“The world, in a sudden emotional conversation, has discovered that it is white… Suddenly white folks had become ‘painfully conscious of their whiteness’, ‘the paleness of their bodily skins…fraught with tremendous and eternal significance’.”
–W.E.B Du Bois -The Souls of White Folk (1910:339)
It has been a month now since the “Unite the Right” protest occurred Friday and Saturday, August 11th to 12th, protestors contesting the removal of a statue commemorating Confederate icon General Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.The nature of this event was momentous, as since the 2016 election, political commentators have been repeatedly discussing- if not shouting over- the relevance of white fragility, privilege, and supremacy to the Trump presidency. Those who believe in the importance of race to contemporary politics have been facing a consistent wall of continuous denial by an opposition willingly engaging in every excuse, whether it be fear of terrorism, distrust of Clinton, or the anguish of the working class, to deny the importance ‘white positioning’ in politics.And then Charlottesville occurred, bringing every political commentator denying the relevance of ‘whiteness’ to their knees.
Heather Heyer, a ‘white’ woman died at the hands of white nationalist protestors, who were vocally calling for ‘White power’ whilst sporting polos and tiki torches. All of these events being sparked as result of the seemingly far off actions of terrorist Dylan Roof, who sported the white supremacist Rhodesian flag, as he gunned down a church in the name of ‘a white race war’ in 2015, thus prompting state governors to begin the process of removing statues commemorating the confederacy, and the events that we see now in the first place.
For those who have previously read my writing particularly, with my most recent article for E-IR, they will know that my understanding of whiteness is primarily theoretical. For me, white supremacy refers to the structural and hegemonic conditions of world politics which uphold white privilege: “the differential treatment and socio-political advantages accrued to white/European persons due to their assumed transparent competence and humanity” (Shilliam, 2016: 293). Today I bring this topic up again, the matter of ‘whiteness’ and the continuing popularity of the phrase ‘not all white people’, said either openly by academics/students opposing the usage of the term ‘white’ in the classroom, or implicitly in the uneasiness and prejudice faced by academics who choose to discuss or even allude to whiteness professionally on panels, in interviews, in journal articles, in books– because I want to discuss this question:
How and when should we say ‘white’ when discussing racial matters?
We have always needed to do this. For example, I, as one of many students of colour, attended a conservative institution, with quite a publicly racist history, yet where race talk was openly discouraged. In my department of political science, race was matter of quote-on-quote domestic politics and therefore not an international affair or “race was a social construct” (which is true) and therefore racial difference did not exist (wait- maybe we are moving too fast?) and thus was not a relevant or necessary part of classroom conversation.
Then again, to say we were not allowed to bring race into things- is maybe too harsh. Discussions of race were allowed for example, when we were critiquing the extreme views of Samuel Huntington or Robert D. Kaplan. However, looking back now it was particularly concerning that our lecturers never considered it relevant to discuss the racist views of Immanuel Kant or Adam Smith, those scholars they upheld as foundational thinkers in the study of international politics.
On the very rare occasion that a student became aware that Kant had some concerning views about upholding the ‘white race’ or that Smith’s theorisation depended tremendously on perpetuating the existence of ‘savage’ nations – we were told that the scholar in question, was a ‘man of his/her time’. We were told that it was impossible to disregard the wisdom of every political thinker who espoused racist or sexist things because for centuries this was a normal, common, and natural part of political explanation.
At the age of eighteen, I nodded at this, often accepting my teacher’s word as gospel. Yet, the issue was never far from over. In seminars I repeatedly faced more problems, because well- I made my other classmates uncomfortable when I spoke. I kept bringing race into things in ways that I was not meant to, and discussing things like ‘whiteness’ out loud.
For the record, this has not changed. Even now when I dare to utter the word ‘whiteness’ in an academic setting or public platform, or when I refer to the existence of white supremacy … I have problems. I am met with uncomfortable stares, requests that I don’t amalgamate a group of peoples that are diverse (these same colleagues often finding no qualms with giving me a heads up that they dated lots of black girls back in college) … verbal abuse or my personal favourite – accusations of reverse racism. It is amazing that despite the entirety of available literature on the subject of race, racism, and its history and global implications, that there are still people who, rather than picking up a book, instead rest on their fragile belief that centuries of violence directed towards vulnerable others- can simply and suddenly just go in ‘reverse’.
