white habitus

Posted on February 23, 2008


In Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, research professor of sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses the social and spatial isolation of whites from people of color as rooted in American history and continuing today. He describes the “white habitus” of most whites in America as a “racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104). In addition, one of the most central consequences of the white habitus is that “it promotes a sense of group belonging (a white culture of solidarity) and negative views about nonwhites” (Bonilla-Silva 104). This “separate residential and culture life” (Bonilla-Silva 103) has consequences which shape many whites ignorance of or obliviousness to racial matters. Colorblind racism is a direct result of the segregation and isolation of whites from communities of color. Through its ideology, white culture as the dominant culture affects society on a macro-level scale. This is because racial ideology is the way in which as Bonilla-Silva states, “the frameworks of the dominant race tend to become the master frameworks upon which all racial actors ground (for or against) their ideological positions” (9). Bonilla-Silva reiterates Karl Marx in The German Ideology who stated that “the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (9).

Hence, the racial ideology of dominant culture allows whites in America as a culture and as a race who have the (unearned) privilege of “whiteness” to ignore the historically-rooted structures of inequality which continue to shape society today. For example, well-documented racialized residential patterns set up by white America from the institutions set up and legitimated to protect the interests of slaveholders, to the Donation Land Act of 1850, to the white backlash (in the North as well as the South) against the upward mobility of people of color from the 1890’s through the 1940’s, as well as throughout the 1960’s which fueled the Civil Rights Movement, to the backlash against affirmative action which continues today.

As discussed by professor emeritus of sociology and regular contributer to the History Channel’s History magazine James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong. Black Americans and disenfranchised minority groups who didn’t have the choice of benefiting from the unearned priviledge of “whiteness” were denied land and other major means of economic equality(163) long after “the nadir of American race relations (1890-1940)” where African Americans were put back into second-class citizenship (161). The legacy of this period in American history continues today in addition to other forms of disinvestment and dispossession structures of whiteness on the basis of race, such as racialized lending practices justified by “credit risk”, racist and exclusionary real estate practices such as redlining and housing covenants, as well as institutionally-sanctioned “urban renewal projects” evidenced in gentrification’s effect upon communities of color. White America has segregated, separated, and isolated Americans by race (see Loewen 168 and Lake Oswego housing covenant document dated in the 1950’s), and the disproportionate effects of this unequal distribution of wealth, access, and resources has shaped the dynamics of poverty and un-equal opportunity to this day. Racial disparities are well-documented today, for example, Loewen documents that in 2000 African American and Native American median family incomes averaged only 62 percent of white family income; while Hispanic families averaged about 64 percent as much as whites. Further, Loewen documents that African Americans still have worse housing, higher percentages of young men in jail, disproportionate nutritional deficiencies, less access to health care, even a lower median life expectancy at birth which was six years shorter than whites, and other indicators of the fact that “money buys life itself […] in the form of the freedom from danger and stress” (170,171).

However, if we don’t look at the causal relationship between history and the present, many of us (particularly whites who are isolated from people of color socially and spatially) might find it easier to “blame the victim”, but if we understand how historically-rooted racism and the depth at which it is imbedded into our institutions, we might connect slavery, to lynchings, to civil rights, to affirmative action, to redlining, to gentrification, to lending practices based on “credit risk” and see the ways in which racism and racial disparities still strongly exist today albeit it in different forms (Loewen 170, 171).

We are not living on an equal playing field, yet colorblind racism is a convenient way for many white Americans to ignore race, and the “wages of whiteness” as what Bonilla-Silva deems the “multiplier effect” which have been passed on down through the generations.

Bonilla-Silva argues that the white habitus is not natural, it is not how some white people would choose to live today (even though many might choose to live this way). Social and spatial segregation and racial isolation is not a natural process because minorities “do it too”, or “choose” to live together by race in racial/social/spacial segregation. It is historically-rooted, and continues to be structurally and institutionally-sanctioned by white America. Denial of equal access to land, resources, business and property ownership and other signs of “equal opportunity” was strategically planned out why whites in power to maintain their hold on power, pass it on to their children, and this was accomplished by keeping Black Americans, people of color, and disenfranchised minority groups from power at a macro-level, not just through micro-scale individual acts of “mere prejudice and discrimination”. Racial inequality persists because racism is deeply imbedded in our institutions.

