What is "whiteness"?


20 minutes

In the second issue of #MotsPourMaux, the program that deciphers the words of discrimination, we chose to talk to you about a not very common word, the word “whiteness”.

Whiteness - we also sometimes say whiteness - is the fact of being perceived as white, and the power relations that this entails.

In other words, it's not so much a skin color - whites tend to have pink skin, by the way - but social status.

White people haven't always existed.

The ancient Greeks for example did not divide the world into blacks and whites.

It was the 19th century that "racialized" things.

To be perceived as white, or to perceive oneself as white, therefore varies according to the times.

For some academics, like Nell Irvin Painter, Donald Trump's coming to power has revived white identity: "Whites, even those who were not supremacists, discovered themselves white," she says.

White here, black there

Irish women and men were stigmatized and segregated in the 19th century in the United States by Protestant Americans, the “Wasp”, who considered them not to be part of the “white race”.

For historian David Roediger, they have "become white" because of the psychological and social salary offered them by whitewashing.

Whether or not it is seen as white also varies from place to place.

Métis people experience this when they go to their parents' country: in France they are perceived as black, but in Mali or Senegal, they can be perceived as white.

Warlike whiteness

This is why there is a history of whites, and even a sociology of whites, which therefore studies whiteness, the fact of being white.

This is called in English “whiteness studies”.

Among the first people to analyze whiteness, we find William Dubois, American sociologist and historian born at the end of the 19th century.

In a text called

The Souls of the White People

, Dubois describes whiteness as conquering, associated with war and possession, destroying the land.

He also denounces the lie of so-called white superiority.

White privilege

In the 1980s and 1990s, more and more intellectuals questioned whiteness: the jurist Cheryl Harris, the sociologist Ruth Frankenberg and also the writer Toni Morrison, who in 1993 wrote an essay on "Whiteness and 'literary imagination'.

It was at this time that the concept of “white privilege” was born, under the pen of researcher Peggy McIntosh.

This is not to say that when you are white, you are necessarily rich and happy, but that on equal terms, a white person in the United States or in France will have advantages that a black, Asian or Arab person does not. will not.

The notion of privilege makes it possible to change perspective and to look at the same thing no longer from the point of view of discrimination, but of social advantage.

A false standard

In France, one of the first people to have imported and explained this notion is the researcher Maxime Cervulle, in the book

Dans le blanc des yeux


As feminist studies uncover the illusion of a generic masculine in grammar, or of a suffrage claiming to be universal but which was in fact only male suffrage, studies on whiteness analyze the way in which white thought has set itself up as a norm, as a standard.

Many books

Today the reflection on whiteness is more and more popular in France.

In one year, many books have been published on the subject, in particular that of Lilian Thuram,

The White Thought


The former footballer offers outright a “race suicide”.

It is not of course that all the people perceived as white commit suicide.

It is for Lilian Thuram "the acceptance of the questioning on what it is to be white".

In short, it is about becoming aware of what years of racist stories have left in all of us as unconscious reflexes.

Go to work !


"Those who are dominant, whether they like it or not, are not aware that they are dominant", says Lilian Thuram


"A good number of people do not realize that they are discriminating", says Claire Hédon, Defender of rights

#WordsForMals, what is it?

White privilege, gender, sexism, validism, racialized, intersectionality, decolonial or universal feminism, agism, queer, microagressions ... Many words have appeared in our vocabulary, more or less long ago, without our always knowing precisely the words. contours, even their definition.

Does sexism only concern women, or any distinction made on the basis of sex?

What is a “white privilege”, and does that mean that people perceived as white are necessarily privileged?

What is ageism?

And why do people who oppose the notion of race say they are “racialized”? 

With #MotsPourMaux, twice a month, 

20 Minutes

 helps you to see more clearly in these concepts. 

  • Lilian thuram

  • Research

  • Discrimination

  • Racism

  • Culture