WTF Is Whiteness? A Decoding Race Primer


As anti-racist action finds mainstream acceptance, leaders are expected to fluently “speak the language” of race and racism. 

The problem? Many white professionals have learned that the best way to participate in conversations about race is to stay out of them.

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing. If I do, I’ll be fired.”

“Every misstep shows how little I know. I need to be on the defensive in conversations about race.”

“If I don’t say anything, then I can’t say anything wrong.”

Up until now, many white leaders have been explicitly and implicitly coached to adopt a so-called “colour-blind” approach to race and racism. But there is a new cultural appetite for naming and understanding whiteness on a deeper level. 

Terms like “white guilt”, “white tears”, and “white fragility”—once the language of academics and activists—have been making their way into the mainstream as whiteness is being named in a way that it hasn’t before…and leaders are expected to address it.

But beneath all of this talk about whiteness is an important question that often goes unasked and unanswered – WTF is whiteness anyway?

Whiteness Defined


Traditionally, when anti-racism is taught, whiteness is not defined. We’re taught about a system that harms some (racialized people) and privileges others (white people). Naming white privilege is often as far as anyone goes in discussing the role of white identity within systemic racism. 

But whiteness is not an insidious evil lurking in the shadows of our culture. Instead, whiteness is better understood as a cultural pattern of behaviour, a specific way of seeing the world, learned preferences and a very specific idea of what it means to be “normal” at work and beyond.

The lead educator of our course Decoding Race for White Leaders, Dr. Emma Lind, remembers the moment she first began to question and understand what it means to “white”. After inviting her partner to have dinner with her family, they said, “…you know, Emma. We think we’re both white. But having met your family, I know you’re whiter than white. You’re a kind of cartoonish white. I may have white skin, but you’re really, really white.”

She was shocked by the idea that not only did different types of white people exist. And they existed in a hierarchy? That somehow, made her whiter? What does that mean?

“For years, I had never questioned my own racial identity. I certainly didn’t think racism had anything to do with me, other than I accepted that white privilege was a part of my life.”

Dr. Emma Lind

For white folks, the pressures of whiteness may not weigh heavy on their minds because it doesn’t feel like pressure – it feels like normalcy. But if we take for granted that culturally or racially specific practices are neutral, we might also take for granted that we are neutral.

When you get used to thinking about yourself as without ethnicity (as so many are taught in colour-blind discourse), it becomes easy to think that conversations about race and ethnicity are always for other people. But understanding whiteness can help us understand that each of us, regardless of our race, have our experiences shaped by our racial identities.


Becoming White: The Historical Hierarchy

Our modern understanding of who and what qualifies as white, is a creation of society that was literally shaped by history

In the early 1900s, many immigrants from Europe were not considered “white”. Irish, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and others from Europe faced high levels of racism and discrimination in Canada. In this, they weren’t alone; this was the era of residential schools, the Chinese head tax, and the banning of Black servicemen in the Canadian military. However, over the course of the twentieth century, many European immigrant groups began to be perceived of as white.

Our modern understanding of who and what qualifies as white, is a creation of society that was literally shaped by history

In the early 1900s, many immigrants from Europe were not considered “white”. Irish, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and others from Europe faced high levels of racism and discrimination in Canada. In this, they weren’t alone; this was the era of residential schools, the Chinese head tax, and the banning of Black servicemen in the Canadian military. However, over the course of the twentieth century, many European immigrant groups began to be perceived of as white.

This wasn’t accidental.

Many groups we now consider “white” found this status by actively assimilating into dominant traditions. Today, it is not unusual for someone of Irish, Portuguese or Italian heritage to be considered white in Canada. Stories abound in families and immigrant records: Boychuks who became Boyds, parents insisting English was the only language to be spoken in the house, conversions to Protestant denominations, and everything from cooking practices to décor that were changed to appear more “Canadian” (read: English or white).

The social and political reward for these behaviours was to pass as white – to experience less racism, to have greater economic opportunities, and to live more successfully in Canada. 

Whiteness as Identity


There is nothing wrong or shameful about being white, but there is a kind of danger in assuming that whiteness is neutral. When white folks buy into the idea of themselves as raceless, they lose the ability to understand their own story as an ethnic one…even when it’s historically been the case. 

Rather than approaching whiteness as a ubiquitous identity, what if white folks began describing whiteness as responsible for the pressure their grandparents felt to avoid speaking their first languages? Or the name change their ancestors were pressured into? What if whiteness was the system that was responsible for the loss of their own unique history? 

What if white folks recognized in current acts of racism a form of social violence that was once directed against their own people and, in subtler ways, continues being directed at them, in unspoken expectations of our everyday lives?

Now What?

As our social, political and professional landscapes continue shifting towards an equitable lens, it’s important to have the tools and knowledge needed to understand our place in the world—and that includes whiteness. 

Naming whiteness means challenging the particular cultural patterns we understand as “normal”, many of which make people of colour feel as though they do not belong. 

Understanding whiteness helps us to recognize that it is not neutral, but instead, is just as ethnic and cultural as any other non-white ethnic or cultural group. And when we recognize this, we can step into the work of challenging the inequality these patterns perpetuate in life, at work, and beyond.

Reflection Questions

How do you define white people? (who is included/excluded, and why?)

When did your family become white? (suggestion: call your parents and talk about your family history!)

Are there any parts of yourself that you compromise in order to pass as white in the world?

Decoding Race for White Leaders

As a white leader*, move past discomfort into racial literacy and active ally-ship to promote strong relationships and cultures of belonging. In this course you’ll look at whitness as a system of power while investigating your own racial identity with the attendant unspoken assumptions and behaviours brought into the workplace.
*This course is focused on white leaders but is open to leaders of all identities.

Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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