Playing the whiteness card: studies focus on the invention of race and its meanings.

Author:Byrne, Dara N.
Position:After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority - Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity - Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination - Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity From Columbus to Hip-Hop - Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past - What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers

WHITENESS STUDIES" IS A critical school that investigates the economic, political and social history of "white people,' as well as the ways in which white privilege was developed and became entrenched in American society. In fact, the very foundation of "whiteness studies" is the invention of "race," a social construction that whites have used to organize every aspect of cultural life.

Although this field of study draws on at least 40 years of scholarship and has been part of the academic landscape for more than a decade now, it remains one of the least known areas of "ethnic studies" with approximately 30 leading universities offering courses or programs, including Princeton University and the universities of Massachusetts and California in Los Angeles. While critics argue that the field is simply about popularizing an antiwhite agenda, advocates maintain their primary focus is not white people per se, but rather what people have historically done as a result of whiteness.

By definition, whiteness is ideological (the belief that white people with white skin share common properties), material (the ways wealth, access, rights and power are distributed) and cultural (the artifacts that are produced once one identifies as white). Advocates claim that interrogating this ideological, material and cultural history is the only way to dismantle racism, since whites typically are not racially self-aware.

The Meaning of White

One of the best ways to understand the workings of "whiteness studies" is to read some of its landmark books. These are essential readings that must not be overlooked by anyone who is interested in race, identity, gender, economics, politics, culture and American history. The most compelling and widely cited among them are Theodore W. Allen's The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control (Verso Books, 1994), Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and David R. Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso Books Irevised], 1999) and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History (Verso Books, 1994).

Each author traces the development of "whiteness" to the 19th-century white working class in America. The Irish play a central role in each of these writings. One can look to the history of the Irish in America as a clear example of what "whiteness" means ideologically, materially and culturally. After...

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