Day 8 of White History Month: The Construction of Whiteness
White supremacy does not exist or persist because whites foolishly fear people with a different skin color. it survives and thrives because whiteness delivers unfair gains and unjust enrichments to people who participate in and profit from the existence of a racial cartel that skews opportunities and life chances for their own benefit. it externalizes the worst social conditions onto communities of color and provides whites with a floor below which they cannot fall. - George Lipsitz, The Posessive Investment in Whiteness
You are likely aware that race is socially constructed. Whiteness, too, is a social construction. Whiteness is not an accident, nor an innocuous creation. It was initially created and still exists today to justify a racial order in which those considered white are at the top, and people of color are at the bottom. Whiteness is normalized, thus it generally goes unnoticed.
Whiteness is not just about skin color (those considered white are not literally white, just as those considered Black are not literally black), but also about investment, interests, and attitudes - it is a form of social capital rather than a static concept. Investing in whiteness meant the construction of white supremacy and as an extension, privilege simply for being white. The construction of whiteness prevented white Americans from fighting for more and seeking out solidarity with people of color along other lines, such as class. Today, whiteness still obscures many white people’s best interests.
Indentured servants were differentiated from Black slaves through the construction of whiteness. While indentured servants were never treated as poorly as Black slaves, white indentured servants and Black slaves initially worked alongside each other, lived in similar conditions, and had sexual relations with one another. Black slaves were eventually considered to be lifelong slaves, while white indentured servants were only temporarily servants. Black people were considered natural slaves, bound to slavery by their Blackness, while white indentured servants had whiteness extended to them.
For centuries, slave holding and land owning white men benefited the most from slavery, theft of land, and the general oppression of Black and Native Americans. Despite this, whiteness gave poor whites a reason to trust and buy into the system of whiteness. Buying into whiteness meant a guarantee that someone else was always below you. Buying into whiteness also meant patriarchal protection for white women.
Whiteness was mandatory for citizenship in the United States. Non-European immigrants went to court to try to have the racial group they belong to considered white. Immigrants quickly learned upon arrival in the United States that whiteness was also necessary for success (which is another post in itself). These immigrants had to work towards being considered white.
There were tangible benefits to be found in whiteness. Jim Crow laws and intimidation largely restricted the rights and movement of people of color. Segregation meant that those considered white had access to all public spaces, and particularly the best spaces available. This meant widespread access to public facilities, better schools, universities, and more. The GI Bill and Social Security Act initially excluded many Black Americans, yet they greatly benefited the white working and middle class. Restrictive covenants excluded people of color, yet they included even later European immigrants and granted them access to the best neighborhoods.
Political Scientist Andrew Hacker asked his students how much money it would take to go from being white to being Black. Most students put a dollar amount of $50 million (or $1 million per year of their life). Whiteness is an enormous enough investment that a cash value can be ascribed to it.
Benefits conferred by whiteness have affected what resources people of color have had access to and have resulted in widespread wealth disaccumulation (and subsequent accumulation of wealth for white Americans). Even today, due to a centuries-old construction, these privileges exist (see: white privilege).