Whiteness as a privilege and a struggle

Daria Krivonos

Whiteness is not a matter of skin pigmentation or phenotypical traits but a structural system of advantage that grants privilege to white people. Whiteness as a system of supremacy and privilege is based on exclusion of other groups, and hence, becomes a site of struggle for people who don’t meet the social ideal of whiteness, such as, for example, Russian-speakers in Finland.

Although it has become somewhat natural for contemporary racialized vision to conflate “being white” with “being European” in public discourses and imagination, we should critically re-read whiteness as a socially located phenomenon (not a biological or phenotypical!), which was created through particular histories and geographies. Like other socially constructed racial categories, whiteness was established through histories of conquest, colonialism, enslavement and labour migrations.

Alistair Bonnett (1998) has importantly argued how the development of European racial whiteness has been achieved at a cost of erasing non-European white identities such as in China and Middle East. While Chinese and Middle Eastern people did define themselves as white, “in no other society do we find the kind of fetishisation of whiteness and its construction as a central icon of identity” as in Europe. Europeans’ racialized whiteness and turned it into a fetish object from the seventeenth century onwards with the peak in the nineteenth century’s Social Darwinism. Europeans heavily invested in defining themselves exclusively as white in the process of legitimizing themselves as a colonial and imperial power. Non-European forms of whiteness got marginalized by Europeans in this process in the attempt to affirm European racial supremacy and establish Europeans as the most authentic exemplars of “white race”. This is through denial of other forms of whiteness that whiteness got conflated with Europeanness – regardless of Europeans’ skin pigmentation.

As a legacy of establishing European racial whiteness as “exclusive”, “objective” and “natural”, white people think of themselves as “raceless”. “Race” becomes an attribute of the Other and the collective, while white people feel reluctant to talk about their “race”, as Ruth Frankenberg’s (1993) highly influential work White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness has argued. She writes that although white people view themselves as “racially neutral”, white people live their lives in racially structured ways. Any system of differentiation shapes those to whom it grants privilege as well as those it oppresses.

Whiteness is thus a structural system of advantage and privilege.

Peggy McIntosh (1988) has written about how people are taught to think of racism as individual acts of meanness – not as a system conferring the dominance of white people. She mentions some of the daily effects of a structural white privilege, on which white people can count in their daily lives. For example:

  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Whiteness as a lens then allows to see, name and critique hegemonic beliefs that construct white people as racially “unmarked” and “neutral”. Whiteness works as a structure, in which white people benefit regardless of whether they want to benefit. This is why the political stakes of researching whiteness should only aim to contribute to anti-racist scholarship and activism rather than placing the focus back on those with privilege.

But it is also important to think of whiteness as a struggle to be recognized as white and ask why some minority groups adopt the strategies and values of dominant white groups.

The study of whiteness as a system of supremacy and a struggle of some people to become included into this system has been ongoing for almost a century and started with the intellectual work of the American sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois – a name, which is often forgotten in sociology. DuBois’ (1935) famous coining of the “wages of whiteness” in Black Reconstruction of America referred to how white labourers in the US embraced an identity of a dominant white group rather than united through class solidarity with recently freed enslaved people. DuBois showed that through embracing white supremacy and distancing from black workers, white labourers received “psychological and material advantages” in the form of social status, material and symbolic capital – especially those white workers in economic and social margins. DuBois importantly explained how ideology of white supremacy prevented black and white workers from uniting as a class on the basis of common interests as workers.

Decades later, Noel Ignatiev (1995) wrote how Irish Catholic immigrants in the US became white through embracing racism.  After migration to the US in the early-19th century, the Irish encountered a society based on racial segregation and industrial capitalism with certain jobs constructed only for whites. Irish immigrants – categorized as non-white –  took a low position in US racialised hierarchies and were identified with people who were previously enslaved. In order to overcome their disadvantaged position, the Irish Catholic migrants grouped against African-Americans and pushed them out of the lower-class jobs and neighbourhoods they originally shared. They refused to work with Blacks and systematically excluded Black workers. Ignatiev (1995, p. 130) writes: “Since ‘white’ was not a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite, ‘white man’s work’ was simply, work from which Afro-Americans were excluded.” The Irish thus achieved the right to be considered “White” through aligning with white groups against Black workers.

What can we learn from these historical references? These examples show how disadvantaged populations learned how the societies organized around racism benefited white groups – that is, what the social value of whiteness was. So they learnt how to become white socially through racism against disadvantaged others. But most importantly, these examples show how structural racism and racist ideologies of “divide and rule” function to break class solidarities and class interests in better conditions as workers.

Although critical whiteness studies originate in the US and were further widely theorized in the UK contexts, we could also think of how Finland has imagined itself as a white nation and how the Finns’ own belonging to the project of whiteness has been achieved at a cost. Scientific racism of the 18th-20th centuries placed Finns as non-white and non-European, as descendants of Mongols. This made some Finnish scientists invest a lot effort to prove Finns’ whiteness – in many ways, through subjugation, racialization of and distancing from Sami people. Investment in whiteness continues in Finland today. For example, the category “immigrant” is a highly racialized one, and the boundaries of belonging to “Finnishness” are constructed around white supremacy. As we could also learn from Uyi Ozasee’s blogpost in Raster-blog, law enforcement and ethnic profiling are based on the racialized distinctions between “Finnish-looking” and “non-Finnish looking” people.

The legacy of DuBois’ work is a good starting point to think why racialized populations, such as for example, Russian-speakers in Finland may aim to produce and prove their whiteness through racialization or distancing from other “less white” groups.

There is extensive research evidence that Russian-speakers in Finland experience racial slurs in daily life and structural discrimination in the labour and housing market.

Their narratives of their position in the Finnish society show that they see themselves as nothing but whites – particularly, through their position in the labour market or being unemployed. Racialization is highly gendered too: stereotypes of Russian women as “prostitutes” and fortune-hunters are still persistent. Clearly, being white is not just about skin pigmentation but is also associated with factors such as class, clothing, citizenship, gender and accent.

The case of Russian-speakers in Finland demonstrates racialization of white ethnicities and how racialization transcends black-white binary. Russian-speakers’ uneven relationship to privilege in Finland is also reflected in the attempts of some people  to “pass as Finns” or “whiten” themselves through not speaking Russian in public spaces, changing their names to Finnish ones or dressing up “not like Russians”. Thus, while whiteness of the dominant Finnish populations should be understood as ordinary, neutral and hegemonic, Russian-speakers’ whiteness is contested, racialized, contingent and subordinate. We should thus analyze their racializing claims against the backdrop of their disadvantaged structural position in the Finnish society.

These strategies of passing as Finns may not only work in daily lives in public spaces but reflect broader strategies of belonging to the Finnish nation. In a current context of a welfare state being dismantled and increasing pressure to distance from the “undeserving poor” and “migrants on benefits” discourses, racialization of others can work as a way to claim own belonging to the “deserving” groups. A selective logic that distinguishes between “desired” and “undesired” migrants, as well as “deserving” and “undeserving” social groups in relation to welfare provisions has become more dominant with the neoliberal restructuring of the welfare state. This is also reflected in a growing public concern over the burden of migration on the welfare state and whether migrants should have access to welfare benefits.

The arrival of asylum seekers, who are seen as coming to Finland primarily to seek protection rather than to work, can paradoxically become an opportunity for racialized white groups to prove their whiteness as good workers and belonging to Finland.

The construction of whiteness is still based on entitlement: entitlement to work and to welfare benefits. Although having a common interest in equal access to the welfare state and job markets with newly arrived migrants, some Russian-speakers rather preferred to associate themselves with white Finns through distancing from newly arrived asylum-seekers. Through disidentifying with “less white” groups, they resist being identified as “lazy unemployed migrants” and undeserving poor. And this is precisely the stigma that they experience themselves.

At a time when the welfare state and its egalitarian principles in the Nordic countries are being dismantled, the racist ideology of “divide and rule”, as old as industrial capitalism, serves as a facilitating mechanism preventing people from building solidarities around equal access to the welfare state and job recruitment. It encourages people to identify in racial terms as “white” rather than in terms of a common interest in social security and equal access to the labor market. We should rethink whiteness as a central, natural and common-sense category in Finland’s nation-building, and think how whiteness is always achieved at a cost of negating other common positions that people occupy.

Krivonos is a PhD researcher at University of Helsinki



Bonnet, Alistair (1998) “Who Was White? The Disappearance of Non-European White Identities and The Formation of European Racial Whiteness”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(6)

DuBois, William Edward Burghardt (1935) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York

Frankenberg, Ruth (1993) White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness. University of Minnesota Press

Ignatiev, Noel (1995) How the Irish Became White. Routledge

McIntosh, Peggy (1988) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12