Critical White Studies scholars work to counteract the “invisibility” of whiteness
through consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising, as defined by bell hooks, is the act
of learning and teaching about a “system of domination, how it became institutionalized
and how it is perpetuated and maintained” (hooks 2000, 7). Similar to early feminists’
struggles to raise consciousness about patriarchal domination, Critical White Studies
scholars aim to raise consciousness in white people about the structure of white
supremacy and their position of power through white privilege (McIntosh 2002, 97).
Barbara Flagg characterizes white “dysconsciousness” as the “transparency phenomenon:
the tendency of whites not to think about whiteness, or norms, behaviors, experiences or
perspectives that are white specific” (Flagg 1997, 269). This lack of awareness is a
consequence of the invisibility of whiteness, which is often understood in oppositional
terms to blackness (Grillo and Wildman 1997). Ruth Frankenberg suggests that “the more
one scrutinizes it, the more the notion of whiteness as an unmarked norm is revealed to
be a mirage or indeed, to put even more strongly, a white delusion” (Frankenberg 2001,
Whether understood as invisible, delusional, or transparent, most Critical White
Studies scholars agree that there is a general white “dysconsciousness” that needs to be
taken seriously to “foster racial justice;” that we need to “look for ways to diffuse
transparency’s effects and to relativize previously unrecognized white norms” (Flagg
1997, 630). Peggy McIntosh “led the way” in creating consciousness-raising techniques
through her conceptualization of “the invisible knapsack” of white privilege (Rothenberg
2002). McIntosh states that white privilege is “an invisible package of unearned assets,which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain
oblivious” (McIntosh 2002, 97). McIntosh then lists examples of everyday occurrences
that white folks take for granted, which include the following among many others:
5. I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see
people of my race widely represented.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify
to the existence of their race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work
46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them
more or less match my skin. (McIntosh 2002, 98-99)
Even though many examples listed should be obvious, white hegemony shields many
white folks from obvious structures of social inequality and more importantly protects
them “from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence” (McIntosh 2002, 100).
When Critical White Studies scholars work to raise consciousness to “undo the
invisibility of whiteness,” it demonstrates a preoccupation with the white condition
(Mahoney 1997, 462). Also, “the declaration that we must see whiteness… assumes that
whiteness is unseen in the first place” (Ahmed 2004, 15). People of color know about
whiteness. People of color have always known about whiteness. People of color have
resisted and communicated the horrors of white supremacy time and time again. So, what
does this say about Critical White Studies? To raise-consciousness is to regurgitate the
words of Black feminists amongst ourselves (white folks) until we legitimize and “hear”
what people of color, or more specifically, African American women have been saying
all along. In order to remain critical, we must acknowledge that one of Critical White
Studies’ key anti-racist strategies is to tell white people what everyone else already
knows. Teaching and understanding white privilege is undoubtedly important to have any
hope for white involvement in abolishing white supremacy. However, it is evident that
consciousness-raising as social justice is limited by re-centering whiteness in Critical
Race Theory. Grillo and Wildman explain that whites re-centering whiteness is a product
of white supremacy:
White supremacy creates in whites the expectation that issues of concern to them
will be central in every discourse. The center stage problem occurs because the
dominant group members are accustomed to being center stage. They have been
treated that way by society; it feels natural comfortable, and in the order of things.
(Grillo and Wildman 1997, 621)
In order to counteract Critical White Studies’ center stage problem, we must unlearn the
white dominant narrative that convinces us that our histories and lives are the norm and must be at the center.
Lauren A. Martin is a second year law student at Wake Forest University and a Senior Justice Law Fellow for the Decarceration Collective, an anti-carceral law firm based out of Chicago.