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Identifying Unheard Voices: The Centrality of Whiteness

The following guide provides an overview for identifying underrepresented voices and communities within research.

"White Only Sign" by Missouri Historical Society is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“Examining whiteness multidimensionally demands much and affords much, not only for others, but for white people who have the stamina to see how whiteness contorts our relationships with others and especially ourselves, to feel our complicity with its dehumanization, and resulting loss of authentic belonging in humanity. Decentering whiteness demands we risk giving up the ways in which whiteness, even if we didn’t ask for it or may not like it, still uplifts and protects us”.

–Jen Leland, The Enduring, Invisible, and Ubiquitous Centrality of Whiteness (2022).

“…whiteness has a set of linked dimensions. First, whiteness is a location of structural advantage, or race privilege. Second, it is a “standpoint”, a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, “whiteness” refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed" (1). --Ruth Frankenberg, White women, Race Matters

The following page provides students and researchers with resources related to:

  • Perspectives regarding the social construction of race, its meaning, and value within the west.
  • Introductions to the emerging research field of Critical White Studies (CWS).
  • And related conversations about white privilege, fragility, and associated critiques.

Catalog Resources Available at Gordon Library

The Social Construction of Whiteness

"Throughout history, but especially since the rise of the African slave trade, the concept of race has been of concern to western political thinkers, who use it to justify and legitimate the invasive, exploitative, and predatory actions of their governments. In critical theory, race is thus treated as a problematic term whose history is instructive because it shows how power and ideology combine to facilitate the unjust and unequal treatment of others by hegemonic powers".

--Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2nd Edition

As global decolonial movements began to challenge the imposition and domination of Western values and institutions in the postwar period, a growing school of social thought--motivated in part by developments in critical theory & post-structural philosophy--began to adopt a view of 'race' as contextual and socially constructed. In contrast to 'traditional' views which prioritize the inherently fixed, innately deterministic, and essentially biological nature of race itself, decolonial thinkers and activists emphasized that race is ascribed value within a social setting as a means of maintaining a colonial order rooted in dominance and subservience. 

Emblematic of this conceptualization of race, researchers Michael Omi and Howard Winant developed a notion of racial formation, which attempts to ground the development of the concept of race in American as historically construct and 'enlarged' over time, tracking changes to notions of whiteness to include immigrant traditionally 'non-white' groups like the Irish or Italians. In this way, "Racial formation theory is a framework that seeks to deconstruct race as it exists today in the United States...[and] authors first explore the historical development of race as a dynamic and fluid social construct. This goes against the dominant discourses on race, which see race as a static and unchanging concept based purely on physical and genetic criteria".

As such, “[r]acialization is an ideological process, an historically specific one. Racial ideology is constructed from pre-existing conceptual (or, if one prefers, "discursive") elements and emerges from the struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently".

How was the concept of whiteness constructed over time? "Particularly during the nineteenth century, the category of 'white' was subject to challenges brought about by the influx of diverse groups who were not of the same Anglo-Saxon stock as the founding immigrants. In the nineteenth century, political and ideological struggles emerged over the classification of Southern Europeans, the Irish and Jews, among other "nonwhite" categories. Nativism was only effectively curbed by the institutionalization of a racial order that drew the color line around, rather than within, Europe".

How has whiteness incorporated--and subsumed--other elements of social identity, like class? "With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, an effective program for limiting the emergent class struggles of the later nineteenth century was forged: the definition of the working class in racial terms—as "white." This was not accomplished by any legislative decree or capitalist maneuvering to divide the working class, but rather by white workers themselves...[t]hus the very political organization of the working class was in important ways a racial project. The legacy of racial conflicts and arrangements shaped the definition of interests and in turn led to the consolidation of institutional patterns (e.g., segregated unions, dual labor markets, exclusionary legislation) which perpetuated the color line within the working class.”

Omi, M. and Winant, H.  (2014). Racial Formation in the United States, Second Edition, p. 3-13.

“We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity which no other nation has of moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, and create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price for this is a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record." --James Baldwin, The Creative Process (1962).


The following resources (listed below) should serve as introduction and primer to students exploring the emergent field of Critical White Studies (CWS). While CWS extends its roots to a  variety of fields--including the humanities, social research disciplines, & the arts, broadly defined--the Gordon Library recommends using some of the following keywords for your searches:

  • Whites--Race Identity--United States
  • Whiteness
  • Critical Whiteness Studies
  • Racial Formation
  • Social Construction

Baldwin, J. (1963). The fire next time. Dial Press.

