“To be White was to be Free, and to be Free was to be White”

Carolyn Edwards, PhD
11 min readMay 20, 2023
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Whiteness and privilege are viewed as individual achievements through hard work and determination, not through societal norms that limits white freedom from Blacks. There are numerous definitions for “whiteness.” Toni Morrison observes, “In this country, ‘American’ means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” There are African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Native-Americans but whites are generally referred to as Americans by white people assuming they are the foundation of being American. I concur with Tyler Stovall’s premise of whiteness as the racialization of freedom and that whiteness and white racial identify are systemically built into the idea of American freedom.

Whiteness may remain partially hidden until a white person views themselves as a racial minority when interacting with non-whites or feeling marginalized because they are white. For example, affirmative action causes anxiety for some white people because they believe their whiteness is being used against them to favor non-whites. Many people see their whiteness at an early age as a definition of what they are not and believe they should feel no guilt or have their whiteness used against them. Barbara Flagg states a characteristic of whiteness is not having to think about being white in what she calls, the “transparency phenomenon.”

Whiteness is reinforced by presenting white people as heroic, resourceful, and virtuous through cultural references in music, literature, cinema, and the arts while presenting Black roles as stereotypically negative. Common culture is constructed with these racial ideas through language communication ranging from the arts to kitchen table conversations.

Whites are mostly portrayed as cultural heroes while non-whites are portrayed as villains, reinforcing stereotypes of racial characteristics that resonate with whites on an unconscious level. Marvin Jones states many Christian traditions view Black as the marked of the cursed and sin while white is viewed as “innocence or wisdom.” Together, this presentation forms a white and Black framework consisting of spiritual equality and secular inferiority. This contrasting imagery was utilized throughout colonization and slavery to justify white domination, including the view that Blackness represents an absence of virtue and intelligence.

Toni Morrison describes this phenomenon of whiteness as minimizing Black characters by making them “dead, impotent, or under complete control” in sharp contrasts to how white characters are portrayed. Du Bois places this American understanding of whiteness back to the colonist days. The Constitution, based on the Slave Power Conspiracy, counted whites as one person and the enslaved Black population as three-fifths of a person, thereby increasing federal white representation without a Black voice. Ultimately, this lack of a Black voice also led to a lack of Black freedom.

Barbara Flagg believes white people externalize and are unconscious about race unless they are speaking to or about non-whites. While whites are in a conscious state, they are predominately unconscious about their whiteness and do not see themselves in racial terms. Whiteness is transparent unless contrasted with nonwhites. This transparency reflects whiteness as a universally shared privilege of freedom between white people. The only reason to take notice outside this safety net of whiteness, is if one feels superior or their position is threatened. With a neutral whiteness perspective, one may view social norms based on white standards without recognizing their inherent racism. Whiteness is seen as a racial norm where only the Black person is different while white people see themselves as raceless.

Gary Nash notes whiteness became more evident as “race became the primary badge of status.” This magnification of whiteness was due to the requirement for plantation owners to maintain and grow their power. Theodore Allen states “race consciousness superseded class-consciousness so the plantation owning oligarchy could maintain social and economic control of capital accumulation.

Cheryl Harris posits the conceptual relationship between race and property secured white supremacy through an intertwining and conflation of rights as the central tenet of exclusion. She defines whiteness as property originally used as a form of racial identity that was legally protected. Whiteness evolved into an asset with the right to exclude others while providing social privileges to those that possessed it. Whiteness as property became substantiated in Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, and more recently in affirmative action rulings.

Derrick Bell and other legal scholars state these types of legal rulings confirm the court’s belief of whiteness as a property right that provides an advantage for those with a white identity over Black people. Whiteness arguments used against affirmative action cases reflect a perceived disadvantage to the white identity. This view assumes racism is based on two tenets; property and racial hierarchy with property protected by the U.S. Constitution. The entanglement of property and racial hierarchy of whiteness has been used to systemically reduce legal freedoms for non-whites.

History has repeatedly reflected Black lives are viewed as less deserving of freedom than white lives, from the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution to the institutionalized legality of laws such as slavery and Jim Crow. James Baldwin wrote, “America became white — the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white — because of the necessity of denying the Black presence and justifying the Black subjugation.” C. Vann Woodward states Jim Crow laws were intended to “bolster the creed of white supremacy in the bosom of a white man working for a black man’s wages.” This bolstering provides the illusion of white superiority, even for those whites at the bottom of the economic ladder. Poor whites continued to identify with whites outside of their economic and social circles rather than finding social and economic commonality with their Black counterparts that reflects a racial solidarity over class.

It was necessary to draw a racial line between poor Black and white labor to strengthen white supremacy. Freedom became associated with whiteness and slavery associated with Blackness as the eighteenth century saw a decline in apprenticeship, indenture, imprisonment for debt, with an increase in slavery. White laborers became more anxious with the spread of wage labor and competition from Black slaves and free laborers. This perceived wage war resulted in a new label for white citizenship referred to as the “White Republic.” Black social and economic sub-status was simply defined by the color of one’s skin regardless of their labor status.

Reconstruction’s end was the beginning of the color line restoration. This color line was no longer based on freedom and slavery but “between free wage labor and unfree semi-feudal labor, and between those who had access to political power and those who did not.” Roediger observes “Working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the U.S. white working class.”

Lewis Hine/National Archive

Allen summarizes the “white race” was invented to provide a social control formation that includes whites of all social and economic standing and deprives African-Americans of the same liberty to create a race color line. He hypothesizes this formation of race control played into the very making of this nation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offer a “paradox thesis” resting on a foundation of liberty and equality while providing a pathway for racial oppression. Freedom in the South was an exclusive racial privilege awarded to whites by birthright.

