In search of whiteness
Identity politics is back with a vengeance in 2017 – but one particular kind of identity is often left unexplored. Lola Okolosie and Vron Ware ask why.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The political upheavals on either side of the Atlantic are usually described as “populist” revolts. But what’s less often acknowledged is the role played by white identity in binding together a range of grievances. In various ways – from the vote for Brexit, often linked to a disaffected “white working class”, to the growth of far-right parties in Europe that promise to protect “culture” and “identity”, to a US president who has appointed white nationalists to the highest echelons of his government – these new developments are fuelled by white fears of displacement and invasion. Often, such fears are linked with a perceived threat to white women: it was there in the baying media reaction to the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015; and it’s the subtext beneath propaganda like UKIP’s “Breaking Point” poster that evoke hordes of brown men marching towards Europe. In the US, 53 per cent of white women are estimated to have voted for Trump, despite his own well-documented history of misogyny. What could explain such a contradiction?
All this is fertile ground for the sociologist Vron Ware, currently a professor at Kingston University in London. Her first book, Beyond the Pale, examines the way in which ideas about white women have been central to racism in Britain and America, from the era of slavery and empire to today. In Out of Whiteness, co-authored with Les Back, Ware argues against the “obstinate resilience of racial identities” and considers the way in which they could be dismantled. Other writers have echoed this thinking: even if they have real effects, and help structure a world in which white populations retain much of the power and wealth, racial categories are imagined. In his recent memoir about being black in the US, Between the World and Me, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates eschews the term “white people” for “people who believe they are white” to underscore his point that whiteness is something people buy into, rather than an innate characteristic.
Some people can get defensive when this is pointed out: they might protest that “white” is a simple description of skin colour, or they might see it as a neutral form of identity – think, for instance, how blackness and not whiteness usually comes to mind when we use the term “race”. But there’s the rub: in a white-dominated society, it acts as the norm against which all others are judged.
I was frustrated by how often white resentment is treated as disruptive but ultimately benign, so I met with Vron hoping to trace its inner workings, to make it into something recognisable and familiar.
Lola Okolosie: I wanted to ask first about your early work as a political activist. In the 1970s you began working with the anti-fascist campaign group Searchlight and edited their magazine from 1981 to 1983. Back then, much attention was focused on neo-fascist street movements like the National Front; they might not be directly comparable to all of today’s populists, but there are certainly echoes, so I wondered what we might learn from that period. You mentioned that many feminists found it difficult at first to understand the need to mobilise against fascism. Why do you think that was?
Vron Ware: In those days, it was very hard for feminists to say, “What is the threat to white women from fascism?” They could see that the Nazis put women back in the home and confined them to being breeders of the “Aryan race”, but at the same time, the British Union of Fascists had a women’s section in which their main demands were for childcare and certain forms of agency for women.
Historically, we can see other examples. There has always been a tension (and why wouldn’t there be?) in far-right organising around whether women should have a voice and a role. Even if they have usually been channelled into certain forms of jobs which are to do with women’s roles: administrative work; certain forms of care; or what we might call rumour and gossip: spreading lies and false information and making it look like common sense. If we know about these histories, we can be under fewer illusions about women’s roles in far right movements now – Frauke Petry of Alternative for Germany, for example, or Marine Le Pen in France. There is an increasing number of women who are very vocal and in positions of leadership in the far right.
Going back to feminist politics in the 1970s and thinking about the connection between women and racism, as opposed to women and fascism, it was difficult to know what to put on our leaflets and posters. We wanted to go beyond a general anti-racist message, but we found it hard to explain what (white) women stood to lose from racist policies. To put it crudely: what did racism have to do with white women? People really struggled over that question. It took a while for the penny to drop that it wasn’t only about what women stood to lose, but also the ways in which ideas about white women were central to racist imagery, whether it was used by the far right, the tabloids or the police. This was particularly true when it came to issues of crime and vulnerability: white women were depicted as the victims of rape and other forms of violence at the hands of black and migrant men. The great thing is that many more people are aware of this now. But it remains the fault line, the place where feminists are very vulnerable in terms of countering the spread of right-wing propaganda.
LO: I was struck by the power of that idea – that white women need to be defended against dark-skinned foreign men – when my partner and our children were out at a café last year. It was in Highgate, somewhere you might regard as typical liberal north London, and two middle-aged men were discussing which way they would vote during the EU referendum. One was leaning towards remaining, arguing that as Westerners we in effect have freedom of movement to go anywhere we please in the world. His friend – who was at pains to stress he wasn’t a racist like those bad racists over there, somewhere in the distance – brought up Cologne. Without lowering his voice, confident that he owned the space around him, he plunged deeper into this narrative of the black male threat: open borders would see untold numbers of Turkish men entering the UK; and Turkey’s own porous borders would be the gateway through which Africans, Caribbeans and Indians, with their unenlightened ideas about women, would come here to rape.
It made me think about how Cologne wasn’t the start of that narrative; that in recent years we’ve had our own British version via the way our tabloid press reported the grooming scandals in places like Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford.
