America Needs an Education in Whiteness

Not a white equivalent of Black History Month—but a better understanding of the concept of whiteness and the harm it inflicts on race relations.

W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin.
W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin provide some critical texts on whiteness. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Cornelius Marion (C.M.) Battey/Library of Congress and Allan Warren/Wikipedia.

These 28 days of Black History Month are dedicated to the sometimes painful and absolutely essential history of Americans of African descent. The month also brings the usual grumblings demanding a white equivalent. And those of us who study culture and history are tasked to explain the many reasons why that is a horrible idea (again).

But maybe we need a different tactic, because as recent events in Virginia politics show, clearly some sort of education on whiteness is in order. Esquire magazine’s controversial and poorly timed profile this month headlined “The Life of an American Boy at 17” further hints at the entrenched perception that being truly American means being white.

We don’t need to honor a “white history” per se—we already emphasize it in our schools and on most national holidays throughout the rest of the year. But educating people about the invention of whiteness is something this country desperately needs. Both the titan of black studies, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the titan of black letters, James Baldwin, seemed to think so.

While their writing on the black experience is well known, Du Bois and Baldwin don’t get enough credit for their contributions toward our understanding of what it means to be “white.” Du Bois is credited as the pioneer of the whiteness studies, through a number of his works, one fittingly titled example being the chapter “The Souls of White Folk” from his 1920 book, Darkwater.

He states that while the exploitation of darker peoples had existed for some time, being “white” was a more recent phenomenon. Du Bois was among the first to recognize the origins of the myth of whiteness, noting in the chapter that “personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.” Du Bois noted the strong association with white privilege and ownership, and satirically defined whiteness as “the ownership of the earth.”

This was not a diss against white people themselves but one against the injurious effects of believing in the privilege of whiteness. Whiteness became “plausible” by teaching the younger generations through emphasis and omission in textbooks, curriculum, and even patents. That way, any great thought, soul, or action was perceived to be a white person’s—or more accurately, a white man’s. Another, more violent effect in believing in this privilege that Du Bois asserted was whiteness’s response to those who were indignant of whiteness: a “passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expression,” meant to impose said privilege—the cruel practice of lynching being an infamous example.

James Baldwin similarly wrote extensively on whiteness, explaining that it existed on a spectrum. For instance, certain European immigrants who came to America weren’t originally treated as though they were white (Irish Catholics being a prime example). In a 1984 article for Essence magazine, Baldwin said immigrants had to pay a price to be admitted to the club, namely by “slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.” Baldwin showed his understanding that whiteness was socially constructed but also stressed that it was fluid: “America became white … because of the necessity of … justifying the Black subjugation.”

Both Du Bois and Baldwin thought whiteness was especially important in the United States because the concept of whiteness was (and is) a cornerstone of the country itself. For Du Bois, whiteness was a “false ideal” that imprisons and delegitimizes people, as opposed to ideals he thought we should strive for that would instead liberate and uplift. Baldwin thought that the United States’ inability to acknowledge and attempt to redress the detrimental effects of whiteness makes those maintaining the status quo morally impotent. Du Bois’ writing in “The Souls of White Folk” was in no way dissimilar, noting the irony: “It is curious to see America … looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peace-maker, then as a moral protagonist. … No nation is less fitted for this role.”

The critical study of whiteness has grown in recent years, and there has been a plethora of publications for people who identify as white to consult and learn their own origin story. One very notable work is The History of White People, written by Nell Irvin Painter, the Edwards professor of American history, emerita, at Princeton University. Her work, which contributes vitally to the development and expansion of what we consider “white,” looks as far back as the Greeks and Scythians. What is especially relevant to our political climate is the way Painter’s thorough investigation of whiteness reveals an intimate historical affinity with being American. Despite the consensus on the biological meaninglessness of race, it remains a relevant topic in how nonwhites are treated. Painter told me that despite the biological meaninglessness of race, “[t]he idea—the ideologies—of race may change over time, but they are not arbitrary. They relate to relations of power and concepts of class and gender and beauty,” and she pointed out the importance of recognizing the “social and economic power of ideologies of race.”

Yet, like the work on whiteness by Du Bois and Baldwin, these insights have generally failed to become a part of popular political and social discourse. It is now common to denounce white privilege and its injurious effects on those considered nonwhite, but how are we determining who is white, and its opposite, in the first place? Is it skin color? If so, why is it undeniable that Steph Curry is black, but people are surprised to learn that Vin Diesel is too? Is whiteness the box you check on the census survey? How legitimate can that classification be when the Census Bureau continues to consider those of Middle Eastern or Northern African origin white (often against their wishes)? And what to make of the strange case of Sigrid Johnson? She grew up believing she was black; she took a DNA test that told her she was white; and a few years later, yet another DNA test confirmed she was actually black. The closer we look, the more we determine that white is just as ambiguous a racial category as any other.

As a country, we acknowledge the diversity and variability of people of color but fail to question the ever-changing concept of whiteness. Conservatives decry “identity politics” as the province of women and nonwhite men, when white men were the only race and gender initially singled out for the rights of democracy. White advantages have amassed over time through tradition, policy, and exploitation, yet many white people now deny that they benefit from their identity.

Recent revelations that so many politicians played in blackface force us to come to grips with America’s deep-seated dependency on whiteness and its conjoined twin, blackness. It’s almost as if without parading around degrading images of blacks “in their place,” people might slip up and forget that they are supposed to be white. If whiteness is essentially defined by what it is not, then maybe more attention on whiteness should be part of the effort to improve our country’s race relations.

An understanding of whiteness would show people like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam that blackface isn’t wrong simply because it stereotypes and mocks physical attributes of black people (although that should be reason enough). It was systematically created by poor white people who were discriminated against based on their lack of wealth in order to degrade black people and find commonality with their well-to-do white counterparts. Continuing the practice only celebrates this fact. Realizing that no one is truly white might help people grasp that there is no way of telling whether someone is American simply by looking at them. Learning about whiteness might finally help Americans address the weight of race in this country in a cooperative manner rather than a combative one.

Although a formal white history month is not the way to achieve this, our mainstream history, literature, political, and cultural studies need to be more informed by the insights of Du Bois and Baldwin—and Painter and others—on whiteness. Perhaps then we can find ways to interrogate whiteness and, hopefully, answer the question Baldwin thought imperative to the country’s future: Why was there a need to create whiteness in the first place?