Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School / Edition 1

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What does it mean to be young, American, and white at the dawn of the twenty-first century? By exploring this question and revealing the everyday social processes by which high schoolers define white identities, Pamela Perry offers much-needed insights into the social construction of race and whiteness among youth.
Through ethnographic research and in-depth interviews of students in two demographically distinct U.S. high schools—one suburban and predominantly white; the other urban, multiracial, and minority white—Perry shares students’ candor about race and self-identification. By examining the meanings students attached (or didn’t attach) to their social lives and everyday cultural practices, including their taste in music and clothes, she shows that the ways white students defined white identity were not only markedly different between the two schools but were considerably diverse and ambiguous within them as well. Challenging reductionist notions of whiteness and white racism, this study suggests how we might go “beyond whiteness” to new directions in antiracist activism and school reform.
Shades of White is emblematic of an emerging second wave of whiteness studies that focuses on the racial identity of whites. It will appeal to scholars and students of anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies, as well as to those involved with high school education and antiracist activities.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Do whites have a culture? Pamela Perry shows us that not only do they have a culture, they have many. An engrossing study of teenage peer culture in an increasingly multiracial society, Shades of White is an enlightening romp through white youth identity—an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on whiteness.”—Dalton Conley, author of Honky

“In an overwhelmingly white country being white used to be seen as just being part of the majority, just a normal American. But how will our children think about it in schools where they will increasingly confront more and more students of other racial and ethnic identities? This book offers a sensitive and fascinating exploration of that question from the state at the cusp of that demographic revolution, California. Perry frames vital issues of integration and equity that demand leadership from the nation’s educators not just for the sake of minority students, but to prepare whites to become a successful minority in a workable multiracial society.”—Gary Orfield, Harvard University

Gary Orfield
In an overwhelmingly white country being white used to be seen as just being part of the majority, just a normal American. But how will our children think about it in schools where they will increasingly confront more and more students of other racial and ethnic identities? This book offers a sensitive and fascinating exploration of that question from the state at the cusp of that demographic revolution, California. Perry frames vital issues of integration and equity that demand leadership from the nation's educators not just for the sake of minority students, but to prepare whites to become a successful minority in a workable multiracial society.
Harvard University
Dalton Conley
Do whites have a culture? Pamela Perry shows us that not only do they have a culture, they have many. An engrossing study of teenage peer culture in an increasingly multiracial society, Shades of White is an enlightening romp through white youth identity-an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on whiteness.
author of Honky
From The Critics
Perry's book is part of a second wave of whiteness studies; she challenges 'new racism' theories with the encouraging idea that inconsistencies in white's attitudes are not the subtle, modern face of racism, but 'potential inlets for nurturing antiracism.' Trying to broaden this ethnography's appeal, the author has limited the jargon-heavy passages, making the book readable by those simply curious about what the kids have to say.
Library Journal
Setting out to examine how white high school students identify themselves in terms of race, Perry (community studies, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) spent two school years studying and observing two high schools in California: "Clavey," a large, urban, multiethnic public school in a metropolitan area, and "Valley Groves," a large, suburban, predominantly white public school. Not surprisingly, she found that when she asked students to define what it means to be white, they often had trouble doing so. In addition, she found that while students at both schools tended to look past ethnic origin when interacting with peers in classes or organized activities, friends in their immediate circle were usually of the same race. Nevertheless, there were signficant differences between the two schools: race issues were openly acknowledged at Clavey because of the diversity, while at Valley Groves they were more covert. Perry's research provided her with ideas for restructuring education to enhance cultural diversity and compatibility among students, emphasizing that, as this country becomes more racially diverse, we should try to strip away racial identity and think of Americans as one people. These ideas might seem out of reach, but they're worth considering. While the issues addressed here are of interest to the general public, the work itself leans toward the technical, making it more accessible to those in academia. For academic and larger public libraries. Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328926
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Pamela Perry is Assistant Professor of Community Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

School Life and Social Meanings

Chapters 1 and 2 of this section set the ethnographic contexts of Valley Groves and Clayey High, the respective institutional, social, and cultural practices at the schools that helped constitute in-common discourses and understandings of race and whiteness. A focal point of each chapter is the common or normative culture of each of the schools and the extent to which that culture was derived from, reflected, or constituted white European American culture. By "white European American culture," I refer to three features of American culture, broadly. First, although the dominant culture in the United States is syncretic, that is, composed of the different cultures of the peoples that populate the United States, several of its core characteristics are of European origin. These include the values and practices derived from the European Enlightenment, Anglican Protestantism, and Western colonialism, namely individualism, personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, deferred gratification, self-effacement, mind over body, self-control, and the mastery of nature. Other "carry-overs" from Europe include some of the material cultures of the Western, Eastern, and Southern Europeans who immigrated to the United States from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Examples include types of food, like hamburgers, hot dogs, spaghetti, and cupcakes, and social activities, like line dancing, ceremonial parades, and state and county fairs.

