"Only whites can be racist": debunking a very dangerous lie

Yesterday, by way of anecdote, I proposed that academia is at least in part, responsible for the mainstream media acceptance and rationalisation of violent anti-white racism. See here if you missed it.

Admittedly the points made were largely anecdotal and provided little in the way of evidence. What I offer today is more substantial in terms of evidence, and is provided in the form of a critique of what is a largely unchallenged field of study within the humanities, known as critical race and whiteness theory (CRW). My knowledge of CRW stems from my PhD research where I leaned the claims of the theory to discuss the representation of national identity in Australian film and television. If you are interested my dissertation is linked here.

I am no longer a proponent of CRW theory and here’s why… 

Critical race and whiteness (CRW) really began to coalesce as a theory within the humanities from the late 1990s. The interdisciplinary field CRW has deep roots within postcolonial studies and shares an activist mandate to expose and disrupt white racial supremacy. Within these contexts white racial supremacy is understood as a contemporary reality that has been engineered through the institutions, policies, and media of capitalism and colonialism.

The understanding that the uneven power enjoyed by different races, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities is a historically produced is itself a premise that few today, would contest. Indeed, from the second half of the twentieth century the policies of Western governments have explicitly aimed to shore up the exclusionary policies and practices of its core institutions, which helped to create and compound these inequalities. Western societies have even taken steps to legislate against discriminatory behaviors within the private sector as a means to achieving equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, and so on.

While significantly curbed, bigotry has not been eliminated from the West, and I would contend zero sum ambitions are not possible or desirable within a free society. Systematic forms of racial discrimination have largely been repealed, though the recent fervor for social justice and the emergence of Black Lives Matter would attest otherwise. For these groups, the scourge of white privilege is a persistent evil that must be violently contested.

The growing mainstream tendency to see white privilege as the wellspring of contemporary evil has I think, been spawned by scholars of CRW. While these academic origins of contemporary activism may not be known to many of the individuals proselytizing the evils of white privilege, the foundational claims of CRW clearly undergird the sizable backlash against all that is white. And it is for this reason it is important to engage with these foundational claims and demonstrate why they a logically untenable.

A core tenet of CRW studies is that white people continue to enjoy their unearned privilege by dint of the fact that racial whiteness has historically been, and continues to be, ill-defined. For instance, whiteness is selectively and vaguely defined in relation to one's physical features, cultural heritage, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and so on, depending on need and circumstance. 

As originally elaborated on page 211 of my 2014 PhD dissertation, CRW identifies the following as core amongst the processes that secure white privilege:

  1. Whiteness is the categorization, definition, and organization of what it is not, for example, black, Asian or Muslim. Such categories are reproduced through the production and consumption of cultural products (e.g. cinema, literature, art, photography) as well as more official sources of knowledge production, such as medical, scientific, political, and historical disciplines.
  2. Second, this process of categorization fixes physical, national, and cultural characteristics to the iconography of variously defined non-white peoples. Non-whites are brought into focus as an embodied objects that can be known, and elides the embodied existence of the (white) knowing (and tolerating) subject. 
  3. Third, these ways of knowing and organizing the world create the reality of social, cultural, and political hierarchies, which confer unearned privilege upon those who are white. 
  4. Fourth, because race is “a categorical object…deemed to belong to the other” (Moreton-Robinson, “Whiteness” 2004, 76), whiteness and its privileges are largely invisible to those who enjoy them. For white hegemony to be successfully contested, resisted and subverted, it must be articulated along with Other identities as a racial category (Dyer 1997). This is a key point and underpins the activism that is inextricable from the theory.
  5. Finally, whiteness is a slippery concept, in a constant state of flux, and is subject to change over time and across different geo-political regions. How whiteness is discursively practiced, how it is made to mean is historically and geographically specific. For example, each wave of migration to Australia, subsequent to British colonization, evidences the revision of who is included and excluded from white Australian identity. That is to say that the newest group of would-be immigrants constitutes a new external “Other” to define national identity against (Farid 2006), and the second last group subject to this process is allowed to enjoy (at least some of) the privileges of whiteness. For instance, the Italians and the Greeks that migrated in the 1950s and 60s, and the Vietnamese and the Lebanese that migrated in the 1970s and 80s are now somewhat white by virtue of the fact that the latest waves of migration from Sudan and the Middle East constitute the new outsiders. Whiteness is thus relative, but contingent on the whims of those within the inner sanctum of white mainstream society.

