White Spaces Network

What we do

In this section:

Overview: What is Critical Whiteness Studies?

‘White people have not always been “white,” nor will they always be “white.” It is a political alliance. Things will change.’ Amoja Three Rivers, Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned, 1991)

‘I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!’ W. E. B. Du Bois Darkwater (1920)

‘I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”. Audre Lorde nd (in Roedigger, Black on White, p. 253)

‘My blood runs cold at the thought that talking about whiteness could lead to the development of something called ‘White Studies’. (Richard Dyer, White, 1997:10).

Critical whiteness studies is a highly contested and debated area of critical race studies which aims to consider whiteness as an ethnic identification and as a site of social power and domination. As such, whiteness is not a property of any one person or social group, but it is actively produced, materially (for example through immigration laws, or systems of property ownership like Slavery, or land ownership as in Australia Terra Nullus), symbolically (through film, writing and art) and affectively (through everyday experience and encounter; like the dynamics between agents of the states, such as police officers or social workers and citizens accessing services, seeking help, support or protection). It is these latter affective aspects which are often difficult to identify, but to crucial to the enactment and reproduction of the material and the social.

At the heart of debates over the efficacy of critical whiteness studies is a fear that the field has the very power it purports to challenge, that focusing on whiteness as a nexus of racialised power reinstates the privilege and power of whiteness and white people. From White Spaces’ perspective this on-going ambivalence and tension in scholarship and debate on whiteness is important to hold on to. This is because such tension serves as a reminder that engagement with critical whiteness studies must always be more than ‘about’ whiteness, it must always begin from the Black critique of how whiteness works as a form of racial privilege and domination. As such critical whiteness studies must connect the dimensions through which whiteness enacts contemporary institutional power within contexts of global capitalism, neoliberalism and neoimperialisms. In this way it can become part of the means to connect the complex historical struggles over racialised power and agency to these contemporary processes. Engagement with critical whiteness scholarship must always be anchored in broader work for social justice, which considers the intersections between multiple forms of oppression and domination. This is because, as Sara Ahmed notes in her important article on ‘Declarations of Whiteness’, whiteness studies could even become ‘a spectacle of pure self reflection, augmented by an insistence that whiteness ‘is an identity too’ (2004:5).


  • Sara Ahmed (2004), ‘Declarations of whiteness: the non-performativity of anti-racism’ borderlands 3(2)
  • Amoja Three Rivers (1991), Cultural etiquette: a guide for the well-intentioned
  • W.E.B. Du Bois (1920), Darkwater: voices from within the veil
  • Audre Lorde in David Roediger (1998), Black on white: black writers on what it means to be white Random House: New York
  • Richard Dyer (1997), White: essays on race and culture

Critical Whiteness Studies in Teaching Practice

As tools that seek to explain and foster resistance to processes of racial domination, critical pedagogies of race and whiteness have long inhabited a diversity of learning spaces – from classrooms and free schools to homes and prisons. Within the academy, education scholars interested in critically analysing race have long sought to reframe dominant understandings of race that often work to essentialise race or claim a ‘colour-blind’ stance. They have insisted upon addressing what Joe Kincheloe has referred to as ‘power illiteracy’: the tendency amongst students and teachers to collapse power relations when assessing contemporary racial realities (Kincheloe 1999: 8). The pedagogical potential of critical whiteness lies in its capacity to challenge such ‘power illiteracy’. Indeed, at the heart of critical whiteness pedagogies is the study of racialised power, especially the ways whiteness gets reproduced, negotiated and resisted in historical and contemporary, local and global contexts. Students and educators of all ethnicities buy in and out of whiteness through different pedagogic practices; people are positioned in all sorts of relationships to white and black ethnicities. Thus, it is important to emphasise that a critical pedagogy of whiteness is not just about the creation of (white) anti-racist learners.

Attending to the highly contextual nature of whiteness means that critical whiteness pedagogy spans disciplines and operates from an intersectional framework. Whiteness is taken up as a point of departure in historical, sociological, cultural, political and literary studies, and it is also studied in relation to social policy, music, feminist and queer theory, and even STEMs. Increasingly, this pedagogy works from a transnational perspective that, as Zeus Leonardo says, works to ‘link knowledge of whiteness to global processes of (neo-)coloniziation’, for instance global debt peonage, structural adjustment policies, free trade agreements, and immigration restrictions (2002: 31)

While critical whiteness studies teaching practices may, and often do, prompt learners to rethink their own racial identities and relationships to processes of racialisation, such reflexivity is generally neither a starting nor finishing point. This isn’t to say that this pedagogy is unconcerned with the creation of anti-racist learners, but rather that, as with research into whiteness, the teaching of critical whiteness studies must transcend questions of identity (especially about white, anti-racist subjects) and incorporate multidimensional analyses of whiteness’s reproduction, negotiation and resistances. If it doesn’t, as Leonardo says, ‘racial understanding proceeds as the snail’s pace of the white imaginary’ (2004: 141).


