A quick Google query, or a study of news and magazine articles, should demonstrate how prominent the term whiteness has become over the last ten years or so. Whiteness, as it is lately used by educators and writers, does not refer to the glare of Arctic snow, but to hitherto unexamined presumptions around race and status – presumptions held everywhere from history and science to politics and pop culture. So it’s not uncommon to find recent media references to the whiteness of, for instance, the restaurant industry, Gothic fiction, Halloween celebrations, the First World War, Disney princesses, the Canadian Parliament, and tennis. No doubt future commentators will soon be exposing the secret whiteness underlying space exploration, climate change, hydroponic agriculture, and the Beatles. We’ve taken it for granted that all of those belong to or are reflective of everyone, but maybe we shouldn’t.
Like any other line of intellectual inquiry, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Many varieties of people exist in the world; one variety has disproportionately set the world’s agenda for five centuries. Europeans and their descendants in other continents are not the default form of humanity, and we ought to stop referencing their achievements and their artifacts as if they are: as if whiteness is a universal standard that just happens to be best met by whites themselves. Stepping back to consider the particular, localized qualities of what’s ordinarily assumed to be general and global may yield worthwhile insights.
But that’s not the way whiteness is most often invoked nowadays. To identify the whiteness of an institution or an experience is to pick out its hidden bias, its head start, its built-in unfairness to non-white audiences or non-white citizens. Whiteness signifies a moral asterisk next to phenomena once judged on their own merits. A person’s whiteness is his unearned privilege. A place’s whiteness is its exclusion. A thing’s whiteness is its guilt. In contemporary discourse, whiteness is not merely a trait to notice, but a shame to uncover.
There is clearly a kind of easy, retroactive power in reevaluating celebrated individuals or events by this new criteria. Sometimes, of course, the judgements hold up: Winston Churchill was an Anglo imperialist; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned Black slaves; Canada and the US grew their populations under restrictive anti-Asian immigration policies through much of the Twentieth Century. But elsewhere the appraisals seem anachronistic, pedantic, and cheap: George Orwell’s books contain scatterings of racist language; Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal got crucial backing from segregationist Southern politicians; the classic movie Easy Rider has no Black characters. All true, sure, but important enough to discredit all that we previously thought about them? What exactly do we gain by taking down the canon of Western literature, learning, and memory because it was established before we were taught to be properly anti-racist? Will calling out every last speck of discrimination from the past lead to a harmoniously integrated society in the present, without engendering any resentment among those whose erstwhile heroes get reclassified as villains?
Or maybe the assessment of whiteness serves to boost the assessor’s reputation more than to debunk whatever is assessed: one added notch on the “reckoning” belt for flushing out yet another fugitive from social justice. Apprehensions of whiteness may just be a fashionable device for critics and academics, who can single out a familiar person, TV series, political movement or cultural trend, and then scrutinize its diversity or lack thereof. Accusations of systemic racism or white supremacy are a lot more interesting, it seems, when they’re illustrated with an instantly recognizable example. At its shallowest, the steady citation of whiteness in journalism or scholarship can feel like being stuck in a conversation with someone who keeps bringing the subject back to his or her pet theory, no matter how relevant or irrelevant it is to the matter at hand. There may indeed be more color or complexity out there than we’ve imagined, but is there so much that we’re now obligated to reimagine everything?
Beware the backlash. Reminded enough that supposedly race-neutral business or entertainment is really a private Eurocentric preserve, some whites may decide to defend them as such. Scolded enough that their heritage warrants apology, some whites may instead react with pride. Country music? White. Nuclear engineering? White. Live-saving medical breakthroughs? White. William Shakespeare? White. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment? White. The worldwide rise of material exchange and abundance? Thank white people. By that point, the smug and predictable alerts for insidious “whiteness” now tainting editorials and graduate theses will not be dismantling a racist social order. They will be justifying one.