What Makes a Group White? (part 1)

“It was a very white group.”

Have you ever heard someone say that? Maybe you’ve said it yourself after an experience or two. Or maybe the thought never crossed your mind. This begs the questions of what makes a group white, and why it might be important to take note of such a thing in the first place. The answers to these questions depend on whether people adhere to a colorblind or color conscious perspective. And understanding how that works is a critical skill for building a multiracial organization.

From a colorblind standpoint, a “white group” is not a very useful designation in everyday life. Colorblindness eschews assigning an explicit racial identity to anyone, and so naming a group “white” violates that practice – even more so since colorblindness focuses on individual rather than collective processes. To name a group white is to name every individual in the group as such. If you were to ask each individual in the group, some might deny or take offence at that label.

Consequently, the only time colorblind ideology will admit to a group being “white” is when every person in the group is nominally white, and all agree that the group is explicitly a group of, and for, white people. Only a small number of gatherings fit this description nowadays. One notable example is a gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists. Another, in more recent times, is a gathering of white anti-racists “working on their own stuff.” Colorblindness disdains both gatherings, and has difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Since neither white supremacists nor white anti-racists gather often in everyday public settings (think of the workplace, civic associations, schools, faith communities, etc.), the notion of a “white group” is not seen as very useful in colorblind circles. Nonetheless, in these same settings it’s not uncommon for small gatherings, both informal and formal, to contain only white people. Unless those gathered say they have gathered intentionally as an all-white group, colorblindness ascribes the fact of everyone being white to a simple matter of chance. And as a matter of chance, or random events, colorblind people find it unworthy of comment. In fact, commenting upon the whiteness of the group will likely be seen as divisive, even racist.

People holding a color conscious ideology see the matter very differently. The key and defining factor is culture. In other words, what is the set of cultural norms in operation? If they are white cultural norms, then it’s a white group. Since white people invariably resort to a white normative structure, any group containing all white people is a white group, whether the members consciously claim to be so or not.

A group need not be completely white in composition to still be considered a white group by color conscious people. The simple presence of one or two people of color in a small group is not enough to challenge the prevailing white normative structure of the group. Accordingly, people of color in the group must accommodate to white norms, and the group remains a white group. Taken to an extreme, a group might contain a majority of people of color, but if the norms in operation are white norms, then the group might still be described as “white.” In such a case, one might expect to find a greater concern for formal process over that of expressing a shared humanity among group members, and either colorblindness or white supremacy as the prevailing racial ideology. Such an example might be viewed as uncommon and aberrant, but not unknown.

The “white group” was taken as an ideal under white supremacy. Both colorblindness and color consciousness assign a negative connotation to the idea of a “white group.” These two ideologies superficially agree the key problem, historically and presently, has been the exclusion of people of color. And they both aspire to create multiracial groups, but they disagree as to the underlying problem and approach.

Colorblindness views exclusion as a process of consciously creating physical barriers to the presence of people of color. Exclusion means explicitly creating rules of membership denying people of color physical access, and actively removing people of color who somehow find their way in. So, the simple physical presence of a person of color who is given the status of “member” becomes, under colorblindness, the most compelling evidence that the group is no longer white.

Even if no person of color is a member, if the group can assure itself that there are no formal barriers to the membership of a person of color, the group can maintain its sense that it is only a white group by accident, and not intent, which is to say it’s not really a white group at all, but rather a multiracial group in waiting. Indeed, some nominally white colorblind groups live in a perpetual sense of this waiting to become multiracial.

From a color conscious perspective, simply adding a person of color to an all-white group smacks of tokenism if the group does not begin to move away from a white cultural framework. Color conscious ideology holds that race structures our lives, and because of that, there really is no such thing as a group that is accidently all white. Conscious intent is not required. The history of segregation, implicit bias, white cultural ethnocentrism, and unwillingness to confront these dynamics is all that is needed to keep white groups in place.

Consequently, adding any number of people of color will not make a group less white if the group itself is not willing to examine its own process and functioning. At a minimum, the group needs to understand that it has been functioning within a white normative framework and bring that framework into conscious consideration and discussion. Topics such as race, racism, and whiteness – taboo subjects under colorblindness – must become part of the group’s discursive repertoire.

A white group as seen by color consciousness allows, and even encourages, the physical presence of people of color, but excludes their full participation by requiring them to adhere to a narrow set of white cultural expectations, which do not allow people of color to bring their full selves into the process on par with their white colleagues.

Colorblind and color conscious ideologies thus have very different views of what comprises a white group, even as they each seek to ameliorate past practices of exclusion upheld by a white supremacist ideology.

TOMORROW – Part 2: Competing ideologies and management implications