Although race is not a natural or biological phenomenon, it can take the appearance of the natural state of things. Residential segregation reflects a scenario where white neighborhoods are viewed as good neighborhoods that set residential standards equated with the economic and social perception of whiteness. Black neighborhoods are equated to unemployment and the consequences of economic hardships. This viewpoint reinforces the racial construct of whites being more employable and Blacks as “naturally” unemployed or unemployable based upon their geographic location, reinforcing whiteness perspectives within white communities. Whites statistically prefer to live in homogeneous white communities and view Blacks in their community as a reflection of neighborhood deterioration. The inability of Blacks to live in any neighborhood they choose is another example of systemic whiteness taking away Black freedom.

A sign placed across from the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit, circa 1942. Arthur Siegel/Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images

Being emersed in whiteness makes the white world “normal” with non-white worlds judged based on normalized white standards. Because whiteness is an unrecognized psychological basis for viewing non-white race and culture, it is often invisible to whites while visible to non-whites. White privilege provides freedom of mobility and acceptance and is viewed as race neutral because it is not questioned by whites. Whiteness may appear as ignorance of white status or as micro-aggressions, and may be conscious or unconscious. It is displayed from the legal system to daily living to physical movement. This makes the invisibility of whiteness part of white privilege. The ability to say one is colorblind reflects this ignorance of one’s white status. When whites are confronted with their whiteness, they perceive it to be racism used against them. They view their defense as subjecting them to being called racist. This is why discussions about whiteness, race and racism are difficult to have with the general white population.

Gallagher posits white identify politics generalize non-white social, political, and cultural behavior compared to white behavior. The move towards affirmative action accelerates the concern of loss opportunities for whites who view themselves as victims of reverse discrimination with their whiteness a liability. Promoting a liberal concept of “colorblindness” evolves from providing equality to a blindness of white privilege and systemic racism. Gallagher concludes neoconservatives are politically utilizing whiteness as an explicit cultural product to further fraction the Black/white divide over the rights for social equality and equal opportunity.

Stovall posits whiteness reflects the free world centered around the ideas of freedom. History reflects whites are concerned with freedom and independence for whites around the world but are not concerned with the absence of self-determination for Blacks in colonized nations. In the late 20th century, the concept of colorblindness accentuated white freedom by spawning new ways to link freedom and racial hierarchies. Entering the twenty-first century, the concept of whiteness continued to be the premise of one’s ability to be free. Stovall summarizes the impact of whiteness, “Dominant political ideologies might proclaim the importance of both racial equality and human freedom, but white identity and white privilege nonetheless remain significant determinants of the ability to be free.”

The concept of personhood within whiteness has been reserved by and for white people. Black people have been deprived of economic, social, judicial, and other rights of freedom through the conception of personhood. These restricted freedoms deny Black people the right to vote and stifle Black voices. When racialized personhood was extended to poor white workers, it drew a clear color line placing race over class in the social hierarchy. Black people have endured social, economic, and physical immobility as whites have moved seamlessly through each of these statuses.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, land was available for white settlement and usage while Blacks were left without a place to plant roots. Slavery denied personhood and this denial was maintained after Black emancipation. The courts gave credibility to whiteness as personhood while requiring non-whites to prove an unprovable burden of denied freedom and equality. The U.S. fights on the world stage to defend white freedom when threatened elsewhere but, it does not perceive the fight as necessary for Black freedom at home or abroad.

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Whiteness has a historical application of affording freedom to white people while denying these same privileges to non-whites. It manifests itself when whites feel they are economically, socially, or politically threatened. The concept of whiteness is taught from birth and reinforced in many ways including through language and the arts. Whiteness is an unconscious or conscious veil that allows white people to ignore its existence through the “transparency phenomenon.” While whites see themselves as virtuous and wise, Blacks are viewed as tainted and ignorant from religious teachings to the arts to neighborhoods. When moving in a homogeneous environment, whiteness is accepted as the unchallenged standard. Outside of this white environment, whiteness moves to defensive mode and if confronted, offense is viewed as reverse racism.

Modern times reveal the whiteness veil has become thinner with whiteness becoming a badge of honor to be flaunted and protected. Those who wear an unconscious veil of whiteness are equally dangerous because they are complicit in Black suppression and oppression through ignorance or acceptance. Since the election of the first Black president, Barak Obama, the U.S. has reverted to a post-Reconstruction phase of deconstruction for Black freedom. Being “colorblind” acknowledges one’s ignorance of white privilege by viewing the world through the eyes of whiteness. Don’t be colorblind…the world is more interesting in full color.

References

Allen, Theodore. Invention of the White Race. Volume 2, the Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. Verso, 1997.

James Baldwin, On Being White…and Other Lies. In Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, (New York, NY, Schoken Books, 1998)

Bois, W.E.B Du, and David Levering Lewis. Black Reconstruction in America. The Free Press, 1998.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror. Temple, UP: Temple University Press, 1997. https://hdl-handle-net.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/2027/heb34617.0001.001. PDF.

Dennett, Daniel C. Brainstorms: Philosophical essays on mind and psychology. MIT press, 2017.

Fields, Barbara “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review, Vol. 1/181, May/June 1990.

Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1707. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341787.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Morgan, Edmund Sears. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York, NY: Norton, 1989.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eyes. New York City, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1993.

Roediger, David R. Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1998.

Roediger, David R., The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London, England: Verso, 2022.

Stovall, Tyler. White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.

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Carolyn Edwards, PhD

PhD in urban education with a research focus on U.S. history, white supremacy, and systemic inequity