But with an event that had a confirmed 740 people rallying in support of ‘White America’, with police estimating a record of two thousand to six thousand people in attendance, and with a spectacle entirely focused on contesting the legitimacy of the ‘American Confederacy’ and the pro-slave side of the civil war- is it now acceptable to utter the word “white” when we discuss racial matters?
Some would be surprised- but here in the United Kingdom- the answer still seems to be ‘No’.
The most recent example of this in popular culture presents itself as Piers Morgan arguing with a very well composed fashion model, Munroe Bergdor, over a social media post, which saw Bergdor sacked from her L’Oreal campaign.
In the social media post in question, which was written in an immediate response to the Charlottesville protests, Bergdor wrote the following:
Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people. ‘Because most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism. From micro-aggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this s***.’Come see me when you realise that racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited and consciously or unconsciously passed down through privilege.’ Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth… then we can talk.’
The first time I read Bergdor’s comments I was shocked. To be clear, this was not because of her language or the content of her message. If you replace ‘white people’ with ‘Europeans’ in this message, I doubt Bergdor’s comments would have been seen as so shocking.
Currently, at this moment academics internationally are contesting an article published by the journal Third World Quarterly (TWQ) where scholar Bruce Gilley, makes “A case for colonialism”.The reaction has been incredible. There currently exists an online petition calling TWQ editors to retract the article in question, with 1,409 supporters in counting so far.
In my engagements with people both in the United Kingdom and Canada- I have always met people delighted to converse with me over how ‘colonialism’ is the cause of the world’s problems and over how we have to “decolonize” everything. Even within academia, it is increasingly popular in politics to acknowledge ‘colonial logics’ and how this impacts our knowledge bases. I appreciate this shift in dialogue greatly- always- as long as it is inclusive of intersectionality and race. I question how many academics condemning Gilley’s work are also willing to acknowledge the racial and supremacist nature of it as well- or whether it too- Gilley’s essay- is also not about whiteness?
No, what shocked me about Bergdor’s comments was her audacity and willingness to say what she said on a public platform.
I am in the early stages of my PhD and I have only been engaging professionally with other academics for about two years. Yet, I am already vividly aware that people of colour, particularly those in lower or unsecure positions of academia, are always vulnerable. There are many risks for speaking the way Bergdor chose to, even without the cursing. Though several academics remain bravely outspoken, I write this with Kehinde Andrews in mind, it is a constant fear that speaking your mind as a person of colour can lead to a lack of safety or security.
To be a student of colour operating in university environments- you are frequently encouraged to maintain a low profile. You are constantly encouraged by others to stay relatively silent, particularly on public platforms, until you are secure enough and occupy a high enough position of power that you can defend your beliefs without risk or you are capable of falling back on something else.
Bergdor was not an academic, but she was so fired, and many academics also face that same jeopardy or other forms of abuse when choosing to discuss whiteness.
But many others don’t.
Back in March of this year I had the pleasure of interviewing historian Dr. Kathleen Paul, author of Whitewashing Britain: race and citizenship in the postwar era. I had been chasing this opportunity to meet Dr. Paul for around two months, and had been extremely excited to meet her over Skype.
For me, Dr. Paul was a complete rarity as a scholar. As an author of a book that examines the migration policies conceived and implemented by the successive British governments operating between 1945 and 1965, Paul’s academic career began and ended far too quickly, with Whitewashing Britain being her sole publication. I had been greatly interested in speaking with her because of her arguments in the book, particularly because of her audacity to label the British government’s actions so openly as ‘whitewashing’.
The premise of Paul’s (1997) argument was simple and focused. According to the standard account of why the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 came into existence, popular racism against migrants from the “New Commonwealth” countries of India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, created Britain’s “race relations problem” and compelled Harold Macmillan’s conservative government to alter the once expansive formal nationality policy that allowed free entry into the United Kingdom to all British subjects, and to introduce legislation in 1962, designed to stem the flow of “coloured immigration” into Britain. The official picture thus shows a liberal elite forced by an illiberal public to change the formal nationality policy….
Paul’s research findings proved this to be a lie.