Coates, R. D., Ferber, A. L., & Brunsma, D. L. (2021). The matrix of race: Social construction, intersectionality, and inequality. Sage Publications.

Dyches, J., & Thomas, D. (2020). Unsettling the "white savior" narrative: Reading huck finn through a critical race Theory/Critical whiteness studies lens. English Education, 53(1), 35-53.

Flores RD, Schachter A. Who are the “Illegals”? The Social Construction of Illegality in the United States. American Sociological Review. 2018;83(5):839-868. doi:10.1177/0003122418794635

Foste, Z. (2020). Applying Critical Whiteness Studies in College Student Development Theory and Research. Journal of College Student Development, Volume 61, Number 4, Jul-Aug 2020, pp. 439-455.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. University of Minnesota Press.

Guess, TJ. The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence. Critical Sociology. 2006;32(4):649-673. doi:10.1163/156916306779155199.

Larsen, & Kaplan, C. (2007). Passing: authoritative text, backgrounds and contexts, criticism. W.W. Norton & Co.

Lazaridou F, & Fernando S. Deconstructing institutional racism and the social construction of whiteness: A strategy for professional competence training in culture and migration mental health. Transcultural Psychiatry. 2022;59(2):175-187. doi:10.1177/13634615221087101.

Matias, C. E., & Boucher, C. (2021). From critical whiteness studies to a critical study of whiteness: Restoring criticality in critical whiteness studies. Whiteness and Education, 1-18.

Morales, S. (2022). Locating the “white” in critical whiteness studies: considerations for white scholars seeking to dismantle whiteness within educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 35:7, 703-710, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2022.2061731. 

Morrison. (1992). Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Harvard University Press.

Painter. (2010). The history of White people. W.W. Norton.

Parekh, G., Brown, R. S., & Robson, K. (2018). The Social Construction of Giftedness: The Intersectional Relationship Between Whiteness, Economic Privilege, and the Identification of Gifted. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies7(2), 1–32.

Tanner, S.J. (2018). Whiteness, Pedagogy, and Youth in America: Critical Whiteness Studies in the Classroom (1st ed.). Routledge.

Trainor, J. S. (2002). Critical Pedagogy’s “Other”: Constructions of Whiteness in Education for Social Change. College Composition and Communication53(4), 631–650.

Claudia Rankine Just Us: An American Conversation 

Chicago Humanities Festival (2020)

"Many white Americans are ill-equipped, unpracticed, and uncomfortable talking about race. In her new book Just Us: An American Conversation, award-winning author Claudia Rankine urges her readers to break this cultural silence around race, thereby making visible the history of whiteness. She offers an imperative: we must forge restorative justice by finding the courage to acknowledge, challenge, and speak about white privilege and supremacy."

Why Claudia Rankine started talking to strangers about white privilege

Penguin Books, UK. (2020)

"Author, poet and professor Claudia Rankine discusses the power in holding difficult conversations on racism and white privilege, and a possible route out of the current divisions in American society...[t]aking the study of whiteness and white supremacy as a guiding light, Claudia Rankine explores a series of real encounters with friends and strangers - each disrupting the false comfort of spaces where our public and private lives intersect, like the airport, the theatre, the dinner party and the voting booth - and urges us to enter into the conversations which could offer the only humane pathways through this moment of division.

“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”

--Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

The following resources will introduce students to conversations related to Robin DiAngelo & Michael Eric Dyson's thought-provoking 2018 work, 'White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism'. Below students will find resources about the text, as well as reviews, commentary, and criticisms.

Bejan, R. (2020). Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ ignores the differences within whiteness. The Conversation. 

Bergner, D. (2020). ‘White Fragility’ Is Everywhere. But Does Antiracism Training Work? The New York Times Magazine. 

DiAngelo, & Dyson, M. E. (2018). White fragility: why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.

Doubek, J. (2020). Linguist John McWhorter Says, 'White Fragility' Is Condescending Toward Black People. NPR.

McWhorter, J. (2020). The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility. The Atlantic Monthly.

Waldman, K. (2018). A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism. The New Yorker.