The Case of the Missing Adjective: Writing and Choosing Whiteness

Consider the following sentences:

“…learning absorbed the lives of southern youth prior to the Civil War in substantial ways.”

“A belief in Manifest Destiny cut across partisan and sectional lines…Southerners as well as Northerners expressed it.”

“The states rights reaction came after several decades of loose construction on the part of southerners concerning slavery in the territories.”

“Most Southerners saw the election [of 1860] as a catastrophe.”

Overheard at the SHA?

Each of them is drawn from an essay or textbook, a batch of sources united only by the fact that I have personally been reading them in the last twenty-four hours. Know what else they have in common? They represent something historians of this period do ALL THE TIME, an implicit and unthinking elision that I argue does more damage than we ever realize.

It’s immediately clear when you notice. All of the uses of “southerner” in the above sentences are specific references to white southerners. Black southerners, whether free or enslaved, were not so fortunate to have their lives absorbed in learning (notable cases like Frederick Douglass are the exceptions that prove the rule). Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than the “catastrophe” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term. And don’t we do this when we teach US History as well? “Southerners seceded because of Lincoln’s election and the threat it posed to slavery.” “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.

So what’s the point? We all know this; no historian would seriously argue that African Americans in the South wouldn’t sympathize with abolitionism. It’s implied. It’s shorthand. It’s the price we pay for using general descriptors. It saves us from awkward prose and cluttered word counts. Automatically adding the modifier “white” would just sound awkward and weird. We know, and our audience knows, that there are limits to the label “southerner,” and they can glean that from the context, right?


As historians, when we write, we make choices all the time. Our topic is a choice, an implicit statement that “this thing I am about to tell you about is important, is significant, is worth knowing about.” We choose certain words in our prose to convey specific shades of meaning. We order our information and ideas in an intentional way to construct a narrative, an argument, an interpretation. Many of these choices are consciously-made: “hegemony” conveys something that “prevalence” doesn’t. But many more of them are so unconscious as to be automatic. And for the period and area in which I am immersed, the nineteenth-century US, “southerner” in the overly expansive sense is probably the most common example of this implicit act of deciding.

Implicit or explicit, consciously- or unconsciously-made, this decision has enormous consequences, not least among which is further embedding the structures of white privilege in both academia and larger society. The decision (and ultimately, that’s what it is: making a choice) to use “Southerner” in this overly-general sense is not only sloppy history, it’s downright insidious. It’s far more than merely a stylistic, aw-c’mon-you-know-what-I-mean time saving device. It’s literally writing black people out of History.

I can hear the protests now: C’mon, man, that seems a bit much. That’s not what these historians are doing at all. You make them sound like Oklahoma’s US History curriculum. One one level, that is true. None of the historians I quoted above mean to do anything of the sort. And there is good scholarship all over the place, from textbooks to specialized articles and monographs, that uses “southerner” in the sense I’m arguing against here. BUT…in the most literal sense of the term, they have indeed written people out of their histories. There’s really no two ways about it. Some of us recognize this; I’ve seen several monographs on the antebellum South that declare in their front matter that in that study, “southerner” refers to white southerners except where otherwise indicated. And textbooks have gotten much better over the last few years in their use of more specific and accurate identifiers. But these episodes of awareness, while proving the existence of the larger problem, have not yet become standard practice.

If you were in front of a classroom full of students, some of whom were African Americans, and in the middle of your description of the secession crisis, you turned to one of those black students and said “for the next five minutes, I’m talking about white people only–y’all didn’t do anything that mattered here,” what would happen? Did that example make you cringe? Then so should the use of “southerner” where the context really means “white southerner.” It’s the SAME DAMN THING. It is a norming of whiteness, with other categories thus becoming abnormal. Why would we only use a modifier for “southerner” when that modifier is “black,” if white isn’t the “norm?” Yes, whites were the southern majority-but it wasn’t as if black southerners were some statistically-insignificant clutch of people only lightly scattered throughout the region. Yes, whites held the lion’s share of political power in the South-but not all of it, and certainly not in the arena of “informal” politics and everyday forms of resistance.

Therefore, to use “southerner” when one really means “white southerner” is to elide significant parts of historical reality. It is to implicitly norm whiteness, and thus reinforce the privileges whiteness already enjoys. It is to participate in a process that places whites in the category of “things that matter” and everyone else in the box of mismatched clutter that we then label “other.” When we hear xenophobic politicians and racist demagogues demand that “we” take “our country” back, we hear the fruits of that process. When we hear accusations that our president is not-cannot be-“American,” because he’s “not like us,” we reap the consequences of our seemingly-benign choices and linguistic elisions.

Words matter. Language matters.

It strikes me as odd that historians who, for example, would raise holy hell if I gave the wrong caliber for field artillery pieces at Fredericksburg would let me slide if I said “southerner” when the situation really called for “white southerner.” As historians, we cannot selectively demand precision in our scholarship. Nor, I believe, do we mean to do so. Yet, in practice, we have done exactly that. We have unthinkingly employed overly-generalized terms to distort the historical record. And we haven’t really reflected on that practice, or called ourselves out on it as we might have in any number of other instances of sloppy scholarship.

So let’s see this issue for what it really is. It’s not just a pet-peeve, the product of some pedant’s grumpy axe-grinding, but a very real problem disguised as an innocuous linguistic choice. And let’s do better.


17 Replies to “The Case of the Missing Adjective: Writing and Choosing Whiteness”

  1. That is an excellent point about language that I have only recently become aware of in my own writing. Over the last year I have been trying to write white Americans, black Americans, hispanic Americans with greater regularity-not for the reasons you specify (which I had not thought about)-but to be more clear.
    Words do more. Language does matter.

