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Whiteness as Reality

While the Origins of Whiteness resource helps in understanding the creation of whiteness in the United States, it does not offer insight into the integration of whiteness in everyday American contexts. Turning to more contemporary history, however, helps to drive home the inescapability of whiteness as an operative construct in American life.





As slavery ended, the social distinctions between races remained, and became even more powerful and demarcating. While black Americans were now free, they remained shackled by lack of access to the economic and social resources available to landed, well-situated whites, who continued to reap the benefits of slavery across generations. Furthermore, with race now a defined and central concept in the American psyche, racist thought stemming from slavery warrants became even more pronounced. This racism led to pseudo-scientific attempts to describe biological, social, and cultural differences between those of different “races.”


While the advent of whiteness was once “merely” a strategic legal move, whiteness quickly became embedded in the social fabric of the nation, rivaling gender in its ability to shape individual lives. No longer was race a peripheral legal matter decided by percentage of “colored” blood, but instead became a visible and immediately recognizable way for individuals to decide how to treat others. “Whiteness as Reality” is indexed well through both La More’s Ku Kluxer’s and Lyon’s The University of Mississippi campus when James Meredith tried to register as the first black student there. On display in both images is the cultural capital associated with whiteness: violence, control, and power come to the fore, highlighting whiteness’s magnitude.

Three people stand against a dark blue sky. They are dressed in white robes and white hoods that completely cover their faces, except for small eye holes that are cut out. The white robes are stained with red streaks.
Chet Harmon La More
Ku Kluxers
lithograph on paper
9 7/16 in x 12 3/10 in (23.97 cm x 31.27 cm)
Allocated by the U.S. Government Commissioned through the New Deal art projects
Danny Lyon
The University of Mississippi campus when James Meredith tried to register as the first black student there
gelatin silver print
11 in x 14 in (27.94 cm x 35.56 cm)
Gift of Thomas Wilson '79 and Jill Garling '80

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Last Updated

February 5, 2019 3:25 p.m.

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