Kip Holley and Jill Clark

Whiteness refers to the way daily life is conducted that gives and reinforces the privilege and power of being “White.”

Dwight (Kip) Holley is a Research Associate with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. His primary area of focus is using community engagement, cultural humility and civic leadership strategies to promote racial equity. Kip is the author of The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement: A Guide to Transformative Change, Kirwan’s keystone publication regarding civic engagement.

Jill K. Clark is an Associate Professor with the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. Her research, public service, and teaching are in the areas of public participation design, deliberation, and local governance. Most of her work centers on the interface between civil society and the public sector in community food system development, focusing on issues of social equity.

The Civic Association—If you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu

Six decades ago, the construction of a new highway cut off a predominantly Black neighborhood from the thriving downtown. Afterwards, the neighborhood suffered years of neglect and disinvestment. However, a branch of the local medical center later opened, which began to change the neighborhood’s fortunes. New residents moved in—mostly young, middle-class, and White employees of the medical center.

A few of the neighborhood’s new residents, led by newcomer Timothy, launched an effort to reconstitute the civic association, which had been all but forgotten in the intervening years. (A civic association is a group of residents who join together to plan for and have a voice in the development of their neighborhood.) Timothy and the new residents were aided by several longtime Black residents in the neighborhood, led by neighborhood leader Mary. While Mary was happy to see renewed interest and investment in her neighborhood, she was worried that her and her neighbors’ voices might be drowned out by the newcomers.

To ensure that the association represented residents with a vested interest in the neighborhood, the association’s executive committee decided that members must either be homeowners or else renters who have lived in the same home in the neighborhood for five years. The association also decided to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order in their meetings. (Robert’s Rules are standardized procedures on how to run a meeting to ensure that meetings run orderly and free of overly emotional debates and ‘dramatic scenes.’)

Due to connections that some of the new residents had with important local community members through their work at the hospital, the association quickly gained clout within the city. Soon the association found itself in a position to influence neighborhood developments and attract investment. The association lobbied for tax abatements so that new homes built on vacant lots wouldn’t be subject to property taxes, and for design regulations to make sure that new buildings and renovations of existing homes contributed to the neighborhood’s historic curb appeal. Speaking for a small group of Black association members, Mary tried to voice concerns during the development of the regulations. She argued that the regulations regarding approved materials for windows, siding, and roofing might prove cost prohibitive for the few longtime Black residents who own homes, and for those that don’t, it might raise their rents. Mary was assured by an executive committee member (who was also a planner) that the rules are best practices for historic neighborhoods, developed by a professional society of planners, to ensure new homes and renovations fit the neighborhood to protect everyone’s investments.

The association’s work paid off, attracting more young affluent families, artists, and small businesses. However, crime remained a problem, particularly property crime. Many association members began to complain about car break-ins and packages stolen off porches; they looked to the association to do something about it. In response, the association’s president, Timothy, began to lobby the city police for more officers and neighborhood surveillance. He led the creation of an active and vigorous block watch that regularly posted safety updates on a neighborhood website.

Posts increased on the block watch page with descriptions of criminals, which prominently pointed out race and contained descriptions such as “thuggish” and “gangbanger.” Some association members, particularly the few Black members, began to complain. They said that some commenters seemed to stereotype the neighborhood’s young Black men as criminals, casting suspicion on some of the Black members of the neighborhood, many of whom were not in the association.

The lack of Black representation in the association had been a sore spot among some members for a while. The residency rules tended to favor the wealthier newcomers who owned their homes. Many of the Black residents, who did meet the residency requirements, didn’t bother coming to meetings because they felt that their voices wouldn’t be listened to anyway. None of the existing older Black association members were on the executive committee and they often complained that the meeting rules were rigid and off-putting.

Like many of the new residents, Timothy felt that some of the older Black residents in the association complained too much and weren’t willing to try to learn the association rules, despite efforts to help them out. This frustration boiled over as the block watch became more heated, with many White residents accusing Black association members of slowing down efforts and being “apologists for criminals,” while Black board members accused the association of racism. Timothy was angered by the accusation, denying that the association never excluded anyone on the basis of race and pointing to the Black association members as proof.

*   *   *   *   *

This illustration shows one way in which Whiteness gives and reinforces privilege, in this case through the structure, rules, and foundations of a civic association. Whiteness, as a system of privilege, is invisible and rarely acknowledged. Yet all racial categories are socially constructed. In other words, all racial categories are products of human definition at a particular time and societal context. White and Whiteness only exist alongside other created racial concepts, such as Black and Blackness.

So, what does Whiteness look like in practice? Okum (2021) suggests that characteristics of Whiteness include: thinking there is only “one right way” of doing things; focusing on individualism, efficiency, and market-based solutions; exhibiting paternalism; promoting objectivity; fearing conflict; denying or being defensive about any White privilege; and for educated and middle- and owning-class White people, believing that they are ‘qualified’ to help the less fortunate fix their problems.

When citizens engage in public processes, more equitable outcomes are produced if both representation and processes themselves are inclusive and equitable. Yet decision-making tables often reflect those that have historically held power. This case of the civic association flips the script. Instead of asking, “How can we get diverse interests at the decision-making table?” a focus on Whiteness calls into question the identity and practices of the dominant group at the table. By understanding Whiteness, we can begin to dismantle White supremacy.


Discussion Questions

  • What is your response to this vignette? How does it make you feel?
  • How has this civic association been constructed as a “White space?” Which themes and characteristics of Whiteness were you able to identify?
  • What alternative approaches could the newcomers have taken that would not have reinforced their White privilege?
  • Can you see Whiteness in other aspects of your daily life? How do these play out, and to what effect?

Additional Resources

White Supremacy Culture, a website that offer a contemporary take on the characteristics of White Supremacy

Racial Equality Tools, a site that offers tools, research, tips, curricula, and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working for racial justice at every level.

Organizing Engagement, an online publication dedicated to advancing knowledge, understanding, and practice at the intersection of education organizing, engagement, and equity.

Doane, A. W., & Bonilla-Silva, E. (Eds.). (2003). White out: The continuing significance of racism. Psychology Press.

Feagin, J. (2013). The White Racial Frame. 2nd Edition. Routledge.

Gabriel, J. (1998). Whitewash: Racialized. Politics and the Media. London and New York: Routledge.

Goetz, EG, Williams, RA, & Damiano, A (2020). Whiteness and Urban Planning, Journal of the American Planning Association, 86:2, 142-156, DOI: 0.1080/01944363.2019.1693907

Holley, K. (2016). The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement: A Guide to Transformative Change. Columbus: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ki-civic-engagement.pdf

Okun, T. (2021). White Supremacy Culture – Still Here. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/white_supremacy_culture_-_still_here.pdf

Potapchuk, M, Leiderman, S, Bivens, D & Major, B. (2005). Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building. MP Associates, Inc. Center for Assessment and Policy Development.https://www.aecf.org/resources/flipping-the-script-white-privilege-and-community-building


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