I started in anti racism when some of my favourite musicians starting playing gigs in the late 70s for the Anti Nazi League and Rock against Racism and I was ‘just seventeen’, if you know what I mean. It was not long after Bowie had declared that ‘Britain is ready for a Fascist leader’.
In the 80s I trained as a Teacher when the impacts of race, class and gender on educational attainment and child development were taught rather than the mechanics of the national curriculum. It was the time of the miners’ strike and the North/South divide in the UK was wide.
In the 90s I worked in black, village schools in rural West Africa in an old British colony before coming back to Leeds to raise a family and build a career. I had some theory as well as a little practice and experience under my belt.
But no-one had re-framed the challenges of anti-racist practice with the study of ‘whiteness’ and how it operates until Tracie Jolliff introduced it to me at the NHS Leadership Academy perhaps 5 years ago. It has shaped my practice and my observations and reflections ever since.
Now I will ask leadership teams and boards to have a good look at how ‘whiteness’ operates in their culture. Because until we can start to see ‘whiteness’ as an ‘operating system’ and start to re-write some of its code, it will keep being extractive. It will keep producing inequities.
More recently working with Pauline Mayers on ‘Lessons From Henrietta Lacks’ has helped me to see a bit more of how my own whiteness operates as part of the wider system. Heather Nelson at the Black Health Initiative in Leeds too has helped me to look in the mirror. And Whiteness has also had me in its sights. “If you are going to do ant-racist work you will have your baptism of fire”. You will have many baptisms…
By ‘whiteness’ I don’t mean all white people. As Professor Kehinde Andrews has said ‘whiteness is not just for whites’. I mean a system of cultural and historical assumptions about hierarchy, power, objectivity, logical positivism, duality (whiteness is happier with black and white rules not shades of grey, nuance, wisdom and judgement) and patriarchy that are so deeply enmeshed in many ‘white’ cultures that they pass invisibly as ‘how things are’.
I have started to look for clues about how whiteness works. Signs of whiteness at work. In myself. In the organisations I work with, and for. In the communities and societies that I am a part of. That are a part of me. They are clues, not laws, or rules or truths.
- Whiteness looks for and at what is wrong with colour
- Whiteness commissions or supports people of colour to sort out ‘what is wrong’ (provide special course for people of colour, set up networks, write reports)
- When Whiteness experiences dissent or challenge it frames it as a threat and defaults to power and hierarchy over compassion and listening
- Whiteness likes to be taught by colour (What should we do?)
- Whiteness finds reflecting on itself difficult – it often triggers guilt and shame rather than hope and opportunities to change
- Whiteness often blames victims (if we feed the children they will become dependent)
- Whiteness polices tone – ‘calm down…’
- Whiteness when it feels threatened punishes
- Whiteness invites people to learn and when the learning becomes powerful, painful and the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate is entered with accompanying emotion, they close it down or punish the ones expressing their pain
- Whiteness values compliance over dissent
- Whiteness ‘does to’ rather than stands alongside
- Whiteness rarely looks hard at itself
- Whiteness learns slowly because it already knows how to look after itself
- Whiteness values self development over self sacrifice
- Whiteness exercises ‘power over’ in preference to ‘power with’ or ‘power to’
- Whiteness holds on to its power
- Whiteness sees itself apart from the system rather than as a part of the system
- Whiteness prefers domination to collaboration; competition to cooperation
- Whiteness is used to ‘winning’; getting its way
- Whiteness is trapped in its own miserable, extractive, consumerist nightmare of progress
- Whiteness finds it hard to see its paradigm of privilege
- Whiteness manipulates through psychological safety and self supporting cliques
- Whiteness recognises as intelligence/wisdom the products of white normative educational and developmental processes. It tends not to recognise the product of other non-white developmental norms.
- Whiteness claims inclusion and compassion – while presiding over enormous inequalities and violence
- Whiteness shies away from complexity and nuance in favour of evidence
- Whiteness tends to divide the mind from the body
- Whiteness encourages us to privilege certain world views and to dismiss others as unscientific, or not evidenced
- whiteness upon learning of the pain/trauma of others will become the emotional ‘victim’ needing comfort thus derailing the conversation and focus back to themselves
- Whiteness upon learning of the pain/trauma it causes others will become the emotional ‘victim’ needing comfort and thus derailing the conversation and putting the focus back to themselves
- Whiteness starts with white as the default. It then uses categorisation and tick boxes to fragment people, shift them away from default and identify them in more and more ways as Not Normal. To hide intersectionality by counting variables that it can then treat as ‘independent’.
- Whiteness prizes ‘knowledge’, but is very clear about the forms that it finds acceptable – fetishising a narrow field of science and turning away from epistemological positions that doesn’t privilege it.
- Whiteness sees ‘BAME’ as a ‘background’. In the foreground it sees opportunity.
- Whiteness prefers to see racism as an individual, personal act, an event that can be condemned – rather than as a structure of its making for its own convenience and power.
What have I missed?
Mike Chitty says
I received this comment via twitter from Oliver Evans Mangwana @ollierevans79 who produces the Understanding Racism In Britain Podcast:
What a reflective and interesting read. I particularly like how you’ve viewed this not just from the learnt view but the lived experience. I’ve not seen it discussed like this before!
The concept of whiteness stems from the great empire days of the 16,17 and 18th centuries and as you have found is divisive not just in the working world but the social aspect as well.
So my thoughts on it, and its effects?
Firstly I think its no coincidence we see whiteness clearly in NHS policies and practices. The subdivision of white then everyone else is blatant in how we respond to issues of diversity but particularly inclusion. Whiteness was believed to be about race but some demonstrated whiteness around Intersectionality, to call out whiteness around Intersectionality.
Many of the policies that require a heavy input from HR departments are worded such that they protect and perpetuate issues of whiteness. This is seen when looking at types of grievances submitted.
In grievances that call out whiteness there is a tendency of senior HR staff to protect the organisation at all costs and fail to admit how it or they have brought about a series of events leading to basis of the grievance. I don’t think this is because of personal inadequacy but because of learnt behaviours of ‘this is how we deal with it’. There is a lack of whiteness in cases relating to pay or environment because it doesn’t challenge the institution or the power of those at the top. In instances of race, these grievances are nearly almost never upheld unless the Injustice is too obvious to hide. If a trust or person were to uphold these where injustice was considered possible it directly challenges the whiteness narrative of inclusivity and fairness, in turn holding those at the top to account for failings, in turn showing that those accountable are not always the best for the job. Here is where activists need to understand the Intersectionality component.
In recruitment we are able to see whiteness play its part in the visual representation of the candidate. Through the 40’s and 50’s chauvinism and racial down treading were a normal part of life, meaning women were to be seen and not heard and anyone separated from white people by race were to occupy only the menial and demeaning positions such as cleaner or bus boy. Again the NHS still takes it basis for todays policies from that era of where public facing staff were white and only white. This is why as an institution there is still so many issues in placing a non-white face in a previously wholly white team; it doesn’t fit the image (the superior whiteness paradigm). Some call it bias, but to me bias infers individual decision-making whereas I think this issue is more of business modelling leading to poor personal decision-making. Equally its important to note that the opposite happens in teams made up of majority non-white staff!
The subject is one I could go on for hours about, and am happy to discuss further.
In the mean time, great article, and thanks for putting me on to it. Hope my rant made some semblance of coherent thinking.
Kay Scorah says
Excellent. (28 and 29 appear to be the same, or am I missing something?) Here’s a rant on BAME. https://kayscorah.wordpress.com/2020/06/04/ban-the-big-bame-box/