Focusing on government policy making directed towards the four migrant groups of: (1) British Stock Emigration (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa), (2) Displaced Persons (Eastern-European Refugees), (3) Irish Migrants, and of course (4) British Coloured Subjects, Paul’s archival research finds that it was an illiberal political elite not an illiberal working class that led to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962. It was British policymakers who intentionally spent billions of pounds, going out of their way to enforce, naturalise, and legally construct policies dictating a singular “white-washed” vision of British national identity.
In her preface, Paul (1997:xii) writes that racialisation “created a fundamental contradiction between an inclusive legal nationality policy- the formal definition of who had the right to enter the country- and an exclusive constructed national identity- the informal notion of who did or could belong”. Over the course of seven chapters, Paul (1997) makes the case that as a result of British policymakers actively working their racialised understandings of population into existence, each aforementioned migrant group were made to experience Britishness in a different way, with their access to wealth, education, and privilege fundamentally conditioned by where British policymakers perceived them to be in the hierarchy of whiteness and subsequently presumed Britishness.
Paul’s archival research supports the argument that historically for both Labour and Conservative politicians, phenotypic whiteness defined British identity.
Her research proves that both Labour and Tory political elite once subscribed to racialised understandings of the empire populations, and that members of both parties deemed race to be a static genetic characteristic. For both Labour and Tories, the ‘real’ UK population was presumed to be white, and the real Jamaicans were presumed to be ‘black’, so that white Jamaicans, “poetically”, were true descendants of UK residents, and coloured ‘descendants’ were not (Paul,1997:22).
For both Tories and Labour politicians, from 1945 to 1965, white skinned British subjects were believed to be different in terms of physical attributes, culture, intelligence, and other constructed features, and thus presented to be different from ‘coloured’ subjects, who were ultimately deemed ‘colonials’, separate in mind, body, and blood.
I do not say blood lightly. Paul (1997) has an entire chapter dedicated to how British, Canadian, New Zealand, and Australian governments went out of their way to circulate thousands of doctors, labourers, young men, and women…so as to emigrate ‘British stock’, and transfer ‘British blood’ to the more under-populated areas of the Commonwealth, all in a claimed effort to keep the British empire strong through ‘whiteness’. As Paul (1997:43) writes:
“Though physically distant, these component parts of the empire were to be integrated with the “mother country” through race, blood, and nation, mediated by the new means of telecommunication and transport. The metaphor of the imperial family ruled, and the rhetoric of politicians from both major parties resounded with references to “kith and kin,” “blood,” and “family.” Such language suggested both strength-for what could be stronger than a family constantly replenishing and extending itself?- and intimacy-for what could be more intimate than a family?”
For a Canadian such as myself, the book in its entirety is a fascinating look into British and Canadian government practices, and into how policies of today, like the British tier visa system came into being (the British visa system was originally established so as to keep darker subjects out), and of why, in my own personal instance, it has been extremely difficult for me to attain British citizenship despite being born to a British mother.
Yet, what was even more interesting was actually talking to Dr. Kathleen Paul herself.
Dr. Paul was incredibly kind, endearing, and patient with me. Despite now being a director of Florida State University’s London campus- she eagerly answered my questions with a passion that I had not expected from someone who had stepped out of academia so long ago.
The most important part of our conversation, for me, was Paul’s own view on the existence of race. For instance, in our hour long conversation, Dr Paul repeatedly insisted on saying the phrase “so-called race” as we spoke. An example would include the following quote that mid interview, physically made me laugh, as Paul said:
“And so my interest in migration… developed into this interest in so-called race, and the idea that the world’s population had been racialised, in a way, building on my 19th century knowledge, that I knew was a product of this theory of scientific racism, that had no more basis in science than the moon being made of cheese.”
Mid interview, in an effort to ensure that Paul was aware of her white privilege while speaking …I politely asked her to clarify her statements. I asked her why she said “ so-called race” instead of race. Dr. Paul responded with the following:
“It is very specific [her choice to say so-called]. It is. Because I don’t believe that race exists in the way that the media or the common understanding would have us believe- that there are distinct finite races to which people can be categorised as belonging. I think that race is a social construct that has been created so that we think “Oh it must be real. It’s definite. It’s absolute.” But of course it isn’t. It is a creation of society as certain attributes are given, to certain groups, as those groups could never mix. But we know from biology that it is not real. It does not exist. Now, I say always at this point to my students that racism exists. And racism needs to be tackled through such schemes as affirmative action, and I will explain why I believe that to be an appropriate way to try and compensate for the disadvantages that racism based on a belief that race exists has brought. But I do not believe in race.”