    A second feature of white culture is the dispositions, world views, and identities whites, especially those inpredominantly white communities, tend to share by virtue of being numerically and politically dominant. Currently, examples of that include a race-neutral or "color blind" world view and a sense of oneself as "normal." Finally, I include in a definition of white European American culture particular cultural products or activities that are enjoyed principally by whites and have identity-defining or constitutive force. Examples are country music, modern (post-sixties) rock and roll, certain slang terms or ways of talking, and outdoor activities like backpacking. In what follows, I argue that to varying degrees these three features of white European American culture constituted a way of life at Valley Groves that was unmarked, undefined, and taken for granted. At Clayey, however, where African American and other students of color claimed cultural space, white culture and identity were marked and not entirely taken for granted nor undefined.

    A second focus of these chapters is students' peer groups and the meanings youth ascribed to peer group or clique membership. Several ethnographic studies have observed the ways that peer group structures in schools resonate with wider social structures defined hierarchically by race, gender, and class and form interpretive communities by which youth make sense of those structures? Penny Eckert articulates this well:

The culture of the peer group takes over where the individual student-school dynamics leave off. The variety of means by which classroom methods teach children their ... place in the world are gradually incorporated into interactions among the children themselves. This occurs both through adaptive strategies within homogeneous groups and in the dynamics between groups. As childhood groups emerge into the politicized atmosphere of the secondary school, they take on differential roles in a highly structured peer society.

    In these chapters I analyze the meanings youth gave to peer group membership and the influence of interracial association on those meanings. In later chapters I examine how peer group structures, in turn, informed how white youth made sense of race and their identities as whites.

1. Valley Groves

"Normal. I'd say I'm just ... normal."

   PP: How would you describe your group of friends?

Billy: Normal. We don't smoke or drink or anything and [we] wear clothes we would call normal.
PP: And what is that?
Billy: Not oversized, baggy clothes like the skaters wear, or, obviously, we don't wear cowboy hats or boots.

Valley Groves High School sits on the floor of a verdant and woodsy valley, embraced on three sides by softly undulating hills. Inside the school boundaries the protected and nurturing feeling of the outer terrain is replicated in the campus layout: clean, wide, and expansive; game fields stretching out of sight; wide open vistas of the pastoral valley walls. When I first walked around the campus, I marveled at what felt like a tribute to youth in the extraordinary resources devoted to their play and to the development of their physical and intellectual competencies.

    Also contributing to the nurturing air of the school were the attitudes and self-presentations of the school authorities. The campus supervisors were not the burly, tough-looking male figures I had come to expect of security. They were all white, middle-aged, and graying women who roamed the grounds with walkie-talkies, guarding the borders from outside intruders, keeping the smokers on their toes, and rallying students on to class. While not particularly popular among all the youth, they were seen in more of a parental than a policing role. The oldest of the supervisors was affectionately called "grandma."

    The principal, a white male, was friendly and personable with a competence for and informality about his work that made him seem more like a hip uncle than an authoritarian, fatherly figure. At lunch he walked around and chatted with students, calling them by their first names. When he and I spoke, I sensed a genuine love for youth and a desire to provide them with the safest and best possible experience at his school. The other administrators—two vice-principals, the dean, and counselors—matched the principal's avuncular demeanor and feelings about the students. They told me that Valley Groves students were "great kids," and it seemed to me that they treated the students with the kind of respect that "greatness" deserves.

    School Geography: Center White

    At 10:30 A.M., when the bell for a fifteen-minute "brunch" rang, the campus came alive as students filed out of the classrooms to meet up with friends in the outside spaces of the campus. The bulk of the school's population, it seemed, amassed in the Quad—a deep and wide paved patio area in the center of campus—and its immediate periphery, where snacks and drinks were sold. Every day, mouth-watering smells from the cafeteria ovens summoned students to little pastry stands in the center of the Quad where staff sold fresh cinnamon rolls and cheese buns. On special occasions, students put up a cappuccino stand or sold other warm beverages that also went over well with the youth. Too quickly, it seemed, the break would end, but students always headed off to class with little apparent complaint.

