. To realize this possibility, self-identified ‘whites’ – and their collaborators from among the racially oppressed – must reckon with their attachment to whiteness. Whiteness was the central concern of sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois in his book Black Reconstruction in America published in 1935. Du Bois argued that whiteness serves as a “public and psychological wage,” delivering to poor self-identified ‘whites’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries higher social status than people socially defined as black. He further claimed that: 1) the whiteness idea provided meaningful “compensation” for economically oppressed ‘whites’ who were otherwise subjected to the ravages of capitalism; 2) the value of their whiteness was dependent on the devaluation of black existence; and 3) the benefits of their mythical status as ‘whites’ were not strictly monetary – rather whiteness engendered in them a sense of superiority. The academic field of Whiteness Studies is built on the foundation of Du Bois’s thesis. Whiteness Studies is concerned with how one can self-identify as ‘white’ and not be complicit in white supremacy? How can one accept the ideologies of ‘race’ and whiteness as ordinary, and not be racial oppressors or systemic white racism collaborators? My much-maligned tweet, “Whiteness is Terrorism,” emerges from this scholarly interrogation of whiteness as an idea, not as a person.

‘Race’ and whiteness are historically constructed ideologies that emerged, solidified, and evolved as fundamental organizing concepts during the enslavement of African people. There is no ‘white race’; there are only people who imagine themselves to be ‘white’ for the purpose of higher status and material advantage over other human groups that are excluded from being ‘white.’ The willingness of self-identified ‘whites’ to accept the fictitious belief that a ‘white race’ exists is dependent on their readiness to place their racial interests above those of class, gender, or any other social positions and interests. Critical systemic white racism scholars, like myself, recognize the centrality of ‘race’ as myth and whiteness as an ideological component in facilitating racial capitalism. This focus unnerves white supremacy advocates because they consider the prospect of racial justice and equality to lessen their social ranking decreed by whiteness. Consequently, white supremacy proponents misrepresent contentions regarding ‘race’ and whiteness in an effort to terrorize scholars into ceasing critical deconstruction of systemic white racism and its associated ideologies (‘race,’ whiteness, colorblindness, etc.) in sustaining racial capitalism. This distortion is used to derail meaningful discussion about self-identified ‘whites’ and their collaborators among the racially oppressed by portraying self-identified ‘whites’ as victims rather than as perpetrators of systemic racial terror. Furthermore, emotion-filled ad hominem attacks are publicly directed at critical systemic white racism scholars in attempts to suppress and silence critical discussion and consciousness-raising about the sociopolitical dynamics of white supremacy and its system of legitimating ideas.

Systemic white racism is an all-pervasive social system of power relations and racial talk organized around the concept of ‘race.’ ‘Race’ does not exist in any objective sense in reality; it is created by/through the practice of white supremacy. ‘Race’ is simply meaning ‘whites’ attach to superficial human differences in order to legitimate the hierarchal rank ordering of social groups. The concept of whiteness – a fiction enforced by power and violence – also aids in this exploitative racial process.

White supremacy as a social system of predictable racial practices conditions people to believe ‘races’ exist in hierarchal arrangement that legitimate the domination and terrorizing of “inferior” racial groups. Though systemic white racism is omnipresent in the sense that everyone in a white supremacist society is immersed in the cultural air of white supremacy, most self-identified ‘whites’ self-righteously claim they are not racial bigots. Their identities as ‘whites’ in a white supremacist society makes their assertions absurd. Self-identified ‘whites’ hold their non-racist position to be true because they are socialized to be averse to questioning the ordinariness of whiteness and systemic white racism– how right it is. Systemic white racism is not merely grounded in each individual ‘white’ person’s attempt to do harm, but also on their mythical racial group’s collective effort to secure and preserve what they falsely believe is rightly theirs. Explicit in this work is securing ‘white’ power and wealth through the social mechanism of systemic white racism – ‘race’ and whiteness. Because this systemic effort disregards concern for human decency and the common good, it is structurally bound to undermine, terrorize, or kill anyone and any group that stands in the way of self-identified ‘whites’ achieving their ends.

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