white is a blanket term or designation that denotes a color, a race, and a range of ethnicities. But, to speak of whites or whiteness is fundamentally different than speaking about other races and ethnicities. In fact, it is important to distinguish whiteness for several reasons. Unlike the other races and ethnicities featured on this site, whiteness is typically not marked as a distinct race, especially when we look at the media.
In Western contexts (including America and most of Western Europe), whiteness has historically been constructed as the norm and the embodiment of dominant culture and ideologies. Whiteness is different from other races and ethnicities because it is essentially neutral or invisible. Whiteness is understood to be invisible, because it is constructed as dominant. If you are white, you occupy a position of privilege. You hold a distinct advantage over others, even if you didn’t work for it or aspire to it, can’t see it, won’t see it, or have been taught not to see it. The fact that you can’t see the privilege doesn’t mean it’s not there. If you’re white, you may experience some difficulty or discomfort coming to terms with your own privilege, especially because ideas of privilege go against a long touted egalitarian vision of an American melting pot, which celebrates a multiethnic, multicultural, and multiracial society.
Of course there are exceptions. When whiteness intersects with other facets of identity such as class, for example, we can see the way white dominance and privilege can take on different meanings. A lower class white person will not have access to the same opportunities as other whites. Still, whiteness brings with it a set of privileges and societal advantages that remain true to this day.
If whiteness and white privilege are largely invisible, then how do we “see” it, and gain awareness of its representation in the media? This is a difficult task; it’s far easier to see what is different or marked as different than it is to see what is standard or the norm.
As with other races and ethnicities, there is not one single media representation of whites. Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the story being told, the type of production (mainstream or independent), there may be a multitude or range of representations.
However, unlike other races and ethnicities, whites are not susceptible to the same degree of stereotyping. We cannot easily point to a list of common stereotypes and conventions that apply specifically to white people. And when we can, those stereotypes are generally valued above the stereotypes attached to other races and ethnicities. Historically, whites in the media are leaders, successful, well-spoken, sophisticated, witty, intellectual, wealthy.
Despite the difficulty in “seeing” whiteness and picking up on the complex ways it intersects with other parts of our identity (class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability), it’s still important to critically examine it as you would the other races and ethnicities on this site. In other words, we can still look for patterns in the representation of whiteness in order to better comprehend its role as an ideology.
As you would with the other races and ethnicities, look for patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body language, their speech, where they live, what kind of job they have, how they interact with others of the same or different ethnicity. Through identifying these patterns, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.
Begin by making a list of the types of media representations of whites you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media on this website tagged “whiteness.” Then, consider: