Barry GilheanyThe global outrage generated by the public homicide of George Floyd, an African-American man under arrest, by Minneapolis police using the infamous knee restraint technique, and its mobilisation by perhaps the fastest growing current social movement, Black Lives Matter, has put race firmly back at the forefront of public conversations and political agendas across the world.

In the eyes, perspectives and lived experiences of black or African-origin people and communities the deaths of George Floyd and of other African Americans in recent years from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown has shattered the fiction that the West, and in particular the Anglophone world, is in a post-racial age. In the UK, protests over public art devoted to notorious figures such as the Bristol slave trader and to the imperialist Cecil Rhodes; at deaths in police custody and at the disproportionate use of policing measures such as Stop and Search and at the re-emergence of overt racist abuse at football grounds and on online platforms such as Twitter have certainly challenged this cozy consensus. 

The endorsement of Black Lives Matter and cogent articulation of the extent of hidden racism in society by high profile celebrity sports figures such as the Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling and the Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton has certainly given the issues the maximum oxygen of publicity. Historians such as David Olusoga have through their scholarship told a hitherto untold story about the longevity of the Black presence in Britain and have taken aim at comfortable national stories about Britain’s role in the abolition of the slave trade and the benevolent features of the Empire. The Windrush Scandal and the ill-disguised populist nationalist nature of Brexit are also signifiers of this return of race. 2012 with the re-election of President Obama in the US and the golden triumphs of the UK’s rainbow squad at the London Olympics really do seem to belong to another time, another era, another country.

So can white or European/Euro-American people ever understand racism, not as something symbolised by the swastika, burning cross or Confederate flag, but as something more subtly pervasive, something so much in the ether or piping of society that it is not noticed until those affected by its sharp edge raise it in corporate diversity training days and talk about the monochromal features of those in the boardroom, the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet or top echelons of the media, light entertainment financial and sporting worlds (especially football)?

It is then that such voices get silenced by admonitions “not to talk about race “, “not to be divisive”, “see the person not the skin colour”, “lighten up”, “you have an attitude problem” and performative rebukes such as the “white woman’s tears”. In other words when white fragility is breached. 

This series of articles looks at racism beyond the taboo around “N___” and “P__” words and how it really manifests itself in the structural and institutional levels as well as the performative and inter-personal ones.

Throughout these pieces, I shall use the terms ‘Black’ interchangeably with ‘African-American’, ‘Afro-British’ or ‘Afro-Caribbean British’ and ‘White’ with ‘European’ of ‘Euro-American’ as I believe that that skin pigmentation as a physical property is not an a priori marker of human identity; it is the continental landmass where the bearers of the particular skin pigmentation originate from that has helped to determine the course of race histories. That is to say the dominant discourses on race originated with the colonial enterprises of European nations (White Caucasian) which in turn have been contested by Europe’s ‘othered’ peoples i.e. primarily but by no means exclusively Blacks or Negroid. The experiences of South Asian peoples, Eastern Asian peoples and indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia at the hands of European colonisers also feature as part of this meta-narrative of race; a word itself which in this context is a misnomer as it has a singular meaning in the descriptor ‘human race’ and is a social construction aimed at essentialising artificial differences and hierarchies. The relationships between the Ottoman, Islamic and Mongolian empires and their subjects are outside the scope of this enquiry but would make for fascinating research.

But in apparent violation of my own health warning I am now going to discuss exactly why it is important for whites aka Europeans, Euro-Americans to see race and why simultaneously it is so difficult for them to talk openly about it. For the refusal of one prominent young black/Afro-British author to no longer talk to “white people about race” or rather “the vast majority” is because “they refuse to accept the legitimacy (or should that be existence/presence) of structural racism and its symptoms.” (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). For “at best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour (or White British/European identity) can or should be universal ...  and “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront” (Eddo-Lodge: pp. ix-x).

The charge sheet goes on to state that “the journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings” and that their “emotional disconnect” from the words and experiences of non-whites is little of a surprise , “because they’ve known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own.” (Eddo-Lodge: p.x)

For “this white denial” constitutes “the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent indivisibility. For who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others”. An even worse scenario is to engage in a conversation “with a white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.”. And to enter into a conversation with “defiant white people” in denial of structural racism is to enter unsafe territory “because if I express frustration, anger or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and to their safety.” (Eddo-Lodge: p.x). 

Such invalidation of lived experience; disallowing of one’s agency and autonomy and censorious reproval ranging from benign patronising to visceral hostility rings true with anyone who has expressed grievances in groups and who has been met by slap-downs such as “You have an attitude problem”, “you are so bitter!”, “You have a chip on your shoulder” , “ All you do is complain of _____, “They do not get British irony”, “If the worst that has happened to you is loss of a job and unemployment you have had a very sheltered life”. The sheer disempowering sense of it all.

Since this “lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live” is a cumulative effect of the persistent denial by Nice White People of their divine or naturally held entitlements (Eddo-Lodge: pp. xi-xii), what is the point of the conversation in the first place and is real dialogue between whites and people of colour ever possible and how can it be achieved. The first port of call in any discussion of racism has to be an examination of “white fragility”; how it operates and its relationship to institutional or structural racism.

White Fragility

In her international best seller, Robin Diangelo writes about white fragility as the outcome of insulation of white people in North America from “racial stress”. The absence of racial stress in her account is the product of white/Euro-American people having lived in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and having been the beneficiaries of that stark inequality and separation. Because white people as the dominant racial formation in the USA have rarely experienced racial discomfort in the society, they dominate they have not been able to build racial resilience of “stamina”. (Diangelo, 2019).

She goes onto state that though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety it is the spawn of privilege and entitlement. Because White/Euro-American people have been so socialised into a collective sub-conscious, unacknowledged but real sense of superiority and because that sense of superiority is so deeply internalised, any challenge to that racial worldview is perceived as a challenge to their self-image; their very identities as good and moral people. Any attempt to connect whites to the dominant racial order and its consequent injustices causes them unease and real moral offence. It triggers a variety of defensive responses including anger, fear, guilt and behaviours such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the anxiety inducing situation. These reactions work to restore white equilibrium as they counteract the challenge, re-establish racial comfort and re-instate whites at the top of the racial pecking order. White fragility and its dynamics constitute a powerful means of white racial control and of protection of white privilege (Diangelo: p.2).

Diangelo prefaces her investigation of white fragility through checking her own privilege. She acknowledges that “as a white American raised in the United States … with a white frame of reference and a white worldview” who has progressed through the world “with a white experience” her experience is most certainly not universal. Like most of her fellow whites/Euro-Americans, she was not brought up to identify herself in racial terms or to raise racial issues or behaviours. Yet her philosophy around race and how to talk about it is based on this key precept: that a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does) (Diangelo: p.7).

Simplistic definitions of racism such as intentional acts of racial discrimination and/or violence perpetrated by immoral individuals or pleas that “I was taught to treat everyone the same” hinder learning processes on race and militate against any appreciation of the structural, institutional, silent and silencing nature of racism. The reason for such inadequate understanding of the sheer pervasiveness of racism on the part of white Europeans/ Euro-Americans in what many naively imagined to be a ‘post-racial’ era lies in their lack of understanding of the process of socialisation. (Diangelo: p.9).

Race Socialisation

It is through socialisation, the conscious and unconscious or osmotic process through which the values and norms of the social or cultural group that we are born into and raised, that we make sense of perceptions and experiences through our specific cultural lens. This lens is self-evidently neither universal or unique. But exploring one’s cultural frameworks is particularly difficult in a Western context because of the hegemony of two foundational Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity. (Diangelo: p.9).

Briefly, individualism asserts that each of us is unique and separate from others, even those who are part of our social groups. Objectivity proclaims that it is possible to be free of all bias. Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not caused by unfair social structures but by individual character shortcomings. (Diangelo: p.10). Perhaps the starkest statement of individualist fundamentalism ever made was made by the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 when she preached that “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and their families” (a sermon which concluded with a modern outworking of the parable of the Good Samaritan; “he had money as well”). 

It is almost tautologous to state that these ideologies make the exploration and questioning of the collective aspects of the white experience very difficult. for white people. Despite or maybe because of the blank slate that objectivity and individualism coats over us; we all know that in the dominant culture to be defined as a man is different from being defined as a woman; that old people are looked upon differently from young people; rich is different from poor; being gay is different from homosexual; being disabled is different from being able-bodied/neurotypical. So logically why should there be no differences between races. We are socialised into these groups collectively and we are taught in a myriad of ways from books, films, primary and secondary education, religious instruction, history and cultural practices, cartoons and films which group is ‘better’ to be in. We understand who we are by learning who we are not; the “other”. The concept of “rich” is meaningless without reference to “poor”; “deserving” makes no sense without reference to its antonym – “undeserving”. But because of the dominance of individualism as ideology and cultural value we lack the cognitive skills to reflect on our particular group (invariably dominant) membership. Nor do we possess the empathic qualities to understand the lived experience of members of the “othered” group. In the context of race, we cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behaviour and their effects on individuals.

White Power

Diangelo discusses the concept of “whiteness as property” as developed by the critical race theorist Cheryl Harris. She explains the evolution of “whiteness” (or Euro Americanism across legal theory thus: 

By according whiteness an actual legal status, an aspect of identity was converted into an external object of property, moving whiteness from privileged identity to a vested interest. The law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed identity to a vested interest … Whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status, and property, sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem”(1]

Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whiteness as the norm or standard for human, and people of colour as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. Therefore, white people have real cognitive problems with the identification of whiteness as a particular state of being that has such a potential impact on one’s life and perception. (Diangelo: p.25).

Whites also produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society – such as individualism and meritocracy – and use these apparently colour-neutral narratives to explain the positions of other social groups. The example of Jackie Robinson, often celebrated as the first African-American to break the colour line and play in major-league baseball, is a case in point. The heroic, individualistic, American Dream narrative tells the story of an exceptional athlete who overcame racial barriers to “make it” in the big time. It tells the story of how this very talented and racially exceptional baseball player had what it took to break the colour barrier all by himself. What it does not say is that Jackie Robinson was able to play major league baseball only because white owners and administrators allowed him to do so. Within the wider white controlled power structure of American society, rare people of colour are admitted to its circles – Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Marco Rubio, Barack Obama – but they support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any serious way as to be threatening to the white power structure argues Diangelo. She does acknowledge that the racial slurs and resistance that Obama encountered over for example the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory.(Diangelo: pp.26-27) It also needs to be stated and that he publicly acknowledged and sympathised with victims of racial policing and injustice such as Treyvon Martin (“35 years ago I could have been Trayvon”) and that First Lady Michelle was an excellent conduit to the critical mass of African-American opinion.

Structural Racism

Writing about her experiences of race in Britain, Eddo-Lodge writes that ‘for so long, the bar of racism has been set by the easily condemnable activity of white extremists and white nationalism’. The consensus is that ‘if a racist attack has not occurred, or the N- word (and the P-word) has not been uttered, an action cannot be racist. If a suited white extremist politician hasn’t lamented the lack of British jobs for British workers, it’s not racist (and if the suited politician has said that, then the racism of that statement is up for debate, because it is not racist to want to protect your country!) (Eddo-Lodge: p.63).

Eddo-Lodge prefers the term ‘structural racism’ to ‘institutional racism’ because it is built into spaces much broader than traditional institutions. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases (unconscious and conscious) joining together to comprise one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture, where anyone who does not belong to the culture has choice of FIFO (Fit In or Fuck Off). The notion of structural racism is often the only way to discover what goes unnoticed – the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap ten second judgements made on perceptions of competency and organisation fit. It is reflected in the sharp increase in the number of people happy to admit their own racism; an increase that is particularly marked in the white professional 35-64 male demographic[2]; the CEOs, Head Teachers, the University Vice Chancellors, landlords who will not admit to their racism to colleagues and their wider social networks because of the social stigma that racism (or overt racism) carries but who have the power to influence career prospects and workplace opportunities. Their covert, benign racism manifests itself not in the thuggery of the streets but in the apologetic smile while explaining to rejected job applicants why they didn’t get the job; the promise to keep your CV ‘on file’ or the tossing of that CV into the waste paper bin because the applicant has a foreign sounding name (Diangelo:p.65) or resides in a dodgy part of town.

