For whiteness scholars, one of the most flagrant ways that racism persists is that white people simply don’t think about race much—to the extent that they do, they insist that they are colorblind or don’t see color. This adherence to colorblind ideology prevents white people from confronting white privilege and deconstructing their implicit biases which keep whiteness, white privilege and white supremacy in place.
But is this true?
A paper by sociologists Douglas Hartmann, Joseph Gerteis and Paul Croll acknowledges that “[o]ne of the most frequent and important criticisms involves the empirical grounding upon which the claims of whiteness scholars are based,” involves “questions about both the interpretation of key events and documents as well the type and amount of empirical evidence that supports these analyses.” “With only a few exceptions,” the authors write, “empirical work on whiteness in the United States has been historical, case based, and qualitative.” This “lack of attention to measurement and the empirical generalizability of core claims and assumptions has actually been a source of frustration to some of the strongest proponents of whiteness scholarship within the social sciences.” According to one scholar, “we have no standard way of classifying how whiteness, or any other dominant group identity, is experienced.”
This is unfortunate because “the lack of concrete, supporting evidence and analysis allows whiteness scholarship to be dismissed by skeptics and remain marginalized from mainstream scholars of race and ethnic relations who expect a certain amount and type of empirical evidence to support and advance theories.” It may be that “scholars of whiteness forgo the refinements and improvements that come when theories and facts confront each other on equal footing” in part because “data limitations seriously impede the ability of whiteness studies as a field to clarify and extend certain theoretical claims.” Moreover, “the richness and complexity of whiteness studies is difficult to capture for the purposes of quantitative testing and analysis.” The fact that “[k]ey ideas are inevitably simplified” and “other nuances and subtleties must be deemphasized or dropped altogether” leads to a situation in which “many critical race scholars are fundamentally skeptical of (if not simply opposed to) quantitative data and techniques to begin with.”
Hartmann et al are undeterred by these problems. They attempt “to formalize and empirically test core theoretical propositions about whiteness in order to better assess the claims of the field, adjudicate debates, and bring the study of white identity and culture more directly to the center of the field of ethnic and racial studies.” In this attempt, they make use of
data from a recent, nationally representative survey (2003, N = 2081) that contained items designed specifically to evaluate the generalizability and depth of three theoretical propositions we believe are core to whiteness studies: (1) the extent to which whites claim racial identities as salient and important; (2) understandings of racial privilege and the sources of racial advantage among whites; and (3) the degree of whites’ adherence to color-blind ideologies that justify racially structured inequalities.
In short, they look at whether whiteness is invisible to white people.
They authors themselves note the study’s limitations. For example, “respondent awareness and understanding is difficult to ask about when one’s orienting hypothesis is that individuals are not aware of their identities to begin with,” and “even the best survey items about beliefs and ideals cannot fully reveal what Arthur Stinchcombe (1982) once called the ‘deep cultural structures’ that condition, constrain, and indeed define ideologies and worldviews.” Nonetheless, Hartmann et al “remain convinced … that our approach can offer some initial, baseline data about contemporary manifestations of whiteness against which existing theories can be assessed and upon which future research and thinking can proceed.”
What White People Think About Race
Their findings provide strong evidence that whiteness is not as invisible to whites as whiteness scholars generally claim. At the very least, there are clear differences in the extent to which racial identity matters to whites and non-whites, but color-blind ideology and individualism do not appear to serve as hopeless ideological blindfolds when whites evaluate their socioeconomic success relative to non-white groups. The psychic weight of race may not be entirely unique to people of color.
For instance, the researchers find that “whites attach less importance to race than do racial minorities.” Yet nearly 75% of white Americans “said that their racial identity was either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important.’” In addition, “an overwhelming majority of white Americans wanted to preserve their racial culture (whatever that might be).” These findings cast doubt on the notion that colorblind ideology and individualism make white racial identity invisible to white people, in the sense that being white does not have meaning for white people. Hartmann et al cast doubt on “the magnitude of the whiteness phenomenon” and suggest that whiteness, “is somewhat less striking than the abstract theories may have led us to believe.” Whites may not be as colorblind or individualist as is assumed.
Whiteness scholars might cast doubt on these findings, claiming that any significance given by whites to white identity would be conceived in terms of white solidarity or some other defensive mindset implicitly designed to protect white privilege. As a result, they would fail to properly conceive of racism as a whiteness problem and thus fail to perceive the systemic advantages associated with white privilege.
The quantitative approach by Hartmann et al provides evidence that whites are indeed less likely to invoke systemic privilege as a structural factor that contributes to their overall success in life. Only 38% of whites agreed that laws and institutions are important factors contributing to African American disadvantage, compared to 66% of nonwhites. Moreover, only 46% of whites agreed that laws and institutions are important factors contributing to white advantage, compared to 81% of nonwhites. Similar results hold when asked whether “access to schools and social connections” explain white advantage or African American disadvantage. These differences “are all in the expected direction and statistically significant.”
