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Conceptions of White: A Research Toolkit on the Origins and Meanings of White Identity

In the midst of global and local uprisings against the systemic violence perpetrated upon Black, Indigenous and racialized communities, John Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis are sharing some resources from their active research for our joint winter 2022 exhibition Conceptions of White. The exhibition looks at the origins, travel, and present reality of “whiteness” as a concept and racial invention for classifying degrees of humanity and justifying discrimination  throughout all our social structures.

The subjugation of Black, Indigenous and other racialized bodies is a foundational tenet in how the concept and institution of the “White Race” was created. And whilst there has never been any scientific or genetic basis for the category, and where there are no essential characteristics that can be prescribed to white people, one thing has remained constant since its invention. In the North American context, state power (as represented in all its infrastructures and institutions, from the police to healthcare, design of cities and education, art and cultural history) has been—since colonization—consolidated under white leadership and ideologies. If the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the ongoing acts of police violence closer to home, have newly opened many more eyes to the structural devaluing and vilification of Black lives, there continues to be a profound and more insidious violence in systemic racism—blindness, active denial, and blaming the victims.

The exhibition seeks to make visible the nature of white identity as the norm within North American legal, political, social, and economic models. We are undertaking this project to more fully understand our institutional foundation, and to be able to better recognize the normalized forms and invisibility of white identity in our society. It is also part of a larger project of examining the existential, experiential, and ethical dimensions of our institutional presence and activities, including how we can resist and undo the racist frameworks embedded within our own histories and context in order to help create a more just and inclusive community and culture. It is active, evolving, and ongoing, and we welcome your input and participation.

Conceptions of White is curated by John Hampton (Interim Director and CEO, MacKenzie Art Gallery and Adjunct Curator, Art Museum) with Lillian O’Brien Davis (Curatorial Assistant, MacKenzie Art Gallery), along with support from Barbara Fischer (Executive Director and Chief Curator, Art Museum at the University of Toronto). The exhibition is co-produced by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, where it is scheduled to open in Winter and Fall 2022, respectively.

Links to Resources:


  1. John Biewen and Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, “Seeing White.” Podcast by Scene on Radio, February (August 2017).
  2. Whitney Dow, “Whiteness Project” (2014). — Ongoing, interactive video installation and website
  3. Aruna D’Souza, Justin Stanwix, Whitney Dow, and Rich Benjamin, “‘White Male’ Panel Discussion.” MoMA (25 March 2019).


  1. B. Ricardo Brown, “‘Science and the Origins of Race’ curriculum.” Pratt Institute (2000).
  2. Gabrielle Moser, “Spectator, Race, and Citizenship.” Classroom – Art & Education (September 2017).
  3. Tilman C. Cothran, “Negro Conceptions of White People.” American Journal of Sociology (March 1951).


  1. Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: Norton, 2010).
  2. Constance Backhouse, Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada (Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 1999).
  3. Vivek Shraya, even this page is white (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).
  4. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014).
  5. Robin D’Angelo, White Fragility (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).
  6. Elisa Hategan, Race Traitor: The True Story of Canadian Intelligence Service’s Greatest Cover-Up (Toronto: Incognito Press, 2014).
  7. Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2008).
  8. Aruna D’Souza, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2018).
  9. George Yancey, Who Is White? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003).


  1. Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007).
  2. Hiro Kanagawa, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” Medium (7 June 2020).
  3. Adam Coombs, “The Ever Changing Nature of White Canada.” Active History (3 August 2017).
  4. Shawna Carroll, “The Construction and Perpetuation of Whiteness [in Canada].” Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning Vol. 8 Issue 15 (1 July 2014).
  5. Lauren Michele Jackson, “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility.‘” Slate (4 September 2019).
  6. Xaviera Simmons, “Whiteness must undo itself to make way for the truly radical turn in contemporary culture,” The Art Newspaper (2 July 2019).
  7. iLiana Fokianaki, “Redistribution via Appropriation: White(washing) Marbles.” e-flux Journal # 91 (May 2018).
  8. Jenna Wortham, “White Filmmakers Addressing (or Avoiding) Whiteness Onscreen.” New York Times (29 August 2019).
  9. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom Magazine (July/August, 1989).
  10. Andrew R. Chow, “‘We Have No Practice Talking About Race in This Country.’ Claudia Rankine on White Privilege and Her New Play Help.” TIME (6 March 2020).
  11. Elijah Anderson, “The White Space.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity Vol. 1 no. 1 (2015).
  12. Homi Bhabha, “The White Stuff.” ArtForum (May 1998): 21-24.

Scholarly articles for download:

  1. Lozanski, Kristin. “Memory and the Impossibility of Whiteness in Colonial Canada.” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007): 223–25.
  2. Fee, Margery, and Lynette Russell. “‘Whiteness’ and ‘Aboriginality’ in Canada and Australia: Conversations and Identities.” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007): 187–208.


We stand in solidarity with Black and Indigenous lives.

As we continue to witness the ongoing violence against Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities, we stand in solidarity with all those who raise their voices in resistance to systemic oppression. We renew our commitment to the redress of inequality through our exhibitions, public programs, and collections.

We are exploring how we can make immediate and ongoing tangible contributions to the movement. It is an honour to join the many who are donating, signing petitions, and amplifying knowledge of the history of oppression and of racial injustice.

Take Action
Below are links to educational resources and a list of organizations that are leading the movement against systemic oppression and anti-Black racism here in Toronto. We will continue to add to the list and welcome any suggestions. Please email us at with suggested resources.

University of Toronto Librarians assembled a reading list related to anti-Black racism, Black history, life and culture in Canada, race and health equity, and education against anti-Black racism.

The Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office at the University of Toronto hosted discussions and activities to restore, organize and take action as we navigate these challenging times. Recordings of the sessions are available on their website.

Black Lives Matter
Black Legal Action Centre
Black Health Alliance
Black Youth Helpline
Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council
A Fund for Black-led Mental Health Supports
Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue
NIA Centre for the Arts
BAU Collective
Wedge Curatorial Projects
Black-Owned Businesses in the GTA


Image: Deanna Bowen, The Globe and Mail. Wednesday February 5, 1964, p.1., 2012. Archival inkjet print, 31 1/16 x 41 1/16 in. Hart House Collection, HH2017.001. Purchase, 2017.

A photocopy of the front page of the Globe and Mail newspaper with the headline 'BACK DIEFENBAKER LEADERSHIP'