When Whiteness Starts Seeing Itself

When Whiteness Starts Seeing Itself

The fact that white people are suddenly having to recognize themselves as having a race has only added to growing resentment over the country’s demographic changes.


By 2044, the United States’ white population will dwindle from a majority to a plurality, according to the Census Bureau. White Americans—though they will still outnumber every other racial group in the country—have not taken this news well.

And that’s putting it mildly. Escalations of white terror against black progress, multiracial democracy, and racial equality—what’s been called a “whitelash”—are a recurring feature of American history. In 1889, roughly a decade after the first white backlash overturned Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass told an audience that “whenever the American people shall become convinced that they have gone too far in recognizing the rights of the Negro, they will find some way to abridge those rights.… History repeats itself.”

But the latest incarnation of the backlash, intensified by reports of America’s white population plummeting 19 million between 2010 and 2020, is notably violent, brazen, antidemocratic, and desperate. Paranoia that loss of majority status will lead to white power being usurped—meaning the delusion that non-white folks might ban together to do to white folks what white folks have done to everyone else—has a lot of white people apoplectic.

Prominent white nationalists, such as former Klansman and former Louisiana state representative David Duke and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, are promoting the “great replacement” theory of impending white extinction, with Carlson egging on white violence by claiming “cheering nonwhites” are celebrating white eradication. In 2009—right about when the first black president took office—white supremacist violence became the country’s “most significant domestic terrorist threat,” according to Homeland Security. (The agency’s report was buried following right-wing criticism, and the FBI almost exclusively focused on Black anti-racist protesters even as intelligence agencies witnessed white racist violence escalate.) Over the last decade, white extremists have killed more people than any other any other breed of terrorists, domestic or international.

Republican lawmakers in 20 states have have spent the last year passing laws to punish protesters against racism, including legislation that essentially sanctions white vigilantism by letting drivers run over demonstrators. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, GOP legislators are currently mulling pro-gun laws named in honor of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teen who fatally shot two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020.

After an historic display of black voting power in the most recent presidential election and Georgia Senate runoffs, Republicans declared those contests fraudulent, hurriedly made it harder to vote in 19 states, and are now filing bills that allow GOP partisans to reject votes and overturn elections.

And in counties where white residents have seen, firsthand, their population share fall most steeply in recent decades, white parents have gone so far as to threaten the lives of school administrators over what they wrongly insist is “critical race theory” in public schools. Researchers at the University of Chicago note that “for every one percent decline in the non-Hispanic white population, a county was over six times more likely” to be the hometown of at least one Capitol insurrectionist. Those UChicago analysts also determined that the most widely shared belief among Americans who support the Capitol seditionists is the “great replacement” theory, and the idea that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”

Deaths of despair” due to drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicide have increased most preciptiously among white middle-aged adults over the last 20 years. According to a University of Toronto study, those deaths are driven in part by white people’s sheer panic “that Blacks are economically catching up to them” and “a misperception that their dominant status in society is being threatened.”

So much freaking out over what scholar Lucas Harris terms the “diminished overrepresentation” of whiteness. And though it’s a more subtle issue than their fretting over numerical advantage loss, the related fact that white people are suddenly having to recognize themselves as raced has only added to their resentment and hysteria.

The pervasiveness of whiteness—its omnipresence as the country’s numerical majority—has always been leveraged by white Americans in service of white supremacy. White population dominance, in tandem with white political, economic, and social dominion, allowed white folks, regardless of political stripe, to regard themselves as raceless, neutral, and, above all, normal. Whiteness would have you believe that while there are Black people and Latino people, descriptors and modifiers are superfluous where whiteness is concerned, making whiteness not just the standard of true Americanness but a stand-in for personhood itself. “We the People” was written with the understanding that Blacks and Natives were excluded; 235 years later, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell affirmed the proprietary rights that whiteness assumes over Americanness when he announced that “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

Even as white supremacy has vigorously policed the borders of whiteness, it has contrarily and simultaneously reassured those within its boundaries that whiteness is the racially unmarked, natural manifestation of being a human being. “As long as race is something applied only to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm,” British scholar Richard Dyer writes in “The matter of whiteness.” “Other people are raced. We are just people. There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human.”

