White, Whiteness, Whitewash

The masks we wear in America

Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Photo-illustration by David Herbick

In 1857, an enslaved teenager named Alexina Morrison created an uproar in New Orleans, center of the euphemistically labeled “fancy market” trade. She claimed she was white and filed a suit arguing that she was entitled to her freedom. Fifteen years old, she had blond hair and blue eyes. In her affidavit, she asserted that she had “white blood” and was born of “white parentage.”

Alexina Morrison was one of many light-complected enslaved women regularly sold to men. Like models on a runway, the women were fashionably dressed, appropriately adorned, and coached on their behavior. “White slaves” were highly prized, and the most attractive of them sold at the highest prices. Their value derived not only from having fair skin but also from a well-documented near-white pedigree that was sometimes enhanced or entirely invented. Considered private luxuries, they performed as house servants and in the master’s bed.

Morrison’s case was heard three times before lower courts, first in Jefferson Parish, and then twice in the Fifth District of New Orleans. The first trial led to a hung jury and mistrial; the two that followed (1859, 1862) ended in Morrison’s favor, and she was granted her freedom. Her master appealed both decisions to the Louisiana Supreme Court without success. The public had rallied to Morrison’s defense, and the majority of those who observed her inside and outside of court were convinced that she was white. Defense witnesses testified that her manners and her gentility set her apart from slaves possessing “black blood.” Moreover, she conveyed emotional transparency: her facial expressions were demure, and her delicate gestures appeared natural. Three-quarters of a century earlier, Thomas Jefferson had put forth the same aesthetic register, an intuitive means of distinguishing Black from white, in Notes on the State of Virginia. White female beauty was not just in the eye of the beholder, Jefferson reasoned. It was communicated invisibly, instinctively, adhering to immutable laws of attraction and repulsion.

The historian Walter Johnson concluded in his study of Morrison’s case in The Journal of American History that “a slave might perform whiteness so effectively as to become white.” The lines demarcating racial differences were less secure than are imagined. Of course, that was not how the lawyers who defended her or the local white audience interpreted the trauma they perceived “in the flesh.” They were confident that they had rescued an innocent young maiden wrongly kidnapped and falsely accused of being Black. The truth? Unprovable. There was no such thing as DNA testing, no foolproof means of verifying someone’s racial heritage. In fact, the “one drop” rule (having one Black relative) meant that a slave could be “near white.” Beginning in 1662, Virginia had established the enduring statute that a slave followed the “condition of the mother.” One was born enslaved if one’s mother was a slave, regardless of whether the father was free, or of English or European descent. As Johnson shows, census records during Morrison’s childhood indicate that her mother was probably a mixed-raced slave. Morrison, then, had two disguises: the manners of a middle-class white woman and the sexual cachet that came with having fair skin. Still, only a court judgment could secure her freedom.

The part-time college instructor Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington, passed as a Black woman for a number of years, until she became the center of a media firestorm in 2015. That year, her parents informed a news outlet that their daughter was “clearly Caucasian.” They insisted that her ethnic background was a mixture of Czech, Swedish, German, and an unknown percentage of Native American. Born in Montana, she was raised alongside four adopted siblings who were African American. As a college student in Mississippi, she did mission work, and then she earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Howard University. She married and divorced an African-American man, went about raising their mixed-race child and in 2012 was elected president of the local chapter of the NAACP in Spokane.

Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post equated her masquerade with “Blackface,” and Charles Blow of The New York Times painted her as a criminal con artist. Her “hubris, narcissism, and deflection” were unacceptable, Blow insisted, adding that Dolezal had deployed white privilege to co-opt Black heritage, then rode on the “coattail” of legitimate struggles of transgender people by pretending to have some personal “affinity” for lived “blackness.” The lie for Blow was that Dolezal could “return to what society registers as whiteness” at any time.

The recording artist Rihanna, who tends to be proud of her contrarian opinions, gave a completely opposite take to Vanity Fair : “I think she was a bit of a hero, because she kind of flipped on society a little bit.” Rihanna also said, “Is it such a horrible thing that she pretended to be black? Black is a great thing, and I think she legit changed people’s perspective a bit and woke people up.” Dolezal explained herself in the same magazine: “It’s not a costume. … I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I [had] awareness and connection with the black experience, and that’s never left me. It’s not something that I can put on and take off anymore.”