Whiteness is, according CRW, a slippery concept, and those with white privilege lean on this slipperiness to control who is included and excluded from membership into the white mainstream. In this way whiteness is less a racial category than it is a rhetorical process of inclusion and exclusion.

According to CRW whiteness has all the qualities of a phantom: it cannot be clearly seen and thus defined by non-whites to aid in their fight against white oppression. And this inability to clearly articulate what whiteness is what enables those who are white to continue seeing themselves as normal as compared to non-whites, and this luxury of not seeing themselves or others as having a race, is the source of continued privilege. 

When logically interrogated these claims fail to hold up to scrutiny. 

First and foremost to claim that whiteness has not been attended to as a racial category is thoroughly ridiculous. Eugenics is a well known field of scholarship popular in the first half of the twentieth century, and which was explicitly concerned with proving the supremacy of the white race. It is only since the genocide orchestrated by Hitler in the name of white racial supremacy that the proud naming and claiming of white racial identity has become taboo. 

The continued inability of white people to openly dialogue about their whiteness, to explicitly discuss Western culture as white culture, or to express any pride with regard to this heritage - lest it gets misconstrued as endorsement of white supremacy - indicates a lack of power white cultures have over the articulation of their racial and cultural identity. Terms like white culture, white heritage, and white pride, continue to be decried as synonymous with racism. Thus the lack of definition and reflection regarding racial whiteness does not represent the collusion of those with white privilege to render their power invisible, but rather, reflects their desire to avoid persecution as racist. 

Insofar as CRW is framed by a poststructuralist understanding of the world as historically constructed, the refusal of CRW scholars to acknowledge the historical conditions that has produced silence about racial whiteness violates the logic of the theory, and leads its scholars towards false conclusions. 

Second, like Harry Potter mustering the courage to address Voldemort as Voldemort and not “he who must not be named”, Richard Dyer entreats readers of his 1997 book White to name whiteness, to speak it, to wrest from whiteness the cloak of invisibility such that it becomes just another racial identity. The logic goes like this: once exposed, whiteness can no longer be the fast track to unearned privilege, because people can see it and stop it. Moreover, once named, whiteness becomes understood as a race just like all the other identities. 

Personally I don’t mind this idea, and it is precisely what appealed to me about the theory when I utilized it in my thesis. The problem, however, is that Dyer’s proposal is impossible if whiteness is not a race but a process.

If whiteness is a category into which other racial, cultural, national and ethnic peoples can be admitted, if Jews and Italians can pass as white after living in a Western democratic country for a couple of generations, and if Vietnamese can eventually enjoy the privileges of whiteness, then it becomes impossible to define whiteness as just another racial category. 

You might counter that the assimilation of these groups into white society allows us to define whiteness culturally, for example, as the practice of Western capitalistic values, but then this would undermine the argument that non-white races do not have access to the privileges enjoyed by white people. Some theorists might argue that a Chinese woman who passes as white does not actually possess power in the same way as the genuinely white do, given that she can never fully enjoy the privileges of whiteness insofar as her physical features that mark her as different, make her vulnerable to socio-political changes in the future that might compel the white mainstream to suddenly exclude her. 

The problem with this assertion is that it infers a stable white elite at the core of whiteness who are the ultimate arbiters of inclusion and exclusion. However, the theory consistently fails to identify these genuinely white arbiters. The definition of whiteness explicitly states that this core group does not exist; whiteness is apparently, like an onion.  As a process of inclusion and exclusion exercised by an elite with no identifiable set of physical characteristics to speak of, how are we to identify the arbiters of acceptable whiteness? And if we can identify them by way of their political or economic power, what then is the concept of whiteness needed to understand that power? 

