A- A A+

Moderates must realise whiteness rests on oppression

Neve Mahoney |  13 December 2016


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.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted 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

Similar articles

In praise of local councils

Fatima Measham | 27 October 2016

Craigieburn LibraryUnless you have lived elsewhere, where taxes and rates rarely manifest as a tangible and permanent benefit, it is easy to take councils for granted. I grew up in a town where potholes are forever, healthcare is ad hoc and libraries are private. The things that I see my local council do as a matter of routine are wild luxuries in other places around the world. Such competencies arguably measure the health of a democracy - it means that most of the money has not been lost to corruption and fraud.

Men's rights activists need to take a chill pill

Neve Mahoney | 27 October 2016

The Red Pill movie posterThe 'men's rights' documentary The Red Pill has been pulled from Melbourne's Palace Kino cinema, sparking debate over censorship and what constitutes partisan reporting. The men's rights movement holds that 'feminism has gone too far', to the point that men are discriminated against. Since the internet and the third wave of feminism, the majority of MRA groups seem to be little more than a veil for misogynists to legitimise their sexism. It's a shame, because there are some MRA groups who raise real issues.

Human rights acts after Brexit

Frank Brennan | 28 October 2016

Diverse AustraliansEven prior to Brexit, the Conservatives were wanting to replace the UK Human Rights Act with weaker legislation. They have been worried about what they perceive to be a loss of sovereignty. But even the British Conservatives remain committed to some form of human rights act. I commend the Queensland parliament for undertaking its present inquiry, and sound a cautious note of optimism about the modest gains which might be made by the enactment of a human rights act in Australia.

Stand with heroic Gillian Triggs

Moira Rayner | 25 October 2016

Gillian TriggsThis damnable pursuit of Gillian Triggs must stop at once. Triggs is an outstanding independent statutory office holder, one of the many appointed by governments over decades to remind them of Australia's international human rights obligations and to oversee the functions of laws to mitigate social wrongs such as age, race, disability and sex discrimination in public arenas. But no government likes watchdogs on the moral and legal limits on its power.

Reimagining manhood after ABC's Man Up

Adolfo Aranjuez | 28 October 2016

Chris Johnston cartoonAfter sending me to live in Australia, my father tasked my then brother-in-law (a true-blue 'bloke') with teaching me to 'be a man'. He failed, but here was evidence of hegemonic masculinity's perpetuation. My father and I were born into a masculine culture that, unlike Australia's stoicism, is characterised by braggadocious chest-puffing. Yet underpinning both Australia's and the Philippines' conceptions of masculinity is the masking of vulnerability: emotions hide behind silence and bravado.