A mob came to the defense of Morrison in 1857. A Twitter mob unleashed a torrent of vicious attacks against Dolezal in 2015, accusing her of being a poseur. Morrison was subjected to a physical examination to determine her racial identity. Dolezal was dissected, satirized, cancel-cultured, and pathologized by a media and online scrutiny no less intrusive. In these dual rituals of unmasking, the debate centered on what makes someone white and not Black. The two debates, a century and a half apart, prove how elusive the language and epistemology of race were and still are.

Rachel Dolezal faced intense criticism when she was discovered to have been passing as a Black woman for many years. (Wikimedia Commons)

To appreciate what white means in the present, one should first understand what it meant in the past. When her parents insisted that Dolezal was “clearly Caucasian,” they revived a racist system of classification devised in the 18th century that was entirely without a sound scientific basis. No one today would dare use those related racial categories—“Negroid,” “Mongoloid”—that were matched with “Caucasoid.”

Caucasian was the word of choice for the most extreme racists of the 19th century. Proponents of scientific racism argued that the races had distinct origins, and they ranked the Caucasian as the superior race. In 1868, white supremacist New Yorker John H. Van Evrie declared that the white male was so perfect, with his “erect” figure, “broad forehead,” “transparent color,” and “flowing beard … to give a grace and majesty to the Caucasian that stamps him undisputed master of all living beings.” Van Evrie also insisted that the beard was the greatest mark of racial superiority! Caucasian males (like the patriarchs of old) were divinely blessed as rulers of the earth.

Caucasian, then, is obviously not a neutral term, as Nell Painter detailed in The History of  White People. When the German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach first developed his 18th-century taxonomy, he granted a false pedigree to an imaginary race of people originating in the mountainous region of the Caucasus and old Russia, supposedly possessing the superior blood and beauty of the Georgian people.

White is not a race. But the word has a long and complicated history, riddled with contradictory meanings. Though we use white today as if it requires no explanation, the word first appeared in English around the year 1200, and it soon defined a color, a virtue, a phenotype, an aesthetic, and a vision of the divine. The early modern world knew white as the color of clothing, supernatural beings, writing paper, and elements of the natural landscape: white chemise, angels in white, pure white parchment, white gloves, white desert sands, and a “glen … white with drifted snow.” Like the purple of a royal robe, the symbolic color white has been used ideologically to wrap men in the garb of racial superiority. The unsettling images in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 box-office smash, The Birth of a Nation, are still relevant a century later. His Ku Klux Klan members appear as spectral medieval knights clad all in white, racing on horseback to rescue the damsel in distress—in the larger sense, the imperiled white South.

These definitions of white tell only half the story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, white connotes “fairness,” a healthy, luminous face, a vital and robust constitution; yet the word evokes the very opposite at the same time: a wan and sickly visage, a ghostly pallor. A common metaphor for virginity, youthfulness, chastity, and innocence, it can be turned around to describe the whiteness of old age, the grizzled, time-worn, moldy, musty smell of decrepitude and approaching death.

White doesn’t just praise, then; it also chides. Like yellow for faint-heartedness or treachery, it can project weakness and shame. From the “white lie” to the greater crime of cowardice—being lily-livered and white with fear—whiteness also mocks male gallantry. Think of the white flag of truce, symbol of defeat and surrender. One example of the ambiguous character of white can be found in the folklore of the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. The commanding officer is said to have cautioned his colonial militiamen not to fire “till you see the whites of their eyes.” We are left wondering: Is this a hunting trope, meaning wait until the prey is in sight? “Whites of their eyes” could signify the enemy’s imagined fear. Or is it a version of the Cain and Abel story, in which the Anglo-American must bravely look his adversary in the eye, see his common humanity, and slay his British brother? After all, Jefferson wrote in 1774 of the thinning of blood ties between the abused colonists and their mother country, a complaint he repeated in the Declaration of Independence.

Historically, white imagery applied to women, especially in the arts. In poetry, from Shakespeare to Lord Byron, women were celebrated for their natural beauty, alabaster or ivory skin, flaxen hair, pearly white teeth, soft downy bosoms. In Byronic verse, a woman with raven hair framing a serene white face captured the feminine ideal. But there was—and is—such a thing as too much whiteness. Excessive blanching invites comparisons to the grotesque, or what is seen as artificial (peroxide blond), defective (albino), and perverse (towheaded white trash). By the end of the 19th century, the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch and his German counterpart Franz von Stuck fashioned a new emblem of modernity: the cold-hearted but promiscuous femme fatale, or vamp. They and others produced haunting paintings of consumptive, syphilitic sirens with incandescent white skin luring men to their deaths.