Aspects of white habitus that Bonilla-Silva has studied and documented include whites’ levels of residential segregation and personal association with Blacks; how whites interpret their racial segregation and isolation from Blacks; and some of the potential consequences of whites’ limited level of interaction with Blacks (104). Bonilla-Silva found that there is a “paradox” between whites’ commitment to the principle of interracialism and the mostly white pattern of association (105).

In fact, Bonilla-Silva found that most whites he researched OVER-REPORT friendships with people of color, as superficial friendships were found be predominant rather than long-term relationships based on trust, confidentiality, and interactions beyond formal contact (111). The research showed that less than 10% of whites have Black friends, for even when the demographics provide opportunities for interracial friendships, whites didn’t cross the “color line” (109). Why? Bonilla-Silva explained this by the white experience in schools where emotional attachment to whites as primary social group teaches kids stereotypes and skills of colorblindness (109-110), finding that this pattern of white habitus as social segregation, even if spacial segregation is lessened by “desegregated” schools and if whites live in diverse neighborhoods, continues into college. Bonilla-Silva found that whites interpreted their own racial segregation within the rhetoric of colorblindness, i.e., via abstract liberalism, minimization, denial, and naturalization (all mentioned in detail in essay, Racism Without Racists: my analysis).

Sadly, he found that few whites recognized racial isolation from minorities as a problem, but as normal and natural. Bonilla-Silva attributed this lack of reflexivity to whiteness, where whites can reach adulthood never having to think of themselves as a culture or a race (112), hence the unquestioned norm. Thus, whites viewed “racial problems” as something that happens to “other” people, in other neighborhoods, i.e., in “nonwhite neighborhoods”. This demographic excuse was often used to justify lack of interaction with minorities (114). Thus, we can see how spatial and social segregation creates a white culture of solidarity and distorts whites’ views of nowhites (Bonilla-Silva 104).

In this way, whiteness is viewed as “normal” and therefore “nonracial” (Bonilla-Silva 115). This dynamic is the primary mechanism that whites use (whether conscious or not) in the rhetoric of colorblindness, for if the white race doesn’t exist, how can it matter? Thus, the white habitus creates and conditions views; fosters racial solidarity; de-racializes whites while racializing people of color; naturalizes and justifies racial segregation; produces whites’ positive view of self (social psychology); perpetuates a social and residential distance between whites and communities of color; results in a disconnect between whites’ racial claims of colorblindness and actual racial practices; and finally, the lack of interracial contact produces lack of empathy by whites as the “universe of whiteness” has dangerous attitudinal, emotional, and political implications (Bonilla-Silva 123-125).

The term white habitus made me think about my own life, where I go to school, where I live, where I go for entertainment, to relax, and I realized how WHITE my world is and will remain unless I do something about it. I don’t even have to try to live in a white world, but it is business as usual unless I remove this white habitus from my sub-conscious and analyze its very real impact. Is this lack of reflexivity on race how whiteness as “common sense” is so normalized/naturalized? Because as whites, we don’t have to think about race, we have a choice to leave race in our subconscious if we don’t want to deal with it. We can choose whether or not to be involved in struggles against racism, because we think it doesn’t affect. We miss the fact that racism degrades us all. We are degraded by not speaking and acting out against racism. I have asked white friends about the white habitus before I learned Bonilla-Silva’s terminology, and like the participants in his research, they most often naturalized it, talking about “self-segregation by saying things like: “but Portland is so white”. But, Portland isn’t so white; its segregated but it isn’t just full of white people. Portland has a lot of diversity. It is where I go in Portland, that is so white. To what extend this is really a choice depends on white skin privilege. I want to start making some different choices. I don’t want to live in a white world. I do not want to be surrounded by whiteness, by white people who are oblivious to their white choices, who may not even realize they live in a/as a white habitus. Yet, at what point is my search for diversity, for a nonwhite world just aiding gentrification?