Whiteness and Racialization

  • Nasar Meer
Part of the Approaches to Social Inequality and Difference book series (ATSIAD)


On the basis of the book chapters, this concluding chapter takes up some of key junctures and challenges either dealt with directly or lingering on. The chapter argues for more empirical and theoretical sensitivity to historical contexts of whiteness but without losing sight of the perspective on power and racial discourse formation it offers. Second, the chapter takes up the differences and overlapping between whiteness and white people, and argues for the inclusion of nuances that sees white marginalities within whiteness as well as nonwhite reinforcements of white privileges. Finally, the chapter argues that the racialization of Muslims as an older phenomenon but new in the field of racism—a type of racism that includes inferiorization but also some new forms of interrelationship with different and coexisting forms of subordination.


Racialization Whiteness Islamophobia 

In a typically perceptive discussion of the trajectories of scholarship in whiteness studies, Garner (2017: 1585) recently argued that ‘the sword Damocles hanging over the scholar of whiteness is the question of how to wrestle its meanings into connection with other social relationships … and remaining true to the first wave origin: make white supremacy visible’ (original emphases). The profound breadth and depth of the present collection, examining racialization, racism, and anti-racism in the Nordic countries, is an excellent showcase of how both established and emerging scholars are leading the charge in Nordic cases.

It is also worth noting how racialization inter alia whiteness is a relatively recent area of scholarship, even though many of the questions it addresses are inherently intertwined in being elementary issues of race. Perhaps peculiarly, whiteness sits at an intersection between historical privilege and identity, something that has a contemporary dynamic but which is not universally shared in (or can be distant to) how many white people experience their identities. As Frankenberg (2001: 76) puts it: ‘whiteness as a site of privilege is not absolute but rather cross-cut by a range of other axes of relative advantage and subordination; these do not erase or render irrelevant race privilege, but rather inflect or modify it’.

In thinking about whiteness, there is often a tension between its study from (1) contexts marked by historical segregation (e.g. the US and South Africa), (2) where whiteness has either functioned (at least formally) as a repository of white-majority conceptions of the given identity of societies (Hage, 1998; Hewitt, 2005) or (3) ordered social relations in occupied colonial states. What each reading shares in common is that while whiteness was once ‘seen as both invisible and normative, as being a state of “racelessness”’ (Rhodes, 2013: 52), this is no longer the case. Yet what this means and how it falls, as this collection shows, is not best studied through a postcolonial category or at least requires racialization scholarship to forge the analytical path.

This does not mean marginalizing the capacity of postcolonial scholarship to enrich this exercise, including the ways in which the history of whiteness also serves as ‘a geography’ of the West (Bonnett, 2008: 18), in precisely the kind of ways postcolonial scholars attest. But it does mean grasping the ways in which ‘the history of whiteness is one of transitions and changes’ (ibid.). This is especially pertinent to the story of how the Irish in the UK or the Italians in the US became white; perhaps more complicated is the story of Jewish minorities, as Jacobson (2009: 306) argues:

‘Are Jews white?’ asks Sander Gilman. […] Given the shades of meaning attaching to various racial classifications, given the nuances involved as whiteness slips off toward Semitic or Hebrew and back again toward Caucasian, the question is not are they white, nor even how white are they, but how they been both white and Other.

In his account Bonnett (2008) excavates an ‘ethno-cultural repertoire’ of whiteness and how this is given particular content by writers who anxiously debated the ‘decline’ of white dominance (ibid., 23). Among others, Bonnett (2008) identifies Benjamin Kidd’s Social Evolution (1894) and Principles of Western Civilisation (1902), each of which prefigures the current theories of Eurabia and European decline (Meer, 2012). Of course, Kidd was writing at a time when the British Empire reigned over nearly a quarter of planet’s landmass (and nearly 500 million people) and other European powers exploited the people and territories they had taken. Nonetheless, pointing to the thesis of Charles Pearson in particular, Bonnett (2008: 18) describes some recurring features in this perception of decline:

Pearson’s principle explanation of why white expansion was at an end and white supremacy in retreat rests on demographics (notably Chinese and African fertility), geographical determinism (the unsuitability of the ‘wet tropics’ for white settlement) and the deleterious consequences of urbanisation on human ‘character’. Moreover, and crucially the economic ascendancy of those who Inge, following Pearson, was later to term ‘the cheaper races’ (Inge, 1922, 27), meant the white ‘will be driven from every neutral market and forced to confine himself within his own’. (Pearson, 1894: 137)

There is much here which spans several presumed features of culture and civilization (intertwined in biology and environment) but which is principally underwritten by the ways in which whiteness served as a form of substantive rationality that fashioned geopolitics in its own image. Empire and colonialism are thus understood as natural states of international relations and indicative of human progress.

Among writers of the day, challenges to this hegemony (and related geopolitical formations) must have raised some profound existential concerns. Such concerns were certainly prompted by the Japanese naval annihilation of the Russian fleet in 1904, where ‘for the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war’ (Mishra, 2012: 1). What is especially interesting is that this violent disruption occurred just at the moment the transaction (a notion we will return to) between whiteness and the West had been taking place but in a manner ‘in which the mass of white people are treated with suspicion’ (Bonnett, 2008: 20).

This seeming paradox is explained by an internal racial hierarchy that drew upon notions of both race and class and informed what would later become familiar tropes of social Darwinism and eugenicist thinking. This tension ‘of asserting both white solidarity and class elitism was resolved, in part, by asserting that the ‘best stock’ of the working class had long since climbed upwards’ (ibid., 21) and which continued to feed into parallel debates about culture and political economy (McDermott, 2006). The especially relevant implications of the genealogy for our discussion are that ‘[w]hilst “Westerner” can and does sometimes operate as a substitute term for “white”, it also operates within new landscapes of power and discrimination that have new and often fragile relationships with the increasingly widely repudiated language of race’ (Bonnett, 2008: 18).

In a competing reading, meanwhile, Virdee (2014) has charted the ways in which whiteness during the same period became democratized, not least through the expansion of social democratic politics on which pivots a historical seesaw of inclusion and exclusion. It is a dramatic and compelling account in so far as ‘[e]ach time the boundary of the nation was extended to encompass ever more members of the working class, it was accompanied and legitimized through the further racialization of nationalism that prevented another more recently arrived group from being included’ (Virdee, 2014: 5). In his account race and whiteness were ‘constitutive in the making, unmaking and remaking of the working class in England across two centuries’ (Virdee, 2014: 5–6). As such, and especially in the organization of social and political life, ‘there were historical moments when the working class suppressed such expressions of racism, and on occasion, actively rejected it’ (ibid.). Such is the nature of racialization: a juddering movement of the rejection of one group and the incorporation of another (or later indeed the same group) and which can be quite consistent with intellectual and popular logics of racializing.

Whiteness or White People?

The distinction between whiteness and white individuals has been usefully elaborated in well-known arguments by Bonnett (1997) and Leonardo (2002), respectively. For the latter, ‘whilst whiteness represents a racial discourse, the category of white people represents a socially constructed identity usually based on skin colour’ (Leonardo, 2002: 31). Bonnett (1997: 189) meanwhile highlights both the distinction and relationship between white people and whiteness further. Indeed, Gillborn (2005) draws on Bonnett’s argument that it is not necessarily the case that white people as individuals inevitably reinforce whiteness any more than heterosexuals are necessarily homophobic or men are necessarily sexist. However, the likelihood is that most homophobic individuals are heterosexual, and most sexist discrimination occurs against women. This point is simply that white people are not necessarily always consciously acting in the interests of reinforcing whiteness. What is also suggested here is that individuals do not have to be ‘white people’ to actively reinforce and act in the interests of whiteness (Ladson-Billings, 1998) as also shown in the Danish debate book that works to deny racism in Denmark (Myong & Danbolt, this volume).

