The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: How Changing U.S. Demographics Will Upend White People’s Sense of Identity, History & What It Means for the Rest of Us

Linda Alcoff May 1, 2011

CREDIT: Marlena Buczek SmithAs historian of whiteness Nell Painter recently put it, “being white these days is not what it used to be.” What it used to be was the invisible default, the norm, the comfortable majority. Soon to be gone with the wind.

What it means to be white is in high ferment. Census reports have been tolling the bell of an impending white minority status for some time, but even those who only read the sports page know the demographic future: Latinos and Asians are found today even in the ranks of the National Football League.

Millions of urban whites have been experiencing minority status for decades. New York, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Tampa, Baltimore and Philadelphia are all major cities with a white minority, and more cities are moving in that direction. Some believe that we can reverse course if we put a full stop to immigration and make the life of the undocumented such a living hell that they return home, or just die, but most know better. The jump in Latino numbers, for example, is from new births, not immigration.

Without a doubt, the present-day character and lived experience of whiteness in the United States is undergoing as significant a transformation today as it did a century ago when southern Europeans and the Irish became accepted members of the club. Today, new Latino sub-groupings are poised for inclusion as white, the racial identities of mixed folks are increasingly muddy, and whiteness itself has moved from an invisible default position to an apprehensive self-awareness. Most important, the point of view of non-whites is visible, even in the mainstream and the suburbs.

The 2010 U.S. census paints a detailed picture of our changing face. From 2000 to 2010, the population increased by nearly 10 percent to 308 million. Latinos and Asians contributed the most to this jump, with each group increasing its numbers by 43 percent. But African-Americans went up as well, by 12 percent, and “American Indians and Alaska Natives” jumped 18 percent. The white population lagged markedly behind, increasing only by 1 percent, and losing five points of its share overall. Whites dropped from 69 percent of the population to 64 percent, but even this number is misleading since the category of “white” includes Arabs and North Africans.

The writing on the wall is unmistakable and irreversible, and it may not even be written in English. By 2050 (some demographers say 2042) European-Americans will slip below majority status. For the first time in its history, the U.S. will be a majority non-white nation. The mind reels. Will this make a difference to its foreign policy, or its domestic policy? Will the non-white majority revise and correct the sanitized ideological image of the history of the United States and its role in the world, bringing slavery, genocide, colonialism and imperialism out from the footnotes? And how will whites respond?

Even after 2050, whites will remain the largest plurality. More important, our liberal inheritance laws have produced a cross-generational payoff of white privilege. The distribution of economic resources will not change as quickly as the demographics because, as Andrew Hacker revealed in his study Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, the way race affects economics is not measured in wages but in real estate (most households’ primary source of wealth). African-Americans families have only 10 cents for every dollar of white wealth and Latinos only 12 cents. And the most recent mortgage crises hit the newest and poorest homeowners — disproportionately people of color — the hardest. United for a Fair Economy estimates that the burst subprime mortgage bubble caused losses of between $146 billion and $190 billion for African-Americans and Latinos.

National responses to the mortgage crisis highlight the intersections between economics and cultural forces, or in other words, the relationship between race and class. The Tea Party movement vilified government-supported mortgage lenders like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for helping first-time home buyers, creating images of fiscally irresponsible people of color with inadequate salaries buying up McMansions — an update on the 1980s trope of the welfare queen. Falling home values for white families were blamed not on Wall Street but on dark folk trying to cheat the system.

The obvious falsity of this claim suggests that economic motives cannot explain the white reaction. Anyone really concerned about falling mortgage values would seek out the real culprit, not some racist fairy tale. As with the issue of Obama’s birth certificate, one senses a willful ignorance here, a conscious embrace of the patently absurd. Jean-Paul Sartre nailed this phenomenon in his analysis of French anti-Semitism during the turbulent 1940s, connecting it to a racialized form of nationalism. Who were these Jews to claim French soil as their own? Today we hear redolent echoes of the same sneers in the Tea Party movement’s call to “take our country back.”

But unlike French Gentiles, white Americans will soon be outnumbered. And they know this.

The Tea Party, amazingly, is not all white, with 5 percent identifying as Black, Asian or of Hispanic origin according to a 2010 New York Times poll. More significant is the fact that whites are split over whether to support it. A June 2010 ABC News poll showed that even 45 percent of white Southerners disapprove of the Tea Party.

Whites have also remained split over Obama, and opinion polls reveal significant divergences between whites and non-whites on race-related matters. But we may be overlooking important data from such surveys. For example, according to the Gallup Poll, 56 percent of whites disapprove of the abusive treatment of immigrants in the United States, 51 percent believe racism is widespread, and 44 percent believe racism is a factor in blacks’ rates of incarceration. While the disparity between whites and non-whites on racial issues can reach nearly 40 percentage points, nearly half of white Americans do agree with the overwhelming majority of people of color on such issues. Does this mean they are divided and will soon be conquered?

The imaginary of whiteness, or its collective unconscious, is undergoing an alteration that affects the sensibilities of young whites today, as well as all those who aspire to be included as white. White expectations of having a whites-only home, school, or neighborhood bar are decreasing, and the number of interracial couplings including whites is steadily rising. The meanings and connotations of whiteness are shifting along with its power, which is no longer unchecked. We can find signs of this changing white imaginary in expressive cultural forms both high and low, from the attempt to assimilate to a Hip-Hop culture, sales of salsa surpassing those of ketchup and the unapologetic avowals of Guido identity on television shows such as Jersey Shore (including by cast members without a trace of Italian ancestry).

