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Whiteness, Citizenship, Racial Categories and Shifting Racial Discourse

The Relationship Between Whiteness, Citizenship, Racial Categories and Shifting Racial Discourse

Whiteness has been synonymous with citizenship (if not legally, then in popular thought) in European colonized countries, like the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, since their inception. In the United States full civil, political and social citizenship has largely been restricted to free white men, denying the rights and protections of citizenship to white women, both free and enslaved blacks, Native Americans and aliens (Glenn, 2002). Across the globe, the Union of South Africa was formed and “founded on the premise that Africans would be denied voting rights in all but the Cape Colony,” connecting whiteness and citizenship for generations to come(Goodman, 2004:146).  In this post I will explain how whiteness has been inextricably tied to citizenship, both formal and substantive, through racial categorization. I will also discuss how shifting racial discourse affects the way societies view race which in turn affects racial categorization, whiteness and access to citizenship.

Just as whiteness has been formed in opposition to non-whites, citizenship has been created in opposition non-citizens—both are social constructions which are fluid and shift to protect the rights and privilege of those in power (Glenn, 2002; Dalmage, 2011). In European colonized countries like the United States, South Africa and Brazil, whites formed new colonizer governments which would establish rights for themselves over those of the indigenous people, and create a claim on land, resources and labor (Glenn, 2002). Although all three began as colonies of a monarchy, each eventually established themselves as independent nations, consisting of citizens rather than subjects (Glenn, 2002).  Citizenship means that you have “full membership in the community in which one lives,” providing certain rights for the citizen in exchange for certain duties (Glenn, 2002:19).           

According to T.H. Marshall, citizenship has three types of rights: civil, political, and social (Glenn, 2002). Civil rights are “the rights necessary for individual freedom,” which include freedom of religion, speech and thought, as well as the right to justice, to own property and the form contracts (Glenn, 2002:19). Political rights are the rights necessary to participate in the governance of the community, this includes the right to vote or exercise political power (Glenn, 2002).  Finally, social citizenship or the ability to have one’s basic needs met, this includes the right to some degree of economic security, ability to participate in society and to “live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society” (Glenn, 2002:19; Dalmage, 2011). Full citizenship is the ability to participate in all three of these rights. This makes social citizenship vital to being a full citizen because it is what allows individuals to turn formal rights into substantive rights—meaning without social citizenship, the ability to provide for yourself and your family and the ability to participate in social life, one is unable to exercise their other rights (Glenn, 2002).           

"Racial categorization is more than just sorting individuals by shared phenotypes like skin color, hair texture or facial features; it is about creating systems of privilege and denial."

Substantive access to citizenship has often been curtailed by using racial categorization to control access to social rights either implicitly or explicitly. Racial categorization is more than just sorting individuals by shared phenotypes like skin color, hair texture or facial features; it is about creating systems of privilege and denial. Race is socially constructed, meaning that phenotype has no significance in itself, only what society attributes to it; therefore it is not fixed and can change according to the popular beliefs and discourse at the time. In the U.S. black Americans have explicitly been excluded from citizenship based on their race, as well as implicitly through Jim Crow and mass incarceration (Waquant, 2005; Alexander, 2010).        Although blacks were granted civil and political citizenship in 1870, after being deemed subhuman and incapable of citizenship during slavery, Jim Crow effectively barred them from social citizenship—many were unable to vote due to restrictive poll taxes, reading tests and violence (Glenn, 2002; Alexander, 2010). Today many African Americans are barred from full citizenship by state laws which limit the social rights of formerly incarcerated by supporting restrictive employment laws and rescinding the ability of those convicted of a felony to vote (Alexander, 2010). These restrictions are not explicitly based on race, but African Americans are disproportionately affected due to the denial of privilege based on race. The fluidity of racial categories can be seen in census categories (Nobles, 2004).           

Census categories themselves are a form of racial discourse (Nobles, 2004). The U.S. census enumerates by race, while the Brazilian census enumerates by color—both reflect political and popular ideas about race and the construction of difference (Nobles, 2004). Although their beliefs were grounded in the idea of white supremacy, both countries took different tactics to support it. Brazil promoted the idea that through intermarriage indigenous people, descendents of African slaves and European colonizers would meld into one white race—therefore color was more important to account for (Nobles, 2004). The U.S. took this approach when dealing with Native Americans, but when it came to other racial groups the prime tactic was exclusion (Nobles, 2004). The U.S. denied citizenship to non-whites, used miscegenation laws, exclusionary immigration policies,  and reconstructed ideas about familial lineage in order to exclude people of color from citizenship—because of this the identification of race was important (Pascoe,1996; Nagel, 2003; Nobles, 2004).           

