The CLR James Journal


published on December 9, 2021

Patrick D. Anderson

The Modalities of American Whiteness

Philosophers tend to conceive of whiteness as having only one modality, treating it as a single social, political, and historical phenomenon. Philosophers ought to abandon this habit and instead recognize that there are many whitenesses, that whiteness has a plurality of modalities. Drawing upon Charles Mills’ non-ideal theory, Michael James’s political ontology, and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s cultural history, this study develops a non-ideal political ontology of whiteness that demonstrates various modes of whiteness and the roles they play in the different political claims of various groups of Europeans-descended people in the United States. While an exhaustive account of whiteness’ various modalities is beyond the scope of one essay, this article presents a case study of multimodal whiteness the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tracing out four modalities of American whiteness: Anglo-Saxon whiteness, Plantation whiteness, Frontier whiteness, and Urban whiteness. By freeing philosophy of race from monolithic conceptions of whiteness, we can better understand and diagnose how reigns of white supremacy are passed from one group of whites to another, and we can see how prevailing political ontologies of whiteness at specific historical times and places shape the resulting white supremacist structures.