Invisible Whiteness: Ignoring White Privilege

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "White Fragility" by Robin J. DiAngelo. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is invisible whiteness? How do white people deny their racial identity and create invisible whiteness?

Invisible whiteness is the concept of unacknowledged white racial identity. This group identity creates certain privileges so even if you don’t claim it, there’s an invisible whiteness at play.

Read more about invisible whiteness the structural privileges that come with it.

Individualism and Invisible Whiteness

The belief in individualism is a central part of American ideology and part of why there’s invisible whiteness. It is the belief that individuals have full agency to shape the outcomes in their lives. According to individualism, no one faces any barriers on the way to achievement that are not of their own making. Factors such as where you were born, who your parents were, or the color of your skin are simply irrelevant. 

Individualism is a comforting and validating belief—for white people, who sit atop the nation’s economic and political power structures. It tells them that their success and advantages in life are entirely the result of their own hard work, intelligence, and initiative. Individualism, therefore, supports the belief that society is fair and organized as a meritocracy.

But individualism sends a very different message to people of color. If powerful and successful people are powerful and successful because of their own merits as individuals, then it can only follow that powerless and unsuccessful people are in that condition because they are somehow “lesser” individuals. 

But this belief in pure meritocracy is a myth. White people are overrepresented in positions of power largely due to their status as beneficiaries of institutional racism. This system provides them with wealth, educational opportunities, access, and social capital that people of color simply do not have. Even seemingly race-neutral job qualifications like an advanced degree are a marker of white privilege because of the inherent resources required to even obtain such a degree—resources that black people are far less likely to have.

By its very nature, a belief in individualism renders one incapable of acknowledging the structural power disparities within society that lead to inequitable outcomes for different groups. In this way, individualism supports and bolsters the existing racial hierarchy.

Individualism, by downplaying the realities of group identity and group experience, also enables white people to deny their group identity as white people—including the advantages they derive from that identity and the ways in which it defines their attitudes and actions. This is what enables white people to treat racism as a series of isolated and discrete acts that can only be committed by an individual, instead of perpetuated by a society. But there is still an invisible whiteness at play.

People of color, of course, are never afforded the comforting luxury of individualism. Their identity is always seen (be it by educators, lawmakers, employers, or the criminal justice system) as being shaped by their membership in a group.

No One Is Objective

White beliefs in objectivity are closely related to the myth of individualism. Because white people believe that they are unique individuals unshaped by history or society, they also come to believe that their views of the world are entirely objective.

This follows naturally from individualism. If you don’t believe you’re conditioned by society or any other external forces, you can’t accept the reality of your own biases. 

But the belief in objectivity is also a myth. White people, like all people, are molded by the beliefs and ideologies of the society in which they live. And white people in the United States live in a society that explicitly places people who look like them at the seats of power.

Being asked to confront one’s actions and beliefs as racist can be deeply upsetting to white people, because it punctures their myth of objectivity. It suggests that one does not have complete autonomy over how one thinks and acts—but, rather, that one ventures out into the world profoundly shaped by forces beyond one’s control.

White beliefs about individualism and objectivity are central to white racial identity itself. They enable white people to see “race” as an attribute that only non-white “others” possess. White people unconsciously perceive whiteness as “normal” or “standard,” or simply lacking in race at all. In this conception of race, being white is synonymous with being American.

What is invisible whiteness? How do white people deny their racial identity and create invisible whiteness?

Invisible whiteness is the concept of unacknowledge white racial identity. This group identity creates certain privileges so even if you don’t acknowledge it, there’s an invisible whiteness at play.

Read more about invisible whiteness the structural privileges that come with it.

Invisible Whiteness: Ignoring White Privilege

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  • Why white people become defensive when confronted with the idea of racism
  • How today's racial hiearchy began in roots centuries ago
  • How we as society can gradually overcome our deep racial divides

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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