Not all whites have negative and fearful reactions to their impending minority status. In the post-civil rights era, white attitudes have changed significantly about issues such as neighborhood integration, interracial dating and whether racism is wrong. Age is of course a central factor here, but that bodes well for the future. Younger whites have grown up with more everyday interaction with non-whites, and it’s often on an equal footing, not simply with servants or underlings. Young whites also gravitate toward strongly assertive forms of African American expressive culture, from music to comedy. The limitations of this support have been well documented and analyzed, as when the preference for aesthetic style stops short of actual support for political goals such as economic reparations for African Americans. But the change in outlook and in experience may mean real change is on the horizon.

So here is the central question: Can whites be a part of the rainbow, as whites? What role can whites play in the new rainbow-colored national landscape? Can we imagine a future in which whiteness itself has been, in some sense, (partially) redeemed?

This requires addressing how whites can be a part of the rainbow as whites, and not just as women, gays and lesbians, working-class people, the disabled or any other group-related identity that might offset potential conflicts and jump-start an easy talk of commonality. Whether as activists in labor unions, LGBT student groups or any other liberatory organizations, whites are present as whites. The effects of white identity retain an influence over modes of interaction, general background knowledge and the emotional responses that make up our substantive ways of being. We still dance differently.


White efforts to formulate antiracist responses to the hysteria of Tea Party reaction, as well as to demographic turning points, will be important to watch, analyze and assist. The popular website Stuff White People Like has inaugurated a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor while revealing the superficiality of some avowals of
antiracism, although it can veer off into an unhelpful cynicism and its target is really liberal yuppies. Stephen Colbert’s hilarious sketch on the “Neutral Man’s Burden” usefully names the sense of an entitlement to being the normal, invisible center, precisely what will soon be forced to change. Whiteness studies has been diligently uncovering the racial substance of U.S. history, politics and culture, measuring its economic payoff and providing enhanced tools for interpreting all the ways whiteness tries to hide.

In terms of projecting future transformations of the white minority, there seem to be three options under discussion. Some liberals, such as sociologist Richard Alba and historian David Hollinger, imagine an easy evolution to a post-racial order in which a racially diverse professional-managerial class sets the tone for tolerance and inclusion for the rest of the society. The significance of race will wither away, and the capitalist need for ever more bright and young research and design teams will promote the improvement of urban education.

The continuing need for a vulnerable class of serfs, and the immense utility of racism and sexism in securing this end, is mystifyingly ignored by these sunny optimists. This vision of inevitable progress also fails to take into account the lesson of New York City itself, in which a white power structure has remained entrenched despite the fact that whites are in the minority.

A second group, such as historians David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev, who are leaders in the “Race Traitor” movement, has been arguing heatedly in favor of eliminating the white race. They do not mean an ethnic cleansing, but more of a group suicide in the metaphorical sense of refusing to accept the designation white. In favor of what, one might wonder? The main tactic here is refusal, toward the laudable aim of refusing white privilege, but with an unclear idea of what will replace what has been refused.

Refusing to avow one’s whiteness may also feed into the post-racial illusion that progressive coalitions can ignore issues of race.

Clearly, younger whites who have disavowed racism and embraced varied and assertive forms of non-white culture have shown, by their dress and demeanor, a happy desire to look less white, or at least, to borrow a feminist phrase, to be less white-identified. This quest for a reverse assimilation took pronounced form in Avatar in which the disabled working-class hero managed to shed his whiteness entirely by the movie’s end and become one with the blue people. Unfortunately for the cause of anti-racism, our hero Jake Sully also manages to master all the ways of the indigenous people, nab the sexy royal daughter, win glory as the greatest warrior, save the day and, in short, assimilate with his cultural domination intact. This represents the fantasy of perhaps more than a few white refuseniks who imagine a multi-colored, sexy and prosperous future in which they can lose their uncomfortable tie to an uncomfortable past.

A third trend can be called the white fragmentation theory because it emphasizes the trend among whites toward disaggregation into adversarial political constituencies. It makes little sense to ask “who will whites vote for?” when whiteness has so little predictive power as a stand-alone criterion. The fact that whiteness remains predictive of political orientation in combination with urban, union and gender status suggests that, while still a substantive category of identity, whiteness is becoming more mediated by other markers than ever before. It certainly does not confer any security or economic stability.

Some believe that all the new racial categories may have a diminishing effect on the power of race. In the latest census, the ability to check more than one box means that a full 63 racial types are now recognized. The singular significance of race, Nell Painter suggests, loses its punch when it gets diluted to this degree. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that a proliferation of categories and mixtures can easily coexist with various forms of racisms, as it has in Latin America for centuries. Some are nonetheless hopeful that the current trend is less an expansion of types than a muddying of distinctions that will render racism’s directive more obscure.

What will eventually develop in the United States will undoubtedly have its own dynamic given our particular history and mix of groups and the forms of resistance we develop. In other words, the future depends not on demographics, but on what we choose to do.

What remains beyond question is that whiteness will no longer operate as an invisible norm. This means that people will have to think about what it means to be white, what it has meant and what it might mean in the future.

Linda Martín Alcoff, professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is writing a book on the future of whiteness and is (roughly) half-white herself. For more info, go to

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