This response wasn’t enough for me. I clumsily asked her to follow up her response, explaining to Paul, that as result of my theory background, hearing her say “so-called race” still made me uncomfortable, though it was clear her intentions were purposeful. Over Skype, Paul could clearly see my uneasiness, and kindly followed up her response in a way I had not been expecting, saying the following:
“No, I do get that. I do understand it. And I feel -to be honest- it is very easy for me, as I white person, to say race doesn’t exist, because I am not the person who is suffering the results of the belief that race exists. So I do – I do understand that it is easier for me. I suppose I hope I- I – I partly hope I address it by always emphasizing that racism exists. And that -I know – And we talk about why people believe races exist- and what attributes they would ascribe and why and where the ideas come from. But I can never understand what its like to be black. I can’t. The closest I could ever come, and its not the same, is the oppression that as a woman I am conscious of. But I don’t believe at all it’s to the same level […] But why do I insist at all -in saying that it’s [race] a social construct. Because I hope that if enough people say that, it will become the accepted common knowledge. I believe it is accepted in scientific circles. But we need to do more to make it apparent to as many as possible, to government bodies, to people in the street…that the differences that people perceive are really only a question of perception, that there is not an absolute that says there are certain people in one group and I’m in another. So, I suppose that is why I continue with it, because I hope it will make an impression. But I do recognize that it is easier for me to say that, as one who does not suffer racism.”
This answer was more than satisfactory for me.
Paul was a white British woman who as a doctoral student writing and researching in the early 1990s, with no background in a discipline that required her to study race and ethnicity- had taken the time to read Floya Anthias and Nira-Yuval-Davis (1992) Racialized Boundaries: Race, nation, gender, colour and class and the anti-racist struggle. Paul set out to discuss ‘whiteness’ in a way that many academic and political commentator continue to shy away from to this day. Some might believe it is counter productive to commemorate her efforts as I have done here in this essay, but I believe it is incredibly important to do so. It should be a normal expectation and endeavour for white scholars to vocally recognize their privilege and account for it in their work- like Paul did in 1997 and continues to do in 2017- yet many don’t- and it is to that extent that I respect her and those that do.
To discuss race relations without discussing whiteness, for me, allows for an incredible void to persist in how we pursue racial justice. One cannot discuss blackness without whiteness. This is not about a blame-game. It is about saying what is needed to be said so that we can encourage better dialogue and learning. At present, I cannot discuss whiteness in an open accessible way to my students, colleagues, friends, or family because I am not ‘white’. Yet the politics of whiteness and white supremacy continues to restrict my behaviours, my freedom of movement, my work environment, and my livelihood. I am a Black Muslim woman. It is white supremacy that continues to cause me to be scared to attend the Mosque in my hometown. It is white supremacy that makes me fearful of police enforcement. It is white patriarchy that makes me afraid of walking alone at night. And it is white supremacy, again, that prevents me from discussing this reality in a classroom or a paper, because I am genuinely worried of the repercussions that I may face. Yet, there are others like Dr. Kathleen Paul, like Marilyn Lake or Henry Reynolds, like Steve Garner, like Robert Vitalis, and many other amazing academics who responsibly acknowledge their racial privilege and speak on it.
So how and when should we say ‘white’?’
Charlottesville has showed us that whiteness, regardless of those who don’t want us to say ‘white’, isn’t going away, so how can we white-talk or white-splain in a way that’s productive and inclusive of everyone who has something at stake- particularly when discussing politics.
Still, I would love to know what you think.
Thank you for reading.
Paul, K. (1997). Whitewashing Britain: Race and citizenship in the postwar era. USA: Cornell University Press.
Shilliam, R. (2016). “Race in World Politics”. In J. Baylis , Patricia Owens, and Steve Smith (eds.). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 285-301.