On whiteness and white privilege

Lukuaika: 3 min.

Author: Lena Näre

Whiteness as a contemporary social (note: not biological) category in the West is understood as ordinary, neutral, normal and hegemonic, i.e. the position of the powerful and majority. Richard Dyer (1997: 3) argues that white is the dominant position and normative space against which difference is measured. It is the point from which judgments regarding beautiful and ugly, normal and abnormal, civilized and barbarian are made. Dyer writes that ‘whites are not of a certain race, they are just human race’.

Dyer’s work is a key text in critical white studies. Nowadays, a growing field of study, it can only be relevant if based on an explicitly anti-racist paradigm. Hence, the starting point for our analysis cannot be that whiteness is a racial category like any other ‘race’, but that whiteness is a racial category unlike any other because it is perceived as the powerful, dominant and normalised position (Garner 2007). Moreover, critical white studies seek to analyse whiteness as a process, which is contingent. Whiteness is hence understood differently according to the geographical and temporal context.

When we approach whiteness as a historical category, we can start tracing its particular history. Alistair Bonnett (1998) discusses how throughout modernity whiteness became conflated with European identities and excluded other pre-modern white identities for instance in China and Middle East. He examines how from seventeenth century onwards in a historical development, which reached its peak in the nineteenth century with social Darwinism, Europeans became obsessed with whiteness as a racial category and gradually marginalised other white identities from the category of white. Bonnett argues that there was an excessive investment in whiteness through which it became a scientific and an objectified category resulting in perceiving people of European origin as ‘white’, no matter what their skin complexion. He argues that whilst pre-modern Chinese and Middle Eastern people described themselves as white in a positive light, the use of the category differed significantly from the Europeans racial fetishism. Pre-modern non-European white people did not perceive whiteness as a natural category nor did they invest so much of their sense of identity within it (Bonnett 1998). Whiteness is hence a quintessentially European category.

The excessive investment in whiteness continues today. Whiteness in contemporary societies can be understood as structures of domination, as a white privilege deriving from the dominance of Western European thought, military and technological power over the last five centuries, apparent in the global projects of colonialism and neo-colonialism in particular (Garner 2007). Empirical studies on white people have shown that whiteness remains an invisible category in many people’s lives and that white people are reluctant to speak of their race (see e.g. Frankenberg  1994). Yet, silence about whiteness serves to maintain the status quo of power relations between people who are perceived as white and non-white. We need to unravel what whiteness means as a structural and everyday privilege. Peggy McIntosh (1988) an American feminist and anti-racist described whiteness accurately as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ”meant” to remain oblivious.’ McIntosh listed 50 effects of whiteness in her everyday life including effect such as:

  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about ”civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
  • I will feel welcomed and ”normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

George Lipsitz (1998) discusses the structural effects of white privilege in his analysis of the US housing market and the residential segregation in US cities. Lipsitz analyses how practices of obtaining mortgages are racialised in that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to have their loan applications denied than white Americans. Banning the access to loans means that black and Hispanic Americans have to remain in cheaper suburban areas. Another example of whiteness as dominance is the diverse public and juridical responses to crimes committed by white or black men. In the US black men are much more likely to get a death penalty for killing a white person than white men for killing a black person. It is against this historical backdrop of whiteness as a dominant structure that we should conceptualise affirmative action policies and programmes as a mix of redistributive and restorative justice.

It is time that we start unravelling what white privilege means in the Finnish context, and what are its structural and daily effects.


Bonnet, A. (1998) ”Who was white? The disappearance of non- European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(6): 1029-56.

Dyer, R. (1997) White, London: Routledge.

Garner, S. (2007) Whiteness: An Introduction. Abingdon: Routlegde.

Lipsitz, G. (1998) Possessive Investment in Whiteness. How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

McIntosh, P. (1998) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf, last accessed 4.7.2011.