The imagined moral qualities embedded in the white motif have been no less contradictory. Whereas white represented spotless purity, with analogies to the driven snow, “whitewash” added a clear counterpoint. First used in 1584, the term referred to a coating of chalked lime solution that hid the dirt and soot on walls and ceilings. As practiced by Queen Elizabeth I, “whitewash” applied to cosmetics for lightening the skin. But by the 1730s, it indicated a disguise, an exaggerated portrait that hid the true self. The English political thinker Viscount Bolingbroke wrote of a “White-Wash so very thick, that not the least Spot or Flaw could be found on your character.” Curiously, too, the Scots called flatterers “white people” and flatteries “whitings,” so that “whitewash” extended to blandishment and hypocrisy. In 1805, his critics lambasted President Jefferson’s inaugural promise of nonpartisanship, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists,” as “nonsense” and a “whitewash.” One could whitewash away debts by the 1830s; figuratively speaking, bankruptcy gave a failed business owner a clean white slate. Taken together, this amalgam of metaphorical allusions created an unsavory portrait of a Janus-faced individual, and a glossy, cosmetic surface obscuring a corrupt core.

More disturbing terms little known today but prevalent in the 19th century included “white plague” and “white scourge.” These phrases drew on horrifying images of divine chastisement and the toll of human calamity caused by a pandemic: the “white death” of tuberculosis killed more young people than any other disease. Consumption, as it was called, gave women a ghostly pallor, which influenced the macabre fashion trend that favored a lily-white complexion. This source of deadly beauty haunts the story of Alexina Morrison. She was last seen coughing blood shortly after her last trial in 1862, making her a casualty of this form of whiteness.

Words reveal conflicting histories. History is perennially unstable. The words beauty and vigor, disease and death, purity  and honor,  flattery and deceit, nobility and chivalry, weakness and fear all tell us something crucial about whiteness. Though projected externally through faces and bodies, its qualities were just as much spiritual, internal, in the blood, less easily detectable. Racial taxonomies have held a particularly sinister power around the world, especially with the rise of scientific racism in the 18th and 19th centuries. And yet codifying human worth always involved more than skin color.

Race has never been a precise science. Many scientists today have concluded that biological races “do not exist,” as the legal scholar Trina Jones contends. There are, she writes, “few, if any, genetic characteristics possessed exclusively by all Whites.” American whiteness owes a debt to British imperialism, which shaped our language, culture, legal system—plus class and racial vocabulary. Early on, Anglo-American intellectuals adopted a global template, discerning nationalities and detecting races by continent of origin. Natural historians of the 18th century catalogued people as they did plants and animals, creating the species Homo sapiens and then subdividing it by race. They emphasized environment: forces of the physical world, climate, and the notion of adaptation.

At the same time, natural science drew on pedigree, which indicated how specific traits were passed down from one generation to the next. This practice, dating to the Greeks, relied on knowledge gained from domestic animal breeding. As the centerpiece of English peerage and property law, pedigree shaped class understanding of aristocratic titles, bloodlines, inheritance, patrimony, marriage and custody rights, and the finely tuned rules for ranking rightful heirs and disinheriting bastards. Disinheritance defined slave law: children of enslaved mothers were classed as spurious issue, or bastards. Slaves had no right to their offspring, and enslaved women’s fertile capacity, “future increase,” and their children, called “breedings,” were treated as commodities owned by their masters. American colonies, and most states, as later constituted, prohibited interracial marriages.

Racial differences also found a home in the idea of heritage. This loosely defined category traced patterns of cultural values and norms, which were identifiable in ethnic and religious customs, as well as national and linguistic differences. In the 18th century, Native Americans were crucial in defining this cross-cultural, racial contrast: the ongoing and complex set of encounters and relationships of English colonists and later Americans with different tribes involved power struggles, wars, treaties, and commercial exchange. The English and other Europeans, as historian Gary Nash wrote, maintained a “grudging respect” for the indigenous tribes, even as they demeaned them in other ways. A number of settlers became “white Indians,” living in Indian communities, adopting non-European cultural traditions. It was not until the antebellum period that these Indianized whites were vilified for abandoning their “true” heritage.

