Define and discuss the terms ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ and comment on how they help us to analyse and understand white racism and the African American experience

Throughout history, people of different skin tones have consistently recognised, though perhaps not understood, the aesthetic difference between humans.[1] The process of ‘othering’ has been witnessed since as early as the first point of contact between races; this recognition of difference and subsequent allocation of worth, in the process of creating an Other, demonstrates the beginnings of the development of a racial hierarchy – though, as we are reminded by Meisenhelder, skin colour did not hold a great deal of stigma until the early modern period.[2] In order to understand this hierarchy and its impact of the African American experience, it is essential that we understand the concept of ‘race’. It is within this umbrella term of ‘race’ that the social construction of ‘whiteness’ is found. The reality of whiteness and the understanding that this infinitesimal biological difference between members of the human species can be defined as such a valuable commodity undoubtedly has had a significant impact on those who are traversing life without it; one of the most notable examples of this disadvantage being within the African American experience.

Dictionary-defined as being both a biological distinction between species and a division concerning cultural and social characteristics, it is accepted amongst most academics that race is a social construct that once belonged to a trend of biological realism – the repeatedly disproved science of race.[3][4] The creation of race as a scientific reality, by which the human race was categorised based on the colour of their skin, stemmed from the desire to falsely justify the social reality of racial subjugation; by attempting, and supposedly succeeding, to discover biological anomalies in the genetic foundation of the black ‘race’, white supremacists were able to bring justification to their allocation of themselves as the superior race.[5] In the ‘discovery’ of race we can begin to understand the thought processes behind early white racism, since for some the idea of separate races with different levels of privilege is of such importance and ‘so real it authorises your murder with impunity’.[6] Furthermore, in creating this idea of race, the course of human history was vastly changed, hugely impacting the African American experience by putting them at an immediate and almost irrevocable disadvantage.

According to Peggy McIntosh, in the modern experience of life as an African American, it is possible that any evident economic, social and political handicaps result from the privileges offered to whites rather than a deliberate hindrance to black people.[7] McIntosh offers the idea that the gift of whiteness is ‘an invisible package of unearned assets’ that silently works to assist whites, without an acknowledgement of the disadvantage that blacks suffer as a result.[8] The definition of whiteness, as understood through the work of Peggy McIntosh, is an inherent system of benefits that secretly promotes whites in career paths, education systems and social situations. Therefore, we can come to understand that the effect whiteness has on the African American experience is to place the black race as a class below the white race; whiteness works to ‘systematically overempower’ blackness in a vulgar continuation of American slave regimes.[9]

Whiteness has become a term that implies ideas of profit, privilege and purity; the Oxford English Dictionary offers definitions of whiteness as both referring to the pallor of the skin and the purity of character.[10] The relationship between positivity and whiteness is described in a report on The Implicit Association Test performed in 1998, which witnessed participants more quickly associate white stimuli with positive words and black stimuli with negative words than the reverse.[11] The report reiterates the interpretation from Schaller, Park and Mueller that darkness stimulates ‘thoughts of danger and…stereotypes of Blacks associated with violence’ causing fear due to the connotations of criminality and aggression.[12] These preconceived colour suggestions may offer some insight into the causes of modern white racism, but in contrast to this, the relationship between whiteness and positivity more than likely stems from the massively exaggerated, or in some cases entirely falsified, negative black stereotypes such as the aggressive ‘Savage’ character.[13] The impact of the concept of whiteness is, therefore, incredibly damaging to the image of black people and subsequently the African American experience. Perhaps, it is these negative associations and continual negative stereotyping of African Americans that result in incarceration at nearly six times the rate of whites and the disparity in employment rates with only 5.7% of whites unemployed in January 2014 compared to 12.1% of black or African Americans.[14][15]

Such ideas of race and whiteness can only continue to exist because they are taught. Jennifer Ritterhouse describes the way in which race, whiteness and the concept of a racial hierarchy are taught through lessons on racial etiquette within the home.[16] The prevalence of racist imagery and language within the home environment is almost certainly the method by which children learn of race, however, it is not so straightforward as a proactive attempt to educate the future generation on racist hierarchies but is a reactive phenomenon that is taught in response to violations of the accepted ‘rules’.[17] Peggy McIntosh elaborates, explaining that there exists no deliberate pattern of schooling in an attempted denial or ignorance of the existence of white privilege.[18] The implicit expansion of racist ideals permits unaccountability and impunity for the racists since unacknowledged privilege denies intentional discrimination.[19] Understanding that there is such a way of learning of one’s race and whiteness allows insight into the continuing presence of cross-generational racism and its effects of the African American experience; the most prevalent of these effects being the omnipresence of disadvantage in daily life.

To conclude, it is evident that the creation and continued teaching of race and the existence of the privilege known as whiteness has and will continue to dramatically affect the African American experience by placing them at an inherent disadvantage economically and socially, in which they are made inferior and unjustly categorised as a subspecies in order to benefit the white master race. Furthermore, by understanding these terms we are more able to comprehend the cause and continuation of white racism because we can begin to see the origins of a racial hierarchy and the science of race along with its implications.

[1] T. Meisenhelder, ‘African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europe’, Race, Gender & Class, 10.3 (2003), pp. 101-102.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Race’, Oxford Dictionaries, <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/race&gt; [accessed 28 October 2014].

[4] R. Andreasen, ‘Race: Biological Reality or Social Construct?’, Philosophy of Science, 67 (2000), p.S653.

[5] J. Marks, ‘Science and Race’, American Behavioral Scientist, 40.2 (1996), p.123.

[6] S. Garner, Racisms: An Introduction (London: SAGE Publications, 2010), p. ix.

[7] P. McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, in Bart Sneider (ed.), Race: An Anthology in the First Person (New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1997), pp.71-73.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, p.74.

[10] ‘Whiteness’, Oxford English Dictionary, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/228626?redirectedFrom=whiteness#eid&gt; [accessed 29 October 2014].

[11] A. Smith-McLallen et al., ‘Black and White: The Role of Color Bias in Implicit Race Bias’, Social Cognition, 24.1 (2006), pp.46-47.

[12] A. Smith-McLallen et al., ‘Black and White: The Role of Color Bias in Implicit Race Bias’, pp.48-49.

[13] Ibid.

[14] ‘Criminal Justice Factsheet’, NAACP, <http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet&gt; [accessed 30 October 2014].

[15] ‘Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey’, Bureau of Labor Statistics, <http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/surveymost&gt; [accessed 30 October 2014].

[16] J. Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp.55-56.

[17] Ibid.

[18] McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, p.72.

[19] Ibid.

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