— What Should White Culture Do? From Racial Equivalence to Anti-whiteness
The following text is my introduction to the symposium What Should White Culture Do? Art, Politics, Race, commissioned by Art on the Underground and hosted by the Royal College of Art. Video of the introduction, as well as the entire symposium, can be viewed here.
What Should White Culture Do? From Racial Equivalence to Anti-whiteness
What if to be white is to be racist?
— George Yancy
Through a long lineage of violation, racially marked bodies have been repeatedly deselected from humanity because of whiteness as a shape-shifting structure of domination. And so an underlying argument is that whiteness should be indefinitely detained.
— Yasmin Gunaratnam
In her essay Challenging a culture of racial equivalence (2014), Miri Song notes that the attention now given to racism in the media contributes to a widespread misunderstanding of its meaning. There’s a lot of talk about racism, but seldom any slowing down to understand its structural implications. Song writes: ‘We live at a time when our understandings and conceptualizations of ‘racism’ are often highly imprecise, broad, and used to describe a wide range of racialized phenomena. The trend toward a growing culture of racial equivalence is worrying, as it denudes the idea of racism of its historical basis, severity and power.’
On the one hand, some think we live in a post-race society, where race is “no longer a thing”, and on the other hand, some individuals comport a fully-fledged colour-blindness, which is a form of disengagement with structural racism altogether. This creates a closed-off culture on a large scale, within which white people don’t want to talk about race. Some white people even feel acts of racism are perpetrated against them – what they spuriously try to call “reverse racism”, which leads to this problematic culture of racial equivalence that Song engages in her essay. Even Richard Spencer, the intellectually finite alt-right swaggerer, says he doesn’t have a problem with black or brown people. Apparently, we are missing the point to call him a racist, for he is “only” trying to ensure the survival of the white race in America (in his words, to create a "white ethno-state"). In a recent Channel 4 documentary made by the author and broadcaster Gary Younge, Richard Spencer states that Africans have ‘benefitted from white supremacy.’ In revealing an incomprehensible quantity of white ignorance, Spencer simultaneously claims not to be making an oppressive point about race. We live in a world where even neo-nazis claim to be anti-racist. The alt-right is an alternative fascism in one sense because it has the ability to appropriate the dictum and stance of anti-racism, to abhorrent ends.
In this problematic, deeply contradictory culture of racial equivalence within which we live, it’s hard to imagine finding anyone who couldn’t make some claim, however illegitimate, to be an anti-racist. I call myself an anti-racist for one set of reasons, and Richard Spencer calls himself an anti-racist for a vastly different set of reasons. It seems clear in this sense that a stance against oppression requires more than anti-racism, and instead overt forms of anti-whiteness, so we might reclaim linguistic and racialised ground appropriated by the alt-right. Without asking detailed and critical questions of this culture of racial equivalence, anti-racism becomes a meaningless blur, moving at incoherent speed so as to evade definition, proper consideration. Anti-racism seems to exist as a sort of white whirlwind. That is to say, a white thing with a hollow inside. A thing which moves at speed so as not to be dwelled on. Miri Song poses these crucial questions at the end of her essay, which we might consider in the symposium today:
We still need to ask: Who or what is engaged in the racialized act, and with what purpose and impact? What is the content and impact of this racialized act/behaviour/or policy, and does it create or reproduce structures of domination (such as racial hierarchies)? What is the historical context within which particular interactions and beliefs occur? Posing such questions militates against the assertion of easy equivalences in relation to disparate forms of racialized phenomena and interactions. At the same time, in addition to the material consequences of structured inequalities, it is crucial that we discern the motivations, agendas, and back stories to social phenomena which are said to be racist. To do so would strengthen, not weaken, our ability to make claims about racism taken seriously.
The danger of not actively examining what anti-racism means, is that we also potentially sidestep a discussion of something even more spectre-like, unnoticed, Delphic, often unconscious. This thing is whiteness. Much like the way Roland Barthes came to see the fashion industry as legerdemain – a form of trickery – anti-racism is, it might be said, a fashion statement promulgated by “good whites”. Or “bad whites” in the case of Richard Spencer. The vast majority of white people declare they are anti-racist, yet fundamentally misunderstand the systemic nature of racism.
In an essay outlining some of the key concepts in critical whiteness studies, Barbara Applebaum writes, ‘confessions of privilege serve as a “redemptive outlet” through which white students are able to perceive themselves as “good whites” in comparison to those “bad whites” who do not acknowledge privilege. As “good whites,” they can disregard the ways in which their seemingly good practices may be contributing to the maintenance of systemic injustice. The assumption is that “confessing to the inner workings of whiteness in their lives would redeem them from their complicity with racism.” …there is a danger, that by acknowledging their privilege white students may assume that they have “arrived,” and that they do not have to worry anymore about how they are implicated in systemic racial injustice.’