In short, white has had more than one racial register. White can be treated as part of a more elaborate system of racial classification, as with Caucasian, which focused not just on color but also on such supposed racial traits as intelligence, hair, facial structure, and even beards. White was used to distinguish national heritages through a method of cross-cultural comparison that often relied on an ethnocentric scale ranking civilizations from “advanced” to “primitive.” Benjamin Franklin called German immigrants “swarthy,” a breed below the truly “white” English, likening them to ignorant herds of cattle. And as with Jefferson’s racial semantics, white was also a matter of aesthetic taste, a kind of second sight or intuition.

The English imprint ensured that white operated in conjunction with notions of class position. Clothing and demeanor provided a rich, visual vocabulary of class identity. Just as military uniforms and clerical vestments defined a social station, the dress of men and women featured elaborate distinctions, dictated by civil and religious authorities. Beginning in antiquity, and further elaborated by the time of the Renaissance, the upper classes and those who aimed to break into their ranks relied on courtesy books—and later, etiquette guides—that carefully outlined proper dress, carriage, and speech, along with subtle manifestations of the social graces. In Puritan New England, sumptuary laws punished servants and others of lower station for wearing the finery of wealthier classes. By the 18th century, one cut a figure like a tailor cutting a coat: class symbols extended from the hat one wore down to the buckle on one’s shoe.

Cross-class comparisons ought to remind us that a white face did not by itself guarantee privileges. Upper- and middle-class respectability existed along an axis of class power.

The measurement of white identity by such cross-class comparisons ought to remind us that a white face did not by itself guarantee privileges. Upper- and middle-class respectability existed along an axis of class power. Wealth, status, and class breeding stood in stark contrast to the marks of failure—filth, degeneracy, and debauchery—that were associated with the lower classes. Rigid gender differences further codified genteel class conformity. Clean white linens, spotless white gloves, white writing paper, fine white porcelain, alabaster skin, and the ivory keys of a piano were subtle but important trappings of the elite and educated classes.

Most of the colonial population fell into the “unfree” classes of apprentices, servants, convict laborers, sailors impressed into service, landless poor, and slaves. Married women were civilly dead under the British common law, denied the right to own property; they were, like children, dependents. Liberty came with property ownership, inheritance rights, self-mastery, and the wherewithal to control the labor of others. Slaves were denied all of these freedoms: they were chattel—movable property, their paternity erased, their ability to marry and form legally sanctioned families forbidden; as dependents, their labor was not their own. The transatlantic slave trade linked Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and North America and was a crucial engine of the colonial economy. It remained legal in America until 1808. By then, a large domestic slave population existed, and manumitted slaves constituted an ambiguous caste of free Blacks.

Under British colonial rule, as one Virginian wrote in 1680, the words “Negro and slave” were “Homogeneous and Convertible.” But the picture of slavery was never that simple. Native Americans taken captive in wars were also sold as slaves. Legally, skin color alone did not determine who was a slave; a diverse array of colonial statutes relied on war captivity, “strangers willing to sell themselves,” “heathen” and “barbarian” status. Indentured servants were also treated as commodities in a trade that exploited child labor. Over time, however, perpetual servitude was racialized. Laws limited a slave’s mobility and commanded obedience upon threat of severe punishment—both done to assuage fears and promote public safety. Other laws even punished slaves who dressed above their station. So, slaves were regulated like servants. From 1662, as we have seen, laws led by one in Virginia regulating the domestic slave population emphasized pedigree and lineage, making slavery an inherited status in which the enslaved child followed the condition of the slave mother. Race, along with gender, class, and various Roman and British precedents, shaped the contours of slave law.

Before the 1920s, the color line was erratically maintained. As we’ve also seen, the “one-drop rule” was hard to enforce because “black blood” often could not be detected. Runaway slave advertisements before the Civil War prefigured Jim Crow confusion: slaves were identified by race-uncertain attributes such as freckled faces, blue-gray eyes, straight or cut hair; by their artisanal skills or ability to speak French; or by their white traveling companions or spouses. Runaway slaves skillfully exploited the blurred lines between white and Black, slave and free.

