Normative Whiteness

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I'm trying to think of as many cases of a particular concept as I can as an effort to present the strongest case for traditional liberal analyses of racial problems before balancing it out with the recent arguments of black conservatives that problems within the black community are at least as important in explaining the disparities.

Anyway, there's a term I've seen in the writings of Patricia Williams that I think does refer to some genuine social realities (though not to the degree she thinks). Normative whiteness is the social phenomenon of mainstream society, under greater influence of white people than any others, seeing whiteness as the norm (and therefore the sense such assumptions carry is that someone who isn't like that is abnormal in some way. Most of the time people don't really believe that these norms carry any kind of normative oughtness, at least once they see that people these norms are assumed. It's not racist in the sense that it involves racist attitudes. However, these might have negative effects and therefore might be considered unintentional racist practices. Whiteness, as a result, is mundane and common. Blackness (or insert any other groupness) therefore stands out. It's different, but it's not different in a symmetrical way. It's different in that something is added when there wasn't thought to have been anything unusual to begin with.

I'd like to identify some ways this is true. I can think of a few, but I'd like ideas for others, so please give me any ways you can think of that this happens even in very minor ways.

Here are some ideas I had. Think of the average American. Think of a group of ten people, each of whom would be good examples of the description 'the average American'. Is it likely that anyone in the group will be black? This may vary in different parts of the country, but it's not likely that most people in the country, certainly not most white people, will think of a black person when they think about the average American. For most white people, black people aren't representative of America, at least in that way.

Many white people assume they will marry someone who is white. Almost all white parents assume their children will marry someone who is white. When we see a group of people and want to point out one of them, who happens to be the only black one in the group, our first inclination is to say "the black one", though there's now social pressure to try to say something else. Most generic dolls, figurines to be placed on wedding cakes, and pictures of people tor hang on walls turn out to be white. This is assumed to be the default, and someone who wants images that look more like black people will often need to look a little harder.

Biology or medical textbooks describe external body part colors as if the people they're describing are white. Skin diseases that result in discoloration often give just the color white people's skin would be with such infections. Along the same lines, body parts that are generally pink in white people but dark brown in black people are described as pink in scientific accounts. In both cases, it is assumed that the white coloration is normal. White people might give their makeup to black people without wondering if it would even look ok. I remember growing up thinking Italians had dark skin. Well, they do, for white people. That's a sign that whiteness is normal.

There are items that (generally speaking) only black people will use, such as hair straightening and other cosmetic products. Most stores carry very few if any of these. It's true that proportionally black areas have stores with more of these, but the fact that some stores carry almost none of these products is probably, at least in some cases, because whoever is in charge of ordering just doesn't think about such things. Trent Lott's foible with his tribute to Strom Thurmond is evidence of the same sort of thing. He wouldn't have said what he said if he had thought very hard about how black people would hear it. That would have been political suicide. What that means is that he might have no ill-will to black people, but he's not thinking about them when he said this. They're not on his radar.

These are all examples of the sense among many white people that whiteness is the norm. It's assumed that someone is white unless it's made clear that the person isn't. It's true that more people in the United States are in fact white. However, the percentages aren't enough to make that majority a great enough majority to constitute normalcy. (This isn't true in, say, northern New Hampshire, but it is true if you're talking about the country as a whole.)

Can anyone think of other examples, particularly ones that show how widespread this phenomenon is?


I'm not familiar with Patricia Williams, so I will have to look her up, but I think that the situation she describes is very similar to that of hand preference, to use a less-political example. I just got a guitar and we had a terribly difficult time finding a left-handed one. You can't just walk into the average store and pick one up.

I don't think normative whiteness is quite as pervasive as normative right-handedness, but I don't question its existence. I think, in an instance that is very difficult to substantiate, that there is a great degree of normative whiteness in the media. While this has changed because of external pressure, think of Friends and Seinfeld to name two shows. How white was their world-- and those shows took place in New York. Those don't necessarily stand as "proof" of normative whiteness, but I think there's a correlation in there somewhere.

you asked for minor examples, so I'll give you just the ones I can think of off the top of my head right now:

-"nude" colored stockings
-"flesh"-colored paints and colored pencils (for those of us too lazy to mix our own colors)

So normative whiteness makes non-white depictions of society the "other?" I'm not saying that's your opinion, but in most cases, the other is perceived to be bad, while the self is good. That being said, this disassociation may not be overtly racist, or even covertly racist, but a fear of the unknown, or more appropriately the "less known"? Is normative whiteness a manifestion of historical racism, laziness, a product of heterogenous societies, or a combination of all?