Building on the distinction between white people and whiteness, Preston and Chadderton (2012: 92) move to think about this in terms of white positionality but register that this is also informed by intersectionalities across social class, gender, sexuality, and ability/disability. Thus, ‘temporary ambiguities’ may occur where white people are positioned on the margins of whiteness. If this is so, the critical focus on whiteness in CRT is not an assault on white people but on the socially constructed and constantly reinforced power of white identifications and interests (Gillborn, 2005: 488). Furthermore, Preston and Chadderton (2012: 92) condense extensive inquiry into the distinction between whiteness and white people through arguing that the many and various ways in which the white working classes, white immigrants, and white women have been positioned on the fringes of white respectability are key examples where these groups are given a liminal position within whiteness (see also Nayak, 2011). For Winant (1997: 76) two features of contemporary whiteness nonetheless remain and which turn on questions of supremacy and privilege:

[M]onolithic white supremacy is over, yet in a more concealed way, white power and privilege live on …. Whites are no longer the official “ruling race” yet they still enjoy many of the privileges from the time when they were.

In thinking about these, we need to focus on two slightly different frames. By supremacy what is meant is dominance, explicitly as coercion but also implicitly through kinds of prevailing consensus among white-majority society, what Dyre (1988: 44) once termed as ‘seeming not to be anything in particular’. This is less visible than the ways in which once racially segregated societies continue to operate racial zones even while there is no formal policy to support it. Obvious examples are post-apartheid South Africa and post-segregation southern states in the US, where racial categories are keenly related to the exercise of power. Yet there are also less obvious examples found in every liberal-democratic European Union state, manifested in the reluctance of visible minorities to move or live outside of urban centers that are often considered much safer than nonurban conurbations (Neal, 2009). This is a different kind of white dominance to that of explicitly ‘white nationalist’ movements such as the Ku Klux Klan in the US, though of course far right-wing parties in Europe often form part of the political mainstream and may also be in governing coalitions.

White supremacy might be easier to name than the ways in which whiteness serves as what Twine and Gallagher (2008: 8) describe as a ‘public and psychological wage’ and what others have termed a ‘knapsack’ (McIntosh, 1988) or ‘possessive investment’ (Lipsitz, 1998). Each of these refers to a kind of capital and is illustrated in what Duster (2001: 114–15) elaborates as ‘deeply embedded in the routine structures of economic and political life. From ordinary service at Denny’s restaurants, to far greater access to bank loans to simple police-event-free driving—all these things have come unreflectively with the territory of being white’. Other examples are amusement parks (Rødje & Thorsen, this volume), mixed marriages (Törngren, this volume), and control of ‘what we may or may not’ as in racial epithets and cartoons (Vertelyté & Hervik, this volume). Whiteness here is a type of habitus and the norm against which others are judged, in which ‘culture and ideology constantly re-cloak whiteness as a normative identity’ (ibid., 12) or what is also called ‘habitual whiteness’ (Nielsen, this volume). Scholars and intellectuals have not stood outside these conventions, however, for

Throughout much of the twentieth-century mainstream, white social scientists did not focus on the institutions that created, reproduced and normalized white supremacy. The focus that guided whites in the academy primarily concerned itself with the pathology of racist individuals rather than the structural forces that produced racist social systems. (Twine & Gallagher, 2008: 10)

One of the sociological implications of this is that there is a documented tendency among ‘ethnically ambiguous’ minorities to seek the material and symbolic rewards of whiteness by positioning themselves as white in such things as applications for education employment and other trainings (Warren & Twine, 1997). This is evident, argue Twine and Gallagher (2008: 14), in how ‘whiteness is continuing to expand in the United States, and that it continues to incorporate ethnics of multiracial, Asian, Mexican and other Latinos of non-European heritage’.