As implied by the ambiguous appraisal of Alexina Morrison, plenty of enslaved people passed for white. A 2015 study of census records found that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least one-fifth of all black men claimed to be white. A postbellum South Carolinian confirmed the illogical calculus of the racial system. Americans, he observed in 1876, “call everyone a Negro that is as black as the ace of spades or white as snow” if they think he has “Negro blood in his veins.” Whiteness, then, was never treated as some carefully guarded treasure, as all the shades of skin colors rippling through American society amply demonstrated. Until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the overriding concerns in policing whiteness were upholding a racial caste system and protecting property rights that included the ownership of slaves, along with the rights of legitimate “white” heirs. Passing as white nevertheless opened a hidden door to respectability and freedom for former slaves, enabling many plausible poseurs.

No single way to see whiteness had ever existed. Slavery consequently led Americans to adopt visible masks. Every comely face, every show of verbal prowess, every article of well-appointed fashionable attire could be a whitewash, a disguise. Is it any surprise that 19th-century Americans were fascinated by novels and personal narratives featuring runaway slaves or descendants of slaves having a hidden past or living a double life? Think of abolitionist Lydia Maria Child’s The Quadroons (1842) or William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853). William Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) included a vignette of the author’s wife donning the daring disguise of a white male planter. Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) followed this pattern. In South Carolina, where racial mixing was prevalent, whitewashing gained overt racial overtones. Gideon Gibson Jr. was a planter and slave owner of wealth and standing on the eve of the American Revolution. His father had been near-white and married a white woman. To his contemporaries, Gibson had passed through “another state of whitewash,” and was deemed fairer than most of the prominent men sitting in the Assembly, the colony’s elected legislature.

The opposite was also true. Whiteness failed to work wonders for those mired in generations of poverty. Among poor whites, ugliness, disfigurement, and immorality attached to a brutish existence that produced sickly, repulsive, pale white faces. There were always cracks in the white mirror.

The modern debate about whiteness has not always added clarity. The controversy provoked by Rachel Dolezal relied on several confounding and misleading ways of talking about whiteness. Her parents’ assertion that their daughter was “clearly Caucasian” reinforced the false belief that race is a distinct biological inheritance. They made another questionable claim, one with an equally troubling past. Their dubious insistence of Native American ancestry is probably family lore. It is what the legal scholar Vine Deloria Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux and a champion of Indian rights, has labeled the “Indian grandmother complex,” adding a safe dose of the exotic far removed from flesh-and-blood Native peoples. History shows that many—perhaps millions—of Americans have at one time invented or accessorized a past to clean up the family genealogy. For many members of the dominant culture, having an Indian ancestor is far less scandalous than having an African American in the family tree.

This scenario says a lot about the American love of fashioning the right kind of pedigree. At the height of the eugenics crusade, when most Americans believed that biological inheritance was destiny, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. It sought to prohibit interracial marriages, starkly distinguishing white from Black while moving Native Americans into the Black category. The only exception was made for the First Families of Virginia, who in 1912 had established a secret, exclusive club based on having traced their lineage back to Pocahontas. The famed Indian princess (whose image was whitened and glamorized over time) was called the “mother of Virginia,” and the “mother of America,” making her Indian blood truly an elite white talisman.

On the other side of the political debate, the liberal and progressive journalists who charged Dolezal with engaging in blackface claimed she used “white privilege” to appropriate Black heritage. This argument reduces her behavior to a simple equation: color-coded deception is fraud. Critics went so far as to label Dolezal’s Black disguise as a white pathology.

The explosion in academic scholarship on whiteness since the 1990s crisscrosses the disciplines of education, history, law, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, sociology, women’s studies—indeed most of the humanities and social sciences. It has emphasized a series of popular concepts such as white privilege, white identity, and “race traitor.” That last idea is perhaps the most problematic, because it demonizes whiteness and demands the “death” of white identification. As the historian of slavery and Russian serfdom Peter Kolchin wrote in his review of whiteness studies in The Journal of American History, “there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil.”

History shows that many—perhaps millions—of Americans have at one time invented or accessorized a past to clean up the family genealogy.

One of the dominant concepts that emerged from whiteness studies was a new definition of “white supremacy.” Racial dominance no longer relied on legally sanctioned racism, individual acts of prejudice, or the division of Blacks and whites into racial categories that described different physical traits and abilities. Instead, whiteness operated as a “free-floating text,” penetrating all social activities and lodging itself in the white mind. White supremacy, reconstituted, is grounded in “white personhood,” as African-American and ethnic studies scholar Reiland Rabaka asserts, and “white personhood is inextricable from black subpersonhood.” Building on the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, especially “The Souls of White Folk,” scholars who pursue whiteness studies agree with his assessment that a major mechanism of racial identity is “the eternal world-wide mark of meanness—color.” Meanness meant lowliness—or in Rabaka’s phrase, “subpersonhood.” This newer racial definition turns Hegel’s master-slave dialectic into a constant state of white-over-black hegemony. There is a problem here: masters had real, concrete, legal, and police powers over slaves, and only a minority of white Americans owned slaves. Unfortunately, then, white personhood tends to project a static, universal identity that makes the will for domination the driving force for all white Americans, regardless of actual social position or access to power.

