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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).