Debating the Value of Whiteness Studies

In the last few weeks, I have begun to read writings situated within the field of whiteness studies. This journey began tangentially with readings related to my book project, including Martin Berger’s Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (University of California Press, 2005), which is a work in visual studies and Dianne Harris’ Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), an architectural history of the white aesthetic codes of the postwar home. These studies were so interesting that they prompted me to begin looking more closely at the scholars who pioneered the field of whiteness studies, which I understand to be the historical analysis of white ethnic consolidation in the United States over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth century.


A recent example of scholarship that touches on the themes of whiteness studies.

A recent example of scholarship that touches on the themes of whiteness studies.


According to scholars such as Noel Ignatiev, Theodore Allen, and David Roediger, Irish immigrants in America – one of the most maligned ethnic and national groups in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century – slowly consolidated themselves within a common white ethnic culture in the United States. Ignatiev especially argues that the Irish accomplished this by actively distancing themselves from the nonwhite social minorities that held a similarly disenfranchised social position in the United States. According to How The Irish Became White (1995), the Irish improved their own social standing by actively fostering anti-black racism and distancing themselves from the ‘backwardness’ that was associated with their agrarian roots.

Noel Ignatiev_Irish Became White

An early pioneer in the field that has elicited some pointed critiques.

Of course, this is not to say that all Irish ethnic traditions became completely irrelevant, but that the importance of these cultural differences was slowly mitigated by the commonalities created by a single category of whiteness. I have already come across scholars who critique whiteness studies, primarily along the lines that such writings play loose and fast with history. For example, Thomas Meagher has an entire section dedicated to this critique in The Columbia Guide to Irish American History (2005, 214-234). Meagher counters sweeping arguments on the importance of labor motivations for Irish immigrants by seeking to contextualize them within an entire host of other factors, including the initial support of Irish immigrants for abolitionist positions in the United States.

I am going to dedicate space in future posts to discuss the value (and limits) of whiteness studies as a distinct field of study. One of the most obvious critiques that comes to my mind almost immediately is the potential false equivalence one might construct between ‘whiteness’  and ‘blackness’ as theoretical bases for perpetuating inequality. A contemporary example of this is the claims of reverse racism that some make against racial and ethnic minorities. Such a false equivalence conveniently suppresses the historical differences that affected racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Such a discourse glamorizes the struggles of white ethnic immigrants in an effort to silence or delegitimize the continued structural basis of racial inequality. (This both fuels feelings of majority victimization by showing that their parents ‘also struggled to make it’, which insists upon the neutrality and universalism of the ethnic traditional of social migration without acknowledging the structural advantages provided to white immigrants over nonwhite groups.)

But of course, these are simply the most obvious critiques one can make. To be fair, many of the texts I explicitly mentioned above are careful to elucidate the similarities and disjunctions between racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. (A comparative approach is an excellent methodology for helping one to understand these differences in many cases.) Thus, it is in my best interests to be explicit about where I stand now in relation to this field of literature and to try and be fair in my assessments. I will say upfront that I have only recently conducted archival research on this topic and have only just started to make my way through the canonical writings and secondary literature on this topic. My intention will be to think openly about the implications of what I am reading, first in a general sense and then more precisely in relation to my own research in nineteenth century architectural history. So I ask for patience (and comments) from anyone who has more familiarity with this literature! I think it is a very interesting topic.

Here’s to some interesting reading!

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