Thoughts and Musings about…Whiteness
Posted on 15th March 2022 at 17:34
I recognise that even using the term ‘whiteness’ may trigger some people reading this – it’s not my intention to trigger anyone at all. However – I feel compelled to capture my thoughts.
I have been thinking about the concept of whiteness because I have been listening to the three-part series on BBC Radio 4 - White Mischief presented by Ekow Eshun.
Ekow is a writer and a curator of art exhibitions. He looked at the images and ideas that we use to build our view of the world - and, as a black man living in a mainly white society, he’s been thinking about race all his life – as have I!! In this series, he was on a personal journey to explore what he believes could be one of the most influential and elusive ideas of the modern age - whiteness. When I think about the word ‘whiteness’, it brings up all kinds of thoughts and images – and it’s taken me until now to be able to articulate what it means. So, what does it mean to me? It means:
• The majority
• The ‘norm’
• The ‘ideal’
• Being ‘closed’
These thoughts aren’t flippant or transitory – they have been developed during a lifetime of – from time to time – wanting to aspire to be; to achieve or have attributed to me some of these words in an attempt to be accepted and valued as an educational professional in the UK – which is a predominantly white space. One of the thoughts that came from the third episode of White Mischief was the discussion on the white privilege which I won’t necessarily unpack here, but I did resonate with the explanation that Grayson Perry gave on the term. He explained that white privilege was like the equivalent of having a cheque book (remember them? 😉) and a set of ‘keys’ that would ‘open doors’ without question.
My extension of that explanation was the image of having a ‘pass’ to ‘life’. It is only when you cannot ‘pass through the doors’ that you start to question why ‘whiteness’ is indeed a ‘thing’. Indeed, the programme continued to discuss the concepts of ‘whiteness’ and class which is a viewpoint that is presented and utilised when the term ‘white privilege’ is used. More on this shortly.
In Afua Hirsch’s book ‘BRIT (ish) – On Race, Identity and Belonging’, she unpacks whiteness and her view is one that I share.
“Whiteness has a history – it’s an identity that was invented in order to provide the superior identity to blackness’s inferior one. It’s an identity that continues to operate on a political and economic level in the UK, only without anyone acknowledging it.”
I understand that to constantly be talking about differences in a country where white people are in the majority would imply that the issue is with me rather than the majority. My challenge is that for years I have been led to think that there was something ‘wrong’ with ME and have been ‘othered’ to the point where you are singled out for all the joy, wisdom, creativity, sensitivity, and pure ability that you possess and bring to the table. It’s not good enough to simply accept that this is the status quo, but this is the reality of non-white people living in the UK.
Whiteness is not neutral. It has been promoted over time as Hirsch states “…to provide the superior identity to blackness’s inferior one”. Superior. Inferior. Words that in one fail swoop indicate clarity of status. However, white privilege, which in itself is a more contentious phrase because of the distinct LACK of privilege amongst white people –relying heavily upon class distinctions – is more succinct in its description of the opportunity to ‘open doors’ and enable opportunities in comparison to people of colour. Yet – the debates rage on; there are poor white people that can’t ‘move up’ but there are poor black and brown people that don’t even have the option to try.
I don’t know how many of you have watched ‘This Is Us’ (2016-2022). It is an American TV series that follows the lives and families of two parents and their three children born on the same day as their father’s birthday. It tells of the trials and tribulations of triplets – Kevin and Kate are the biological children - of parents Jack and Rebecca – and Randall is adopted by Jack and Rebecca following the death of the third biological triplet. Randall is Afro-American and was ‘left’ at the fire station – a fireman takes Randall to the hospital and Jack speaks to the fireman following the death of the third triplet and adopts Randall. During Season 5, the episode entitled ‘Brotherly Love’ shows characters Randall and Kevin having a deep and healing conversation that addresses their upbringing and the way that they perceived one another. The discussion confronted issues around race and their family dynamic, specifically Randall's experience of being a black child adopted by a white family and the microaggressions he faced.
It was a fascinating watch – most notably because Kevin admits that he has been actively racist in his sibling rivalry – he connects Randall’s blackness to the way he was treated within the family and then tries to take him down a peg or two because of it. I was moved by it because of the admission by Kevin and how it resonated with my own lived experiences. Randall was always made to feel that he should be ‘grateful’ for being found and taken in by a white family.
The parallels between my understanding and Randall’s understanding of whiteness aren’t that different: wanting to be part of the majority when you are the minority; attempting to ‘blend in’ through use of language, accent, behaviours; ensuring that you are no ‘different’ than anyone else through an understanding that merit gets you where you aspire to be. Emotionally detached and focusing on what can be ‘seen’ rather than ‘felt’. However, the idea of ‘whiteness’s superior identity to blackness’s inferior one’ is not enough for Kevin’s character and his need to try and ‘take him down a peg or two’ appears to be predicated on fear. Fear that Randall just might be better than Kevin. Randall plays into this – he is a high achiever and he aspires and achieves success. Would he have done this if he had been raised in his own biological family? This we do not know, but we do know that Randall is living his life as best as he can – but he still feels ‘othered’ and not ‘enough’ despite his achievements.
The two-tier system where one group can access life mostly unhindered, and one group have barriers that the other group do not encounter have been brought to bear during the past eighteen months. We now acknowledge the differences in identity and can see, in stark contrast, the outcomes that cannot be attributed to simply ‘not working hard enough'.
These systems, while they go unaddressed and are simply acknowledged without any positive, sustainable actions put in place that have meaningful and tangible outcomes, perpetuate the inequality that refuses to be dismantled for fear of…….fear?
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