The 2021 disturbing series Them is an example of a new type of storytelling that overlaps the drama of being Black in the US with the horror genre. The story takes place over 10 days during which a Black family moves into a “blindingly white suburb.” The family, determined to access the rewards of being middle class, decide to bear the increasing hostility of their white neighbors. The racial trauma of each family member is reflected in the relationships they each have to the supernatural world. While there are valid critiques of this series, it excels in capturing the unvarnished and unabashed violence of Whiteness.
Stories like this that depict Whiteness are important because, as philosopher Foucault writes about the evolution of dominant power, “Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown and what was manifested….Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility” (Discipline and Punish, 1977).
Stories by Black people about their experience of white people flip the subject/object mirror to examine power that prefers to stay hidden. And, as we will see, this seeing changes the way dominant power is exercised, so that we can see the evolution of Whiteness as a construct. This has become more critical as a white pride “movement” seeks to advance an explicitly supremacist brand of Whiteness—the violence at its core now laid bare—as a culture of which it can be proud.
Utilizing the tried-and-true tactic of reversal, proponents of white pride now claim they are oppressed by demands for equality and justice, and they must “protect” themselves from racialized “others,” by any means necessary, including violence.
Thirty years ago, a group of Black psychiatrists sought to have “extreme bigotry” classified as a mental disorder. However, the American Psychiatric Association rejected the recommendation, “arguing that because so many Americans are racist, even extreme racism in this country is normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology.”
Alvin F. Poussaint, an American psychiatrist well-known for his research on the effects of racism in the Black community, has been a key proponent of declaring extreme racism a mental health problem. He writes,
To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness.
However, a recent paper in the field of psychology offers a perspective on Whiteness that those who care about justice may find useful, as it finally weighs in on the psychology of Whiteness. “Measuring Whiteness: A Systematic Review of Instruments and Call to Action,” by R.C. Schooley, Debbiesiu L. Lee, and Lisa B. Spanierman, takes an interesting approach by analyzing the various tools for measuring Whiteness to see what they tell us about it.
The authors define Whiteness as,
A multidimensional construct that envelops racial attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and experiences most prevalently, but not exclusively, related to White people and the privileged position White people embody in a racially hierarchical society. More specifically, Whiteness is a set of often unnamed and unmarked cultural and racial practices (eg customs, traditions), values, and attitudes that signify what is considered normative, thus privileging White skin and naturalizing systems of White supremacy. Whiteness is transmitted and continually reproduced at individual, cultural, and institutional levels. (532)
The study of Whiteness dates back over 100 years.
Historically, Whiteness was invented as a means for ruling elites to retain power by providing a psychological wage linked to social gains for White workers. More specifically, Whiteness was used to privilege workers considered White by providing them a social status above Black workers. This racial supremacy made it less likely for White workers to oppose the White power elite. (531-532)
So, Whiteness as a racial identity was constructed to redirect the interest of white workers away from people of color, with whom they shared many working conditions, and towards the white elite, who sought their allegiance as a buffer to resistance.
The authors identified 18 measures of Whiteness spanning 50 years—1967 to 2017—comprised of four themes: attitudes toward Black people/integration, modern racism, white racial identity, and white privilege and antiracism (551). They also found that, though the function of Whiteness remained the same—to maintain a privileged position, the way it was exercised changed over time in response to challenges.
The early measures, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s—captured in the theme attitudes toward Black people/integration—assess attitudes regarding integration, stemming from the Civil Rights legislation, a victory of the Civil Rights Movement. It focused on three kinds of integration:
The character of Black people, and their advancement in the US
The integration of institutions and public spaces in the US
Comfort with cross-racial contact
Examples of items on such measures are:
“Blacks should be given the same opportunities as whites.”
“I would rather not have blacks live in the same apartment building I live in.”
“Black people are demanding too much too fast in their push for equal rights.”
Measures spanning 1983 to 2002—with the theme of modern racism—“targeted subtler forms of racism…that arose after overt racism was deemed less socially acceptable” (552). Here, the authors begin to see attitudinal ambivalence that they describe as “a growing belief among White Americans that racism no longer endured in everyday life, and possible resentment toward social policies established to support racial equity.” Thus, these measures conceptualize this denial itself as a measure of racist attitudes; the extent of the denial becomes a measure of racism. They measure three kinds of denial:
Modern Racism: “The belief that racism is only defined by negative stereotypes or explicit discriminatory acts”
Color-blind Racism: The belief that “racism doesn’t exist”; “that race does not influence individual attitudes or social institutions”
Symbolic Racism: Prejudicial beliefs that position Black people as homogeneous and defying of social norms, which derive from white cultural values
Example of items are:
“Everyone who works hard, no matter what race they are, has an equal chance to become rich.”
“Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same.”
“How much of the racial tension in the United States today do you think blacks are responsible for creating?”
The measures developed between 1989 and 2017—in the third theme, white racial identity—are an outgrowth of the development of white racial identity theory. These measures expanded the perspective from white attitudes towards Black people to how white people view their own racial group. They also introduced power, privilege, and guilt as key components of white identity. It is the explicit naming of Whiteness as a racial group.
A key figure in the field of white racial identity theory is Janet Helms, a Black American research psychologist known for her study of racial identity as a process people undergo. The founding director of Boston College’s Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, she is an expert on Whiteness who expanded the conversation beyond whether or not white people are racist by offering a framework for the evolution of the integration of white racial identity vis-a-vis the racial identity of Black people. In her 2020 book, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person, Helms writes, “White privilege…is the foundation of racism.” She sees race as a power system.
Helms identified five racial identity statuses:
Contact: White people are aware of Black people and approach them with curiosity, “unaware of racial dynamics”
Disintegration: White people realize they are racialized beings and it “creates cognitive dissonance”
Re-integration: White people are “positively biased towards white people,” and fearful of and hostile towards Black people
Pseudo-independence: White people intellectually accept Black people as human beings and are curious about humans as racial beings
Autonomy: “White people are secure in their racial identity” and accept differences without creating hierarchies
An example of items on such measures:
“I am willing to interact with Blacks that I perceive to be my equal in intelligence or socio-economic status.”
“When a Black person holds an opinion with which I disagree, I am not afraid to express my viewpoint.”
“I am curious to learn in what ways Black people and White people differ from each other.”
Helms was inspired by Black theorist and researcher William E. Cross’s Nigrescence Theory, a model of the psychology of becoming Black, first captured in his 1971 book Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity. “The basic concept of the model is that Blacks who have a sense of acceptance of being Black are psychologically healthier and have higher self-esteem.” It also has five stages.
Pre-Encounter: Black people who operate with an assimilation paradigm and have a “low salience for race,” which can extend to anti-Black attitudes
Encounter: Black people who experience a “shocking personal or social event” that shatters their identity and propels them towards change
Internalization: Black people who can “defend and protect” themselves from racists psychological insults, have a sense of “belonging and social anchorage,” and can interact well “beyond the world of Blackness”
Internalization-Commitment: Black people who, because of their experience with Blackness, become committed to taking action for social change
Note that the very definition of psychological health differed for Black and white people, with Black people developing their ability to protect themselves and interact authentically in White-dominant societies and white people developing secure identities that do not rely on the subjugation of Black people.
Finally, between 2004 and 2013—with the fourth theme of white privilege and antiracism—the measures shifted from examining different statuses to focusing explicitly on power and privilege, regardless of racial identity status. White privilege was defined as “unearned advantages benefitting White people in racially stratified societies. Antiracism was defined as “action that reduces power differentials through advantaging subordinate racial groups and/or disadvantaging dominant racial groups” (548-549).
These measures assess two things:
Awareness of and attitudes towards unearned racial advantages
How white people interpret and address the causes of racial inequity
An example of items:
“Many rules and laws in this society have been formulated according to the standards of White people.”
“I plan to work to change our unfair social structure that promotes White privilege.”
“I am worried that taking action against White privilege will hurt my relationships with other Whites.”
The authors note that the literature thus far is silent on “explicit and overt White supremacist attitudes,” “nuances in White racial attitudes concerning various racial groups,” and “intersectional analysis across context” (553-556).
The purpose of their study is “to help individuals and communities effectively navigate the current sociopolitical climate in ways that promote racial justice,” and to assert that counseling psychologists have a unique role to play.
But what about civil society leaders? What role do we play in the construction of identities? If we think that that is not our work, we are wrong. History teaches us that our response to racialized identity constructs really does matter. We are part of that development. What do we do now that Whiteness, exposed, snarls at us again? Perhaps the work is not to respond to racialized identity constructs anymore, but to construct liberatory identities beyond race.