Introduction It would be hard to imagine someone writing a book about what it means to be white. Most white people don't consider themselves to be part of a race that needs examining. They are the natural order of things. (Saynor, 1995)
Since James Saynor offered these comments at least a dozen books about whiteness written by white people have appeared. In fact, quite a few existed at the time Saynor claimed that such a thing would be 'hard to imagine'. It is, of course, always tempting to assert that one's particular area of enquiry is novel, that it is under-discussed. In what has become a familiar gesture, Saynor links the idea that whites' identities have rarely been written about with the contention that whites are 'invisible' in racial discourse (see also Dyer, 1997; Roediger, 1992, 1994; Ignatiev, 1995; Frankenberg, 1993). It follows that whites must be 'outed', that they must be dragged from the shadows. Whilst not disagreeing with this prescription I would suggest that such claims need to be treated with some care. We should not forget that until relatively recently the attributes of the 'white races' were not a subject about which white people were known to be particularly reticent. Colonial and racist anthropologies and histories produced a voluminous literature on the superiority of white civilisation. Anti-racists have also contributed to the subject for several decades, a considerable body of work existing on the reproduction, identification and overturning of white racism (for example, Katz, 1978; Wellman, 1977). Since white identities have been subjected to such examinations, we need to ask why contemporary analysts appear convinced that whiteness is invisible. There are a number of answers to this question, but the most pertinent turns on the issue of how whiteness has traditionally been addressed. For, until recently, racist and anti-racist commentators - most especially but not exclusively white commentators - have shared a tendency to naturalise whiteness, to treat it as an ahistorical and geographically undifferentiated racial norm (for some exceptions to this pattern see Roediger, 1998a). In other words, it is the fact that whiteness has been
approached as, to use Saynor's words, 'the natural order of things' that has structured its representation. A naturalised, normative identity is not necessarily an undiscussed identity. However, the discussion it supports is of a very particular kind. It is inevitably grossly generalising, it inevitably reifies its subject matter, and it is - perhaps not inevitably, but probably - prone to cliche, the repetition of commonsense knowledge and the banality of polemic. Thus the meaning and formation of whiteness are taken for granted; the history and geography of the subject made invisible. Now this sorry list is hardly a problem if we wish to produce white supremacist knowledge. Indeed, white racists would wish to defend and sustain precisely such an 'examination'. If whiteness is accepted as a static, homogeneous 'thing', such people would surely welcome it being 'outed'. However, for anti-racists these forms of essentialism are a problem, one that needs identifying and challenging (see also Bonnett, 1999).