_*_Radical Psychology_*_

Spring 2001, Vol. 2, Issue 1.

Race Matters

Stephanie Austin

Why study the social construction of whiteness?  While it is possible (common) for white people to say ‘Race has nothing to do with me, I’m not racist,’ it is not so possible for white people to say ‘Whiteness has nothing to do with me, I’m not white.’  From this standpoint, Ruth Frankenberg makes an argument for the importance of critically reflecting on the social position of dominance that white people occupy in our society.  Her qualitative study has theoretical and practical aims.  She sets out to clarify, theoretically, the meanings that have been ascribed to race in the lives of the white women she interviews.  The explicit practical intention of her work is to promote the creation of a more equitable and just society through her research in the areas of feminism and anti-racism.  This paper will provide an overview of Frankenberg’s methodological choices, highlighting some of the tensions that arise in qualitative research from a feminist and anti-racist perspective.  Further, it will explore some of the conceptual insights taken from the research and demonstrate how these have contributed to advancing our knowledge of the social construction of whiteness.  Frankenberg’s commitment to feminist and anti-racist practice will be apparent in the path that has been charted by her study.

The title of Frankenberg’s book, White Women Race Matters, captured my attention as a white woman.  I have been interested in equity issues for several years and have struggled with questions of race as they relate to identity.  This book has been an opportunity for me to further understand how my race privilege contributes to my sense of who I am, and determines the social location I occupy in the world.  Too often, race is examined in a problematic fashion in social scientific research (sociological, anthropological, psychological) such that the dominant racial group imposes an unreflexive and uncritical gaze on a non-dominant group.  I was intrigued by Frankenberg’s transformative qualitative research endeavour.  The switch is not direct, from dominant/non-dominant to non-dominant/dominant, but the potential for change is remarkably powerful, as I will try to illustrate throughout this paper.

This work puts forth an analysis of race as a social construction rather than an inherently meaningful category.  Frankenberg’s position suggests that there is more diversity within one traditionally biologically defined racial category (white) than there is between two such categories (white and black).  For example, there is more variability between individuals who are in the white racial category itself, than there is between those who are in the white and black racial categories.  This author, among others, puts forth the notion that the salience of racial difference still holds true in our society because of the social and political contexts in which racial difference has been constructed.  Race as a socially constructed category of identity is linked to relations of power.  The meaning of race changes over time. This does not minimize the social and political reality of race, but insists that the reality is social, political and therefore subject to change rather than inherent and static.  Frankenberg’s point of departure is the following:  “any system of differentiation shapes those on whom it bestows privilege as well as those it oppresses.” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 1).  The feminist and anti-racist theoretical orientation that is visibly present throughout her work leads her to a critical understanding of whiteness as: 1) a location of structural advantage and of race privilege 2) a standpoint from within which white people look at ourselves, at others, and society, 3) a set of structural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.

Although in White Women Race Matters, Frankenberg placed emphasis on the findings of her research more than she did on her methodology, for the purposes of this paper, I will supplement my analysis of her work with thoughts put forth in the qualitative research literature more generally.  An important consideration in analyzing the methodological choices made in this study is captured in the following quote: “one of the many ways the women’s movement has benefited women is by freeing up our creativity in the realm of research.  And one of the ways feminist researchers, in turn, have benefited the societies in which we live is by the spirit of innovation” (Reinharz, 1992, p. 239).  Consistent with the ethos of feminist research, Frankenberg’s work was driven by its subject matter rather than by its methods.  In this sense, many of the methodological tools that were used in the research did not adhere to the strict regulations that have been the norm in more traditional qualitative research.  For example, although the author asserts that she used an ethnographic approach in her research, she did not include fieldwork as part of her data collection.  The research did have an ethnographic component to it however, in the sense that she was studying whiteness (critically) as a cultural phenomenon.

Frankenberg was interested in exploring the range of possible meanings of whiteness, race, and racism in contemporary US society.  The research questions that served as a guide in her study were: “1) (How) does racism shape white women’s lives?  2) What are the social processes through which white women are created as social actors primed to reproduce racism within the feminist movement?  3) (How) can white women’s lives become sites of resistance to the reproduction of racism?” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 5).  Using a purposeful sampling strategy (Patton, 1990), Frankenberg worked with a group of 30 white women diverse in age, class, region of origin, sexuality, family situation, political orientation but all living in California (San Francisco Bay area or Santa Cruz County).  She had specific criteria for choosing her research participants.  The justification for using these criteria (i.e., diversity in all the above-mentioned categories) was that she wanted to have a diverse group of white women as her research participants.

