Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of academic inquiry focused on the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status. Pioneers in the field include Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992), and historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991). By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and whiteness has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.
A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism and historicism, in which the very concept of race is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 1800s, critics of the concept of race have questioned if human races even exist and pointed out that arbitrary categories based on phenotypical characteristics are chosen, and that the idea of race is not about important differences within the human species.
Major areas of research include the nature of white identity and of white privilege, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity. Many scientists have demonstrated that racial theories are based upon an arbitrary clustering of phenotypical categories and customs, and can overlook the problem of gradations between categories. A reflexive understanding of such presumptions also informs work within the field of whiteness studies.
Whiteness emerged as a focus of inquiry within the academy, primarily in the United States and the UK, as early as 1983. The "canon wars" of the late 1980s and 1990s, a political controversy over the centrality of white authors and perspectives, led scholars to ask "how the imaginative construction of 'whiteness' had shaped American literature and American history." The field developed a large body of work during the early 1990s, extending across the disciplines of "literary criticism, history, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, communication studies, music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore."
As of 2004, according to The Washington Post, at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with research on post-colonial theory and orientalism taking place in the Arts and Humanities, Sociology, Literature, Communications, Cultural and Media and Studies faculties and departments, amongst others (e.g. Kent, Leeds). Also heavily engaged in whiteness studies are practitioners of anti-racist education, such as Betita Martinez and the Challenging White Supremacy workshop.
Whiteness studies draws on research over the last forty years into the definition of race, almost entirely within the American context (though see Bonnett, A. 2000 White Identities). This research emphasizes the social construction of white, Native, and black identities in interaction with the institutions of slavery, colonial settlement, citizenship, and industrial labor. Scholars such as Winthrop Jordan have traced the evolution of the legally defined line between "blacks" and "whites" to colonial government efforts to prevent cross-racial revolts among unpaid laborers.
Macquarie University academic Joseph Pugliese is among writers who have applied whiteness studies to an Australian context, discussing the ways that Indigenous Australians were marginalized in the wake of British colonization of Australia, as whiteness came to be defined as central to Australian identity. Pugliese discusses the 20th century White Australia policy as a conscious attempt to preserve the "purity" of whiteness in Australian society.
Writers such as Peggy McIntosh say that there are social, political, and cultural advantages accorded to whites in American society. She argues that these advantages seem invisible to most whites, but obvious to others. For instance, "I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untouched way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (188).. McIntosh calls for Americans to acknowledge white privilege so that we can more effectively attain equality in American society. She argues, "To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects" (192).
Preceeding Critical Race Theory, theorists of Critical Whiteness Studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. Currently, there is a great deal of overlap between Critical Whiteness Studies and Critical Race Theory as demonstrated by focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power. There is a frequent misunderstanding whereby Critical Whiteness Studies is subsumed within Critical Race Theory even though the latter preceded the former by more than half a century. Some trace the origins of Critical Whiteness Studies to W.E.B. DuBois' "The Souls of White Folk" chapter in "Darkwater", and fields such as History and Cultural Studies are primarily responsible for the formative scholarship of Critical Whiteness Studies.
One group of people involved in these discussions advocates a strategy they call race treason, and are grouped around articles appearing in the journal Race Traitor. The adherents' main argument is that whiteness (as a marker of a social status within the United States) is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to what they consider an oppressive social order. This loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: suppression of slave rebellions, participation in patrols for runaways, maintenance of race exclusionary unions, participation in riots, support for racist violence, and participation in acts of violence during the conquest of western North America. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of "white skin" (or as physical anthropologists would deem this construct, the phenotype of historical North Atlantic Europeans) as a marker for social consent. With sufficient "counterfeit whites" resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this tradition argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. Without such a period, they argue, progress towards social justice is impossible, and thus "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity."
In Race Traitor, the editors cite as the basis for their proposed actions a call by African American writers and activists—notably W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin--for whites to break solidarity with American racism. Since that racism involves the awarding of various forms of white privilege, some have even argued that every white identity is drawn into that system of privilege. Only identities which seek to transcend or defy that privilege, they argue, are effectively anti-racist. This essential argument echoes Baldwin's declaration that, "As long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you," in an essay in which he acknowledges a variety of European cultures, a multiracial American culture, but no white culture per se which can be distinguished from the maintenance of racism.
Race Traitor advocates have sought examples of race treason by whites in American history. One historical figure consistently valorized by Race Traitor (a publication favorable to the tenets of whiteness studies) is John Brown, a Northern abolitionist of European descent who battled slavery in western territories of the United States and led a failed but dramatic raid to free slaves and create an armed anti-slavery force at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Visions of praxis cited by Race Traitor writers range from anti-racist unionism (such as DRUM in Detroit), collaboration in urban uprisings, and documenting and interfering with police abuse of people of color. Joel Olson has written about a theoretical vision in his book The Abolition of White Democracy.
Writer David Horowitz draws a distinction between whiteness studies and other disciplines. "Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women's studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil."
Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post, has sharply criticized Whiteness Studies. She wrote that Whiteness Studies "points to a new low in moral vacuity and civilizational self-loathing" and is an example of "academic pusillanimity." According to Kay, Whiteness Studies "cuts to the chase: It is all, and only, about white self-hate."
Regarding the Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC), a think tank for Whiteness Studies, Kay noted that CSWAC co-founder and executive director Jeff Hitchcock has stated that: "There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of colour... We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today... which damage and prevent the humanity of those of us within it."
Kay also wrote that:
[Whiteness Studies] teaches that if you are white, you are branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin. You can try to mitigate your evilness, but you can't eradicate it. The goal of WS is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone -- eternal victimhood for nonwhites, eternal guilt for whites -- and was most famously framed by WS chief guru, Noel Ignatiev, former professor at Harvard University [sic, Ignatiev was a Ph.D. student and then a tutor at Harvard, but never a professor], now teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art: "The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race -- in other words, to abolish the privileges of the white skin."
While "white" architecture has been fashionable since the 1920s as a particular kind of Modernist style, the links between architecture and race have only recently been researched and analysed by scholars. The focus of such work is on the way that architecture and architectural discourse has been used to maintain cultural distinctions favourable to 'Whiteness' and patriarchy.