Essay: Whiteness an Illusory Correlation Occurs

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[. . .] This state of affairs, where one group has technological advantages over another group and subjugates them to their will, is the basis for imperialism. Tannoch -- Bland's sentiment is probably in the right place, but her designation that "white privilege" is invisible and unearned leaves her other assumptions vulnerable. In fact, whites were very straightforward regarding their right to be superior to indigenous peoples they met in their explorations. Tannoch -- Bland's list of 47 benefits that she states are the results of white privilege infer a type of racial superiority of one group over the other. If these "white privilege" benefits were suddenly applied equally to the out -- group, the indigenous people of Australia, that action alone would be confirming that the mores and values of whites are inherently superior to those of the indigenous peoples. Why is it safe to assume that the out-group wants to be like us? Because we are superior and we all know that everyone wants to be like the superior group. It becomes problematic for the notion of "racial equality" when a group declares that there is set of universal rights and privileges that transcend culture. If these so -- called universal rights are indeed exercised by one group who can somehow suppress these rights in another group, the dominant group must have some specific advantage over the suppressed group. If such an advantage is invisible and unearned it must be inherent.

Allen (1994) takes a much more practical view of "whiteness" then does Tannoch -- Bland by recognizing that racial differences are social constructions. In much the same way the minimal groups research has identified that the basis for segregation, discrimination, and racist viewpoints are based on an inherent human need to identify with like individuals and to separate oneself from unlike individuals who may threaten one's personal or group identity. Tannoch -- Bland purports the notion that racism is fundamental to Australian society and embedded in history and the Australian way of life. She believes that by exposing white race privilege to one another people can begin to dismantle the social constructs that foster racism and unlearn racism. Allen's viewpoint is that racism cannot be unlearned if it is a social construction and any compromise in the current status quo will inherently produce some form of discrimination based on racial differences. Allen does not take the same Pollyanna viewpoint that Tannoch -- Bland seems to support. Because racism and the concept of race are social constructions based on an inherent need to identify with like individuals and to eschew contact with individuals different from us, racism can never be unlearned. What can be unlearned, or at least altered, is discrimination.

Gordon Allport (1954), the famous social psychologist, was one of the first formal researchers to differentiate between the terms "racism" and "discrimination." According to Allport racism referred to an attitude or belief that a person or a group of people are in some way inferior to oneself or one's particular in -- group due. These groups are formed based on perceived ethnic or racial differences. In this respect racism, refers to an attitude or belief system and not to a personal or social practice based on this belief. Discrimination, is the result of racism. Discrimination involves treating and out -- group member or an entire out -- group in a harmful or destructive manner based on their differences. Understanding Allport's designation between the two and combining it with Allen's (1994) notion that race is a social construction, we would then have to assume that discrimination is a learned practice and that anything learned can be unlearned or at least altered. Allport (1954) believed that racism itself was learned, and it certainly is most likely true that we learn from our social groups what particular differences are important in identifying in -- groups and out -- groups; however, minimal group research has suggested that we have an inherent tendency to look for differences in others, categorize groups based on these differences, and form the notion of in -- groups and out -- groups based on these differences. Typically so-called racial features are often clear and concrete physical boundaries between groups such as skin color (but not always). Because any group that we personally belong to must be superior just because we belong to it, there is a tendency for in-group members to develop attitudes of superiority based on such differences.

However as Allen (1994) notes, whiteness, like other racial categories, is not a stable characteristic. One can look through the annals of history and see a time in America where people of Irish or Italian dissent were not considered "white"; however, such a distinction is no longer prevalent. Likewise, one would expect that the concept of "race" itself would not be a concrete, stable designation. Even the view of whiteness and what it means to be white is redefined as Tannoch -- Bland (1998) inadvertently illustrates. Tannoch -- Bland (1998) certainly means well but misconstrues the meaning of racism and discrimination as being something that just happened because of racial differences in groups. Because the concept of race is a socially constructed concept it will change over time; however, because racism is an attitude that reflects an inherent self -- serving bias, racism in one form or another, consciously expressed or unconsciously expressed, will always be present. Being aware of one's tendency to categorize and stereotype can help with understand and identify the issue, but in order to begin to understand and correct discrimination it is important to understand how these tendencies develop and relate to the current world situation.


Allen, T.W. 1994. The invention of the white race (Vol. 1). London and New York: Verso.

Allport, G.W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Chapman, L. 1967. Illusory correlation in observational report. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 6 (1), pp. 151 -- 155.

Hamilton, D and Gifford, R. 1976. Illusory correlation in interpersonal perception: A cognitive basis of stereotypic judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 12 (4), pp. 392 -- 407.

Lindee, M.S., Goodman, A.H., and Heath D. 2003. Anthropology in an age of genetics: Practice, discourse, and critique. In Goodman, A.H. et al. eds. Genetic nature/culture: Anthropology and science beyond the two-culture Divide. Los Angeles: University of Los Angeles Press, pp. 1-22.

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