– Ethne Mudge
Dear white people – do you know how to be anti-racist?
Dear white folks, we aren’t bad people (neither are we good people) for having perpetuated racism our entire lives. All our institutions are built on racism and all of us were socialised into it, but once we know that, we can start to be part of the solution.
Everyone’s talking about #blacklivesmatter, but white people like me need to be doing less talking (or typing) and more listening if we truly care as much as we say we do, about ending racial inequality. Instead of listening, we’re still performing #allyship by using words like ‘woke’ and ‘unlearning’, especially in front of black people. Instead of listening, we’re still unburdening in lengthy self-centred monologues asking for absolution, especially from black people. When we do talk to one another, however, as we should be, what we talk about is as revealing as it is disappointing. Most of us talk about the plight of the black person in a racist world, but what about whiteness?
When it comes to #whiteness there is an eerie silence. It’s almost like we hold our breath lest it blow over the house of cards which says that white people are just normal and race-less while everyone else has a race. We take it for granted, let it stand unquestioned, and live it as though it is natural. Whiteness is either bland vanilla or supremacist hatred – the one too boring and the other too uncomfortable to address. But just because our unchosen whiteness confers unearned privileges like not dying in custody or in childbirth or being represented everywhere we look or getting better loans or being hired, does not mean that we should avoid it. This is exactly where our discussions should start. To begin with, what is whiteness? Where did you get yours? How do you confront it and how do you remove it from your environment?
The more you ask these questions the more you will find that whiteness is nothing other than a powerfully dangerous lie. It is defined purely by what it isn’t: blackness.
The idea of race as a social construct is the antithesis of the idea of race as a measurable difference, such as for example, IQ. History has already demonstrated how fabricated the idea of race is, because throughout history it keeps changing. What we classify today as the caucasian race, used to be divided into several races with varying positions in the social hierarchy. The Greeks used to be seen as less intelligent and now they are seen as uniformly white along with all other white people. Psychology too, has shown how unfounded the idea of race is. This discipline, which created the IQ test, has itself acquiesced that to develop a measurement tool which asks questions by white people, for white people in a white language using white concepts, is ludicrously and inherently biased. Apartheid did it for decades. We’d force someone sitting in a classroom in Uis, where her family has lived for as far back as stories go, to do maths in Afrikaans. It’s insulting. And it’s an example of just how unjust it is to leave normative whiteness unquestioned. And where History and Psychology provide the evidence, Sociology provides the vocabulary when it asserts that whiteness is a social construct. It is a made up idea that serves a purpose of oppression by conferring social status. It is the bedrock of #whiteprivilege and #whitesupremacy; it is nothing more than a fairytale about our own superiority in life.
So where does this lie come from? It is created in the way we speak. It has its origins in our names for things and the way we attribute things. This becomes most clear when we look at how definitions of race change over time – it’s not a stable phenomena, but a random, intangible, thing of words that morphs to serve a current agenda and then evolves again to serve the purposes of another time. If it were part of the essence of our being, something crucial to our existence, we could pin it down, but that still eludes us, especially when it comes to whiteness. Another tell-tale-sign that race is a lie, is the fact that there is no consensus on the definition of race, and never has been. Instead of being as straightforward as the biology that it purports to be based on, race is as elusive as the metaphors of language that created it in the first place. Luckily, therein lies the hope that it can similarly be destroyed by a more conscious use of language, like, for example, breaking the silence on whiteness.
The reason why whiteness is the conversation on race that we should be having is that it makes it impossible for any of us to say that we aren’t perpetuating racism. Race is not real, but racism absolutely is. When we see ourselves as normal and others as having a race, we see ourselves as good people incapable of doing harm. I have heard so many people say that they are good people with good intentions who do good things and therefore aren’t racist. Understanding whiteness as an identity with which we move through the world and that does things for us and against others in this world without us needing to actively participate in that, forces us to take off our blindfolds. It requires us to start being active participants, who have to take responsibility for the effect of our whiteness on the people around us. It reveals that we were always already complicit without needing to do anything, but if we continue to do nothing, we are choosing to do harm. We aren’t bad people (neither are we good people) for having perpetuated racism our entire lives, all our institutions are built on racism and all of us were socialised into it, but once we know that, we cannot unknow it. We become responsible for affecting immediate and urgent change. We realise that people are literally dying because of a lie about our own superiority that we support just by going about our day without challenging it.
So, who are we without that lie? Are we weaker without that lie or can we be fuller versions of ourselves without it? How can we tell a more accurate story about who we are that doesn’t stand on the precarious lie that we are better than other human beings – a lie so fragile that it requires violence to defend it.
Well, we can start by listening. we will inevitably be racist in our interactions with people, that’s a by-product of being born white in this world. If you are lucky enough to be given feedback on that, be very very grateful for the opportunity because the person offering it is definitely used to being met with defensiveness when they give feedback on racism and will therefore need to take a leap of faith in you. Try not to let them down. Listen without talking about yourself. Your intentions are irrelevant here. Offer gratitude for their time and their trust, offer a devotion to learn more, and offer a pledge to do better. Validate their feelings if you know how. If not, learn that first.
This is a life-long journey with no foreseeable end goal. Don’t expect praise or for enough to be enough. If that’s what you’re feeling you’re certainly still not hearing what is being said. This is about de-centering yourself and taking responsibility for yourself. The white script of defensiveness is so ingrained and predictable. The minute you start talking about your ancestors, or your intentions, or your egalitarian worldview, you’re making it about you and you’re not listening. As soon as you stop inserting yourself into the experience and start paying attention, you’ll see that you very much are the core of the problem and crucial to the solution.
White people are tasked with effecting the change because they have access to the power structures that effect harm in their name. To dismantle that system of cruelty lies squarely on our shoulders. This is not about our perspective and this is not about our self-growth, but this is very much about learning to integrate all the parts of ourself that our whiteness would have us separated from . So, does it make you uncomfortable to be called white – good! Start talking about it and blow down that house of cards until there is nothing left of it. You’ll know when the lie of race no longer exists and the effects of racism have been healed. Until then, you haven’t done enough.