Whiteness as Default

This topic has come up a few times over the past few weeks so I figured I’d write about it.

When my friend came to the city to check out some pieces at the Met, our conversation somehow eventually transitioned into one of race. Both of us are racial minorities (in general and in our given fields) and it’s hard not to recognize that in daily life. It’s especially hard, because sometimes you just want to go unnoticed. You want to be invisible in the classroom or at least not stand out. This is impossible in America though, because whiteness is the default setting. Non-whiteness automatically makes you stand out.

This came up in another context at a dinner I was recently at. There was a Brazilian couple and they were talking about how they identify on the census. They don’t put “Hispanic” because they aren’t. There’s no Brazilian option. So the couple just put ‘white’. Now, this seems disingenuous. And when someone at the table asked why they didn’t put ‘black’ or ‘asian’ or ‘native american’ or any of the other random categories, there was no good answer. This made me upset at first, but when I thought about it later, I realized that there is so much that goes into our conception of whiteness and it was my acceptance of that conception that led to my anger.

This is actually the general problem with discussions of race in America. Although racial minorities are often reminded of their minority status, whiteness is never discussed. Whiteness is only ever defined as not-blackness, not-asianness, not-hispanic, and so on. Whiteness is defined as a default position. If you’re none of the things previously listed, that’s what makes you white.

Now, that’s a partial conception of what it means to be white, but it’s not a full conception. Because, although white is the default status, it’s also an imperial one. It felt uncomfortable to call the Brazilian man white because he was from Brazil. Even though he had the same complexion as many of my white friends, his foreignness made him non-white. Even though people from the Middle East are lumped in with white people on census forms, it never feels quite right. Their status as non-European foreigners undermines their whiteness. Their lack of participation in European imperialism separates them from their neighbors out west.*

It’s important to recognize that we see whiteness as the default status because this mindset informs the way we interact with people. Any culture that is defined by its antithesis is necessarily a culture of exclusion. The moment whiteness became non-blackness was the moment that modern racism began. And the fact that there’s this two-pronged idea of whiteness – that it’s both non-otherness as well as something related to imperialism (though, interestingly, we don’t think of Spaniards as white but Germans and Britons are) – makes it difficult to work through America’s (and Americans’) problems with race and fascination with whiteness.

I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, but I think this is one of the areas we should start thinking about if we truly want to deal with this issue. What does it mean to be white? Why is white the default setting?

This podcastone of my favorite episodes from one of my favorite podcast hosts – also deals with similar issues. It’s a good listen.


*Even the fact that the Middle East is called the Middle East (east of what?) speaks to the role of imperialism and whiteness in the conception of that region.

P.S. – This whiteness as default stuff comes up all the time. If a bunch of white people are in a room together, it’s normal. If it’s a bunch of Asians, it’s now a specifically Asian thing. If a group of white people forms a church, it’s a church. When it’s a group of black people, it’s a black church. When a movie has an all-white cast, it’s totally normal and accepted by everyone. If a movie has an all-black cast, it’s a black movie. If a white person has only white friends, that’s ok. If a Latino has only Latino friends, it’s like, why are all of your friends Latino?

P.P.S. – Sometimes I work to counter this idea of whiteness as default (because we all have it to some extent). If I see a picture on FB with a white friend and they’re surrounded by white people, I ask, why are there so many white people here? If I’m watching a show with a bunch of white people, I’ll remark, there’s so many white people! It sounds weird and it may not actually be the “right” way to deal with this problem but it reminds me that whiteness isn’t actually the default setting. Instead of questioning the existence of a minority, it makes me question the overwhelming majority of whiteness.


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