As noted above, Frankenberg chose to interview women who represented a broad spectrum of backgrounds in her analysis of white women’s experiences.  This choice was not based on the assumption of needing to form a representative sample from which findings could be generalized to a broader population.  Rather, her choice was informed by the assumption, prevalent in qualitative research, of trustworthiness. While generalizability relies on statistical measures of validity and reliability, the trustworthiness of qualitative research relies on four distinct criteria, as described by Lincoln and Guba (1985).  The criteria are the following: credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. Credibility refers to establishing the ‘truth value’ or accuracy of the research findings.  Transferability implies describing the context of the research, referring specifically to the content and process of the research.  Dependability entails using various techniques such as triangulation of the research methods, and keeping detailed notes on the research process at every stage (i.e., creating an audit trail), to maintain consistency.  Confirmability is achieved by using triangulation and an audit trail as a way of cross-checking and confirming the findings.

The researcher conducted in-depth interviews lasting between 3-8 hours (over two sessions) striving to set race in the context of each woman’s life and priorities rather than seeing race as separate from other concerns.  Interviews are a method often used in feminist research because they permit the person being interviewed to respond in her own words, at her own pace (Kirby & McKenna, 1989).  Conducting in-depth interviews enables the researcher to capture the subtle complexities of the research participants’ perceptions and experiences (Patton, 1990).  As the following quote asserts, “by listening to women speak, understanding women’s membership in particular social systems, and establishing the distribution of phenomena accessible only through sensitive interviewing, feminist researchers have uncovered previously neglected or misunderstood worlds of experience” (Reinharz, 1992, p. 44).

The increased depth that is made possible through the use of in-depth interviews has limitations however.  As Frankenberg suggests, “an interview is not, in any simple sense, the telling of a life so much as it is an incomplete story angled toward my questions and each woman’s ever-changing sense of self and of how the world works” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 41).  The idea of memory was acknowledged as an important part of the interviewing process as in this example:  “I frequently witnessed the eruption of memories about race and culture in the course of the interviews, as well as finding clues to what remained forgotten” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 41).  The researcher explains that through these moments of recounting and forgetting, she became aware not only of what was being expressed in the stories told by her participants but also what was not being expressed.  The stories being told during the interviews were only partial accounts.  Any account is only ever a partial one.  “The words the women chose in telling stories, their enthusiasm, anger, anxiety, or disinterest at different points in our conversations, and their varying interpretations of my research goals all expressed a great deal about the many ways in which race can be lived and seen” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 28).  This point, returned to later in the paper, became relevant in the researcher’s interpretation of the findings.

Frankenberg chose to use a dialogical approach in her interviews as a way of countering the inequitable power dynamics that exist between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Furthermore, this approach was intended to be a way of counterbalancing the social context through which discussions of race and racism are subject to taboo, silence and repression.  She described the dialogical approach and its consequences in the following way: “rather than maintaining the traditionally distant, apparently objective, and so-called blank-faced research persona, I positioned myself as explicitly involved in the questions, at times sharing with interviewees either information about my own life or elements of my own analysis of racism as it developed through the research process” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 30).  This approach, she argued, also served to democratize the research process by reducing the extent to which she was positioned as an invisible presence, silently judging and evaluating the participants.  The author also made the following claim that I think is crucial for any qualitative researcher to consider:
One’s words and nonverbal signals send messages: I was variously viewed as younger, older, a feminist, an ally or comrade, a person of the same or not the same sexual orientation as the woman I was talking to, a person who did or did not have interracial involvements parallel to her own, a ‘nice girl,’ a foreigner, Jewish, white - and probably other things too…evasive or vague responses mark one as something specific by interviewees, be it ‘closed-mouthed,’ ‘scientific,’ ‘rude,’ ‘mainstream,’ ‘moderate,’ or perhaps ‘strange’ (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 31).
Through this series of statements, we are reminded that at every stage, from problem definition to data analysis and interpretation, the researcher’s subjectivity is implicated in the research process.  As another author points out, “knowledge produced by scientists is not the objective description of an outside reality but the subjective creation of a social phenomenon” (Serrano-Garcia, 1990, p. 182).  Given the importance Frankenberg places on subjectivity and the process of co-creating sociological knowledge with research participants, it may have been interesting for the researcher to come full circle in her dialogical approach to research.   By this I mean that she could have involved her participants in other stages of the research by inviting them to contribute their responses to her interpretations of their stories.  This approach is often used in participatory action research (Nelson, Ochocka, Griffin & Lord, in press).  Although Frankenberg positions herself reflexively at the beginning of the work, she does not consistently remind herself and the reader of this inequitable power relationship and the way it determines every aspect of her research endeavour.  Maybe by having the research participants involved as active contributors in the data analysis as well as in the data collection the weight of the researcher’s gaze would not have been so heavy.

