CSWAC Blog

Managing Whiteness

The following post reprises a talk given by Jeff Hitchcock a while back. The later portion of the talk raises some issues and concerns of an advanced nature.

“Managing whiteness” is an obvious take on the ubiquitous phrase, managing diversity. Some people react to the term “manage” per se since it has the connotation of manipulating other people and resources to meet ends those persons have not necessarily agreed to. I am using the term “manage” in a broader way, as “the judicious use of means to accomplish an end.”[1]

I simply wish to point out that if we are to manage diversity, whiteness, too, must be managed. Whiteness and white American culture form the dominant culture of the United States. As such, it forms the cultural underpinning of most organizations in the United States, particularly those associated with the mainstream, large in size, and commanding sizable resources and access to power. We can describe this as a centered whiteness, where centeredness is measured in terms of the ability to express one’s values, and have access to power and resources.

Managing whiteness is a central concern of change agents who intend to replace the central position of whiteness with structures and processes that are multiracial. It is those change agents who are the implicit managers in the process of managing whiteness. Whiteness, at the end of such a change process, would no longer be centered. It would, in fact, be decentered.

Though not named as such, managing whiteness is familiar to change agents. Let me offer some examples from recent discussions I have had with colleagues engaged in such practice.

A prominent diversity consultant and white woman described white culture as “ the fundamental underpinning of the organization.” She explained that white culture places an emphasis on intentions, rather than effects. When you name white culture as such and discuss how the effect of whiteness as dominant can be oppressive, white people hear it as a critique, as if they intended to be white supremacist. Consequently it takes a lot of education to introduce an alternative, multiracial perspective.

While performing training with a battered women’s shelter, a woman of color asked for sample cases and she was given four. Three were Puerto Rican women presenting very aggrieved trauma. All the cases were of women of color. The shelter is staffed roughly half and half by white staff and staff of color. The director and assistant director are white and the staff of color tend to occupy lower status positions. Half of the service population is white.

When the consultant asked why it happened that all the selected cases were of women of color, staff offered reasons such as “Women of color are more complex.” One case, for instance, involved a woman whose son was also her brother, and her uncles and everybody was assaulting her. They talked about this case and then said, “Oh, we have another case that is comparable to this. It’s a white woman.”

Another consultant, a man of color and member of the clergy explained that as a junior member he had to be careful about raising the topic of racism. The only safe zones were among other people of color, or in racism workshops that “seem to go on ad infinitum.” But if he were to speak on the floor, he would be marked as a maverick and turned away by white people who sit on committees that hold power and control resources.

In my own practice, I repeatedly encounter people who are interested in championing the exploration of whiteness in organizational contexts, but are powerless to do so because their boss, for any number of reasons, considers the topic too threatening.

Another interesting example appears in the literature. In the 1997 reader, Off White, Virginia Chalmers describes what happened when, as a director of an alternative school with a student population 30% of color, she held a dinner and discussion with parents of color. The discussion was rich, full and revealing. But the doors it opened were shut when white parents, upset at being excluded on account of their race, reacted with a prolonged struggle to undermine her efforts.[2]

These examples should not be surprising to anyone who has tried to foster multiracial processes in predominantly white organizations. What they point to collectively is a need to judiciously consider the role of whiteness when attempting change. It’s often been noted the dominant culture resists change. It does not allow people to speak its name. There is also a hint of the question “What about me?” being voiced by those centered in the white cultural experience. Furthermore, decision makers are unprepared to manage whiteness even when they articulate an interest in doing so.

The consultant who worked with the battered women’s shelter pointed out that white people think about diversity in terms of people of color. People of color, on the other hand, tend not to readily think about white people, per se. In her observation, there is a price to be paid by whites when this kind of consciousness is present. One of the cases selected for review, a Puerto Rican woman, was well-liked. Because of that, she had a lot of attention and treatment directed to her. A white woman, because whites think about others, may be denied attention.

This creates a dynamic where well-intended high status whites short change low status whites, who in turn sabotage the ability of high status whites to intervene effectively with people of color. The result replicates a historical process in which low status whites are used by high status whites to keep low status people, both white and of color in this case, oppressed.

By and large, decision makers in organizations lack the skills, the perspective, and the alternative models needed to manage whiteness. Change agents do not always have a handle on the process either, as the story of the alternative school dinner illustrates.

Previously Charley Flint and I have suggested that creating an organization centered on multiracial values requires two interdependent processes.[3] The first is to create a multiracial center. Much work has focused on this process in fields such as multicultural education, antiracism, and managing diversity. Practitioners have devised many strategies, but many candidly admit we don’t know what a multiracial organization will actually look like. We’ve yet to see it happen on a large scale. But certainly it will not be an organization in which whiteness remains central. Hence the other process suggested by Hitchcock and Flint, that whiteness, the current center, must be decentered in order for multiracial values to hold sway.