Joe Kincheloe (1999), ‘The struggle to define and reinvent whiteness: a pedagogical analysis’ College Review 26 (Fall)

Zeus Leonardo (2002), ‘The souls of white folk: critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse’ Race, Ethnicity and Education 5(1): 29-50

Zeus Leonardo, (2004), ‘The color of supremacy: beyond the discourse of “white privilege”’ Educational Philosophy and Theory 36(2): 137-152


Past Events

Delegates at the 2010 New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference, University of Leeds, UK

Delegates at the 2010 New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference, University of Leeds, UK

Ongoing Masterclass Series

Academic Collaborations

Jul 2010-Dec 2011: White Spaces: New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies, Funds for International Research Collaborations, Worldwide Unviersities Network-Leeds

Sep 2012-Sep 2015: Challenging Institutional Whiteness in Post-Colonial Contexts


July 2010: Session: The need to understand ‘Race’ comparatively, globally and locally, ISA World Congress of Sociology, Gothenberg, Sweden

July 2011: White Spaces Panel: Uses and Abuses of Culture, Worldwide Universities Network Conference, University of Cape Town

October 2013: Panel: Building the Anti-Racist University, Annual Black History Month Conference of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies, University of Leeds


July 2009: White Spaces?: Racialising White Feminities and Masculinities, University of Leeds (conference report taken from Policy World, Summer 2010 issue).

August 2010: New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference, University of Leeds (conference report taken from Policy World, Autumn 2010 issue). University of Leeds Reporter article and Conference Booklet.

September 2012: Challenging Institutional Whiteness in Post-Colonial Times Practice-Based Conference, University of Leeds.

Visiting Scholars

Catriona Elder

Catriona Elder

Jan 2010: Catriona Elder WUN Supported visiting scholarship, Imperial Transformations, to Leeds Sociology and Social Policy

Oct 2010: Shona Hunter WUN visiting scholarship to the University of Sydney, Australia

May 2011 Shona Hunter WUN visiting scholarship to South Africa including talks at the University’s of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Rhodes.

Jun 2012: Shona Hunter visiting teaching and research to University of Mannheim, Germany funded by the Color of Power Project.

Critical Whiteness Studies: An Overview on Theories Methods and Approaches – presentation given at the University of Mannheim, Germany 25-26 June 2012

Sep-Oct 2012: Haley McEwan (University of Witwatersrand), Postgraduate Scholar Visit to University of Leeds. Part of Challenging Institutional Whiteness in Post-Colonial Contexts.

June 2013: Gaia Giuliana visit to Leeds

Oct-Nov 2013: Gaia Giuliani visit to Leeds

Oct-Nov 2013: Melissa Steyn and Rejane Williams visit Leeds as part of Challenging institutional whiteness in postcolonial contexts

Publications: Special Issues

Reproducing and Resisting Whiteness in Organizations, Policies, and Places’, Shona Hunter, Elaine Swan, Diane Grimes (eds) Social Politics, Vol. 17 Iss. 4, Winter 2010.


This special issue provides a unique opportunity to draw on and extend insights from the international and interdisciplinary field of ‘white studies’ (Bonnett, 1996b; Bonnett, 2008) or ‘critical whiteness studies’ (Nayak, 2007) for feminist social politics.

Debates in the journal Social Politics have already been important to analysing the ways in which states create and maintain the ‘racialized gender order’ (Boris, 1995; Boris, 2005). Recent critique focuses on the reproduction of white privilege through welfare and public policy paternalisms (Williams, 1989; Williams, 1995) and maternalisms (Brush, 2001; Crenshaw, 1989; Lambert and Bullock, 2005). Thus, there is a growing examination of the material effects of whiteness as an oppressive social relation enacted through state welfare. Nevertheless, within this literature there remains relatively little, if any explicit interrogation, as to the ‘nature’ of whiteness. There is a tendency for popular concepts such as ‘white backlash’ (Neubeck and Cazenave, 2001; Hewitt, 2005) to reduce whiteness to ‘anti-blackness’. Yet, there is a wealth of interesting issues to explore around the multiple and varied everyday experiences of whiteness; of the ways in which whiteness infuses state making, policies, organisational practices and broader governmental belongings which Ghassan Hage describes as ‘the feeling that one is legitimately entitled in the course of everyday life to make a governmental/managerial statement about the nation’, and/or ‘to have a governmental or managerial attitude towards others especially those who are perceived to be lesser national or non-nationals’ (Hage, 1998 p.46; Elder et al., 2002).