VW: Yes, there are certainly connections between the ways these events are reported. When we think of historical precedents, we see this pattern repeated over and over again, where particular ethnic groups have been singled out as being deviant, supposedly motivated by lust for white women. Obviously young women were abused in those English towns, and many women did experience sexual harassment in Cologne; that’s not in doubt. But when race and culture become the explanation for those events, and this feeds into a wider politicised agenda about who belongs and who doesn’t, or who is “civilised” and who isn’t, we have to do a lot of work to counter these explanations.
Meanwhile, the fear and anxiety that are whipped up by the prospect of what the Mail and the Express might call “mass migrant sex attacks” mean that people are more prepared to give up their freedoms in return for greater police protection, including surveillance and stop and search. On New Year’s Eve in Germany this year, they ended up with an incredibly militarised experience of what ought to have been a carnival atmosphere. A few days beforehand the local police force in Cologne published pictures of the cells where they planned to detain hundreds of men of “north African” appearance – just in case. It is astonishing that so many people meekly consent to giving up their own liberties just so they can feel reassured. It also means that our governments are able to keep bombing countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya because people think that makes them safer at home.
LO: While we’ve been talking about women, I have been thinking about another group that often appears in political rhetoric, and that’s the white working class. Both, it seems to me, have been offered up as needing protection from the evils of immigration. The white working class are presented as homogenous and suffering because of immigration. Even the Left, when it is trying to disrupt or undermine that argument, still often accepts the framing and links precarious employment and poverty pay with immigration. Is there a way out of this? Can we talk about the disruption caused by globalisation without colluding in this argument?
VW: The term “white working class” provides a coded and apparently safe way to talk about the intersection of race and class; safe because it immediately projects on to working-class people a particular set of attitudes, resentments and feelings associated with their class position. It makes this group into victims of something beyond their control, the word “white” providing both an explanation and an excuse. It conveys the idea that working-class people and communities that are predominantly white – that is, in areas that have not seen a significant amount of immigration – have been overlooked, neglected or somehow harmed by social and economic developments that have, at the same time, been advantageous for minorities, particularly migrants.
It doesn’t take account of politics, of place, of regional differences, of local economies and the end of certain industries, of educational policies, and so on. And it lets the middle and upper classes off the hook, despite the fact that they occupy swathes of the country that voted for Brexit and are deeply suspicious of “foreigners”. But then I think we have to ask what we mean by “the Left” now. I am not seeing any coherent “Left” response – even Corbyn’s Labour Party has capitulated to the demand that migration must be curtailed.
I remember after all those years of Thatcherism, after all those years of destroying industries and attacking local government and the public sector, that the only visible black person in Tony Blair’s New Labour manifesto in 1997 was Nelson Mandela. Those things are really telling. The whole narrative of “Cool Britannia” was a veneer of cultural diversity which was largely centred on London, ignoring other places where there might have been a different story.
If you want to keep things white there is a commitment to a kind of purity in which anything is damaging and
everything is threatening. There is a sense that this country, particularly England, is threatened by all kinds of things. Whether it is the Normans or the Nazis, there is a sense of holding out against invasion. There is also a sense that the countryside itself is being ruined by a process of urbanisation and industrialisation. It is very hard to look at certain aspects of Englishness without talking about loss, whether that loss is understood in racialised terms or not.
LO: It’s interesting how the “true” England is almost always the suburbs and rural areas. And the more we point to a city like London as an example of multiculturalism done right, the more it seems to embed thinking which views urban areas
as lost territory. That’s ironic, given how central Empire was to maintaining the peace and wealth of the English countryside.
At this point I am reminded of the artist Ingrid Pollard. Her photographs place black subjects in bucolic English landscapes, tracing the lines of Britain’s imperial history, and making a claim for black British identity. That black bodies in English rural settings should seem radical or out of place says something about how the countryside carries with it ideas about purity.
VW: Identity is important to everyone, and you can understand certain identifications with whiteness as a kind of ethnicity, infused with Englishness, Welshness or Scottishness. It can offer a sense of history, of belonging to particular places, with all the connections to family, neighbourhood and community. It is complicated.
And there is no denying that the language of equality and diversity does promote the idea that difference, whether of culture, religion or ethnic origin, is something to be proud of, unless you are white. Remember the surveys that came out in Gordon Brown’s era that said that white school kids, particularly boys, suffered from “identity deficit”. It was all part of the drive to make us define Britishness.
There’s a chapter in Out of Whiteness that starts with a discussion of school kids in southeast London saying incredible things about race. Roger Hewitt wrote a lot about this in the 1990s, identifying what he saw as a white backlash against multicultural policies. It surfaced again in the period after the mill town riots of 2001, when the BNP was standing candidates in local elections across the country, using the language of unfairness and “rights for whites” – they even had their own magazine called Identity. And now we are seeing it again with new force as the effects of austerity policies become more evident.
