Barbara J. Flagg
Barbara J. Flagg, Foreword: Whiteness as
Metaprivilege, 18Washington University Journal of Law and Policy
1-11 (2005) (31 Footnotes omitted)
Whiteness is a social location of power, privilege, and prestige. It
is a "an invisible package of unearned assets." As an
epistemological stance, it sometimes is an exercise in denial.
Whiteness is an identity, a culture, and an often colonizing way of
life that is largely invisible to Whites, though rarely to people of
color. Whiteness also carries the authority within the larger
culture it dominates to set the terms on which every aspect of race
is discussed and understood. Whiteness thus is many-faceted and
pervasive. I believe it lies at the center of the problem of race in
The papers that make up this symposium reflect the diversity of the
topic. One finds here discussions of subjects ranging from the
disposition of human remains to dreaming to standardized testing in
schools; from patterns of informal affiliation in Senegal to
self-presentation practices of individuals and of universities to
September 11. Nevertheless, these seemingly dissimilar topics are
linked by the strands of Whiteness as metaprivilege that run
By "metaprivilege" I mean the ability of Whiteness to define the
conceptual terrain on which race is constructed, deployed, and
interrogated. Whiteness sets the terms on which racial identity is
constructed. Whiteness generates a distinct cultural narrative,
controls the racial distribution of opportunities and resources, and
frames the ways in which that distribution is interpreted. Finally,
Whiteness holds sway over the very terms in which its own ascendancy
is understood and might be challenged.
This essay takes as given a proposition now well-established by
geneticists: there is no such thing as biological race. Race is
wholly socially constructed; the precise contours of racial
differentiation and meaning vary from culture to culture and within
a given culture over time. In the United States, Whiteness is a
largely transparent construction that constitutes the dominant site
of power and privilege. The metaprivileges of Whiteness are those
aspects of this construction that function as stabilizing agents;
they ensure the maintenance of White supremacy.
Whiteness and Racial Identity
The first metaprivilege of Whiteness is the ability to control the
social construction of racial identity. Whiteness has the authority
not only to define who is and is not White, but also to delineate
the boundaries of non-White racial identities. The long reach of
Whiteness' privilege even extends to the performance of non-White
identities within non-White racial groups.
Whiteness constructs itself. john powell explores the resilient,
adaptively persistent character of Whiteness. Beginning with the
observation that racial boundaries are so firmly constructed that we
rarely go beyond them even in our dreams, he traces the history of
the delineation of Whiteness and the "racial other," emphasizing the
ways in which Whiteness continually realigns and sustains itself.
powell concludes with the suggestion that "It is clear that the
solution to whiteness will not arise within a worldview or a self
view based on separation." Judy Scales-Trent also explores the
boundaries that Whiteness erects around itself. She describes the
practice of "cousinage" in Senegal, which, by constructing fictive
blood relationships, creates communities and defuses potential
conflict among otherwise distinct ethnic groups. This practice
treats as related those who "really" are not. Scales-Trent compares
it to the situation in America. When White America had to decide how
to define children with both Black and White parents, it decided
that they would be Black . . . not White, and not both. Thus, as she
notes hauntingly, "white America . . . made a very different
political decision: the decision to create warfare between the black
and white groups by making believe that real families do not exist."
Whiteness also determines who is Black, Latino, Asian, or Native.
Rebecca Tsosie asks "who owns Native identity?" and explores the
role the concept of indigeneity plays in contestations over Native
ownership of political and cultural rights, land, ancestral human
remains, and genetic resources. Her analyses reveal that "indigeneity"
itself frequently is co-opted by those with discursive authority, a
group that rarely if ever includes Native people themselves. Thus,
Tsosie remarks, "The term 'indigenous' has become a trope to argue
for a broader entitlement to rights among various groups in
society.""What is missing in all of this is an ethic of respect for
Native values, identities and narratives, and the core concepts
within Native epistemologies." Beyond racial categories themselves,
Whiteness deeply impacts the content of non-White racial identities.
John Calmore describes the demands Whiteness makes on him, a Black
man. Understanding Black identity as performance, Calmore notes that
"white performance was [and is] the quid pro quo for white
privilege." Though "few people of color can insulate themselves from
[the] influence [of dominant Whiteness]," Calmore advocates a
transgressive performance: "people of color must not reinforce white
privilege through our attachment to it." Gerald Torres explores the
ways in which Chicana feminists challenge Chicano machismo as a
reinscription of racism. In this analysis, resistance to male
supremacy within the Chicana community is theorized, as a strategic
matter, as the same as resistance to White supremacy. From this
perspective, Whiteness infiltrates the construction of the Chicano
male within the Chicano community; it therefore must be
Whiteness and Resources
A second metaprivilege of Whiteness enables it to set the terms on
which valuable resources are allocated. Helen Moore explores the
problem of "testing while Black": Whiteness controls "who tests,
what is tested, and how tests are administered and interpreted."