It is from within these contemporary social, political and institutional contexts that we position this special issue, arguing for new ways of understanding the subtleties and nuance of racialised governmentalities and how they operate. We suggest that critical whiteness studies provides one important avenue for such an analysis in that it provides a means with which critical scholarship can continue to explicitly name racialised power, institutionally enacted through the complex combination of the signs, subjects, strategies and sanctions of welfare (Adams and Padamsee, 2001).

Critical Whiteness Studies Methodologies’, Linda Lund Pedersen and Barbara Samaluk (eds) Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 9 Iss. 1, March 2012.


The collection of articles presented in this special issue seek to develop critical methodologies for studying whiteness as a social, cultural, political and material phenomenon. It is rooted in ideas of postcoloniality, transnationality and intersectionality. In line with Lopez we argue for postcolonial and transnational approaches to whiteness ‘across a range of geographic and cultural incarnations, where the concept of whiteness as a form of hegemony historically linked to colonialism clashes in the new postcolonial moment with new, competing narratives of national histories’ (A. Lopez, Postcolonial Whiteness, 2005:19). The articles presented in this special issue address the methodological challenges in critical whiteness research by looking at not often explored geographies, locations and translations of CWS.

‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies’, Maddy Abbas, Say Burgin, Julio Decker, and Shona Hunter (eds), Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2013.


The impetus for this special issue can be traced back several years, when members of this issue’s editorial team—Madeline-Sophie Abbas, Say Burgin and Julio Decker, then MA and PhD students—organised the ‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies’ postgraduate conference at our home university, the University of Leeds, in August of 2010. The conference launched the postgraduate/early career researcher arm of the international, interdisciplinary White Spaces Research Network, established in 2009 by Dr Shona Hunter (also University of Leeds). This special issue represents one of the many collaborative projects sustained through the postgraduate network (see also Pedersen and Samaluk, 2012). The special issue’s title relates to our sense that the next generation of critical whiteness scholars is self-consciously stretching the boundaries of the field—geographically, empirically, theoretically and methodologically. ‘New Territories’ provides an opportunity to showcase the dialogues and debates that have emerged from our inaugural conference. It draws together significant lines of inquiry emerging within the field and advances the inventive thinking and methodological approaches of a new generation of critical whiteness scholars. The articles here span both new disciplines, such as music, as well as more traditional subject areas, such as history and sociology. Taken together, they reveal significant intersections and points of (dis)continuity among these fields in ways that broaden perspectives within critical whiteness studies and stimulate methodological innovation.

Academic Essays

Amanpreet Ahluwalia Karma Chameleons, Power and Privilege: Can Relationality Advance Our Understandings of White Anti-Racism?
Awarded BA Sociology & Social Policy Best Dissertation Prize, University of Leeds


There remains a large contrast between the volume of literature which focuses on the process and particularities of racism and oppression, and the literature which theorises the move towards equality. For academics, often anti-racism is an after-thought; presented as existing in a linear, coherent and predictable opposition to racism. In this research I use relational theory to analyse my experiences of working in a community development organisation with white people who were committed to anti-racist practice, as well as a critical reading of Critical Whiteness Studies. In it, I evidence that substantialist theorisations of actors committed to anti-racist practice simplify the lived realities of every day racialised experience. Instead, I endeavor to show that anti-racism at best must be understood as a lens through which to interpret the world and see power. Such vision however, does not exist essentially as occupying a critical or anti-oppressionist perspective, it belongs to the subjectivity of the person who possesses it; and in the case of belonging to white people, is in constant negotiations with the way in which privilege continues to blind them. As well as the subjective nature of what people see; the anti-racist lens must also be accompanied by action; a praxis which acts in the world; such practices are also subjective; what actors think to do in the world is also a subjective conception which is entangled in a relationship with privilege. Such actions are complicated further by the concept of scale; an action can both contest and reproduce privilege simultaneously; depending on the level from which we theorise. This research calls for further theorisation on the subject in order to move towards a fuller and richer understanding of the complexities that occupy the fight towards equality.

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