Why is White the Default?

What would happen to our perspective if white was no longer the “default”?

As time goes on, the demographics in the United States of America has been ever diversifying at a rate at which white-Americans will eventually become the literal meaning of a minority. Minority is defined as the smaller part, or less than half, of the whole number, but when it comes to ethnicity, it is usually defined as all other ethnicities that are not white. It is predicted that by around the mid-century (2050s) the population of all the other ethnicities, or “minorities”, will overcome the population of white-Americans, essentially making America a majority-minority nation. At this point, it will become more transparent to many that defining all non-white ethnicities as “minorities” is a severely flawed definition. This is also symbolic of how America is racially categorized as “whites” versus everyone else. People often do not notice this phenomenon, but it is a prime example of white being the default in America.

Whiteness in America goes by unnoticed because we often don’t think about it appearing or happening, but rather it’s an unconscious thought. Many of us never question why we usually default to a white perspective since it is the norm for many of us, and has been the norm all our lives. As Sara Ahmed said in her journal article Phenomenology of Whiteness, “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?” She essentially brings up the argument of approaching whiteness by noticing it and identifying where it exists since whiteness seems to extend its reach by going unnoticed. This is quite contrary for non-white bodies who are usually very visible by the institution and cannot extend their reach. By learning to notice whiteness, we have discovered a method of analyzing this phenomenon as well as understanding the origins of its worldly-ness.

Although whiteness “gains currency” by being the default and going unnoticed, what would happen if white was no longer the default? Laila Lalami brings up this point in her article The Identity Politics of Whiteness where she says, “If whiteness is no longer the default and is to be treated as an identity — even, soon, a “minority” — then perhaps it is time white people considered the disadvantages of being a race.” She then goes on to list examples of how differently the white community would be treated if the criminal actions of white individuals were heavily criticized by others. By removing whiteness as the default, white privilege would cease to exist and perhaps ease some interracial tensions. This is an interesting point that could potentially be realized far in the future, but Lalami is doubtful that it will ever occur.

Ultimately, removing whiteness as the default could potentially be the key to breaking down the reach of whiteness and changing our perspective to a more ethnically-neutral perspective, but this change would take several generations in order for it to be fully realized. By starting this discourse, we are initiating the spark needed to start this change of perspective.