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Conceptions of White:

A Research Toolkit on the
Origins and Meanings
of White Identity

This research toolkit, co-published with the MacKenzie Art Gallery, was originally released in 2020 to prepare audiences for the 2023 exhibition Conceptions of White. The exhibition is currently on view at the Art Museum from January 11 to March 25, 2023.

This toolkit remains available for those interested in learning more about the concept of White identity.

In the midst of global and local uprisings against the systemic violence perpetrated upon Black, Indigenous and racialized communities, John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis are sharing some resources from their active research for the 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.

Links to Resources





Scholarly articles for download

Other reading lists


Banner Image: Ken Gonzales-Day. The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park, CA. 1935), from the Erased Lynchings series, 2006–2022. Print and vinyl wall installation. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Images 1-4: Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, video (colour, sound), 12:15 min. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.


Conceptions of White is curated by John G. Hampton (Executive Director and CEO, MacKenzie Art Gallery and Adjunct Curator, Art Museum) with Lillian O’Brien Davis (Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography), along with support from Barbara Fischer (Executive Director and Chief Curator, Art Museum). The exhibition is organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in partnership with the Art Museum.