To understand the history of the ideology of ‘race,' and combating racism today, involves understanding (and challenging) ‘whiteness' as the foundation of racial categories and racism.
At first glance, it may seem that in common usage in Alberta, the word ‘white' is used to refer specifically to ‘skin colour' or ‘race.' Initially, this might seem like reverting back to, or reinforcing, the old (and racist) categories of European imperialism, and in some cases, it may in fact be meant that way! (We are profoundly concerned, for example, by the increase in neo-Nazi/white supremacist activity in our province.) In our experience, however, we have found that when people refer to ‘white people' (either in self-identifying, or identifying individuals/groups), it is in fact being used as a shorthand reference to whiteness, about which people may have varied understandings you will need to clarify. In other words, it is being used as a shorthand for the privileges/power that people who appear ‘white' receive, because they are not subjected to the racism faced by people of colour and Indigenous people.
As with the term ‘race,' it is important to clarify the differences between "white" (a category of ‘race' with no biological/scientific foundation) and "whiteness" as a powerful social construction with very real, tangible, violent effects. Here are some useful definitions of ‘whiteness,' followed by a list of its key features:
Racism is based on the concept of whiteness--a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white (Kivel, 1996, p. 19).
‘Whiteness,' like ‘colour' and ‘Blackness,' are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, pp. 46-67).
Drawing on the important work of Ruth Frankenberg (1993), the authors of Teach Me to Thunder: A Manual for Anti-Racism Trainers, write that whiteness is
a dominant cultural space with enormous political significance, with the purpose to keep others on the margin....white people are not required to explain to others how ‘white' culture works, because ‘white' culture is the dominant culture that sets the norms. Everybody else is then compared to that norm....In times of perceived threat, the normative group may well attempt to reassert its normativity by asserting elements of its cultural practice more explicitly and exclusively. (21)
An example of this normative whiteness was the furor concerning Baltej Singh Dhillon's fight to wear a turban, for religious reasons, as part of his RCMP uniform. The argument that the Mountie uniform was a ‘tradition' that should not be changed belied white Canadians' perceptions of Sikh people and communities of colour as ‘threatening' their position of privilege in Canada.
Whiteness is multidimensional, complex, systemic and systematic:
White versus Whiteness