Standard White: Dismantling White Normativity

Michael Morris


Abstracted from: Michael Morris, Standard White: Dismantling White Normativity, Book Review, 104 California Law Review 949 - 977 (August, 2016) (159 Footnotes) (Full Article)


What does it mean when we call someone "white"? How do we make that determination, and what does it imply? This Book Review uses white normativity to address those questions. In his groundbreaking book, White by Law, Ian Haney López identifies "whiteness" as central to racial classifications and race relations in the United States and calls for its dismantlement. This Book Review expands the examination of white normativity beyond race relations and the law. It also reexamines the racial prerequisite cases on which Haney López focuses his pioneering analysis. White by Law refers to whiteness as the "racial norm," but as this Book Review will demonstrate, white normativity is not confined to explicitly racial issues. Whites are not just the racial norm. In many instances, they also serve as the cultural, political, economic, physical, and scientific norm.

This Book Review also seeks to enlarge Haney López's rather narrow treatment of the concept of normativity, in which a "norm" appears to be synonymous with an "ideal." White by Law inextricably links white normativity with white superiority and minority denigration. In Haney López's view, "Whites continue to be defined, and to define themselves, as the positive opposite to minorities." But this is too simplistic. Minorities are not universally and unremittingly denigrated. Society very often ascribes positive attributes to minorities, as well as many negative ones. White normativity operates not to position whites as the best at everything-- the ideal--but as the most human. It endangers the fabric of our multiracial society, not by trumpeting white superiority, but by using real or perceived differences between whites and others to undermine the humanity of minority groups. It treats the supposed strengths of minority groups, as much as the stereotypical weaknesses ascribed to them, as evidence that the members of such groups are not "people" in the same way whites are.

If white racial identity depended on being "the positive opposite to minorities" in all cases, then one could construct a simple, linear racial hierarchy with whites at one end and all other groups arranged behind them. The problem with defining whiteness in strictly positive terms is that it fails to account for all the instances in which whites are not dominant--either in fact, in popular perception, or both. If whiteness were simply a matter of occupying the highest point on the scale, then individuals might cease being white when outperformed by members of a minority group. By the same token, members of racial minorities could become white through superior achievement-- that is, by having reached the ideal.

In contrast to a linear racial hierarchy, white normativity resembles a bell curve. Whites occupy the heart of this normal distribution and, in a country that exalts the middle class and majoritarian politics, find great advantage in claiming the center. Minority groups that fare worse than whites are relegated to one tapering tail, and those that surpass whites in some way are relegated to the other. If white racial identity hinges on white normativity instead of white superiority, then the racial minorities who outperform whites are not white; they are freaks and outliers.

Whiteness serves a normative function by defining the expected or "neutral" range of human attributes and behavior. Other racial categories emerge as deviations from this norm, which places them outside the protection of the law and civil society. The normative function of whiteness has important, but unappreciated, implications for the treatment of whiteness as a legal category, and it complicates Haney López's call for dismantling the concept. White normativity accommodates and acknowledges the shortcomings of whites while simultaneously maintaining white privilege and whiteness's centrality in the U.S. racial classification scheme.

Part I of this Book Review defines white normativity.

Part II describes its operation in particular areas of U.S. society.

Part III explores the durability of racial categories and the prospects for dismantling the concept of whiteness.

Part IV concludes by examining potential avenues for reducing the influence of whiteness and rendering society more egalitarian and just.