It’s time to listen, learn and put whiteness – which we often see as ‘unraced’, ordinary, neutral and normal – under the microscope
It’s sad, and shameful, that it has taken the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the USA, to ignite a ‘mass awakening’ among white people regarding the racism that is embedded so deeply within our societies – both in the US and here in the UK. As protests continue, demanding an end not just to police brutality but to the consistent devaluation of black lives, it is a time for us as white people to listen and to learn. It is a time for us to post on social media, sharing information and links, yes, but also time for us to take tangible action; to donate, to protest.
It is a moment for self-examination, too; for us to take a long, hard look at our positions, our practices and our privileges – on personal, political and professional levels. Instead of asking people of colour how we can do better, we need to do this work ourselves, educating ourselves on how we can be better allies in the anti-racist fight – beyond posting a black square on Instagram, and beyond this week. If this process starts getting uncomfortable, you’re probably heading in the right direction.
Whiteness as a concept is often left untouched and uninterrogated and that’s largely because as white people, we have been conditioned to see ourselves as unraced; in literature, you’ll notice that people are assumed to be white unless specifically described as otherwise. As Richard Dyer writes in his book White: Essays on Race and Culture, whiteness has come to stand for “the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human,” and that occupying this position “is the source of representational power … white domination is reproduced by the way white people ‘colonise the definition of normal’”.
It is time – and this is long overdue – for us white people to see ourselves as raced, for us to start to understand the construction of our whiteness; that right from the beginning, this construction has been used as a tool for domination; to understand the privileges and protections afforded to us by our whiteness; and that these come, as they have done throughout history, at the expense of people of colour. This is an important part of the anti-racist struggle. It may be easier to be apathetic, to bury our heads in the sand, but what is easy is not always what is good and an anti-racist society is worth fighting for. Here are some resources that may help with this journey.
- White: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer: In this book, previously mentioned, Dyer unpacks how racial imagery and racial representation are central to the organisation of the world as we know it, but that whiteness is still seen as an invisible racial position. Stressing the importance of analysing images of white people, Dyer explores the ways in which white people have represented themselves throughout the history of Western visual culture, spanning art, photography, film, TV and advertising.
- Black looks by bell hooks, specifically Chapter 11: Representations of Whiteness: While representations of black people in the white imagination is a subject that has been – and is still fairly commonly – broached, here however, hooks explores the inverse: representations of whiteness in the black imagination; how growing up in a segregated community in the American South, she and other black people associated whiteness with “the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorising”.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo: White people are often sensitive when it comes to talking about racism, especially when they’re called out for it; often they’ll feel personally attacked. DiAngelo coined a term for this phenomenon: white fragility, and in her book of the same name she explores the ways white people respond to these conversations – with anger, fear, guilt, argumentation and silence, for example – and how these responses actually serve to perpetuate white supremacy. DiAngelo has also written What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.
- The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: Tracing the history of lighter-skinned people, people we understand as white today – from ancient Greece, through scientific racism in early modern Europe and 21st-century America – Painter’s book is an education in whiteness as a concept and demonstrates how definitions of whiteness have always been influenced by things such as class and culture.
- How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev: Focusing on xenophobia against Irish immigrants in the US and their subsequent acceptance by the dominant English-American population, Ignatiev argues that whiteness is not a biological fact but a social construction with boundaries that have shifted over time. Instead of just describing these dynamics, he proposes that we can change them, suggesting that if whiteness was created, it can also be destroyed.
Film, TV, Podcasts and Radio
- Seeing White: “Why? Where did the notion of “whiteness” come from? What does it mean? What is whiteness for?” These are questions that are explored in this podcast series. Over 14 episodes, which are hosted by John Biewen, Seeing White features an array of leading scholars including Chenjerai Kumanyika, Deena Hayes-Greene, Robin DiAngelo, and William “Sandy” Darity, Jr.
- We Need to Talk About Whiteness: Exploring the meaning of British whiteness and why the term is useful in the fight against racism, this five-part podcast series is a deep dive into the importance of talking about whiteness, the problem with doing so, the science of it as a concept, and more.
- We Need to Talk About the British Empire: In this podcast series journalist and author Afua Hirsch reckons with the legacy of the British Empire through six conversations with a new generation of writers and historians, who share family histories of the people who made the empire what it was. With deft nuance, Hirsch explores how the empire continues to shape our national identity and how we relate to the rest of the world.
- Angry, White and American: In this Channel 4 documentary, Gary Younge travels to America to find out why Donald Trump and his racist rhetoric resonates with so many people, resulting in a powerful – if perturbing – examination of the psyche of white America.
- Analysis: Whiteness: Hosted by Neil Maggs and featuring appearances from Robin DiAngelo and Eric Kaufman, this BBC Sounds programme puts a lens on whiteness and the growing pressure for white people to recognise that they are just as racialised as minorities, exploring the inevitable decline of white majorities by the end of the century and how to prevent white people shifting to the far-right.