    Two hours later was lunch. The school provided a daily special lunch menu that featured such things as meatloaf and potatoes, fried chicken, hamburgers, tacos, or spaghetti. At outdoor stands, students could also buy french fries, nachos, or slices of pizza. Frequently, however, a student club sold food as a fundraiser. On those days, homemade types of foods appeared, including baked goods like cupcakes, Rice Crispy bars, fruit pies, and fudge, and other sweets like candied apples and caramel corn. At "Oktoberfest" early in the school year, school clubs sold foods to raise funds for their respective activities. An Asian students' club sold chicken teriyaki and Thai iced tea. A Mexican American club, MESCLA, sold tacos and Pepsi. The Earth Club sold chicken noodle soup. Conflict Management sold clam chowder.

    Lunch break offered time for students to find their friends and disperse to their favorite niche on campus. Most students settled into the Quad and its immediate vicinities. As young people bounded onto the patio, they tossed their backpacks and book bags on the ground and freely danced around, laughing and joking with friends, or else sat quietly and conversed. Under the "juniors' tree" in the south-central part of the Quad, the cheerleaders would talk louder than necessary, giggle, scream, and then flash their eyes to make sure such-and-such a boy was watching. The boys would either stand tall in controlled, cool composure (aware of the girl's gazes) or directly engage girl's in their flirtatious play. The seniors claimed the space under a large oak tree that overhung a patch of grass and some benches. Boys and girls generally stood or sat there with relative physical restraint and stately demeanors. Elsewhere around the Quad, students of all grade levels huddled together with friends, munching food and catching up with one another.

    The students in the centermost part of the Quad were overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white, and dressed in styles like those sold at the Gap, a popular store among white youth that features styles with basic, gendered distinctions in colors and cuts that are conservative, no frills, conformist. Most boys in the Quad wore loose-fit (but not oversized), faded blue jeans or sweat pants with either button-up flannel or polo shirts, or clean, untucked t-shirts sporting the names of rock groups or commodities manufacturers. These were accessorized with a pair of white athletic shoes. Girls exhibited more variety in styles. The most casual wear was a sweat outfit or slim to loose-fit, faded blue jeans or cut-offs with a cotton blouse tucked in. Sun dresses or mini-skirts with a high cropped blouse were common for a more dressy look. Valley Groves girls also tended to wear their hair very long, no bangs, and always clean and shimmering—suitable for a Vidal Sassoon commercial. This look was so prevalent that, during P.E., as girls ran laps around the football field, their combined manes seemed to knit into one, fifty-yard patchwork banner of shiny golden and brown hair.

    Elsewhere on campus, other groups of kids, who in one way or another looked much different from the youth in the Quad, claimed their own spaces. To the east of campus, out in the parking lot, a group of white girls and boys in cowboy hats and tight denim jeans cinched up with large brass buckles gathered around Dodge and Chevy pickup trucks that blared country music. To the north, between the two outermost classroom halls, the "E" and "D" halls, was frequently a group of kids who, as I approached, might yell "Narc!," snuff out cigarettes, and eyeball me suspiciously as I passed (narc is slang for narcotics officer, of course, but in this context it was the name youth gave to the campus security and anyone suspected of being security). And in a protected corner of the Quad, a group of predominantly white boys wearing oversized, torn, and dirty pants would practice various tricks on broad, battered skateboards.

    Inside the cafeteria, to the south of the Quad, was where I would find most of the students of color. A group of five or six African American males typically sat on the indoor stage at its east end. The rows of tables on that same side of the hall were, one by one, semihomogeneously taken over by Filipino, Asian, Latino, and African American youth who huddled together to consume their midday sustenance. I say "semihomogeneously" only because commonly, within every group in the cafeteria, there would be at least one (usually only one) white youth, usually a white male.

    Popular, Smokers, Hicks, Homies, and the Normal

    Over time, I came to know more about the different students who hung out in the Quad, the parking lot, between the E and D halls, and in the cafeteria. By and large, the students in the Quad were the popular and "normal" kids. The normal kids tended to conform to a youthful rendition of the adult mainstream. They were middle-class, though not exclusively, listened primarily to "classic" and/or alternative rock and, according to Billy, whom I quoted at the beginning of this chapter, wore "normal" or conventional clothing. They were the silent majority that drew no particular attention to itself. When I first started my research and told administrators that I would be examining school cultures and racial identities, they immediately assumed I would be most interested in the "minority" groups who hung out in the cafeteria or the "hicks" in the parking lot. It seemed that, to them, the vast number of students who daily inhabited the Quad were without culture and race, and would thus be uninteresting to me.

