‘Whiteness Studies’ Researchers At U Look At Racial Identity

Jean Hopfensperger, Star Tribune (Minn.), September 11, 2006

Do white people consider their race important? Are they aware of how their racial status gives them advantages in America? In an unusual study, most whites said “yes” to both questions.

White people consider their race to be an important part of who they are, and most are aware that being white gives them advantages in America, according to an unusual survey released last week by the University of Minnesota.

The findings emerged from what the university billed as the first national telephone survey of white people discussing their concept of racial identity. It’s part of a growing—and controversial—field of scholarly research called “Critical Whiteness Studies,” which focuses the lens of race relations on the white majority.

The survey found that 74 percent of white Americans interviewed said their racial identity was important—a number that surprised researchers, who believed that Caucasians simply took their race for granted.

Likewise, the white Americans said they understood they benefit from their race.

While more than 80 percent said access to schools and social connections were important in explaining “white advantage” over racial minorities, 62 percent said prejudice and discrimination against non-whites also explained those advantages.

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Research has critics

The study is part of a growing body of research on the attitudes and beliefs of white people, in particular in the context of race relations. The field of Whiteness Studies has its own conferences, university classes and even “Whiteness Scholars.”

But critics say much of the work has focused too much on white people in the context of oppressing of minorities. One of them is Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank based in Minneapolis.

“The perspective is almost always built on the assumption this is inherently a racist society, that white people have loads and loads of privileges, and that virtually everything in American society is skewed against people of color,” Pearlstein said. “It discounts how complicated race is.”

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In 2003, Hartmann and the study’s co-authors commissioned a telephone survey that reached 2,000 people—1,000 white, 500 black, 400 Hispanic and 100 other members of racial minorities. The survey results were presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociology Association in Montreal last month.

The study showed Caucasians were indeed aware of their race and the advantages it brings to them, said Hartmann. But it also found that both Caucasians and racial minorities strongly valued individualistic ideals such as freedom and hard work.

The study found similarities and differences between the two groups.

• Three-fourths of the whites, and 91 percent of the racial minorities, said their cultures must be preserved. But only a small minority in each group belonged to organizations dedicated to that goal.

• Only 17 percent of whites, and 23 percent of racial minorities, said racial “favoritism” helped them get ahead.

• Fewer than 50 percent of whites thought U.S. laws and institutions contributed to disadvantages for blacks. But 81 percent of minority groups believed they did.

Minnesotans such as John Lund, CEO of the Sons of Norway, says he’s not convinced that most white people think of themselves primarily in terms of the color of their skin. It’s ethnic identity that shapes many of them, he said.

“I don’t think of myself as white,” said Lund, whose Minneapolis-based organization works to promote and preserve Norwegian heritage. “I think of myself as an American of Norwegian ancestry.”

Lund says he feels even “less white” than 20 years ago, as he has watched a world of new immigrants and African Americans make Minnesota home. His son-in-law is black, he said. His grandchildren will be mixed race. He feels at home in that spectrum of color.

“I don’t know if considering ourselves by color really promotes anything,” he said.

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