This article has hopefully established that racism manifests itself at a far deeper level than a burning cross, pot-bellied far right, EDL orientated football supporters or racially motivated or aggravated assaults in public spaces (although the steep rise in these crimes in post-EU referendum Britain and the rise of the white nationalist right in the US should dispel any fantasy that interpersonal and street level racism are things of the past) It exists in so many institutional practices with so many structurally racist outcomes. In this and future articles I have and will elaborate on white fragility as another outcome of structural racism.

Bibliography

(1) Diangelo, Robin (2019) White Fragility. Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism London: Penguin 

(2) Lodge-Eddo, Reni (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race London: Bloomsbury

[1] Cheryl J. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no 8 (1993): 1744.

[2] ’30 years of British Social Attitudes self-reported racial prejudice data’, National Centre for Social Research, 27 May 2014

‘Racism on the Rise in Britain’, Guardian, 27 May 2014

Barry Gilheany is a freelance writer, qualified counsellor and aspirant artist resident in Colchester where he took his PhD at the University of Essex. He is also a lifelong Leeds United supporter.

Black Lives Matter @ I ➖ Can White People See Race?

Barry GilheanyThe global outrage generated by the public homicide of George Floyd, an African-American man under arrest, by Minneapolis police using the infamous knee restraint technique, and its mobilisation by perhaps the fastest growing current social movement, Black Lives Matter, has put race firmly back at the forefront of public conversations and political agendas across the world.

In the eyes, perspectives and lived experiences of black or African-origin people and communities the deaths of George Floyd and of other African Americans in recent years from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown has shattered the fiction that the West, and in particular the Anglophone world, is in a post-racial age. In the UK, protests over public art devoted to notorious figures such as the Bristol slave trader and to the imperialist Cecil Rhodes; at deaths in police custody and at the disproportionate use of policing measures such as Stop and Search and at the re-emergence of overt racist abuse at football grounds and on online platforms such as Twitter have certainly challenged this cozy consensus. 

The endorsement of Black Lives Matter and cogent articulation of the extent of hidden racism in society by high profile celebrity sports figures such as the Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling and the Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton has certainly given the issues the maximum oxygen of publicity. Historians such as David Olusoga have through their scholarship told a hitherto untold story about the longevity of the Black presence in Britain and have taken aim at comfortable national stories about Britain’s role in the abolition of the slave trade and the benevolent features of the Empire. The Windrush Scandal and the ill-disguised populist nationalist nature of Brexit are also signifiers of this return of race. 2012 with the re-election of President Obama in the US and the golden triumphs of the UK’s rainbow squad at the London Olympics really do seem to belong to another time, another era, another country.

So can white or European/Euro-American people ever understand racism, not as something symbolised by the swastika, burning cross or Confederate flag, but as something more subtly pervasive, something so much in the ether or piping of society that it is not noticed until those affected by its sharp edge raise it in corporate diversity training days and talk about the monochromal features of those in the boardroom, the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet or top echelons of the media, light entertainment financial and sporting worlds (especially football)?

It is then that such voices get silenced by admonitions “not to talk about race “, “not to be divisive”, “see the person not the skin colour”, “lighten up”, “you have an attitude problem” and performative rebukes such as the “white woman’s tears”. In other words when white fragility is breached. 

This series of articles looks at racism beyond the taboo around “N___” and “P__” words and how it really manifests itself in the structural and institutional levels as well as the performative and inter-personal ones.