Third, the lack of distinction between processes of inclusion and exclusion, and an identifiable set of people who bear the physical characteristics of whiteness undergirds the push to redefine racism as an act that can only be performed by white people. Now lets follow through this claim to logical conclusions. If white people are the only ones with the power to include and exclude others from civil society, then they ARE the system of racism. This means that the performance of racism is the only characteristic by which we can identify white people; if you see people being racist then we can safely say that those racist people are white, or at least the beneficiaries of white privilege (as is reflected by such slurs as "uncle tom"). 

The most disturbing aspect of the principle that only white people can be racist is not the Orwellian double speak that is used to rationalise the claim as fact, but rather, that it has become a widely held belief by so many within Western society. A belief not only propagated by academics within the humanities, but also by the mainstream journalists and media personalities that we annually churn out of our courses.

Fourth, the reason whiteness is defined as process and not race is because every attempt to define whiteness as a racial category results in spectacular failure. Let’s follow Farid’s claims through to logical conclusions. 

Today many would possibly look at me and comfortably categorize me as Australian, maybe white with the caveat that my heritage is obviously not Anglo-Celtic. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s however, my Italian heritage marked me as noticeably different, though not problematically so. This was the time that Greek’s and Italian’s cheekily appropriated the slur “wog” as a proud mark of identity, and as a giant fuck you to those few Aussies who continued deride us. 

When my family first arrived in the 1950s they were certainly not accepted as white by the Anglo-Celtic mainstream despite their European heritage. Given this non-white history, can we logically claim that I am now guilty of white privilege? At what point did I become white? Is it when the word wog ceased to have any currency? Is it when I conceived a part Italian-Welsh-English child? Is it when I earned my university degree? Earned beyond the tax-free threshold? Did my marriage to South American with native Indian heritage redeem me of my newly acquired white guilt? And if not, what should my penance be? 

But I digress. The term Anglo-Celtic itself belies these futile attempts to define racial whiteness insofar as it distracts us from remembering the strained history of Irish immigration to Australia. Throughout the nineteenth century the Irish were absolutely excluded from a mainstream Anglo identity, and not at all regarded as white. If we go back further to try rescue the category of whiteness we might return to Britain, the land of Australia’s colonizers. 

This however makes the existence and characteristics of whiteness even elusive insofar as its people were forged through successive waves of domestic infighting and foreign conquest by Romans and Vikings and others besides. Not only does this demonstrate racial impurity, but it muddies the waters regarding our ability to discern the lineage of unearned power and privilege, and at which historical juncture it becomes indisputably coupled with racial whiteness. 

It seems that CRW is right on one thing; racial whiteness is a chimera, a ghost, a fantasy. It does not exist. 

CRW claims that whiteness is not defined by race, but is constituted by the power to include and exclude people from mainstream Western cultures. Why then, use the term whiteness to denote a system of oppressive power not determined by race? The term whiteness can only be regarded as a surreptitious and dishonest push to infer a stable connection between power, privilege, and whiteness, to distract us from the fact that scholars have absolutely failed to provide evidence of this connection. 

If we were to summarize the principles of CRW we might say that, failing concrete attempts to establish a convincing definition of racial whiteness, theorists have decided to salvage the study of white privilege and power by defining it in terms of processes inclusion and exclusion, which ultimately can be observed within any identity group, be they racial, national, cultural, religious, ethnic, fan communities, or the local football team. As such, theories of CRW are redundant.

This is not to say that racism does not exist. Rather, the main take away here is that CRW is, at its foundation, logically inconsistent - it does not and cannot uniformly apply its assertions without undermining it core thesis. 

As such it is a bad idea which has offered nothing more that anti-white racism and exacerbated racial tensions in the West, and like all bad ideas it needs to be discarded. 


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