There is a famous study in which the words "good" and "bad" were associated with pictures of black and white faces. Based on pre-test surveys, even those that had no discernable bias chose white + good more oven than black + good. This was true even of black participants. Really weird, in this case it would appear that minorities are placing themselves in the category of of the "other."

It's my opinion that normative whiteness is no longer a matter of racism but laziness and habit.

Just a thought.

I think the left-handed case shows that at least some of it just has to do with people not thinking about those who aren't like them, with absolutely no ill will. In some cases there are genuine racist attitudes, but mostly the result is what they call institutional racism, a way that structures in society (which don't have any intentions, racist or otherwise) help further unintended racial discrimination or other effects that tend to harm underrepresented or undervalued minorities (in the U.S. case anyway -- in South Africa it would be the majority, but there's also a lot more in the way of outright racist attitudes there also).

I don't think it's so much that minorities are placing themselves as "the other". It's more that some aspects of whiteness are assumed to be normal, and black people as a result tend to think that some aspects of themselves are just not normal. So of course they're going to have some thoughts that they would prefer things that are generally true of white people.

Given the high incidence of victimology among black people in America (which John McWhorter defines as interpreting small slights, unintended slights, or even just general rudeness unrelated to race as racism directed deliberately against the person and acting as if it's the major problem -- all with the intent to make the other person feel bad with no sense of doing something positive to help), I don't see how you could just say that black people see white people as good and black people as bad. There's a lot of animosity toward white people, and some young black men will assume a white person is an evil racist or at least a collaborator with an enemy system just because the person is white. No explanation for why they didn't get the job is ok except racism, that kind of thing. Once you see that, it's very hard to think black people love white people and hate black people. There may be tendencies in both directions, but it's at least more complicated than that.

Again, I think that the media is key in this. Not necessarily a conspirator per se, but to the extent that it sort of determines our cultural norms. (And I guess to be specific, I'm probably thinking mostly of television.) Or if it doesn't actually determine our norms, it certainly displays our norms. So, in the example of black people reacting to the white=good, black=bad, I think that this is related to McWhorter's original statement about who people would pick as an "average American."

For instance, as a part of my graduate work I have been working in some high schools in PG County, MD with high immigrant populations. The racial makeup of one of the schools is almost entirely Black (necessarily of American descent), black immigrant, and hispanic/latino(a) immigrant. The interesting thing is that the recent Hispanic immigrants think that the U.S. is mostly black. I would argue that this is because their experience has dictated to them what the world is like, as opposed to the box.

Similarly, my mother told me that growing up, she didn't know her family was poor until they got a television, even though they didn't have indoor plumbing until she was 9.

None of this is to suggest that normative whiteness would not exist without the media. I would be very suprised if there are still many white people whose only experience with blacks (at least for a portion of their lives) is via the box. But to the extent that blacks and other groups see themselves as the other, I think that that could be considered as evidential.

Oh! Just thought about this too, as a means of adding another texture and dimension to the discussion. Jeremy, as you're constructing your argument, you might want to look at how various white immigrant groups became "white" and see what that suggests about "whiteness" in general.

Do you mean groups that historically had serious problems being recognized as in the same category of English-descended Americans, e.g. Italians and Irish? That does provide an interesting parallel, especially when it's clear that those groups had similar prejudices and discriminations against them as what black people had legally against them until the 1960s. Most white immigrant groups don't have that element.

To further complicate the discussion... When I was in college, I was involved in a student ministry that worked with kids living in one of the (predominately black) housing projects in the city. There were only a couple of white kids who lived there, and what I noticed with the one little girl was that when she was coloring, she'd color the faces she drew black. For her, the normative color seemed to have been blackness, while, interestingly, the black kids generally left the faces in their pictures white.

I think an example of normative whiteness would be the way that, if the color of a person isn't specified, most people's mental image of that person will be white.

I just remembered when I was writing about Al Sharpton-- one of the most significant aspects of normative whiteness- people think Jesus is white. And will fight you if you say otherwise.