Throughout these pieces, I shall use the terms ‘Black’ interchangeably with ‘African-American’, ‘Afro-British’ or ‘Afro-Caribbean British’ and ‘White’ with ‘European’ of ‘Euro-American’ as I believe that that skin pigmentation as a physical property is not an a priori marker of human identity; it is the continental landmass where the bearers of the particular skin pigmentation originate from that has helped to determine the course of race histories. That is to say the dominant discourses on race originated with the colonial enterprises of European nations (White Caucasian) which in turn have been contested by Europe’s ‘othered’ peoples i.e. primarily but by no means exclusively Blacks or Negroid. The experiences of South Asian peoples, Eastern Asian peoples and indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia at the hands of European colonisers also feature as part of this meta-narrative of race; a word itself which in this context is a misnomer as it has a singular meaning in the descriptor ‘human race’ and is a social construction aimed at essentialising artificial differences and hierarchies. The relationships between the Ottoman, Islamic and Mongolian empires and their subjects are outside the scope of this enquiry but would make for fascinating research.

But in apparent violation of my own health warning I am now going to discuss exactly why it is important for whites aka Europeans, Euro-Americans to see race and why simultaneously it is so difficult for them to talk openly about it. For the refusal of one prominent young black/Afro-British author to no longer talk to “white people about race” or rather “the vast majority” is because “they refuse to accept the legitimacy (or should that be existence/presence) of structural racism and its symptoms.” (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). For “at best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour (or White British/European identity) can or should be universal ...  and “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront” (Eddo-Lodge: pp. ix-x).

The charge sheet goes on to state that “the journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings” and that their “emotional disconnect” from the words and experiences of non-whites is little of a surprise , “because they’ve known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own.” (Eddo-Lodge: p.x)

For “this white denial” constitutes “the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent indivisibility. For who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others”. An even worse scenario is to engage in a conversation “with a white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.”. And to enter into a conversation with “defiant white people” in denial of structural racism is to enter unsafe territory “because if I express frustration, anger or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and to their safety.” (Eddo-Lodge: p.x). 

Such invalidation of lived experience; disallowing of one’s agency and autonomy and censorious reproval ranging from benign patronising to visceral hostility rings true with anyone who has expressed grievances in groups and who has been met by slap-downs such as “You have an attitude problem”, “you are so bitter!”, “You have a chip on your shoulder” , “ All you do is complain of _____, “They do not get British irony”, “If the worst that has happened to you is loss of a job and unemployment you have had a very sheltered life”. The sheer disempowering sense of it all.

Since this “lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live” is a cumulative effect of the persistent denial by Nice White People of their divine or naturally held entitlements (Eddo-Lodge: pp. xi-xii), what is the point of the conversation in the first place and is real dialogue between whites and people of colour ever possible and how can it be achieved. The first port of call in any discussion of racism has to be an examination of “white fragility”; how it operates and its relationship to institutional or structural racism.

White Fragility

In her international best seller, Robin Diangelo writes about white fragility as the outcome of insulation of white people in North America from “racial stress”. The absence of racial stress in her account is the product of white/Euro-American people having lived in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and having been the beneficiaries of that stark inequality and separation. Because white people as the dominant racial formation in the USA have rarely experienced racial discomfort in the society, they dominate they have not been able to build racial resilience of “stamina”. (Diangelo, 2019).

She goes onto state that though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety it is the spawn of privilege and entitlement. Because White/Euro-American people have been so socialised into a collective sub-conscious, unacknowledged but real sense of superiority and because that sense of superiority is so deeply internalised, any challenge to that racial worldview is perceived as a challenge to their self-image; their very identities as good and moral people. Any attempt to connect whites to the dominant racial order and its consequent injustices causes them unease and real moral offence. It triggers a variety of defensive responses including anger, fear, guilt and behaviours such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the anxiety inducing situation. These reactions work to restore white equilibrium as they counteract the challenge, re-establish racial comfort and re-instate whites at the top of the racial pecking order. White fragility and its dynamics constitute a powerful means of white racial control and of protection of white privilege (Diangelo: p.2).

Diangelo prefaces her investigation of white fragility through checking her own privilege. She acknowledges that “as a white American raised in the United States … with a white frame of reference and a white worldview” who has progressed through the world “with a white experience” her experience is most certainly not universal. Like most of her fellow whites/Euro-Americans, she was not brought up to identify herself in racial terms or to raise racial issues or behaviours. Yet her philosophy around race and how to talk about it is based on this key precept: that a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does) (Diangelo: p.7).

