Moderates must realise whiteness rests on oppression

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An essay called Dear White Feminists: Your Good Intentions Are Not Enough, originally published by Huffington Post, has been circulating on Twitter recently. It's an uncomfortable read, challenging the 'it's the thought that counts' attitude that many allies have, without pandering to white fragility.

Brown pawn faces array of white chess piecesThe article is brimming with anger, as it should be. If the political trash-fire that is 2016 has taught us anything, it's that (mostly) white moderates are more than willing to throw minorities under the bus in order to preserve the status quo.

It comes out in their tone policing. It comes out in taking condescending stands that ignore the concerns of the community. It comes out in calls for respectability politics, wherein everyone has a nice 'respectful' dialogue without considering how the socio-political power structures of oppression means minorities are always at a disadvantage in those kinds of conversations.

Again and again, the answer from centrist progressive thinkers seems to be, Why can't everyone just get along?

In a media sphere obsessed with whiteness, it's worth considering what whiteness is. Does whiteness include my brother's second generation Greek-Australian girlfriend? Does it include my classmate with a Maltese background who was teased in school for being 'ethnic'? Does it extend only to those with Judeo-Christian values?

If you care to google the terms, the definitions of whiteness and white are different. Whiteness has always been a moving target that has more to do with power and privilege than race or skin colour. Author and activist Paul Kivel writes that whiteness is 'a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white'.

As a construct, whiteness didn't exist until about the 17th century as a way to create a status quo among poor white people and black people. Since the elite white Europeans feared an uprising, they created the idea of a Euro-centric 'whiteness'. Poor white folk were given certain privileges like 'white-only' events and the abolishment of indentured servitude for whites, while black slaves had rights taken away.

From the beginning, creating race tensions was a way of easing class tensions, so that poor white people would identify with rich white people, rather than joining with people of colour. At its roots, whiteness was created as a tool of oppression.

 

"Paradoxically, the construct of whiteness today is both fragile and prevalent. As more people of colour assert their rights and break through social barriers, whiteness, as it currently stands, is threatened."

 

Many groups largely considered to be white today were discriminated against until they achieved 'whiteness'. Most people know about the 'Irish need not apply' history in America and Australia in the 19th century. They were not alone in this: Polish, Armenian, Slavic and Jewish people were considered non-white or a 'lesser' white. In recent Australian history, we have seen Greeks and Italians transition from being racialised as 'ethnic' to being generally accepted under a broad 'whiteness' umbrella.

Historically, this transition from non-white to white has been as a result of two reasons. One: the previously discriminated group participates in anti-blackness and racism as a form of assimilation, the mindset of 'Hey I may be x, but at least I'm not y' granting upward social mobility as new ethnicities and cultures became 'other'. Or two: the group is granted 'model minority' status.

Paradoxically, the construct of whiteness today is both fragile and prevalent. As more people of colour assert their rights and break through social barriers, whiteness, as it currently stands, is threatened. Whiteness has only ever existed in the denigration of non-whiteness. With Australia still grappling with its colonial history, it can be uncomfortable to admit how far-reaching the ramifications are.

In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, the ways in which whiteness has dominated our culture are becoming more visible. Outside of the context of historical oppression that still manifests as economic, social and political inequality, political moderation is fine. But that viewpoint presupposes that everyone is on a level playing field, when that has never really been the case. It seems that in 2016 white people are trying to reclaim whiteness — but we must realise that with 'whiteness', there must also be oppression.

 


Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, whiteness


 

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Existing comments

Moreover, the feminist and the whiteness arguments skirt the central truth that WEALTH & MONEY /CLASS INEQUITY/DIVISIONS are responsible for the majority of discrimination
Anthony Grimes | 16 December 2016


It's divisive articles like this with the undertone that all white people are racist, which makes One Nation more and more attractive to the mainstream.
Paul | 16 December 2016


Unfortunately, this is highly superficial analysis. There are many "exclusive" (to avoid the R-word) societies in the world, and not based on"whiteness", whether this is china, Japan, Saudi Arabia, or based on tribalism throughout Africa. I have lived in many countries, and I can assure you that Australia is as free, kind, open and unprejudiced against "the other" as you get. My ethnicity and accent are sometimes the source of fun, but it is usually pretty harmless and a small price to pay for living in what is among the most benign and civilised societies in the world. Its main prejudice is the "smart set" against being christian if anything.
Eugene | 16 December 2016


White and non-white was historically only ever a crude yardstick of a deeper problem; the dividing of people into 'us' and 'them'. 'Us' of course implied superiority, often without any clear distinguishing quality except happening to be born into 'our' group, usually insular or otherwise removed from those 'others', who before they could be accepted had to prove they were our equals or even superior to us. Race or religion is just as divisive (or cohesive?}, as colour if the dominant group are united in one or the other. Sometimes even much more so. There are other yardsticks too, such as wealth, education, talent, personality, and so on.
Robert Liddy | 16 December 2016


Great piece Neve, thank you. Lets get rid of these oppressive, divisive labels.
Karen | 16 December 2016


A big problem today that trips up the coversation about whiteness is the tendency to think of individuals rather than social structures. For example, even though I say and act on an understanding that black lives matter, as a fair skinned woman with European ancestry, my whiteness has and continues to produce certain privileges. At the same time my femaleness may be a disadvantage in some situations. Bbth the privilege and the disadvantage are not the result of my personal views, but of the economic and social power relations in Western liberal democracies leading to wealth and class inequities. Gender and what we tend to call 'race' are bound up in those iinequities in complex ways. Sure there are some cheap shots at older white men these days, but that does not negate the structural privilege many enjoy. Well meaning individualists need to hep with thw analysis, not try to shut it down with calls to end division - Neve is not invention divisions that absent from the world. I agree with thse who note that other societies are also divided.
Rebecca | 19 December 2016


There was the basis for a wonderful article in this. It was, I think, marred by the resurrection of that dreadful, pompous, blanket and off-putting phrase 'concepts of whiteness'. This is a phrase which needs to be allowed to die with decency. It puts people off you need to convince.
Edward Fido | 23 December 2016


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