If the forces of whiteness can be found everywhere and are inextricably tied to skin color, then white hovers between an inherited biological condition and a measurable social status. To American studies professor George Lipsitz, whiteness is embedded in “the content of character.” For many others involved in whiteness studies, it is hardwired into human psychology, imprinted on personality. All white people are the automatically complicit beneficiaries by “virtue” of having white skin. “White ways of being,” white skin, one’s inescapable whiteness, as education professor Barbara Applebaum contends in Being White, Being Good (2010), implicates every white person “in the production and reproduction of systematic racial injustice.”

Why is this modern calculus so troubling? Columbia historian and expert on slavery Barbara J. Fields provides an explanation. She finds that the semantics of whiteness falls into the trap of turning racial attitudes into an abstraction while marginalizing the human agency of both white and Black Americans. She takes issue with the notion that whiteness is independent of the material conditions in which a person lives and the actual give-and-take of human relationships. Fields sees the concept of white identity as vague and “flabby,” investing “white people with agency (even if only in evil-doing),” yet never really explaining the complicated institutional, social, and economic mechanisms of racism. Fields also insists that scholars who discover traces of whiteness everywhere they look see it as an invisible, seductive force somehow working its magic behind seemingly neutral actions and beliefs. This “flabby” notion of whiteness, Fields argues, makes race “so ubiquitous as to lose determinate shape.” She also contends that whiteness creates a false sense of solidarity as a state of nature for white people, as if all white people agree it is in their interest to think and act alike in ways that protect some collective notion of white identity. This ignores all the hostility, hatred, competition, and disdain that white Americans have routinely displayed for their fellow whites—feelings driven by class, gender, and religious prejudices, as well as political animosities.

It is an indisputable historical truth that white people are largely responsible for American slavery and for the institutional racism that is with us still. That is not in question. What is in question is whether all white people are uniformly responsible for these appalling realities, and whether whiteness obscures more than it reveals about power relations.

Another obvious problem is that class privilege is often hidden under the cloak of whiteness. The emphasis whiteness studies places on group or club membership borrows from the long-standing focus of ethnic studies on the cultural power of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Lost in translation are the structural mechanics of power relations. Take, for example, the Boston Brahmins, with their emphasis on elite institutions (prep schools, Ivy League, Harvard Club). Like the Gilded Age robber barons who married into the English aristocracy and lived like manor lords in great houses, the Brahmins feed dynastic impulses. Both of these historically specific elite cliques used nepotism, favoritism, legacies, and other Protestant and class connections to police the entrance to their exclusive clubs. In whiteness studies, class-defined behavior of this sort has been replaced by the one crucial membership category—the white club. Much of the early ethnic studies scholarship in this area focused on how racialized ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews moved up the social ladder by becoming “white” and aligning their interests with the dominant group. In whiteness studies, then, the process of assimilation is color coded, instead of tracing the actual material gains secured through class mobility. Left out of the argument are all the ethnically marked lower-class Americans who remained on the margins, who failed to make the grade and constituted the majority who never gained entrance into the white, upwardly mobile club.

This pattern of conflating whiteness and middle-class identity is prevalent in the field. In 1988, feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh coined a metaphor that became a favorite among whiteness studies specialists: white privilege as an “invisible knapsack” filled with maps, provisions, clothes, visas, secret codes, and blank checks. Who possesses insider knowledge? Who gets hidden perks? In 2019, a little over a third of the U.S. population had graduated from college. White privilege looks different if one alters the metaphor and the double-stitched knapsack becomes a lunch pail. There is a world of difference between a leather valise, a Birkin bag, and a homeless white woman’s shopping cart.