This logic does not simply apply to students, but also more generally to professional whites in the arts and culture industries too. We can include universities in this category, not least because they are increasingly marketised – an industry which now sells degrees as commodities and treats students as customers – but also in the manner in which “subject areas” such as gender or critical race studies, are often tokenistically incorporated into curricula in order to satisfy some oversimplified institutional target with regard to diversity. During a 12-week lecture series on postmodernism, you might find one of the lectures is on gender and feminism, and one undertakes a critical study of race. The rest, however, are opportunities for the largely white male, Eurocentric canon to be rehearsed and recapitulated. Instead of all 12 lectures being predicated upon anti-patriarchy and anti-whiteness as guiding themes, such curricula relegates these critical approaches to mere facets of the pedagogical framework as a whole.
Indeed, fast-paced and fashionable anti-racism may be the “good white’s” way of evading their own whiteness, expanded ad infinitum to incorporate all individuals socialised white who think that a simple declaration of anti-racism is enough. Job done. Like the man who declares “I’m a feminist” and does little about it other than to entertain the false probity of the statement, anti-racism is often a thing that incites acts of “arrival” as individual expression, rather than attempts to create meaningful structural change or pedagogies of white awareness. This is what Barbara Applebaum calls “the danger of good intentions”. These intentions, when studied closely, often reveal themselves to be subtle forms of white ignorance. A white whirlwind with a hollow inside.
Today’s symposium is an opportunity to slow down and talk about whiteness in the white dominated space that is this university, and to critically engage how whiteness effects the world of art, the world of visual culture and, as we will see today more broadly, popular culture and politics. In these social spaces diversity is often discussed. Whiteness much less so.
In his essay The Myth of White Ignorance, Zeus Leonardo argues that contrary to the widespread idea that whites don’t know anything about race, whites do in fact know a lot about race, both in terms of its lived experience and its structural form as a system of privilege. He writes: ‘A critical reading of whiteness means that white ignorance must be problematized, not in order to expose whites as simply racist, but to increase knowledge about their full participation in race relations.’ It is tempting for white academics, artists and writers to think of race as something that is, as Leonardo writes, ‘not their project.’ This, for me, is a key change that needs to take place in the thinking of white people in the arts and in education more broadly. This issue can be understood by paying attention to the difference between white racial knowledge and white racial understanding. Leonardo writes, ‘White racial knowledge is knowing how the world works in racially meaningful ways, but avoiding to name it in these terms. Whites know how to talk about race without actually having to mention the word, opting instead for terms such as “ethnicity”, “nationality” and “background”… knowing how to invoke the concept of racism without having to utter the word is a trademark of the white liberal discourse.’
I thought I’d say some things about the title of today’s symposium, What Should White Culture Do? First, this is a reference to Linda Alcoff’s essay What Should White People Do? (1998), but it is also simultaneously and importantly a chance to discuss the paradoxes inherent in the phrase “white culture”. The title performs this paradox, posits a question, and frames the discussion. We might ask, what could “white culture” even mean, other than a fallacious essentialism? The word “should” offers the title a relation to duty or obligation. It also reflects on the fact that despite the possibilities of enacting loyalty to the abolition of forms of white cultural dominance, there is a gap between “arrival” and continuous action. Here I am reminded, apropos the word “loyalty”, of Noel Ignatiev’s well-known statement: ‘Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.’
As Zeus Leonardo continues, ‘A white racial culture exists, which is intimately linked with a certain way of knowing. If by culture we accept Geertz and Erickson’s definition that it signifies the combination of material rituals, symbolic meanings, and sense-making strategies that a group shares, then whites as a race appear to have culture. It is a way of knowing the world, an epistemology.’ [End quote]. Whites know the world through a veil of ignorance. Whiteness is constituted by colonization, takeover and denial. White culture, then, is a thing framed by a discourse of profound ignorance. White culture exists problematically, but in no straight forward sense.
What should white culture do? What isn’t white culture doing? The interactions of these questions are complex, and we’ll spend time considering them today across a variety of discussions. The first panel considers the relationship between contemporary art practice, popular culture and critical studies of race. The second panel looks at the intersections of migration studies, contemporary art and critical race studies. And finally, the third panel, concluding with George Yancy’s keynote lecture, will form a discussion around the problematics of black beauty shame, the white unconscious and white subject formation. Here, as Yancy writes in the abstract for his lecture today, we should understand whiteness to be a practice and an ideology that is anti-human.