It is not clear to me how these tendencies are sufficiently explained through a postcolonial category unless it is anchored in an approach that begins with an account of racial processes. This includes a wide front of messy sociological realities. For example, much of the discussion of whiteness has attributed a conscious or unwitting white dominance in a way that under-recognizes how ‘[t]he economic and psychological wages of whiteness may be more meagre (and thus more precious) the lower down the social hierarchy the white subject is located’ (Garner, 2006: 262). In opening up these readings from a European perspective, Nayak’s (2003a, 2003b) research has utilized ethnographic methods in postindustrial settings in order to explore how whiteness intersects with class and masculinities, and so is negotiated in ways that take on ‘multiple and contingent’ meanings (Nayak, 2003a: 319). This is especially evident in terms of how ‘young people inhabit white ethnicities to different degrees and with varying consequences’ (ibid.) not least because ‘whiteness is not simply constituted in relation to blackness, but is also fashioned through and against other versions of whiteness’ (ibid., 320, emphasis added).1 Another example is the Kempele rape case, where racialization not merely intersects with sexism and gendering but is inseparable from them (Saresma, this volume).

The Racialization of Muslims

What this emphasizes is that whiteness needs to be understood as more than supremacy , privilege, and capital; it needs to be understood as a sociological identity than can be intersectional and negotiated, and so is curated and sustained by much more than imperial legacies. This is only part of the story, for what we also need to grasp is how it can be mobilized to cultivate new racialization processes, the case of Islamophobia being the most obvious. For example, the Pew European attitude surveys report worryingly high levels of representative samples of Hungarians (72%), Italians (69%), Poles (66%), Greeks (65%), Spaniards (50%), Swedes (35%), Dutch (35%), Germans (29%), French (29%), and Britons (28%) reporting ‘unfavorable’ views of Muslims (Pew Global Attitudes Projects, 2016). In the last British Attitudes Survey, for example, Voas and Ling (2010) report that one fifth of the total population responds negatively only to Muslims and that relatively few people feel unfavorable toward any other religious or ethnic group on its own. Mahitab Ezz El Din provides an excellent example of how this negativity works through simple, asymmetric, Orientalizing binaries (this volume), while Christian Stokke shows how Muslim feminists in Norway seek to counter the images and negativity (this volume), and Camilla Haavisto dismantles the contradictions within anti-racism activism in a hybrid media environment (this volume). Across Europe meanwhile, Zick, Kupper, and Hövermann (2011) conclude:

[I]t is conspicuous that Europeans are largely united in their rejection of Muslims and Islam. The significantly most widespread anti-Muslim attitudes are found in Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland, closely followed by France, Great Britain and the Netherlands. The extent of anti-Muslim attitudes is least in Portugal. In absolute terms, however, the eight countries [Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Hungary] differ little in their levels of prejudice towards Muslims.

The visibility of Muslims, in terms of sometimes distinctive dress and appearance, is frequently the means through which this Islamophobic feeling is turned into Islamophobic behavior (Meer, Dwyer, & Modood, 2010). A good European-wide illustration may be found in the summary report on Islamophobia published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia shortly after 9/11. As Allen and Nielsen (2002: 16) show, this identified a rise in the number of ‘physical and verbal threats being made, particularly to those visually identifiable as Muslims, especially towards women wearing the hijab’. What is of particular note is that despite variations in the number and correlation of physical and verbal threats directed at Muslim populations among the individual nation-states, one overarching feature that emerged among the 15 EU countries was the tendency for Muslim women to be attacked because of how the hijab signifies an Islamic identity (ibid., 35). (For a Nordic hijab debate analysis, see Stokke, this volume.)

This is precisely how sociologists have explained that racism can in practice become mixed up with a host of different kinds of ‘-isms’ and frequently overlap in ‘sharing a common content or generalised object which allows them to be joined together or interrelated, to be expressed in ways in which elements of one are incorporated in the other’ (Miles, 1989: 87). It is a finding that raises problems for people who want to distinguish between antipathy toward Muslims and antipathy toward those appearing to follow Islam. What is common to such findings is that these are overlapping and interacting—rather than remaining distinct—something that can be illustrated further in the attitude polling of non-Muslim Britons one year after 9/11, in which reference to religious doctrine, practitioners of a religion, and violent extremism is intertwined. For example, Field (2007: 455) reports that:

There could be little doubt that 9/11 had taken some toll. Views of Islam since 9/11 were more negative for 47%, and of Britain’s Muslims for 35% (almost three times the first post-9/11 figure). [….] Dislike for Islam was expressed by 36%, three in four of whom were fearful of what it might do in the next few years. One quarter rejected the suggestion that Islam was mainly a peaceful religion, with terrorists comprising only a tiny minority….