Simplistic definitions of racism such as intentional acts of racial discrimination and/or violence perpetrated by immoral individuals or pleas that “I was taught to treat everyone the same” hinder learning processes on race and militate against any appreciation of the structural, institutional, silent and silencing nature of racism. The reason for such inadequate understanding of the sheer pervasiveness of racism on the part of white Europeans/ Euro-Americans in what many naively imagined to be a ‘post-racial’ era lies in their lack of understanding of the process of socialisation. (Diangelo: p.9).

Race Socialisation

It is through socialisation, the conscious and unconscious or osmotic process through which the values and norms of the social or cultural group that we are born into and raised, that we make sense of perceptions and experiences through our specific cultural lens. This lens is self-evidently neither universal or unique. But exploring one’s cultural frameworks is particularly difficult in a Western context because of the hegemony of two foundational Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity. (Diangelo: p.9).

Briefly, individualism asserts that each of us is unique and separate from others, even those who are part of our social groups. Objectivity proclaims that it is possible to be free of all bias. Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not caused by unfair social structures but by individual character shortcomings. (Diangelo: p.10). Perhaps the starkest statement of individualist fundamentalism ever made was made by the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 when she preached that “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and their families” (a sermon which concluded with a modern outworking of the parable of the Good Samaritan; “he had money as well”). 

It is almost tautologous to state that these ideologies make the exploration and questioning of the collective aspects of the white experience very difficult. for white people. Despite or maybe because of the blank slate that objectivity and individualism coats over us; we all know that in the dominant culture to be defined as a man is different from being defined as a woman; that old people are looked upon differently from young people; rich is different from poor; being gay is different from homosexual; being disabled is different from being able-bodied/neurotypical. So logically why should there be no differences between races. We are socialised into these groups collectively and we are taught in a myriad of ways from books, films, primary and secondary education, religious instruction, history and cultural practices, cartoons and films which group is ‘better’ to be in. We understand who we are by learning who we are not; the “other”. The concept of “rich” is meaningless without reference to “poor”; “deserving” makes no sense without reference to its antonym – “undeserving”. But because of the dominance of individualism as ideology and cultural value we lack the cognitive skills to reflect on our particular group (invariably dominant) membership. Nor do we possess the empathic qualities to understand the lived experience of members of the “othered” group. In the context of race, we cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behaviour and their effects on individuals.

White Power

Diangelo discusses the concept of “whiteness as property” as developed by the critical race theorist Cheryl Harris. She explains the evolution of “whiteness” (or Euro Americanism across legal theory thus: 

By according whiteness an actual legal status, an aspect of identity was converted into an external object of property, moving whiteness from privileged identity to a vested interest. The law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed identity to a vested interest … Whiteness at various times signifies and is deployed as identity, status, and property, sometimes singularly, sometimes in tandem”(1]

Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whiteness as the norm or standard for human, and people of colour as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. Therefore, white people have real cognitive problems with the identification of whiteness as a particular state of being that has such a potential impact on one’s life and perception. (Diangelo: p.25).

Whites also produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society – such as individualism and meritocracy – and use these apparently colour-neutral narratives to explain the positions of other social groups. The example of Jackie Robinson, often celebrated as the first African-American to break the colour line and play in major-league baseball, is a case in point. The heroic, individualistic, American Dream narrative tells the story of an exceptional athlete who overcame racial barriers to “make it” in the big time. It tells the story of how this very talented and racially exceptional baseball player had what it took to break the colour barrier all by himself. What it does not say is that Jackie Robinson was able to play major league baseball only because white owners and administrators allowed him to do so. Within the wider white controlled power structure of American society, rare people of colour are admitted to its circles – Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Marco Rubio, Barack Obama – but they support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any serious way as to be threatening to the white power structure argues Diangelo. She does acknowledge that the racial slurs and resistance that Obama encountered over for example the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory.(Diangelo: pp.26-27) It also needs to be stated and that he publicly acknowledged and sympathised with victims of racial policing and injustice such as Treyvon Martin (“35 years ago I could have been Trayvon”) and that First Lady Michelle was an excellent conduit to the critical mass of African-American opinion.