I've heard people insist that Jewish people are white, so if they think that then they should think Jesus is white. When talking about race relations between black and white in the U.S., Jewish people are part of the white majority. When talking about racial interaction between white European-descended Christian-cultured people and anyone else, Jewish people are in the "anyone else" category.

Agreed-- sort of. I think that in America, Jewish people are white, depending on the context and who you ask, which is kind of what you said. However, I think the idea of Jesus being white goes outside the idea of Jesus being Jewish. That is, historically we know that Jesus was Jewish. However, I would argue that many people who don't really interrogate their faith might remember that if you told them, but it's not something they keep in mind. Moreover, in this case, I'm not referring to Jesus in the sense of the flesh that God put on, I say Jesus meaning God. Of course, if we think about it, it would be senseless to try to ascribe a "race" to God, but (and I still haven't caught up to P. Williams' book) I would argue that a central feature of normative whiteness would be that if people had to assign a race to God, perhaps by visual representation, they would make Him white without even thinking about it. Not Semetic Jewish-looking, European, blue-eyed, all-American white. (Unless they made him a very, very old man with a long,shaggy beard and long, flowing hair, kind of like a not-so-crippled Father Time.) Look back at some old classic pictures of Jesus. The person in those pictures is American. So is, I think, many peoples idea of Jesus, and therefore God.

As an idea, another way you might look at this is to analyze different "racial" groups' representations of God. That is, to what extent do people think that God looks like them? A central feature of NOI and Black Nationalist critique of Black Christianity is that in accepting Christianity, blacks have accepted a white God. They then point out that every other group has a god that looks like them. I don't know how true that is, but I think it would probably be worth looking into. Especially if you consider the ramifications of all the things you mentioned up top with the white=good/black=bad dynamic and the objectification needed to justify the type of activity that took place during the era of colonialism.

There are a lot of directions you could go with this. I wish you the best. But do you ever get the sense that regardless of political affiliation, Americans tend to think God is American?

Colorblind is not good because people get treated wrong.

I need to know...why are all "black" people's hands and feet almost a pink color?

That would be because there's less melanin there.

All these years later, I want to weigh in on this conversation. There are two points that I want to address: 1) normative whiteness in general and 2) the famous good and bad test. With regards to normative whiteness I believe that the idea (or theory) might best be understood using everyday examples from the world around you. Look at the labels on the products you buy...chances are you will see a white face. Look at the television commercials and television shows. Unless the subject of the commercial or the television show is directed to a specific audience (that is, if the commercial or television show is aired for general consumption), the faces in the commercial will most likely be white. And when there are non-white faces shown, note the location of them...usually to the far left or far right and near the rear. The next time you watch a commercial look at the white woman in the kitchen with her kid. I'm almost certain you will see something to lead you to think that she is married (a reference to daddy by the kid, a wedding band, or a picture). Then take a look at an black woman with her child. Rare is the time that you will see any reference to her being portrayed as being in a "relationship" with a significant other...unless the significant other is a white male. Our entire society is geared towards making what is white...that which is right...the standard. Going on a job interview where you'll deal with the public or where you're in a professional position? Would you consider wearing something ethnic but of equal quality as the suit? Not if you wanted the job. As to the good and bad test. We are, as a society, indoctrinated to believe that what is good is white and what is bad is black. The good guys wear the white hat, and the bad ones wear the black. There's black Sunday to remind us of something really bad. There's black and blue to describe injuries (where in people of color, those injuries would best be described as purple, brown, reddish or copper). There's the black heart to show that someone is cruel or heartless. The black widow...that's pretty obvious. Let's see, black mail for extortion...these are things everyone uses at one time or another. But with African-Americans (blacks was the term used when I was growing up...well, one of them anyways) there's black ass, you so black black this or that, black as the ace of spade (that one's chocked full of whammies). The point being this...we're taught to believe that black is bad, that black is the opposite of white. So, of course when the little brown girls were given white and black dolls they chose the white ones because the black ones were 'ugly', nappy-headed. If you're white and watching television with a friend one day, a white friend, pick a commercial or show that has only whites in it...then ask them if there was anything strange about the people in the show. I've done this time and again with my friends and the white ones didn't think it strange at all that everyone in the show, the commercials and trailers were white. People of color, on the other hand, are acutely aware when the cast of a show doesn't have a single person that looks like them. One last thing...if you still don't think white is normative in our society. Go to a department store. Walk around and take a look at how people are treated. A raggedy looking, scruffy faced, long haired white dude or a trashy looking white girl might get only the occasional upward glance when they walk in...they will be waited on promptly (in most cases), smiled at and spoken to when they come to the register. But a person of color, particularly a black person, nicely dressed, minding their own business is going to be followed and stared at; he or she may or may not be greeted at the register. He or she will likely notice that they are being watched, but when they get to the register suddenly no one is there to help. Normative whiteness is, in my opinion, at all times an act of racism, laziness and aggression. Normative whiteness does make the statement that white is the standard and everything else falls into the hierarchy according to the lightness or darkness of their skin (the lighter (or whiter) the skin pigment, the higher up one is placed in the hierarchy.