We know even less about what a decentered whiteness will look like.

  • Will it have the same invisibility as a normative, centered whiteness?
  • Is it a bad thing?
  • If whiteness is no longer invisibile to the dominant culture, does this imply a centered consciousness of whiteness, and a white self-consciousness.
  • Must a decentred whiteness be antagonistic to a multiracial center?
  • Can it be complementary and supportive?
  • What will make the difference?

Given this lack of knowledge, how do we go about managing whiteness? The need is clearly there. I would suggest we need to recognize and study whiteness. Indeed, this is underway. Furthermore, I suggest we need to speculate about the form a decentered whiteness will take. Whiteness in its present form is an amalgamation of both power and cultural dynamics. Trying to separate the two is difficult. They seem to go together like white on rice, and much of whiteness studies is devoted to articulating the links between power and white culture, with the primary focus being on the power dynamics. This makes a good critique of a centered whiteness, but it does not help us envision a decentered whiteness.

I suggest a decentered whiteness will comprise an ethnic and cultural community that is separated from power and a universal, centered privilege. Quite possibly it will act in many ways as non-dominant ethnic communities do today.

  • By being acutely sensitive to issues of inclusion and power
  • By feeling like “guests” and not hosts in centered functions
  • By experiencing a difference in values between one’s own community and the centered group
  • By striving for room to affirm, acknowledge and practice its own values
  • By facing a need to assimilate to another culture in order to obtain power and access to resources.

Here I am drawing a picture of whiteness as ethnicity. Rather than white ethnics who retain ties to their European cultures of origin, I am suggesting an American creation of white as an ethnic group. This is not new to sociologists. Both Alba and Gallagher have described the emergence of such a group identity.[4] I am not speaking so much of whether whiteness as ethnicity exists, but rather how it might be managed as such in a multiracial setting.

In such settings we need to consider creating space for an explicitly articulated white cultural expression that is disengaged from dominance and supremacy and acknowledges the centrality of multiracial processes. Often attempts by white youth to do this are met with resistance.[5] Ironically, the greatest resistance seems to come from whites operating from a centered position as administrators. Conversely, support often comes from people of color. That, alone, should tell us something.

The dominant culture believes there is a cost to expressly creating cultural spaces for whites. People believe this will allow space for white supremacist notions to develop and unintentionally give official sanction to those notions. However, there is another potential cost to the dominant culture, though never acknowledged. And that is the cost of providing a training ground for decentered white people who will work in conjunction with other racial/cultural groups to undo a centered whiteness. Antiracism training has often used this tactic, with a fair measure of success.

The cost of not creating cultural spaces for whites may be even higher. First, these spaces will be, indeed, are being created, often in an underground and oppositional way that follows a white supremacist trajectory. Forced to justify their existence, these groups will focus on power concerns, including especially their right to exist. They will not be open to public scrutiny. Furthermore, the only public identity for white people will remain a centered one. If you’re not in the center, you have no place to go. The only decentered whiteness will remain a supremacist one. Nowhere will we find a model for a decentered whiteness that can co-exist and complement a multiracial center. Hence centered white people, and people favoring a multiracial center, (it may be one and the same person) will continue to operate in contradictory circumstances that are not easily resolved.

In the United States, power lies in the identity of “American.” We don’t need to reinvent something new as central, but we do need to modify our notion of what American is, as multiracial. A true multiracial center must assert its rightful claim to Americanness. In the meantime, white culture is and has been a significant ethnic and cultural experience in the United States. It is unlikely to disappear. If we might somehow manage its transition to a more benign position as one group among many, then it need not. We need to give serious consideration to what it will take to create a decentered whiteness. How that might be accomplished is not certain, but the need for us to accomplish it clearly is.

This blog post was initially presented as a paper read at the Eastern Sociological Society on March 4, 2000 – Baltimore, Maryland.

[1] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1990.)

[2] Virginia Chalmers, “White Out: Multicultural Performances in a Progressive School,” in Michelle Fine, Linda C. Powell, Lois Weis, and L. Mun Wong (Eds.) Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[3] Jeff Hitchcock and Charley Flint, “Decentering Whiteness,” The WHITENESS PAPERS, No. 1, February 1997, Roselle, NJ: Center for the Study of White American Culture, Inc.

[4] See Richard D. Alba, Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1990); Charles Gallagher, “White Reconstruction in the University.” Socialist Review, 94, 1-2, 1995; also “White Racial Formation: Into the Twenty-First Century,” in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic,(Eds.) Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997).

[5] See, for instance, Diane Seo, “As Ethnic Clubs’ Popularity Rises, So Do Tensions,” Los Angeles Times, Home Edition, Sunday, May 12, 1996. The reporter found that “[s]chool administrators say they tend to discourage white clubs because they fear that the clubs could turn into white supremacist groups…”