In her study, Frankenberg had to make several methodological choices related to data analysis.  The methodological tools used in the data analysis were also loosely defined approaches to discourse analysis, narrative analysis, and anti-racist feminist analysis.  Translating these approaches to a more technical level of understanding then, the author analyzed the white women’s narratives in terms of their internal coherence and contradiction, in relation to each other, and in the context of a broader social history.  The flexibility of the interview enabled participants to interpret and lead the discussion of ‘white women, race and ethnic difference’ in any number of ways.

The interpretive framework that Frankenberg used to organize much of what she found relied on a conceptual clarification of the diverse ways in which the participants discussed their ideas about whiteness, race and racism.  The framework is comprised of three distinct categories.  While white women’s responses sometimes went from one category to the next (i.e., various statements contradicting each other), it could generally be found that most of the talk positioned each participant’s story in one category.  The three categories that were helpful in making sense of the findings were 1) Essentialist Racism, 2) Color-evasiveness/Power-evasiveness, and 3) Race-cognizance.

Essentialist racism refers to a discourse that views race as a marker of ontological, essential or biological difference.  It involves a naturalizing process that serves to conceal the constructedness of race as an effective ideological system.  While it was not the majority of white women who’s stories fell into this category, some research participants had this kind of understanding of race.  They felt that if they did not know anyone racially or culturally different from themselves, they had nothing to discuss in an interview.

According to Frankenberg, the most dominant public race discourse in the U.S. presently is the color-evasive, power-evasive one.  This was confirmed in her study as many participants’ stories fell into this category.  This approach involves “color-blindness” or a mode of thinking about race organized around an effort to not “see”, or to not acknowledge race differences.  It involves a selective engagement with difference rather than no engagement at all.   It can be taken to be anti-racist but ultimately maintains racism because it does not change inequitable relationships of power or dismantle inequitable hierarchies.  In the research, some white women responded by naming all the people they knew or had contact with who came from cultural and ethnic backgrounds different from their own.  At the same time however, these participants maintained that they did not notice racial difference at all, and that people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds were all the same.  While this form of racism is subtler than the essentialist racism, it serves a similar end: sustaining racism in society.  The politics of language and of memory discussed earlier in the paper are implicated in this category.  Inequitable power relations can be reproduced through language and/or silence and can be remembered and/or forgotten by those who occupy a position of privilege in the social hierarchy.

The final category is race-cognizance.  It is a discourse that opposes both the first and second discourses because it articulates a new characterization of race difference.  This new way of understanding race difference includes race awareness of structural and institutional inequity and emphasizes the valorization of subordinated cultures.  This way of understanding race emerged out of the civil rights and later movements for the cultural and economic empowerment of people of color from the 1950s until the present.  Some research participants chose to respond to this broad set of issues by recounting their history of political involvement in anti-racism, as well as their personal struggles with anti-racism.  Rather than essentializing race, or avoiding color and power, these white women discussed the issues implicated in whiteness, race and racism directly and critically.

I think focusing on white women and making racism a ‘white people’s problem,’ was a brilliant strategy.  I believe that such a discussion of the social construction of whiteness will have important repercussions on the lives of the research participants, the researcher, and the readers.  In addition, I think the impact of this book will extend and multiply through networks of people, communities and systems beyond the direct reach of the book.  I know that it has changed my way of conceptualizing my own whiteness, race and racism.  I bring this heightened awareness with me now in everything I think, say and do.  Frankenberg’s approach to qualitative research offers an inspiring account of feminist and anti-racist practice.


Frankenberg, R. (1993).  White women race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kirby, S. & McKenna, K. (1989).  Experience research social change: Methods from the margins.  Toronto, ON: Garamond Press.

Lincoln, Y. S. & Guba, E. (1985).  Naturalistic Inquiry.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nelson, G., Ochocka, J., Griffin, K., & Lord, J. (in press).  “Nothing about me, without me”: Participatory action research with self-help/mutual-aid organizations for psychiatric consumer/survivors.  American Journal of Community Psychology.

Patton, M. Q. (1990).  Qualitative evaluation and research methods (second edition).  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Reinharz, S. (1992).  Feminist methods in social research.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Serrano-Garcia, I. (1990).  Implementing research: Putting our values to work.  In Researching Community Psychology. (pp.171-182).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Biographical Note

Stephanie Austin is presently working toward a PhD in Psychology at York University. She is interested in attempting to bridge academic and community work for the promotion of equity in society.  Stephanie is a young feminist and anti-racist activist who enjoys participating in the creation of spaces where equity can be truly felt both in academic and community settings.

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