I don't actually agree with all you say. Some of it seems to me to be in need of more careful gathering of evidence and based on a subjective sense of what must be true. We tend to see things in terms of your own narratives, and the understanding of normative whiteness as a social phenomenon becomes a narrative in itself, therefore accommodating things that aren't really part of it into itself so we interpret things that aren't normative whiteness as if they are.

There are certainly product examples and TV examples like those you give, but there are also examples where people consciously buck the trend. I wouldn't, for example, insist that every example of a black woman and a kid in a commercial will have no indication that she even has a significant other. Too many counterexamples exist. I also would say that some instances of single black moms in commercials are actually intended to include single black moms as a demographic, so a commercial showing one might actually be an attempt to include them as normal. It would be worth looking at every commercial on any given network for a certain period of time and seeing what the numbers show, because subjective sense of things is usually deceptive when you're looking for examples to fit your sense of things.

As for job interviews, there's a standard uniform. It's pretty much a fact of Western society that this is the uniform, and it's not a white uniform. Blacks and other non-whites have had a role in selecting which kinds of outfits are acceptable. It's not as if the outfits we're expected to wear at interviews are the same as they were in the 1950s when not many blacks would be at high-end interviews. As the culture has changed, it's come to include the standards of black dress, and black dress has changed in ways that sometimes are influenced by mainstream culture and sometimes are in their own direction. Look at what black people tend to wear to church and what white people tend to wear. It's impossible to claim that mainstream standards are simply white standards in a society where mainstream standards have been so significantly influenced by the various cultural expectations of a diverse group of communities. It's much messier than simply applying the narrative about normative whiteness. Reality doesn't correspond exactly to such a simplified picture, even if there are elements of that narrative there.

White as good and black as bad is a lot older than the modern concept of race. There was no sense of white people as good and black people as bad in the ancient world. People might have been suspicious of people of other cultures in the ancient world, but they certainly didn't group people by races the way we do, as if everyone with darker skin is black and everyone with lighter skin is light. Yet they did have the concept of black as bad and white as good, and it's actually pretty obvious where that came from if you aren't trying to read modern normative whiteness into everything. It came from the fact that nighttime is scary in a world where there aren't streetlights on every corner, and daytime is much more congenial. Darkness has always been seen as bad, and it's always been used as a metaphor for evil or danger, and it has absolutely nothing to do with race. There probably have been occasions where people have later imported racial narratives into that already-existing narrative of light and dark, but the initial metaphor is not racial by any means, and it's a bit much to import racial narratives into the larger narrative unless the case you're looking at clearly involves those racial elements.

I have never seen my wife followed in a store, and I've never seen it with any other black person I've been with or even around. There have been plenty of times when people have assumed that we're not together, which assumes the normative of same-race relationships, but I've never seen her treated any differently from a white person dressed similarly and in the same demographic otherwise (usually mom with kids). It may be different for teens, but white teens dressed similarly have at least some heightened level of interest, especially if they won't wear their pants pulled up or exhibit other signs associated with hoodlum behavior. There probably is a little more attention paid to black youth who look like hoodlums than to white youth who do. But I've seen this complain so significantly exaggerated compared to what I've seen with my own eyes that I have trouble accepting it the way you and others seem to me to be describing it. I'm sufficiently aware of this regular complaint that I'd be noticing it if experience bore it out.