  2. It is awesome to come across a historian that pays attention to the implications of language, rhetoric, and culture. I would love to know more about how your students and colleagues respond to the issue of writing (and) whiteness. I teach writing and rhetoric at an HBCU for women where many students struggle to write about a racialized experience because they have internalized deracialized methods of writing “academic” prose. Some students, often the same students, also struggle with writing about a gendered experience. Combined, their writing is at the center of our course content. The course focuses on how what they perceive they can and can’t say affects what they may or may not believe is true, as well as what they think they should and shouldn’t do about the problem of worrying about how to communicate while black and woman about how they know what they know through this “othered” experience. However, my prior experience at predominantly white institutions were much more centered around many students’ disdain for acknowledging race and even greater disdain for writing about it, or exhibiting any sensitivity to difference whatsoever. Ironically, this struggle appeared in their attempt to appeal to my blackness in their papers. It was not uncommon for them to comment on the benefits of diversity or talk about inclusion. I would point this out and they would crrrinnnggge at the thought that I was accusing them of being racist. Hopefully, they learned that talking about race does not make you racist, it makes you logical, and, depending on why and how you are talking about it, ethical. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    1. Thanks for the comment–sorry it got lodged in the moderation queue for so long.
      My students are often uncomfortable talking about race in any sort of power-dynamic terms, similar to what you encountered at predominantly white institutions as well. But me and several of my colleagues (including writing faculty) have worked on engaging students in critical readings, writing, and discussions for exactly the same reasons you give: talking about race is a necessary condition of being an informed thinker who understands the way our society functions. It doesn’t mean you approve of the ways race works, or that you’re a racist. It just means you’re unmasking the structures of privilege and power that are so interwoven into our present context.

  3. Shameful, isn’t it, when the big political and social issue of the time was defining white and nonwhite and making sure that the whites had a monopoly on all the important stuff. Remember the movie Amistad where it is revealed that all the justices of the US Supreme Court were southern slave owners?

  4. Excellent, excellent post!

    “Whites were the southern majority”–correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t South Carolina actually majority black? Weren’t there more slaves than free people?

    1. Mississippi, too. The population of enslaved persons in Mississippi in 1860 was about 437,000. The population of free “whites” was about 354,000. Mississippi and South Carolina are the only states in which enslaved persons were the majority, but enslaved persons made up over 44% of the population in five other states, and over 30% in a few others. It’s not just that “whiteness” was the norm because, as was say, “whites were the southern majority.” They weren’t. At least, not unless you also treat “the south” as a normalized concept. One of the states with the highest percentage of enslaved persons was Illinois, and Confederate troops occupied parts of Tennessee to put down insurrections against Confederate governments.

      History is complicated, and the overall point needs to be emphasized more by historians. I was appalled (pun intended) when I was reading some Reconstruction histories recently by this same error. It’s also a deliberate error, since historians have known about this since Du Bois kinda sorta lambasted them about it in the 30s.

  5. I was very glad to read this piece. I have stopped teaching linguistics from textbooks partly because the texts usually use the word “they” to refer to speakers of any dialect other than — what to call it? Mainstream US English, General American, or whatever. Ay dialect that’s not congruent with the textbook author’s own speech, frankly. Latinos, “they”. African Americans: “they”. But standard English is somehow assumed to be shared among the book’s readers and writers. Similarly, getting back to history, I was just reading Jane Austen’s England by R & L Adkins and was very perturbed to find the assertion that in reading about Regency England we are reading about “our ancestors.” First and most simplistically, I’m an American (and those of my ancestors who were from England had cleared out by the time of the Regency). But what about readers in England who are, say, Irish–or Scots–or Welsh–or of Caribbean ancestry–or whose parents or grandparents came from India, or Central Europe? This blithe assumption of homogeneity cripples us invisibly.

    1. Elise, I love how you phrased that: “blithe assumption of homogeneity.” That’s a perfect description. And you’re right–it’s intellectually and culturally crippling. How much do we exclude when we use “we” and “our” or “they” and “theirs” when talking about history and historical events? I agree-the default assumption of Western Anglo-something Whiteness is all too pervasive, still. Thanks for your thoughts here.

    2. The movie My Cousin Vinny has this wonderful moment when the Alabama lawyer is talking to the jury and says something like “and all our little ol’ ancestors in England”, and the camera flashes over to a black lady jurist who’s… making a blank face. The camera is very definitely telling us that this is just _wrong_. It’s a small scene with easy to miss significance- as are the thousands of daily real life examples of whitewashing American society.

      1. Absolutely! It’s a cascade of micro-aggressions. And I remember that scene…. It’s tremendous. Sometimes visuals convey something more powerfully than words.

  6. Excellently stated. “Norming the white man makes everyone else an exception”. It’s the exact same thing women are up against also. Although in your example, presumably the majority of white, female southerners were also of a mind to keep the status quo.

    1. That’s a great point. And I should have been more precise with my language in there, too.

  7. In the popular fiction that I read, race is usually specified for black characters but not for white ones. More recently, some authors have apparently realized that this is a problem. One solution(?) has been to describe skin color for black characters but not for white ones. Sigh. Some authors write without mentioning race, but letting the reader figure out who is black through some of the things that happen or from later comments by racist characters. That seems like a better solution, at first, but I doubt it is because race is one of the important traits that makes up our social reality in this country. Again, the norming of whites.

    1. I’ve noticed that a lot in my own reading, too; I read a lot of fantasy in my “down time,” and there have been some interesting discussions regarding race and characterization in that community. Alas, not a lot of traction yet, but one can always hope.

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