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Writing Whiteness

The metro steadily makes its way from one stop to the next, people getting on and out, constant tussling on a mellow afternoon. ‘It’s a nice read…’, I think to myself, ears busied by the chatter around me, eyes focussed in onto the words on my screen. Proofreading a friend’s writing on my way home, getting a first impression of what I’m going to comment on later when I can open the document on my laptop. The M53 to Gaasperplas comes to a halt, last station, and I make an observation that I have made time and time before: the white people are gone, only Black and Brown people remain. Cozied up in their coats, women with headscarves wrapped around ebony hair, some wear it out naturally, or in protective styles. Tired, worn faces. Some kids playing around, brief glimpses of childish joy and laughter. Dusk announces itself through the bare branches of the park, and my mind keeps wandering to the words I had just read. ‘It’s very…white’. Not surprising, my friend is a white woman and her draft revolved around gender, as the writing of white women tends to do. This is not to say that it wasn’t good writing or that there wasn’t any value to the retelling of her experience, on the contrary, but there is a way in which they talk and write about gender that just makes me chuckle. A certain overarching confidence that their experience is that of woman, not white woman, which makes it even more amusing when a bit further down, the words old cishet white man appear. There it is. An acknowledgement that her experience was not just gendered, but also racialised, clearly visible in the other, but not reflected in oneself. Addressing it will not be an issue, but I can't help but wonder how this casual omission happened in the first place.

Here a note, that this conversation has been had and was fully amicable, although I am aware that confrontations of whiteness don’t always go as smoothly as we’d like, and are more importantly, not our job as BIPOC (I’ll come back to that). These excerpts are included because I thought them characteristic of a wider issue when it comes to white people writing their whiteness.

“I was worried that if I put it in that it would be kind of like an afterthought, or it wouldn’t be as passionate, or I would just be including it to include it.”. The problem at hand. Now, I will say that my friend knew that omitting it from her writing wasn’t exactly good or helpful, and we can argue about whether this makes this better or worse. For now, I intend to meet whiteness where it’s at, take it as a gesture of kindness.

At the core of this statement lies a problem central to whiteness and, with that, white people writing about their whiteness. A sense of worry, uncertainty, maybe even insecurity in addressing whiteness, because then and there, whiteness becomes material, in all its clunkiness. Sara Ahmed (2007) also picks up on this in her paper A phenomenology of whiteness. She writes “Reification is not then something we do to whiteness, but something whiteness does, or to be more precise, what allows whiteness to be done” and further asks the question “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?”. Whiteness here is treated less like an inherent property and more as a process, as a way of action and how action becomes structured. Reification - understood as the act of treating something as a concrete, essential object instead of an abstract idea - is then something whiteness does and what allows for the conditions for whiteness, as an action, to be done. When then combined with the assertion that whiteness gains currency through invisibility and whiteness reifies the social world around itself, we can then see how whiteness allows itself to be treated as an abstract idea, a figment of the white imagination, while essentialising its social surroundings. In turn, acknowledging whiteness rips it back to reality where it materialises itself and to those who were able to remain unacquainted – well, clunky. Ahmed (2007) continues to give an account of how whiteness orients itself in space in a way where it doesn’t have to face itself, where white people don’t have to face their whiteness, while other bodies are made to orient themselves towards it and, by that, experience the essentialising effects of whiteness in action, an experience BIPOC are most familiar with. So, at the very least I can understand why white people would have trouble describing their whiteness or even if they are aware of it, be unsure how to approach it, given that they are the ones with the least amount of experience with it.

This takes me back to a 2.5 hour consultation with a white teacher, Julia Nürnberger, about deconstructing her whiteness which – listen, we all make questionable choices sometimes, at the time it seemed like a good investment of my time and energy, since she had been quite open to change, in hindsight that was a lot of free labour I provided, but I digress. After continuous class discussions and personal conversations about race, whiteness, and in particular her whiteness, some other students and I proposed to her to use the last scheduled tutorial for the course on intersectionality as an opportunity for her to openly deconstruct her own whiteness, for herself, but also for the students in class. She had done her research when we started discussing how she wanted to go about it, clumsily grasping the extent to which her whiteness reaches and grappling with the realities of it. The next day, she presented and something in the air changed. Uncomfortable. It was deeply uncomfortable. Whiteness’ urge to invisiblilise itself was up against the explicit goal of undoing that, and this tension showed itself. When writing your whiteness, become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Whiteness isn’t an afterthought, and it informs your entire experience, so don’t treat it like one. To acknowledge whiteness, fully and comprehensively, is to deny yourself the right to comfort, that is denied to BIPOC every day.

Side Note: while trying to google how “invisiblilise” is spelled, I stumbled upon an article by name of “’Invisibilise’ this: ocular bias and ableist metaphors in anti-oppressive discourse” by M.W. Becerril (2018). For continuity and consistency of my framework while writing this, I will continue working with the concept, although reflections upon it will follow.

But there was another dimension to the sentiment expressed by my friend: passion. That she wouldn’t write as passionately about it as with the gendered dimension of her experience. My response to it was that it was on her to make sure it was as passionate as everything else she had written. Here I want to invoke the work of Tema Okun (1999) on White Supremacy Culture in which she characterises 13 tenets of the cultures of white supremacy, three of which I want to address here. They are closely linked, namely Perfectionism, Either/Or-Thinking, and the Right To Comfort. A facet of the culture of perfectionism shows itself in the sentiments that since whiteness could not be grappled with fully and satisfactory, it instead should be omitted from accounts. This omission is not a mere omission of whiteness, it is an omission of difference and its implications. Audre Lorde (1984) elaborates upon that in her essay Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, considering this omission or even fear of difference as a detrimental threat to women’s joint power. Here another element comes into play, Either/Or-Thinking maintains that if it can’t be included fully, it is not worth including at all. You can see here how deeply intertwined these tenets are and how they inform each other in their reproduction. Yet we already established that whiteness gains currency by going unrecognised. Considering this, the mere act of acknowledging your whiteness already poses a step towards undoing it. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive towards writing and speaking about it fully and passionately, but that there is room for a grey-scale and space for two things two exist at once. In the end, this then links back to the Right to Comfort that whiteness maintains for itself and the need to embrace being uncomfortable, with all its heaviness and clunkiness, if we ever want to move beyond white supremacy.

A few words from a place of tiredness and anger: This is not new information. Actually, none of this is. If you care to look, everything I have said has been spoken, chewed on, screamed before by thousands of others, from rooftops and behind closed doors. It reminds me of when @ladyspeechsankofa on TikTok said “dear white people, do not be surprised when and if your Black and Indigenous friends pull away from you, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. As a matter of fact, accept it and expect it”. Or when someone else (I was sadly unable to find their username) said “white people, you don’t know how hard it is for people of colour to be in communion with you”. Or when bell hooks said, “mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial or fantasy”. And when Audre Lorde said, “there is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future”. The right to comfort remains denied to people of colour and a viable option for white people, particularly at the UvA with its superficial proclamations of diversity and decolonising the curriculum. Verbal commitments are not enough and have never been enough. And if any substantial change towards decoloniality is to be made, then white people, you must become traitors to your whiteness. And to my Black and Brown folks, in the words of June Jordan: I must become a menace to my enemies.


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