If one takes the U.S. census as an example it is possible to see how popular ideas about race have been reflected in the census, which in turn affect government policy (Noble, 2004). There were eighteen changes to the twenty censuses that occurred between 1790 and 2000 (Noble, 2004). One example is how polygenists lobbied congress for, and received, the inclusion of the term “mulatto” in the 1850 census in order to support their claim that the offspring of two different races, black and white, would be infertile (Nobles, 2004; Dalmage, 2011). This both reflected one “scientific” approach to race at the time and had an influence on the way race was discussed in society. According to the “one-drop rule” which had dominated popular thought prior, and deemed anyone with “one-drop” of “black blood” black, the term “mulatto” differentiated between levels of blackness.           

Racial discourse is not only restricted to the census. It is also seen within policy. After the Civil Rights Amendment was passed in 1964 racial discourse began to move away from overt racism and the census was needed to identify whether historical inequalities were being addressed in a meaningful way through the group rights won by activists (Dalmage, 2011). As the U.S. moved into the 70s and 80s, neoliberalism began to take hold of policy, including a movement away from group rights and towards individual rights and racial discourse began to shift to colorblind ideology. Colorblind ideology states that society is beyond race and to have truly fair society we must omit race from our policies, including efforts to address historical inequality (Dalmage, 2011). Now right wing activists are asking if we even need to enumerate race in the census. Colorblind ideology works to defend white privilege by limiting citizenship through the family ethic and the idea of the deserving poor (Glenn, 2002; Dalmage, 2011).           

Colorblind ideology is informed by the neoliberal idea of personal responsibility. Everyone is responsible for their own lives and choices and no attention is paid to the circumstances under which you were born. The historical lack of access to citizenship and privilege blacks have had is discounted and instead there is a focus on “bad choices.”  Common arguments for larger amounts of black poverty are connected to ideas about the family ethic, what “good citizens” strive for: women who are chase and bound to the private sphere (home), and men who are breadwinners and bound to public space. Many African Americans do not fit into this ethic because due to the historical inequalities women have been forced to leave the home to work and men are often denied higher paying work due to racism (personal racism and/or structural racism which limits access to higher education), or incarcerated, ironically often times for participating in the underground economy to provide for their families (Dalmage, 2011). Meanwhile white ethnics are used as a defense of neoliberal ideas and the family ethic. They are held up as people who have been discriminated against and through “hard work” have raised themselves up by their bootstraps and accomplished what blacks could not (Guglielmo, 2003; Maly, etal., 2010).  Of course, the fact that they were not denied citizenship for near 200 years is neatly forgotten.           

It is not difficult to see the myriad of ways that whiteness has been tied to citizenship. People of color have been explicitly denied citizenship based on their race and commonly held popular and scientifically held beliefs that they were inferior to whites. They have also been denied citizenship implicitly through racist policies like Jim Crow and the Rockefeller drug laws which have targeted African Americans, as well as through miscegenation laws and exclusionary immigration policies (Pascoe, 1996; Nagel, 2003; Alexander, 2010). One only has to look at current policy, like Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which allows police officers to ask anyone who looks illegal for their U.S. identification. If not in law, in popular thought to be American is to be white.  


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.

Dalmage, Heather. 2011. Lecture Notes, Global Whiteness, Roosevelt University. February 2011- March 2011.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2002. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor.

Guglielmo, Thomas. 2003. White on Arrial: Italians, Race, Color and Power in Chicago, 1890-1849. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hale, Grace. 1998. Making Whiteness. NY. Vintage Books

Maly, Michael, Heather Dalmage and Nancy Michaels. 2010. “The End of an Idyllic World: Race Memory, and the Construction of White Powerlessness.”

Nagel, Joane. 2003. Race, Ethnicity and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.Nobels, Melissa. 2004. “Racial Categorization and Censuses.”

In Census and Identity: The Politics of Race, Ethnicity and Language in National Censuses. Edited by David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pascoe, Peggy. 1996. “Miscegenation Law, Court Cases, and Ideologies of “Race” in Twentieth-Century America.”  The Journal of American History.83(1):44-69.

Waquant, Loïc. 2005. “Deadly Symbiosis.” Boston Review.

Zaal, Frederick Noel. 2008. “The Ambivalence of Authority and Secret Lives of Tears: Transracial Child Placements and the Historical Developments of South African Law.” Journal of Southern African Studies. 18(2):372-404.

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