What is it? It's a field of studies based on the theory that whiteness was socially constructed to maintain the unearned privilege of whites.
The theory is steadily increasing in influence and it's not difficult to imagine it going mainstream.
We should do what we can to resist this process. The theory suggests that it is the very fact of being white which is a problem, and not just any particular kind of behaviour or attitude.
The claim is that all whites benefit from "white privilege" at the expense of the non-white other; in other words, there is an unjust system of privilege built into the way society operates through which whites are given privileges and advantages denied to others.
If you are white and you believe this theory you are going to be mightily conflicted in your identity and affiliations. You will not have a healthy regard for your own tradition - there will be no celebrating your part of the world's ethnic mosaic.
The best you will be able to do is to act against your own identity and your own kind (one whiteness studies professor has written that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity").
I have written a detailed criticism of whiteness studies elsewhere; I'd like to focus in this post on just one particular problem with the theory.
Whiteness theorists usually focus on just two races: whites and blacks. As blacks, on average, are worse off in some respects, it might seem plausible to talk about white privilege and black oppression.
The theory becomes much less plausible if we allow Asians into the picture. Asians do better than whites in certain important social outcomes. How is this possible if a system of white privilege exists in society? Why, if society is a system of white privilege, should whites be privileged in comparison to blacks but disadvantaged compared to Asians?
It's not difficult to find evidence of better social outcomes for Asians. In the US, for example, Asians do much better than whites in gaining entrance to university (college) courses:
Asian Americans, though only 4 percent of the nation's population, account for nearly 20 percent of all medical students. Forty-five percent of Berkeley's freshman class, but only 12 percent of California's populace, consists of Asian-Americans. And at UT-Austin, 18 percent of the freshman class is Asian American, compared to 3 percent for the state.
An even more telling statistic is provided in a book titled Asian Americans by Pyong Gap Min. In this book (p.66) there is a table in which the earnings of white Americans are compared to native-born Asian Americans. An Asian American male with the same level of experience and education as a white American male receives a 4% bonus in earnings - for women the gap rises to 17%.
If mean earnings remain unadjusted for education and experience, then the discrepancy is even more pronounced: in 2000, native-born Asian American men recorded a 14% bonus in mean earnings compared to white American men, and the gap for women was 32%.
Unsurprisingly, Pyong Gap Min concludes that:
there is no clear evidence that native-born Asian American men systematically face a net racial disadvantage in terms of wages, earnings or occupational attainment.
It's a similar story when professional outcomes are looked at. Pyong Gap Min provides a table (p.68) listing the percentage of Asian Americans in each profession.
In the year 2000, 4.1% of America's population was Asian American, but Asian Americans were 13.6% of doctors and dentists, 13.2% of computer specialists, 9.9% of engineers, 6.1% of accountants, 8.7% of post-secondary teachers (such as uni professors) and 6.9% of architects.
So Asian Americans are privileged compared to white Americans when it comes to jobs, earnings and education. But why? Does Pyong Gap Min resort to accusations that "Asianness" is a social construct designed to systematically oppress others?
Not at all. He ascribes part of the success of Asian Americans to stable patterns of family life:
educational attainment is strongly affected by parents' emotional encouragement and financial support. Hence, high educational attainment amongst Asian American youth reflects in large part the heavy investment of Asian parents in their children. (p.70)
On p.71 he provides a table showing the percentage of each American ethnic group living in a two parent family and mean family income. There is a correlation between family stability and income level. Asian Americans have the highest percentage of two-parent families (73%) and the highest mean family income ($77,000). White Americans were somewhat lower on both counts (67% and $70,000). African Americans fared much worse in both areas (40% and $45,000).
Pyong Gap Min is not bound by any political ideology and is therefore free to look to the strengths of his own community in explaining Asian American social advantage.
For whites, though, it is not a stable family life or self-disciplined work patterns which are held to create success - but rather an unearned privilege bought at the expense of everyone else. We are held to a different standard - singled out as having a uniquely bad role in human society.
We shouldn't accept this characterisation lightly. It is a kind of vilification, one which will become more serious as whiteness theory is accepted more widely in society.