Introducing whiteness

Introducing whiteness

Whiteness, writes Martin Lund in an excellent recent introductory book of that title published by MIT, is a racial formation that functions as a system of social structuring and control. Both race and whiteness are not stable and finished, but re/produced through a contingent and ongoing racial formation. And whiteness is both constituted by and constitutive of other social and cultural hierarchies such as class, gender, sexuality, and nationality and organised around power and privilege. So far so good, not least because it makes clear that whiteness operates both at the level of social relationships and also at a structural level and that there are complex links between these which have to be grappled with in thinking through the issues involved. However, the intersectional aspects are dealt with in what is rather too simple a way by separating out class, gender and so on and discussing them under different sub-headings, whereas a truly intersectional approach would have brought them together.

Another strength of the discussion is that the author uses many examples drawn from two societies he is most familiar with, the USA, and Sweden. At the same time, this introduces questions about how far these two countries can act as examples of whiteness more generally. For example, the book argues that whiteness originates from the history of racial capitalist imperialism, begun in the late fifteenth century, and Euro-US hegemony, achieved in an international context by the late eighteenth century. This has the consequence of backgrounding the fact that there are countries elsewhere in the world where such things happened differently. Lund’s discussion also grounds this in what he calls chattel slavery, whereas whitenesses and racial formation also exists in contexts where slavery was not a central issue or not an issue at all. It is a weak argument to say that such things were exported, for this begs the question of when, who, how and so on and whether the implied universalism of the effects is supported by detailed evidence drawn from different contexts.

Race for Lund is both a structure and an accumulated set of meanings that reinforce each other. And a “racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines.” (page 3). However, tying whiteness to European expansionism and slavery as we presently know it (see the discussion around page 29 for example) gives the surely unintended impression that race/racism is solely a white and black formation. Slavery has a long history considerably predating its present form, race has similarly existed over a very long time-period, and while in some examples it has been configured around physical features, these are not always those of colour.

This is a very good introductory book, and its approach is thoughtful and by and large inclusive and well-argued. What has been raised here is the specificity of examples, and the importance of recognising particular historical, political and social circumstances pertaining in different parts of the world at different historical times. Perhaps it might be countered that an introductory book is not the place for this, although it should be discussed at least in passing and the importance of not over-generalising indicated.


Last updated: 10 March 2023