Structural Racism

Writing about her experiences of race in Britain, Eddo-Lodge writes that ‘for so long, the bar of racism has been set by the easily condemnable activity of white extremists and white nationalism’. The consensus is that ‘if a racist attack has not occurred, or the N- word (and the P-word) has not been uttered, an action cannot be racist. If a suited white extremist politician hasn’t lamented the lack of British jobs for British workers, it’s not racist (and if the suited politician has said that, then the racism of that statement is up for debate, because it is not racist to want to protect your country!) (Eddo-Lodge: p.63).

Eddo-Lodge prefers the term ‘structural racism’ to ‘institutional racism’ because it is built into spaces much broader than traditional institutions. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases (unconscious and conscious) joining together to comprise one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture, where anyone who does not belong to the culture has choice of FIFO (Fit In or Fuck Off). The notion of structural racism is often the only way to discover what goes unnoticed – the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap ten second judgements made on perceptions of competency and organisation fit. It is reflected in the sharp increase in the number of people happy to admit their own racism; an increase that is particularly marked in the white professional 35-64 male demographic[2]; the CEOs, Head Teachers, the University Vice Chancellors, landlords who will not admit to their racism to colleagues and their wider social networks because of the social stigma that racism (or overt racism) carries but who have the power to influence career prospects and workplace opportunities. Their covert, benign racism manifests itself not in the thuggery of the streets but in the apologetic smile while explaining to rejected job applicants why they didn’t get the job; the promise to keep your CV ‘on file’ or the tossing of that CV into the waste paper bin because the applicant has a foreign sounding name (Diangelo:p.65) or resides in a dodgy part of town.

This article has hopefully established that racism manifests itself at a far deeper level than a burning cross, pot-bellied far right, EDL orientated football supporters or racially motivated or aggravated assaults in public spaces (although the steep rise in these crimes in post-EU referendum Britain and the rise of the white nationalist right in the US should dispel any fantasy that interpersonal and street level racism are things of the past) It exists in so many institutional practices with so many structurally racist outcomes. In this and future articles I have and will elaborate on white fragility as another outcome of structural racism.

Bibliography

(1) Diangelo, Robin (2019) White Fragility. Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism London: Penguin 

(2) Lodge-Eddo, Reni (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race London: Bloomsbury

[1] Cheryl J. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no 8 (1993): 1744.

[2] ’30 years of British Social Attitudes self-reported racial prejudice data’, National Centre for Social Research, 27 May 2014

‘Racism on the Rise in Britain’, Guardian, 27 May 2014

Barry Gilheany is a freelance writer, qualified counsellor and aspirant artist resident in Colchester where he took his PhD at the University of Essex. He is also a lifelong Leeds United supporter.

4 comments:

  1. Barry thanks for blogging this on TPQ.

    My one issue is that some of the people you cite seem as if they are determined to drown the issue in a sea of psychobabble. The more they try to sound as opaque as Fredric Jameson, the less persuasive I find them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anthony

    Thanks for your comment.

    I do understand your reservations about psychobabble as I am a cquanited with this discourse. I will try and ground my argukments in nas much material evidence as I can.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Barry - it wasn't your own writing I was talking about but that of the people you cite. I am a believer in the maxim that if people really understand something they will be able to explain it in language that their granny can understand.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Barry,

    often when I scribble it's primarily to develop my own position. It's always secondary for me as to how it lands ... especially so when I'm in my cups (and as I find myself more and more since Covid)!

    That aside, and as I trudge through your offerings here on TPQ I find myself wondering as to how much thought you give as to who your audience is?

    I have some very minor qualifications in the Humanities but I struggle like fcuk to digest what you present. But as I say above, if it helps you consolidate your position keep at it and then you can refine it further and perhaps make it more accessible.

    Unlike yourself and Dr. Big Macker's I haven't started on my Ph.D yet!

    But hey, there was a time when none of the three of us could touch the tip of our own noses, couldn't stand up never mind walk, and hadn't any fluency of language until we persisted.

    The substance of what you presented and my reservations about same I may, or may not, respond to later.

    Best,
    H.J.

    ReplyDelete