When whiteness is the definitional determinant of citizenship and humanness, non-whiteness is cast as incompatible with both, and grounds for exclusion from the rights and freedoms they confer. What’s more, the belief that whiteness is the quintessential representation of humanness has led many white people to assume whiteness’s universal authority—untainted by the limitations of race, white perspectives are viewed as implicitly impartial, objective, and right. Whiteness is rendered a sign of unbiased trustworthiness. Racialization is solely for non-whites, this thinking holds, and to be imbued by race automatically reduces the reliability of your outlook and viewpoints. But unraced whiteness is unlimited. (“The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity,” Dyer writes. “Raced people can’t do that—they can only speak for their race.”)

From this lofty imagined perch, whiteness has declared all that is non-white “other,” a way to reify its racelessness. “Whiteness comes to self-name,” as Ruth Frankenberg writes, “a self-naming that functions simply through a triumphant ‘I am not that.’” Likewise, whiteness has also assumed that only it has the power and clarity to define, judge, critique, and comment on itself. That is, whiteness has long seen itself as beyond being questioned, interrogated or examined by outside observers. Let me note here that this view of whiteness as without race and beyond scrutiny never extended to non-white communities; Black thinkers, from David Walker to W.E.B. Du Bois to Ida B. Wells, have been deconstructing whiteness for centuries. “There isn’t any Negro problem,” Richard Wright stated in 1946, “there is only a white problem.” But white folks have largely ignored those analyses, another perk of white supremacist self-regard.

But the denormalizing of whiteness is changing that, albeit incredibly slowly.

Mostly, that decentering happens by simply telling the truth, a task mostly left up to Black and other non-white people. That might be in the form of lexiconic checks, like calling out the way the overwhelmingly white media refers to collections of people—evangelicals, women, working class—when what they really mean is just the white people in those groups. (“Is it really true that that neighborhood or food or hairstyle is newly ‘cool’ to everyone?” Jenée Desmond-Harris asked in a 2019 piece called “It Finally Sinks in That Some People Aren’t White.” “Or would it be more accurate to say in a trend piece that it’s only recently been embraced by white Americans?”) It’s sometimes about righting fictive histories, such as the “Lost Cause” narrative, and correcting the monumentalizing of white terror—in the form of Confederate statutes— that mars hundreds of American public spaces. It has meant filling in the selective and whitewashed understanding of how this country has always operated, challenging what historian Charles W. Eagles names the “engineered ignorance” that “protects the privileged by preserving the status quo.” It means identifying whiteness, making it explicit, naming it when it appears, and making note of what it has done.

“The point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge them/us from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges and sufferings in its train, dislodging them/us by undercutting the authority with which they/we speak and act in and on the world,” Dyer has written.

White backlashers intuitively know this, which is why this change—the decentering and denormalizing of whiteness—has been a rallying site for white grievance. White folks are being forced to recognize that whiteness is an identity among others, and not the spotless universal standard they long understood it to be, a realization that is contributing to the fierceness of the pushback. And perhaps nothing angers white backlashers more than the recontextualization of America’s historical myths through a lens that pins down the invention of American whiteness, and its deployment—as a political tool, system of privileges, racial identity, ideology, oppressive structure, etc. As Charles W. Mills writes in “White Ignorance,”

[W]hite normativity manifests itself in a white refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with the differential resources they have today, and all of its consequent advantages in negotiating opportunity structures…. Woody Doane (2003) suggests that “‘[c]olor-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony.… blaming of subordinate groups for their lower economic position serves to neutralize demands for antidiscrimination initiatives or for a redistribution of resources.” Indeed, the real racists are the blacks who continue to insist on the importance of race. In both cases white normativity underpins white privilege, in the first case by justifying differential treatment by race and in the second case by justifying formally equal treatment by race that—in its denial of the cumulative effects of past differential treatment—is tantamount to continuing it.

For all they claim to be fighting to protect white children’s feelings, it’s the uncloaking of whiteness that white backlashers are fighting against. That’s why they’re so hell-bent on stopping the truthful tallying of the wages of whiteness.

White racialization is absolutely part of festering white radicalization. And while history, particularly Reconstruction, suggests that the white backlash will only get worse, whiteness will only be laid more bare. It won’t be enough to dismantle white power, but it’s key to disrupting it.

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