Standardized tests are well known to be flawed: they produce mutable
scores, reflect cultural biases, and are invalid markers of
learning; moreover, test taking itself is a culturally specific
process. The "invalid science of assessment" currently in wide use
inscribes Whiteness as the standard of educational success; it is
embedded in and reinforced by and through the No Child Left Behind
legislation. Whiteness and Cultural Narrative
Whiteness generates uniquely White narratives that become definitive
cultural stories. David Roediger examines self-representation
practices of "historically white" colleges and universities that
appropriate images of persons of color to advance White objectives.
At the University of Wisconsin, for example, an image of a Black
student was superimposed on an otherwise all-White scene, in an
attempt to portray racial diversity. Here the authoritative
narrative of self-representation obscures "the exclusionary past and
present of such institutions." Thus "diversity" itself serves the
hidden interests of Whiteness.
Tom Ross explores the Whiteness of the cultural narrative concerning
September 11, 2001, as it has developed in the presence of a
declining White population and against the backdrop of
racially-laden nationalist narratives associated with John Harlan
and Theodore Roosevelt. He observes that "the essential face of the
victims was White," and notes that in consequence "the suffering of
those outside the narrative of 9/11 has receded even further from
the public consciousness." The story of September 11--the attack on
"us"--is one that reflects "quintessentially White" anxieties and
Whiteness and Privilege
Stephanie Wildman interrogates the persistence and resilience of
White privilege. In addition to material forces that both constitute
and shore up White privilege, Wildman identifies four sociocultural
factors that help account for the continued existence of White
privilege. They include the ability of Whites to control the
cultural discourse of racial equality-- colorblindness rhetoric and
"individual-group sleight of hand"--as well as Whites' socialization
to, and insistence upon, social preeminence. Whites operate within a
"comfort zone" that renders Whiteness "normal." And when displaced,
Whites often employ strategies that reinstate Whiteness at the
center. Here the metaprivilege of Whiteness resides in the "absence
of awareness of White privilege" that Wildman notes. Whiteness does
not acknowledge either its own privilege or the material and
sociocultural mechanisms by which that privilege is protected. White
privilege itself becomes invisible.
Whiteness as Metaprivilege
Whiteness is not only an identity, but the power to name and shape
identities. Whiteness not only has control of valuable resources,
but has the ability to limit access to those resources to those who
reflect its own image. Whiteness not only constitutes a distinct
perspective on events, but has the authority to generate definitive
cultural narratives. And Whiteness not only is a set of unearned
privileges, but the capacity to disguise those privileges behind
structures of silence, obsfucation, and denial.
Whiteness creates, and exists within, a conceptual framework in
which human agency is presented as absolute, the individual is the
constitutive unit of agency, and White antiracist work is understood
to be optional. Seemingly creating a space for meaningful
transformation of White race consciousness, these axioms of
Whiteness constitute core metaprivileges of Whiteness, and they
provide a final layer of defense in the maintenance of White
Whiteness Presents Human Agency as Absolute
In one sense, this is so. Human action is not fully determined by
conditions external to the actor. However, agency effectuates itself
within sets of conditions that constrain, often severely, even if
they do not entirely control. Thus agency is a complex amalgam of
possibilities and constraints, material and ideological conditions
and consequences. Agency is a fluid phenomenon, conforming like hot
glass to forms impressed upon it by societal structures. In its
congealed form, agency is at once determined by and determinative of
dominance and subordination.
Whiteness Posits the Individual as the Unit of Human Agency
So understood, the individual is not responsible for what he or she
has not brought into being, and thus systemic dominance and
subordination are beyond the scope of (individual) moral obligation.
However, the notion of responsibility envisioned by White privilege
is quite a shallow one. As Joyce Trebilcot has explained, one can
adopt a larger notion of responsibility, exemplified by the phrase
"to take responsibility for":
Notice first that to take responsibility for a state of
affairs is not to claim responsibility for having caused it. So,
for example, if I take responsibility for cleaning up the
kitchen I am not thereby admitting to any role in creating the
mess; the state of the kitchen may be the consequence of actions
quite independent of me. . . . In taking responsibility a woman
chooses to make a commitment about a specific state of affairs.
Similarly, Whites can take responsibility for the systemic
maintenance of White supremacy.
Whiteness Sees White Antiracist Work as Optional
If the individual human agent is absolutely free to act or not, and
to choose the forms of action that are to be undertaken, no
particular act is inevitable. In this sense, White people can elect
whether or not to engage in action that contributes to the
dismantling of White supremacy.
However, because choice is socially structured, meanings attributed
to action by any particular actor are not dispositive, nor are
interpretations ascribed by White privilege. The social significance
of choices made by Whites is socially given, so that neither the
material or ideological consequences of chosen acts are fully
determined by Whiteness. Whites do not absolutely control the
character of antiracist work.
