An Antiracism Glossary – Whiteness


Dictionary definition: the quality or state of being white; the fact or state of belonging to a human group having light-colored skin.
Antiracist definition: a set of normative privileges granted to white-skinned individuals and groups which is “invisible” to those privileged by it.


There is probably no term that displays a more extreme divergence between its dictionary definition and its antiracist definition than the term ‘whiteness’, which has spawned an entire subdiscipline of critical race theory known as Whiteness Studies.

The dictionary definition of ‘whiteness’ assigns no moral significance to the term; ‘whiteness’ simply refers to the state of having white skin and probable European ancestry.

In contrast, the antiracist definition is freighted with extremely negative moral baggage and denotes a socially constructed racial caste system that assigns greater value to groups deemed ‘white.’ In this sense, ‘whiteness’ is inextricably tied to antiracist conceptions of racism, white privilege, and white supremacy.


“Another area of critical investigation is the study of the white race… Why then do we draw the lines [between black and white] the way we do? Addressing this question includes examining what it means to be white, how whiteness became established legally, how certain groups moved in and out of the white race, ‘passing’, the one-drop rule, the phenomenon of white power and white supremacy, and the array of privileges that come with membership in the white race.” – Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,  p. 85

whiteness is like the air that you breathe when you live in a polluted city — where you get taught that pollution has no negative impact…And like pollution, whiteness is treated like it’s healthy, normal, and comes with no consequences… That’s why we need white people to heal from their unconscious attachment to whiteness…So you can reconnect to your humanity outside of whiteness and co-create an anti-oppressive community of care and consent around yourself.” – Sandra Kim, “Healing from Internalized Whiteness”, Everyday Feminism


First, critical race theorists are quite correct that ‘race’ and hence ‘whiteness’ are social constructs. Biologically, there is only one race: the human race. From a Christian perspective, while ethnicity, culture, and family lineage are biblical categories, ‘race’ is not. In practice, we lump all kinds of diverse ethnicities, cultures, and people groups under broad racial categories like ‘white’, ‘black’, and ‘Asian.’ Critical race theorists are right to deconstruct this social imaginary, particularly since it has played such a horrific role in our nation’s history.

Second, we should acknowledge that race has played a horrific role in our nation’s history, far beyond the period of slavery. For example, the ‘one-drop’ rule and other systems of racial classification were used to disenfranchise millions of citizens, denying them the ability to vote, access to education, and job opportunities. Conversely, persons deemed ‘white’ enjoyed greater access to all these advantages so that ‘whiteness’ was indeed a valuable commodity.

Similarly, ‘whiteness’ connoted intrinsic value and dignity that was denied blacks and hence denoted not just ancestry but racial superiority. All people can and should abhor such a deeply sinful idea.


One major problem with the term ‘whiteness’ is that meanings change. Even if we were to successfully argue that, historically, the term ‘whiteness’ meant “membership in the highest racial caste” that would not affect the word’s modern meaning. For example, the term ‘dude’ was used in the 19th century to mock excessively fashionable men. It doesn’t follow that I should be offended if someone calls me ‘dude’ tomorrow.

Interestingly, racial terms seem particularly susceptible to this kind of semantic drift. Today, words like ‘Negro’ or ‘colored’ are almost universally viewed as slurs (I hesitated even to write them). Yet they were once embraced wholeheartedly by the black community as self-identifiers. Should we insist on using these terms today, even if we assure our hearers that they are not intended as slurs? Absolutely not.

My second worry is that -as with so many terms which are redefined within the antiracist community- the ambiguity of meaning can be intentional. Antiracists define ‘whiteness’ in a way that links it inextricably to ‘white supremacy‘, ‘white privilege‘, and ‘racism.’ According to the antiracist definitions and outlook, these phenomena are pervasive today. Yet when antiracists unpack the definition of ‘whiteness’, they’ll primarily turn to its historical usage, development, meaning, and significance. There seems to be a questionable equivocation here.

The vast majority of modern Americans are not using the term ‘whiteness’ to denote “membership in the highest racial caste” and utterly deplore the idea that there should exist racial castes of any kind. Consequently, we need to draw a very clear distinction between what ‘whiteness’ meant in the past and what it means today.

It might help to return to my previous example. Imagine that I delivered a lecture that enumerated the ways in which the concept of ‘blackness’ was historically used to denote “membership in the lowest racial cast” and how consequently ‘blackness’ was a category used to demean, devalue, and disenfranchise millions of Americans for centuries. Then imagine that I insisted that blacks today should repudiate ‘blackness’ and should wrestle with the ways in which their understanding of their own ‘blackness’ is intrinsically demeaning and devaluing.

At best, people would be confused and -at worst- they would be offended. Imagine that I then insisted that their failure to repudiate ‘blackness’ was indicative of an unbiblical worldview, deeply ingrained patterns of racial inferiority, and internalized oppression. Not only would my approach be uncharitable, but I would be guilty of a subtle form of psychological manipulation.

It seems to me that the antiracist definition of ‘whiteness’ suffers from the same problem and lends itself to the same kinds of abuses.


Exploring the historical conception of ‘whiteness’ and its connection to racism is a worthwhile subject. At one point, it did indeed connote or at least suggest “membership in the superior racial caste.” However, few if any Americans today would endorse that understanding. Consequently, the antiracist is taking a morally neutral term and using it to express a deeply evil concept. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Of course, in principle, we are free to define terms however we want as long as we’re consistent. But the goal of language is effective communication. If I insist on defining “moron” to mean “French hockey player,” I shouldn’t be surprised if a roomful of French hockey players is offended by my definition! We should choose words that convey our meaning as clearly as possible and -as Christians- as charitably as possible.

To minimize the possibility of misunderstanding, a simple solution is available: substitute the phrases “white racial superiority” or “membership in the highest racial caste” for the term ‘whiteness.’ Since these phrases already carry extremely negative connotations (with good reason!), the antiracist runs no risk in confusing their hearers.

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