The ruling assumption in whiteness studies is simply wrong. Whiteness is not a privilege equally enjoyed by all white Americans. I have written extensively about the pervasiveness of class in my book White Trash (2016). We need only recall that many Americans once romanticized the carefree life of the hobo, when the actual wandering white poor in Depression times (and long before that) were considered undesirable, an unwanted social burden. In the 1930s, as agricultural disaster destroyed farming communities in the South and Midwest, California passed a law prohibiting poor and displaced families from entering that state. Hapless hardscrabble folk were rounded up, arrested, and forced to leave California. Their whiteness secured them no passport into the Golden State.

The enduring hatred of the rural poor is often colorized in whiteness scholarship. It is not that they are “not quite white.” This theme of losing whiteness, or never having it, as a measure of exploitation often seems forced to fit the paradigm in the otherwise excellent scholarship of Matthew Wray, Neil Foley, and others. White was never the principal or operative term over the long course of colonial and post-Revolutionary American history. Pedigree, property ownership, and productivity commanded the thinking of leading English and later American intellectuals, jurists, politicians, and average upper- and middle-class men and women. All the nasty slurs given to the white rural underclass attest to this point: waste people, idle rubbish, lazy lubbers, uncouth crackers, landless squatters, vile offscourings, inbred degenerates, trailer trash. They were routinely compared to inferior breeds of animals and identified with the swampy, sandy, unfertile land they squatted on. They were compared to albinos, accused of inbreeding, and never seen as lacking in whiteness, but just the opposite: having too much of a diseased, degenerate strain of whiteness. They didn’t have knapsacks, let alone shoes, a full set of teeth, healthy offspring, or economic prospects.

In 1964, the novelist and civil rights activist Lillian Smith described how the newest members of the southern middle class looked down on the white trash they had left behind: “weak, lazy, good-for-nothing ones who whine all month until the relief check comes in.” Though their parents had escaped the tarpaper shack with the help of the New Deal, and they imagined themselves as self-reliant and hardworking, these new members of the middle class felt few qualms about pulling up the social ladder behind them. They forged no imaginary white bond with those trapped in poverty. They weren’t even remotely interested in lifting others or giving back.

Whiteness can explain certain things, but it shouldn’t supplant equally important categories of analysis. Can we possibly talk about marriage, family, reproduction, sex discrimination, and domestic violence without the politics of gender in the foreground? Or oligarchy, plutocracy, nepotism, inherited wealth, labor and capitalism, pedigree and poverty without seeing class? Whites have always had real material power over other whites. This proves that race is not always the most instrumental part of the political calibration. The Black, feminist, lesbian poet Audre Lorde addressed this problem succinctly: “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.”

Much of the negative baggage associated with whiteness in current scholarship can be traced to the counterculture of the mid-20th century. Take Andy Warhol, a highly provocative study in white. He made a career silk-screening, photographing, and filming white faces, and he described his obsession with “vacuous Hollywood” as “plastic, white-on-white.” Was anyone whiter than the white sex goddess Marilyn Monroe? Maybe only Warhol himself. He hated his “pasty-white” complexion, as he denoted it, which he compared to a whitewash of acne medication. Elvis, the other most photographed white idol of his day, became Warhol’s only life-size image. His silver Elvis takes on the qualities of a faded daguerreotype, exposing Hollywood’s “playing Indian” problem. The movie poster he used was taken from Elvis’s role as the “half-breed,” six-shooting redskin cowboy in Flaming Star. Elvis wore a layer of reddish makeup (darkened in Warhol’s image), his face coded Indian, his body “Western Adonis” white. Warhol’s most explicit political silk-screen was of a civil rights protest in Birmingham. A dog rips off the pant leg of a Black man trying to walk away. The white policemen stand by, indifferent. He titled one version Little Race Riot, 1963. In Warhol’s work, white male privilege is random, ignoble, and marked by petty acts of violence, the day-to-day injustices. There is no white-knight gallantry here, only callous cowardice.

Warhol’s theme of trivializing whiteness, of seeing it as plastic, persists. Many scholars who write on whiteness continue to associate white with emptiness, a mask with nothing behind it—best captured in satirical titles such as “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” Like white bread (or white bred), white conveys blandness, commercially produced. It is the first measure of mindless conformity. By the 1970s, mocking suburban whiteness had become fairly routine. It crystalized in a devastating review of what has been called the first reality TV program, An American Family, which aired on PBS in 1973. The documentary peered at the home life of the Louds of California, a supposedly typical upper-middle-class white family. The review by Anne Roiphe in The New York Times Magazine described the Louds as “jellyfish,” transparent and unresponsive. They appeared oddly unfazed when their house burned down and even as the parents got divorced. The Godfather’s Corleones had more humanity.