I noticed the other day that Hope Not Hate [an anti-extremism campaign that grew out of Searchlight] are organising a conference about the future of “post-industrial communities”. They avoid the term “white working class” altogether, which is not to say racism is not a factor, but it doesn’t start with the presumption that it is the most important thing shaping people’s lives. Other academics sometimes use the phrase “marginalised majority communities”, and look at marginalisation on many scales, whether economic, social, cultural or political.
What is important about Hope Not Hate is that they acknowledge the pressure of immigration as something which makes people worry and makes them feel that they are losing out, but the problem is explored in the context of particular places, and there is a real attempt, from what I can make out, to bring people in from different organisations and communities to talk to each other about local issues. This strategy seems to have been productive in terms of keeping the BNP out of power, but after the way that the EU referendum has been used to polarise people, who knows what will happen.
That’s not to say we should avoid talking about racism, whether it’s institutionalised, ideological or interpersonal. This is where a focus on whiteness can help to understand how and why people seek racist explanations for their predicament, how they express their resentment in racialised terms, how they see themselves as indigenous, endangered or injured.
LO: Take, for example, this claim from the US right-wing news site Breitbart: “It’s a matter of institutional policy at many levels of the government and academia that white people (and frequently Asians) are given automatic disadvantages because of their skin colour.”
VW: These issues have become enormously pressing in the US, of course, where analysts have been arguing about whether or not Trump’s success is the fault of the “white working class”, as if that even made sense in such a huge country with its internal geography. The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild comes at it another way. She basically asked: what is it that propels working-class and dispossessed communities to vote against their own interests and especially against those agencies that would protect their ecological and biopolitical wellbeing?
In her book Strangers in Their Own Land – the title says a lot – she uses the analogy of people jumping the queue. People are raised to think of themselves as following a certain route and getting certain rewards. The rewards don’t come and you see people queue-jumping in front of you; you see Obama helping people who don’t look like you, getting a leg up, getting affirmative action and you’re kind of stuck. It’s so much about feeling humiliated, left behind, deprived of something you felt you were entitled to.
LO: To understand why Hochschild’s analysis resonates – on both sides of the Atlantic, since it has parallels in some of the issues that fed into the vote for Brexit – I want to turn, briefly, to Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland. She writes that “white people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often.” Jefferson goes on to explain that “‘white’ represents an American idea of success, of perfection – or of perfect normality – that is practically unattainable for anyone”.
But Hochschild’s analogy of the queue also tells us why frustration at one’s place in the social order might turn into resentment of people who are just as, if not more, disadvantaged. The idea of white racial superiority has been used historically to justify the enslavement and domination of others, but it has also worked to make those white people without access to much wealth or power feel better about their position by giving them others to look down on. Because whiteness usually operates unseen, it makes the relative privileges accrued from several centuries of colonialism seem like the result of a global meritocracy. Which can make moves towards equality seem like “queue-jumping”, rather than an effort to redress the balance.
This is ideology, but ideas have real effects: to many people of colour, a hasty dismissal of whiteness or race as merely a social construct sounds too much like downplaying its significance in all our lives, black or white. How, then, do we begin to dismantle its power?
VW: I think first it’s important not to see whiteness as a complete abstraction, or as something fixed that sees a direct correspondence between how we look and how we think and behave. That’s why Les and I wrote Out of Whiteness together, to register our protest at the way US academics were writing about whiteness as an unassailable aspect of identity that could be cleaned up but never transcended.
But at the same time, anti-racists have to come up with many different ways of recognising and challenging white racial power in particular situations, whether it’s local politics or UK foreign policy. We have to get better at identifying those assumptions about what it means to be white, whoever is making them. Most difficult of all, we have to learn to think outside of racial categories without losing sight of the divisive, destructive, brutal power of racism – which after all is what sustains the whole structure of racial hierarchy and domination.
In the late ‘70s, when Rock Against Racism got going, it intervened in a burgeoning youth culture where there was a huge amount of cross-cultural creativity. It was possible to foster a strong association between being actively anti-racist and being cool and loving different kinds of music – no one was going on about “cultural appropriation” in those days, or if they were, they meant something quite different. The effect was a powerful relegation of racist views to the edge of what was acceptable, without being moralistic. One measure of that success is that until recently nobody wanted to be seen as racist; even the likes of Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League. I think we are in danger of losing that now.
LO: That’s been the success of someone like Nigel Farage, hasn’t it? He “tells it like it is”, pushing at the edges of what’s permissible. He has allowed those people who know racism isn’t “cool”, but at the same time feel that they need to speak their truth. In some ways, should we be grateful for this moment, because it is making bare the underlying reality of where we are with regards to race in the UK?
Whiteness has been so difficult to name precisely because it has operated as an accepted norm against which all other races can be judged. Recognising its existence, and the system of privileges it sustains, is an essential starting point for an effective anti-racist politics. That’s a discomforting process, but it is also the means by which the power of these ideas can be unseated.
A new edition of “Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History” is published by Verso