If these examples and the preceding discussion begin to make manifest a number of confusions contained within contemporary references to racial and religious antipathy toward Muslims and Islam, then—as debates concerning racism and other religious minorities, not least with respect to anti-Semitism, betray—this is not uniquely problematical in the conceptualization of anti-Muslim sentiment.

But it is also related to a second issue of ‘scale’ that goes beyond frequency per se and relates directly to the US political anthropologist Matti Bunzl’s (2005) observation that we have progressed from the ‘Jewish question’ that haunted the continent throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. This cyclically facilitated episodes of persecution and genocide. In contrast, there is overwhelming evidence today that being Jewish and being European are not deemed mutually exclusive. Of course, and as we have already noted, this does not mean that European societies are free from anti-Semitism—far from it. The point instead is that while it is sociologically documented that Jewish have historically been accused of ‘interfering’ with the alleged ‘purity’ of nation-states, from the vantage point of a supranational Europe, Jewish minorities are deemed less of a ‘threat’ (but not entirely unthreatening), that is, that they have moved on from being the perpetual ‘historical outsiders’; as Bunzl notes:

Consider Europe’s realities against the backdrop of antisemitism’s political project. That project sought to secure the purity of the ethnic nation-state, a venture that has become obsolete in the supranational context of the European Union. There, Jews no longer figure as the principal Other but as the veritable embodiment of the post national order.

Whether or not Bunzl is too optimistic is a matter of debate, but the problematic he identifies raises a significant question for the fate of Muslims in Europe too. For according to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (former president of France and head of the Convention on the Future of Europe which drafted the Lisbon Treaty), the status of Muslims is rightly more uncertain because they have ‘a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life’ (quoted in Bunzle, 2005: 32). Pertinent here is the late Pim Fortuyn’s insistence on the need to defend European ‘Judeo-Christian humanistic culture’ and the ways in which he characterized Judaism as ‘a creative and constructive element in society’ (ibid., 38). Or as his most natural heir Geert Wilders has it, as long as Europe is unwilling to defend ‘the ideas of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem’, it will ‘lose everything: our cultural identity, our democracy, our rule of law, our liberties, our freedom’. Hence Jean-Marie Le Pen previously characterized himself as the defender of European Jewry, arguing that ‘the Jews understand who is truly responsible for antisemitism’ (ibid., 32). Such sentiments may be contrasted with the same European political parties’ attitudes toward Muslims.

It is in this context that the charter of Cities Against Islamization has risen to warn that the ‘fast demographic increase of the Islamic population in the West threatens to result in an Islamic majority in Western European cities in a few decades’.2 This is the language of ‘Eurabia’, and it associates the Muslim presence with a number of detriments to European culture and social harmony. Sometimes sourced to the interventions of the controversial polemicist Bat Ye’or (2001, 2005), the notion of ‘Eurabia’ describes a numerical and cultural domination of Europe by Muslims and Islam. It is a reading that has not gone undisputed on the grounds that they both radically overestimate base figures and then extrapolate implausible levels of population growth. The demography panic has nonetheless achieved a degree of traction that bears the chilling hallmarks of recent European history. This is why, as this book demands, we must talk about race, culture, and belonging—about racialization—for these issues are not limited to hostility to a religion alone but are instead tied up with pressing issues of community identity , stereotyping, socioeconomic location, and political conflict among other dynamics.


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    Nayak illustrates this by describing three different subcultures of working-class young boys.

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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