    The popular kids were a special designation among the normal kids. They were the supernormal: the best athletes with the best looks and physiques for boys, and the best personalities and looks for girls. Alternative names for them were "jocks," "preppies" and, for popular girls, "muffies." Apart from their popularity, the popular students were barely distinguishable in dress and musical tastes from the other "normal" students. Mormon and other religious kids were also among the normal and popular, but tended to stick together apart from the others. Overall, the normal and popular students were "good kids," for whom an important image was that they did not smoke, drink, or engage in other illicit activities. If they did do drugs, they did so surreptitiously. Laurie, a self-proclaimed popular girl, told me, "A lot of [popular] people smoke and drink and do drugs but just don't want it known. There are those that always do that [i.e., the smokers] and those that do it for fun and don't want you to know."

    The students who did engage in some kind of illicit, taboo, or unconventional activities looked markedly different from the normal and popular kids. They were the "hicks," "skaters," "punks," "hippies," "druggies," and "homies." Hicks dressed as if they had stepped off the set of an Old West movie. Boys and girls alike wore full-brimmed cowboy hats, pearl-buttoned shirts or blouses, leather belts with large metal buckles, butt-tight blue jeans, and pointy, tooled-leather boots. Some were "authentic" to the extent that their families lived on ranches and owned livestock, and they liked to ride horses and participate in rodeo competitions. Other hicks, according to a girl who identified herself as authentic, just "like[d] to dress Western." All had a reputation at Valley Groves for being "racist." I was told by nonhicks that hicks liked to brandish Confederate flags and had been responsible in the past for interracial fights on campus.

    Skaters, who were all male at Valley Groves, always carried well-abused skateboards and took every opportunity to try a certain trick, even if—or in some cases, especially if—there was a prohibition against them doing so. They were marked by torn and ragged, superlarge, sagging-crotch trousers, and a thick layer of grime over all their clothes.

    Punks, hippies, and druggies each had very distinctive styles and behaviors as well. Punks tended to be marked by spiked hair, studded clothing and accessories, and their love for punk rock music. By my count there was only one hardcore punk of this kind at Valley Groves; the rest were more typical of "glamor" punks, those who turn the edgy, rebellious styles of punk into hip fashion statements. At Valley Groves, these punks listened to some punk rock but mostly to underground alternative music, which is more melodic and pop-sounding than hardcore punk, which tends to overlay a raw, angry tone on a lightning-fast beat. They dyed their hair blue, purple, and other unusual colors and wore clean "retro" clothing, clothes that appeared like they were bought off the rack at a thrift store but actually went for top dollar at stores like Urban Outfitters. Hippies liked to smoke pot, listen to groups like the Grateful Dead, and wear colorful, frequently tie-dyed clothes. And the druggies were by and large the kids I ran into between the E and D halls. They were marked by conspicuous consumption of drugs—cigarettes, pot, or heavier stuff. Many spoke as though swimming through a dense haze, their eyes glazed and lips curled in a quizzical smile. Punks, hippies, and druggies were all mixed-gender groups.

    And finally, the homies. They were externally defined by an affinity for rap music and wearing oversized, sagging pants (clean, not dirty), and poker faces. Many, but not all, were students of color, and although race-ethnic difference figured in homies being distinctly set apart from the other counterculture students, it was not the explicit reason, as I will discuss shortly. Homies carried the mantle of being the school's problem children, the students who were disruptive in class, prone to fights, and either involved in gang activity or at risk of being so.


Excerpted from Shades of White by Pamela Perry. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. 1 School Life and Social Meanings 23
1 Valley Groves: "Normal. I'd say I'm just...normal." 25
2 Clavey High: "There aren't enough white kids here to have many skaters." 44
Pt. 2 Identity and Culture 73
3 Situated Meanings of "White" as a Cultural Identity 75
4 Doing Identity in Style 104
Pt. 3 Identity and Group Position 133
5 The Million Man March 135
6 The Social Implications of White Identity 150
Conclusion: Beyond Whiteness 180
App: Methods and Reflections 199
Notes 211
Bibliography 243
Index 257
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