As for being greeted at the register, that probably depends on where you live, the personality of the person working at the register, and the policies of the store. Some stores expect it of their help, and others don't. Some people aren't naturally greeters, and the culture of the northeast doesn't encourage it. The only way to substantiate such claims is to go to a store and watch the patrons to see how they're treated differently by the same clerk. I have my doubts that it will be substantially different treatment, at least in the places I've lived. I have enough experience witnessing my wife being greeted at the register and enough experience not being greeted in a very friendly way myself when alone that it's very hard to make this case without doing a study by the numbers that removes factors of situational variation.

Your conclusion is false. Normative whiteness is not at all times an act of laziness or aggression. It is often, probably almost always, unseen to the person participating in it. It is not voluntary in most cases. Sometimes the person is aware of it but chooses not to act more appropriately, and in those cases it's laziness or aggression (depending on whether ill will is actually meant), but most cases certainly are not like that. Normative whiteness is a hidden process that most people who further it are simply unable to see because they don't think of their social position as being raced at all.

Hi - I just happened to walk into a conversation which started 9 years ago, and last responded to over 6 years ago. I was actually searching for a dialogue on the use of "not-white" as opposed to "non-white", and really thank you guys for an interesting debate. It might be interesting to disclose that I am a black/Jamaican living in the UK for some 50 years, most of which I have been engaged in doing battle with British racism. I have also been married to a white (Polish/English) woman and we have three lovely boys now into their 30s. However, it is the story about us when the lads were about 10-12 I want to share. We could describe ourselves as "middle class" and generally "comfortably" off. As we sat around the dinner table one day, there was a discussion about how racist white people were, and our middle son was particularly peeved because he was called "half-caste" by a visitor to his school. With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I challenged them for being so harsh and abusive to "white people" when their mother was also white. Well, 20 years later I can still remember the uncontrolled laughter directed at me by all three boys. "Mum? She is not white - she is mother!" they roared (and there were not the slightest bit of embarrassment in their laughter). I was somewhat taken aback by the response, and me being made to be the butt of an apparent "joke". Whilst I will leave it up to you to analyse what might have been going on there, let me say that just as my wife as a little Polish girl had been taken to Saturday Polish school every Saturday to learn the language which was her first language, she had also insisted in taking all three boys almost every Saturday to participate in black cultural activities (music, dance, gymnastic, theatre, etc) without fail. Our home has always been dotted with Black literature/books - and yes I was a bit embarrass by her appreciation of some black music, e.g. Tupac!

Now I would refute the suggestion of my family being normative of racially mix-couples, but I have become weary of suggesting who to call "white" - though I am firmly and irrecoverably "black". In an age of the global village when I coached two Chinese students in Bejing on Skype to improve their English; when I now speak to our youngest (married and living in Brisbane) on FaceTime; speak to family members living in the Caribbean or Toronto; and visit my wife's Polish relatives in Poland - some drastic conceptual changes seem necessary to place the roots of race prejudice behind us. I am reminded of one of our TV interviewers being challenged some years ago by Mohammed Ali when he insinuated that Ali was not really black; the great man took out his white handkerchief, held it to the interviewer's face and said "neither are you white, Mr Parkinson"! The concepts attached to the notion of "white" is not just "normative" but "neutral and natural". I therefore fly off the handle when "non-white" is used to represent me - yes, as the inescapable "other" to "white". "Not-white" is different. It makes me neither normative, representative, unnatural nor in any way extreme. It asserts that I am here and available to encounter and be encountered. It says I am not here to be what you think I am or want you to make me; I am here because having, like you, won my first race up the Fallopian tube (well, half of me anyway), I had a miraculous birth, and now await the judgment of the contents of my character. Idealistic? Of course; but I think you will see the direction in which I am travelling. The sooner we ditch this notion of "white" being "normative", the quicker we will be on the road to forming proper judgment of people. And no, I don't feel the same way about "black" because there is no such thing. I belong to a criminal justice organization here that defines "black" as a political term which emphasizes the common experiences and common determination of people of African, African-Caribbean and Asian origin to oppose the effects of racism. My children usefully include their mother (to my shame) as someone whose parents suffered in a Polish labour camp and therefore as someone with that common determination to oppose the effects of racism. Out of the mouths of children, eh! Again, thanks for the opportunity for these comments over time.

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