The Axioms of Whiteness Contribute to the Maintenance of White
The conception of individualized responsibility adopted by Whiteness
enables Whites to evade engagement with systemic structures of
racial injustice. First, Whites can claim not to be responsible for
systemic oppression. For example, the rhetoric of "White innocence"
that is featured prominently in the debate over affirmative action
presupposes that there is no individual responsibility for the
societal conditions and normative choices that exclude all but a
disproportionately small number of people of color from institutions
such as contracting and higher education.
Moreover, even once White privilege is recognized and addressed,
systemic subordination seems out of reach; it is too pervasive and
vast to permit meaningful confrontation at the individual level.
Even thoughtful discussions of ways in which White privilege might
be dismantled tend to emphasize individual action, which renders
such proposals ineffective other than at the symbolic level.
Because in White privilege White antiracist work is understood as
optional, one can be a "good," even "nonracist" White person while
enjoying all the benefits of complicity in White supremacy. For
example, while the majority of Whites "overwhelmingly endorse civil
rights principles," fewer than half actually support fair housing
laws. Similar results can be found for questions of desegregating
schools and affirmative action at the college and university level.
Dismantling White privilege at the meta level requires Whites to
reject its constituent axioms. In their place, antiracist Whites
must adopt and employ conceptions of agency that recognize the free
but contingent nature of human choice. Whites must find ways to take
collective responsibility for racial subordination. And, perhaps
most centrally, Whites must come to understand that either one
engages in meaningful antiracist action, or one supports White
supremacy; there is no middle ground. Once the metaprivileges of
Whiteness are exposed and challenged, it becomes apparent that
dismantling White privilege requires the adoption and effective
enforcement of antisubordinationist legal regimes.
Human Choice, Even Under Conditions of White Privilege, Is
SimultaneouslyContingent and Free
In this society, the opportunities White people have to make
unconstrained decisions are exponentially greater than those
available to people of color. Even so, White decisionmaking is
subject to external forces, including the social structures that
name and define race, and the material conditions under which race
plays itself out. Wishing away racial injustice, as in the "I don't
think of you as Black" strategy, is not a meaningful antiracist
option. Nor is a colorblind legal regime an effective method of
moving in the direction of racial justice. Antiracist Whites must
move beyond the culturally-inscribed mindset of White omnipotence,
and accept the proposition that antiracist work has to begin with a
thorough understanding of, and engagement with, things as they
Whites Must Take Collective Responsibility for Racial Subordination
Taking responsibility for a state of affairs is acting to alter it,
without necessarily having had any role in bringing it about. To
take responsibility today for racial subordination is to act in the
present in an effective manner to change it. It is irrelevant
whether a particular White person, or any specific group of White
people, has or has not had any part in the construction of White
supremacy as it now exists.
Taking collective responsibility is necessary because racism is
systemic. Isolated individual action sometimes can ameliorate the
localized effects of racial subordination. At the same time, some
individual action is wholly ineffective, such as the "new
abolitionist" approach, which seeks to "abolish Whiteness." Systemic
subordination must be addressed at the level at which it occurs--at
the level of society as a whole.
Either One Engages in Meaningful Antiracist Action, or One Is
Complicit in theMaintenance of White Supremacy
The notion of a nonracist (but not antiracist) White--one who "is
not racist" but in fact does nothing to dismantle, and enjoys all
the benefits of, White supremacy--is dear to the hearts of liberal
Whites, and central to the self-perpetuating ideology of White
privilege. However, passive White complicity in structures of
subordination today is a leading mechanism for the maintenance of
White supremacy. Thus material change in the direction of racial
justice requires an end to such complicity. Moreover, though White
privilege controls the "dominant" (read White) social meaning of
White conduct, it does not control its meaning in the eyes of people
of color. Even at the ideological level, "nonracist" White passivity
fails to meaningfully challenge White supremacy.
Dismantling White Privilege Requires the Adoption and
Enforcement of Antisubordinationist Legal Regimes
Once the choice has been made not to be racist, passivity is no
longer an option; one has to undertake meaningful antiracist
activity. The notion that dismantling White privilege is optional is
itself one of the privileges of Whiteness that must be discarded.
The aspect of White privilege that sees only meanings ascribed by
Whites also must be set aside, in favor of the realization that the
meaning of action is given by social reality, which requires
antiracist action to be directed at systemic social oppression.
Individual and/or local action is not adequate to challenge either
the material or the ideological reality of White supremacy.
Because it provides systematic constraint, law can be an appropriate
vehicle for antiracist engagement, to the extent that it embodies
antisubordinationist values and objectives, and to the extent that
it receives meaningful implementation. However, laws that are not
antisubordinationist in purpose and effect do not constitute
antiracist activity, even when they are supported by "antiracist"
rhetoric. These laws, such as the "colorblindness" interpretation of
the Fourteenth Amendment, in fact are artifacts of White privilege.
Their existence provides aid and comfort to White supremacy.
Thoroughly dismantling White privilege, including its metaprivileges,
means that for Whites who work in the law--lawyers, legal academics,
judges--the sole antiracist option is the support, adoption, and
enforcement of antisubordinationist legal regimes.