How Whiteness Works: White People Don’t ‘See’ Racism

The latest Pew Survey (2016) shows that White people do not see structural racism and instead see racial inequalities are due to Black people’s personal decisions and lifestyle.

“The survey shows that Black people overwhelmingly blame lower-quality schools and discrimination for why “some Blacks have a harder time getting ahead than Whites.”

A majority of White people, meanwhile, said that “family instability” and “lack of good role models” were chiefly responsible for the problems facing Black communities. Only 36% blamed discrimination, and just 45% said that a “lack of jobs” was holding Black people back.”

Drawing of a white woman with a speech bubble saying, 'I don't see race. I'm a god person.' Beneath is the text: TRANSLATION: I'm going to use my place of privilege to refute and deny the sufferings of those who do not have white privilege while at the same time erasing their personal and cultural history
‘I don’t see race’ is a form of White privilege

The concept of Whiteness explores the social construction of what it means to be White, specifically, how societies establish White culture as the “norm” for social reality. Whiteness studies teaches us to think critically about how social life is organised around White experiences. How does Whiteness establish legitimacy? Whiteness is hegemonic; that is, it is an ideology that has been established over time, first through violent political dominance, and later through cultural institutions that created the fiction that White culture is the natural order.  Social institutions funnel White culture so that it is pervasive: it’s the key lens of history and art; it’s the way in which we learn about science; it’s the representations we grow up with in the media; it’s White people filling most positions of authority. Whiteness is everywhere, and while it is the centre of colonial nations, Whiteness also goes unexamined in day-to-day life.

White people in Australia are not asked, “Where are you from?” They are not required to constantly verify that they are Australian. White people don’t have to think too deeply about why there are no Indigenous people in their schoolbooks. White people don’t experience first hand what it’s like to be made to feel uncomfortable at work because of their race. White people don’t fear being mistreated by authority figures simply because of the colour of their skin.

Whiteness is both privilege and power; it means being on top of the social hierarchy but taking the hierarchy for granted. So much so that even White male politicians will take offence at being called White, in the middle of Senate debates when they were trying to get rid of protections from the Racial Discrimination Act.

Whiteness is maintained through various discourses. Discourses buffer White people from having to think critically about race, such as through the idea of “colour blindness.” White people have come to understand that “overt” forms of racism are not permissible. They do not want to be associated with the label “racist,” and so they avoid ever thinking about race, much less applying race to their own lives. So they say things like “I don’t see race, I just see people,” or they will say, “We are all part of the human race; why can’t we all just get along?” This discourse is a ploy: White people can afford to tune in and out of race discussions. To say that they don’t recognise race is to say: “I don’t want to acknowledge how my life chances have been enhanced by my Whiteness.” To say that they “just see people,” is to also deny the impact that race has on the lives of people of colour, who receive daily reminders of how race negatively impacts their safety, acceptance and progress.

The flip side of “I don’t see race” is that fact that White people place people of colour into broad categories and deny them their individuality. We see this at the social level, when minorities are put into the position of explaining crime and “deviance” of minorities from their communities. At the interpersonal level, White people will “confuse” people of colour because they have limited contact, and interest, in people who are not White. And infamous example involved Black American actor Samuel L. Jackson, who rightly refused to smoothe over the racist “mistake.” These examples illustrate how Whiteness pushes individuals into broad categories, even though White people see themselves as individuals who aren’t influenced by race.

Read more on whiteness and related concepts on my resource, the Sociology of Race.

15 thoughts on “How Whiteness Works: White People Don’t ‘See’ Racism

  1. Thanks for your comment Ryan Reed. There’s no reason why White people should not be able to understand structural inequality – people don’t need to have first hand experience with racism to understand how it functions. For example, not everyone has first hand experience with war to know that war is unfair. Not everyone has experienced other forms of human rights abuses yet White people are still able to see that the protection of human rights is important. The problem is that Western societies still largely construct racism as an interpersonal experience – which it is not. Racism is not just someone spitting racial slurs; it is about economics; history; politics; it is embedded in the education system; it is part of socialisation. White people can understand this because social science teaches us to see these patterns in a critical light. The problem is that the rest of society is not encouraged to think critically about the structural bases of race and racism.


  2. As per my commenting policy, I have deleted eight comments from here that were all written and plussed by White men sprouting racism. This page is not a place to reinforce personal biases. This is a page devoted to sociology and critical thinking. It is written by a woman of colour, for other people of colour and anyone else who wants to better understand the social bases of inequality. Other places on the internet allow vile racism – not me.

    Google+ I’ve reported all these incidents and countless others. Please do better to create a safer Google+ for everyone, not just angry White sexist, racist, homophobic men.


  3. Hog Hunter This study is by the Pew Research Centre, which runs American and international studies. Just because their findings make you face your White supremacist mindset does not invalidate their data. Science is not whatever non-experts want to hear; but rather following established methods; collecting valid data; and using established theoretical frameworks when analysing findings. Goodbye.


  4. What cause is that, Tyler D, White men’s need to reproduce as much racism as possible? White men don’t get to dictate discussions on race, especially not on my threads.

    If you’d like to read racist abuse, you can go anywhere on the internet. But you don’t get to whet your appetite for hatred and defend the status quo on a space dedicated to anti-racism.

    Feel free to valiantly defend White male privilege elsewhere, White worriers.


  5. victorio macias​ What you say doesn’t make any sense and it’s clear you haven’t read the article. Pew run their own surveys. Their methods are clearly stated on their website. You may not like the findings but this does not invalidate the data.


  6. Oh so white people see something called reality. You know when 13% of the population has a crime rate that is comparable to white people, and higher than white people in some crimes, yeah..

    This is why sociology is a bullshit field and should not be offered at any respectable university.

    (Native American here)


  7. I will continue to delete comments that are in any way abusive and non-scientific. This is a sociology page that encourages critical thinking and it is specifically a place for women of colour and other underrepresented groups to read about sociology of race and other topics relevant to intersectional feminism.

    White people and men in general are welcome to read, listen, learn and comment; however anyone wishing to refute scientific data, you must first demonstrate that you have actually read the materials linked here and the original study, and then respond intelligently using valid peer-reviewed sociological evidence. I won’t be reminding random commenters about my policy again.

    My threads are moderated to encourage thoughtful engagement; anyone who feels a need to air out emotional opinions, go spew hatred elsewhere (but better yet, don’t and instead seek to make the world a better place).

    The status quo – such as the type of racist nonsense White men are peddling here – does not belong on this page.


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