An American Family, on PBS in the 1970s, featured the Loud family. It helped establish the idea of white suburban emptiness. (Everett Collection)

In Working Toward Whiteness (2005), historian David Roediger concluded that assigning whiteness is a “messy” business. We need to keep this in mind when assuming that we are doing a better job of understanding race today. We must not put aside the uncomfortable truth that whiteness relies on the class system. Neither is white privilege a substitute for class privilege. Passing was never just a game of disguise used by free blacks, runaway slaves, and white servants, or fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, to obtain social uplift. Passing was at the heart of America’s philosophy of social mobility: you may have been born on the wrong side of the tracks, but hard work and social knowledge led to middle-class respectability. But it’s just as true that children of the wealthy have always had a head start. Liberals love the myth of meritocracy. It has existed alongside another legacy of the colonial past, that one is “born to a station.” Both of these rationales, in their own way, excuse class inequality.

Americans have always worn masks. Pop star Michael Jackson whitened his skin and had extensive plastic surgery. He was not alone. Many celebrities, models, and those who imitate the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” routinely falsify their appearance, using medical enhancements, reconstructive surgeries, hair implants, liposuction, breast augmentation, Botox treatments, tanning salons—the list goes on and on. Cosmetics is a $90-billion-a-year industry. Men and women put on their costumes every day: painted faces and plucked eyebrows, male stubble and man-buns, dyed hair and extensions, whitened teeth and freshened breath. We are flooded by advertisements shouting prescriptive norms at each targeted audience, supplemented by Internet influencers and woke fashion experts. The idea that any racial or ethnic group has retained some pristine heritage that it can control is wishful thinking. Authenticity, white or Black, is long since compromised.

Passing has not just allowed Americans to move up the social ladder. Self-fashioning, adopting a creative disguise to facilitate the crossing of boundaries, is as old as America itself. In 1988, writing for Vogue magazine, Margo Jefferson identified the new rage of “slumming,” in which young, middle-class white men and women accessorized with body piercings and tattoos and bought secondhand clothing. Earlier still, it was Elvis, the poor white boy from Mississippi, who borrowed from Black and Italian working-class culture his pompadour hairstyle and blue suede shoes. In the ’20s, flappers crossed class and gender lines by cutting their hair and passing for tomboys, donning the caps and suspenders of street urchins and newsies. As far back as the early 19th century, the literati of New York, young white men, strolled the streets in the baggy overcoats and large floppy hats of dockworkers and cartmen. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper described the strategy of “Tom,” a “Mulatto” slave, who aimed to trim his waistcoat and hair, get a blanket, and “pass for Indian.” Passing has never been simply about whiteness, and there has always been more than one border to cross—or defiantly transgress.

It is worth repeating: racial mixing disrupted the comfortable illusion that whiteness was a safely guarded treasure. Eugenics, which called for sterilizing “defectives” and in the 1920s targeted lower-class white women and prostitutes, raised the specter that polluted blood might resurface in later generations. Suddenly, a seemingly normal white couple might produce a monstrous child—it’s the message of Erskine Caldwell’s 1929 novel, The Bastard. In 1932, Katharine Hepburn starred in a eugenics film called A Bill of Divorcement, in which she played a young, attractive woman of the elite class, just engaged, who learns of insanity on her father’s side of the family. Accepting fate, she vows never to marry.

If biology is destiny, as in the eugenics narrative, then whiteness itself becomes suspect. Any person might have a secret past, a racially mixed ancestor, or a crazy uncle whose taint can never be removed. Eugenics tapped into the deeper anxiety of the middle class that failure might await around the next corner. Whiteness was never a magic carpet that could lift up the vulnerable poor and working classes and rescue them from America’s ruthless class system.

Whiteness does have a place in understanding the past and present, but its limitations need to be recognized. In 2017, Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote in The New York Times that we should not assume that the “original sin—white supremacy—explains everything.” He was cautioning against the hierarchy of oppressions, what Audre Lorde warned of decades earlier. All the familiar categories matter: not just race but also gender and class, region and religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, law and politics, capitalism and corporatism, globalism and militarism, science and art. They all play a role in explaining modern America.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of  Class in America, Fallen Founder : The Life of Aaron Burr, and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Her most recent book, written with Andrew Burstein, is The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University.


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