In anti-racist work, “white people” refers to a socially-constructed identity based on skin colour. Rather than an identity, “whiteness” is a racial discourse that privileges white people and that asserts white people as the norm (Leonardo, 2002).
Whiteness is reflected in the people’s thoughts, actions and in the functions, outcomes of institutions and systems. This means that white people can disassociate from whiteness when they commit to anti-racism. Similarly, people of colour can aspire to, and endorse, whiteness when their thoughts and actions privilege white people – whether it is conscious or not.
According to Bhopal, understandings of whiteness stem from processes of structural racism which work to disadvantage people of colour and advantage white people. Whiteness is not an individual identity, it is one that is embedded in institutions as being the predominant identity. In such white spaces, whiteness and white Western practices are the norm and those which do not comply with these are seen as outsiders and other.
Whiteness as a racial discourse involves the denial of racism (especially structural and institutional racism) – the myth that racism is no longer a problem – and it works to assert that white people’s successes depend entirely on individual merit and people of colour’s problems or failures are a result of individual inadequacy.
Frankenberg’s multi-dimensional definition of whiteness sums it up quite well. Whiteness is:
A location of structural advantage, race privilege
A standpoint, a place from which white people look at themselves, at others and at society (often referred as the white gaze)
A set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.
In everyday language, some white people may find it uncomfortable to be labelled as "white." Some prefer to be called "Caucasian." However, that term technically also refers to many other people of colour from the Caucus region (including North Africans, Armenians, Persians and North Indians for example). "Caucasian" only became popular in the US to reinforce racial segregation and it tends to be used by people who are uncomfortable with the label of "whiteness," probably a reaction caused by white fragility.
Bhopal, K. (2018). White Privilege and the Myth of a Post-Racial Society. University of Bristol: Policy Press
Frankenberg, R. (1993). The social construction of Whiteness: White women, race matters. Mineappolis: University of Minnesota Press
Leonardo, Z. (2002). "The souls of white folk: Critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse." Race Ethnicity & Education, 5(1), 29–50