White Privilege, White Fragility, White Supremacy- what is Whiteness, and how can understanding these terms help fight racism?
Recognising my white privilege may help me see where I need to act. I talked to my MP last week. He is my colour. This is part of white privilege. What can I do about that? Well, attending Constituency Labour Party meetings, I did not notice, but am pretty sure all the people there were white. The last candidate selection for the constituency, all the potential candidates were white. I could talk about ways of encouraging Black people to join us. It also may help demonstrate the structural racism in society: the lie that ours is a meritocratic society also harms working class and queer people, as well as Black people. I can’t just renounce that privilege. I have to work hard to negate it.
Poet and writer Momtaza Mehri, from Somalia, is concerned that he can use liberal white guilt to leverage his lack of privilege into a career based on representing other Black people. There are “structures, logics and economic arrangements that perpetuate global anti-blackness”.
These come under the heading of White Supremacy, which is not the racism of Mr Trump, who wants immigrants from Norway but not “shithole countries”. It is much broader than that: the everyday experience of people of colour, practices and policies made invisible, normalised, and taken for granted, even in a liberal society. Well-meaning Whites sustain it.
Confessing my white privilege may be a ritual where I demand absolution from the nearest available Black person, making me a “good person”. This protects the system of White Supremacy from subversion. When I deny complicity, or that race is involved in any particular disadvantage, I deny Black experience. Why should someone “play the race card” if it is so often ineffective?
Whether I am good or bad is not the issue. That centres my feelings as a White person rather than the oppression of Black people. How does benefitting from the system make me complicit? In Britain, our history as we speak of it is White- the good White people abolishing slavery are emphasised, not the British people making their money from slavery or the suffering caused by colonialism and the British repression of the Kenyan liberation struggle. I as an individual can educate myself about these things, and seek to educate others. I can challenge praise of our Empire.
White invisibility reproduces white supremacy. White norms permeate white-dominated society, and appear to be common and value-neutral to we whites who benefit from them. Through these norms we construct difference. Critical Whiteness Studies attempts to make whiteness visible. It can only be studied by problematizing it, making it strange.
Whiteness is like a right of property protected by social institutions. “whiteness involves a culturally, socially, politically, and institutionally produced and reproduced system of institutional processes and individual practices that benefit white people while simultaneously marginalizing others.”
White Supremacy sustains white privilege. White privilege is not passive, even if unconscious. Failing to pay attention to the processes whereby White people take resources from people of colour perpetuates the White sense of innocence. White privilege allows whites to be oblivious and arrogant.
Tolerant people who love diversity and believe in justice may still sustain white supremacy through ignorance. We don’t pay sufficient attention to Black voices. We act as if all spaces are ours. We share an understanding of reality, in our language and action, which centres us. This is so all-pervasive that it requires labour to see it. It ensnares us. So one can never become the ideal anti-racist, as the system blinds us. So my goodness should not be the issue, only, what can I do next.
Critical Whiteness Studies helps make the oppression visible. From the Oxford Research Encyclopedia: pdf available here.
Whiteness is culturally constructed, so different groups can be added or removed. In the British Empire “Europeans”- non-British whites- were privileged over local people, but below British people. In New England, WASPs- White Anglo-Saxon Protestants- were privileged over Catholics and other white immigrants, who are now admitted to whiteness. In Britain, Eastern European workers may not have the full privileges of whiteness, reports Dr Helen Moore: pdf available here.