Expert Opinion: Understanding Whiteness to Understand White Supremacy

Expert Opinion: Understanding Whiteness to Understand White Supremacy Expert Opinion: Understanding Whiteness to Understand White Supremacy

May 19, 20223 min read

In the aftermath of last week's tragic shooting in Buffalo, many have described the violence as representative of a mental health crisis, growing extremism, hatred, and bigotry, likening manifestos left by shooters as the racist rhetoric of radicalized individuals. 

"But that conclusion is a pleasant fiction," writes Matthew Hughey -- a professor of sociology at UConn and a renowned scholar of racism and racial inequality in identity formation, organizations, media, politics, science, religion, and public advocacy -- in a powerful new essay for Slate.

As part of his work as a researcher, Hughey examines the manifestos of white-supremacist shooters as well as their intersection with race, knowledge, media, power, religion, and science. To understand white supremacy and the violence it precipitates, Hughey explains, we need to first understand whiteness:

The category of whiteness, like “race,” is a biological fiction with a social function. Whiteness emerged early in American history to rationalize exploitation. Early American colonists were slow to develop racial worldviews. But by the mid-1600s, philosophers and scientists like Bernard Varen, John Ray, and François Bernier began to publish ideas about African savagery and European civilization, which were progressively applied to resolve who should be the rulers versus the ruled. These ideas were codified into our legal system. In 1662, for instance, British statutory law conferred slavery with a biological status: Any child born to an enslaved woman would also be a slave. Over time, through a series of laws and social mores, a hierarchy that conferred legal privileges to “white” men, while stripping Black people and Native Americans of their humanity and standing in the legal and political arenas, was cemented.

Put another way, whiteness is not an inherent identity so much as a consolidation of lofty biological, legal, and theological notions that serve to buttress the social and political power of people bearing lighter skin. As W.E.B. Du Bois points out in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” whiteness is a modern concept:

"The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing. … The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. … This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts. … I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen! Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this?"

The effect is a Faustian bargain. And as a result, whiteness exists in a state of perpetual social anxiety. White people are taught that their biological, cultural, and/or God-given nature is to be “inherently and obviously better” than people of color and to have “ownership of the earth.” These ideals are, of course, so lofty that they are unachievable. Discontent is inevitable. Whiteness is a deal with the devil.

Consequently, white people move neither into nor out of moments of racial anxiety, nor do they—despite the popularity of the cliché—experience flashes of “white fragility.” Whiteness does not wax or wane relative to racial pressures, cracking to expose either reactionary political movements or even the occasional mass shooting. Rather, whiteness is an omnipresent imbroglio; it cannot live up to the greatness it assumes it can naturally realize.

Reconciling the peril that results from the inability to fully manifest white power necessitates a scapegoat. And so the crisis of whiteness is continually externalized onto racial “others.” This helps to explain why an increasing number of white people now believe they have been cheated out of their birthright—an inheritance of domination stolen by people of color. White nationalism and supremacy could not function under absolutist apartheid; it is an ideology and practice that requires the presence of people of color to justify its own shortcomings. White peril and white power go hand in hand.

Professor Hughey is available for interviews -- click on his icon to contact him today.

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  • Matthew Hughey, Ph.D.
    Matthew Hughey, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology

    A scholar of racism and racial inequality in identity formation, organizations, media, politics, science, religion, and public advocacy.

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