Dr. Johnny E. Williams
Professor of Sociology, Trinity College
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.
Whiteness constantly shifts it boundaries to segregate those who are entitled to have certain advantages from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their non- whiteness. Whiteness is not about physical features; it is an ideology that justifies the unequal distribution of power and advantage between ‘races.’ As a socializing tool of power, whiteness requires both racial oppressors and the dominated to accept the lies that ‘race’ and whiteness are real, and to act accordingly. Socially defined black folks who accept whiteness as their own are usually called respectable Negroes (kneegrows) in the black community because they have no interest in going toe-to-toe with white supremacy. They would rather accommodate and survive systemic white racism, even if this means subjugating not only their humanity but also the humanity of others for the approval of self-identified ‘whites’ and tenuous benefits of whiteness. These folks “go along to get along,” in white supremacist institutions and groups.
Though the individual respectable Negro strategy is understandable, it fails to deal with the complex realities of surviving in a society that relentlessly wages a violent, nonstop campaign against socially defined black people’s collective well-being. Respectable Negroes believe they can stave off the daily terror and brutality dispensed by self-identified whites and their system of racial oppression by making their behavior congruent with whiteness. These respectable types become enraged when other socially defined black folk refuse to contort their humanity to meet the needs of self-identified white people as they do. Their approach mandates that anti-black racism be dealt with in a civil, emotionally detached, and dehumanized way that comforts ‘whites’ rather than challenges their anti-black racism. Clearly, skin folks aren’t necessary kinfolks. Though we are grouped together with respectable Negroes as socially defined black people who share sociopolitical penalties for being designated as such, this fact and experience alone does not necessarily lead to group consciousness or self-consciousness.
In particular, whiteness as an ideology is instrumental in sustaining the narrative of white supremacy as an individual problem. Whiteness ensures that systemic white racism’s power structures are invisible not only to people who imagine themselves to be ‘white’ and benefit from them, but also to those racially oppressed by them. Whiteness often goes unnoticed by self-identified ‘whites’ in ways that divert them from considering the root cause of racial oppression – their racialized behavior and attitudes within institutions. This is a consequence of the fact that whiteness is normative and thus hard to detect, given that it’s power resides in policies and everyday social interactions rather than in individuals. Because most Americans buy into the reductionist notion that we are individuals rather than creations of social groups – which we most certainly are not – individualism plays a major role in driving ‘whites’ and racial collaborators’ refusals to accept the social and systemic character of white racism. Individualism holds that individual bigots are causes of systemic white racism, not consequences of it. It denies the very existence of systemic white racism and reduces it to individual hate and discrimination leading to absurd claims of black racism. People immersed in individualism refuse to consider how the cultural environment of white supremacy that we inhabit shapes our racial identities and worldviews, delimiting the parameters for how we perceive and interact with others within a hierarchical racial order. Because people immersed in individualism see individuals as the causal source of systemic white racism rather than a system of oppression, their attention is diverted away from considering how their everyday interactions, beliefs, and values play in integral role in the sustaining of systemic white racism. Whiteness is not about the color of your skin, it’s about a mental and behavior state that disposes folks to prop up white supremacy for their material and psychological benefit.
To reiterate: whiteness shapes how self-identified ‘white’ people view themselves and others, and seats them in a place of structural advantage where ‘white’ cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned. Whiteness’s culture, norms, and values manifest in societal institutions as natural and are used as the standard by which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and consigned as inferior. No human being in the context of white supremacy in the United States is immune from the negative mental and material outcomes of the ideologies of ‘race’ and whiteness.
For self-identified ‘whites’ and their racially oppressed collaborators to begin to rid themselves of their whiteness problem, it is imperative they untangle the contradictions of whiteness. They must come to terms with the centrality of ‘race’ in the United States so that they can collectively mobilize to upend their deeply entrenched systemic white racism. To arrive here, they must first be willing to confront the illusory nature of ‘race’ and whiteness.