However, despite the differences in perceptions between whites and nonwhites, two out of five whites agreed that laws and institutions are important factors contributing to African American disadvantage, and nearly half agreed that laws and institutions are important factors contributing to white advantage. Whites may be significantly less likely to invoke systemic advantages to explain success. However, they are not significantly more likely to explain success in terms of hard work or family upbringing. 89% of whites claimed “that effort and hard work explains white advantage,” but 81% of nonwhites made the same claim. These results, however, were not statistically significant. Meanwhile, 79% of whites explained success in terms of family upbringing, compared to 74% of nonwhites, a result that is statistically significant, but not large.
Hartmann et al write that “[p]art of the explanation for the relative lack of difference between whites and nonwhites on questions relating to effort and hard work may be due to the strong beliefs and adherence to traditional American values of individualism, independence, and hard work.” DiAngelo consistently makes this claim. But surprisingly, Hartmann et al write, “81 percent of nonwhites also agreed that effort and hard work were important in explaining whites’ advantage.” Moreover, “racial minorities were even more likely than whites to see the same factor as important in disadvantaging African Americans.” Apparently, write Hartmann et al, “…the effects of American ideals and individualism are strong for people across all racial groups in our society.”
What could explain why many nonwhites believe that whites work hard (which does not seem to mean harder than nonwhites) for their advantages? The answer may be that both whites and nonwhites believe in what whiteness scholars call colorblind ideology. Hartmann et al consider “whether whites are drawn generally to color-blind ideologies” by testing whether “individualist outlooks and meritocratic ideals … may hide structural inequalities.” They are, but so are nonwhites. “Whites and minorities show a nearly identical enthusiasm for individual freedoms and a preference for conformity,” and “also show similar skepticism of claims to group-based differences.” They generally agree that “it’s a problem if people think of themselves as mostly members of groups rather than individuals” and that “focusing too much on people’s different backgrounds divides people.” That said, “large and statistically significant differences do emerge between white and minority responses” when considering issues like “affirmative action and redistribution.”
Whites are highly likely to explain their success in terms of hard work and family upbringing, while “only 17 percent of whites said that favoritism helped them” (while acknowledging “that schools and social connections helped them”). Hartmann et al emphasize, however, “that a large proportion of nonwhites answered in the same way, and that the difference between the white and nonwhite responses was not statistically significant,” with the sole exception that “nonwhites were more likely to say that they were helped by favoritism than were whites (23 percent versus 17 percent).” In sum, “adherence to a color-blind ideology is nearly equally shared by all respondents, regardless of race.” It is not just whites, but all Americans, who adhere to colorblindness as “a distinctive aspect of ideology and identity.”
In conclusion, Hartmann et al find that “white Americans do indeed see their racial identities and culture as less salient and significant than Americans of color.” But “these differences are not as large as some formulations in the whiteness literature would lead us to expect.” In fact, “a full third of white Americans say that their white racial identity is very important, and about three-quarters agree with the proposition that their racial group has a culture that should be preserved.”
Moreover, while “whites are less likely to see and fully grasp racial inequalities in general and white advantages in particular than people of color as anticipated by theories of whiteness and white privilege,” many “whites actually do see the structural ways that they have been advantaged by their race, and the differences in magnitude of many of these results are far less significant than we might have anticipated previously.” Finally, “the extent to which white Americans adhere to color-blind ideologies is perhaps even less decisive for whiteness scholarship,” but “this is not because whites do not hold to color-blind, race-neutral ideologies but rather because Americans of all races express individualistic beliefs about their own success and the fairness of American social arrangements.” Adherence to colorblind ideology is not unique to white Americans. In whatever ways the psychic weight of race may be conceived, this weight is not unique to people of color.
Given the history of race relations in America, there should be no question that the legacy of racism has had a profound impact on racial disparities, giving rise to advantages conferred to whites that are broadly conceptualized by whiteness scholars as white privilege. One real-world context in which this phenomenon manifests is the psychic weight one might carry as a nonwhite person, who may often finds herself wondering more frequently than a white person would, whether her race has negative meaning in any given social context.
It is certainly important to acknowledge the psychic weight that nonwhites carry, but it does not necessarily follow that whites are socialized to consider race insignificant and without meaning, or that whites are so helplessly subservient to the ideologies of colorblindness and individualism that they cannot conceive of race as having a structural impact on socioeconomic outcomes. Hartmann et al provide an empirical analysis of some of the most basic claims of whiteness scholarship. They provide evidence that white Americans are not as subservient to ideologies of color-blindness and individualism, and that white racial identity is not as invisible to them as is often assumed.