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Institutional Whiteness

Updated: May 6, 2022

The everyday work of establishing whiteness as a racialised enactment; of doing whiteness; of getting into it, is also institutional work. Whiteness is not just a personal investment practice it frames our chances for life or death, whether we are imprisoned or walk free, we are rich or poor, which university or not we attend, what marks we attain when we get there, if we do. The notion of institutional whiteness is a way of recognising the links between whiteness and institutional reproduction.

I first started to articulate this link between whiteness and institutional practice when I was working as part of the project team on the Integrating Diversity Project based at Lancaster University independent Institute for Women’s Studies (now Centre for Gender and Women's Studies and housed in Sociology) led by Sara Ahmed and Elaine Swan.

The term institutional racism had already been taken on in the mainstream public imagination in the UK. The UK official definition in the 2001 Race Relations Amendment Act as framed by the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of the London teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is:

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

Through our empirical work on the Diversity project we had started to think about a definition of institutional whiteness as a term which better captured the more active aspects of racist institutional dynamics which were not captured through the definition used in Macpherson. This idea of ‘institutional whiteness’ challenged the passive definition of institutional failure implied by that definition of institutional racism. The final project report suggested that institutions sustained inequality through the active construction of whiteness as institutional ideal in the following way:

We would suggest that this definition [of institutional racism] falls short of explaining institutional whiteness by seeing evidence of the ‘collectivity’ of racism only in what institutions fail to do. In other words, the [Macpherson] report defines institutional racism in such a way that racism is not seen as an ongoing series of actions that shape institutions, in the sense of the norms that get reproduced or ‘posited’ over time. We might wish to ‘see’ racism as a form of doing or even a field of positive action, rather than as a form of inaction. For instance, we might wish to examine how institutions become white through the positing of some bodies rather than others as the subjects of the institution (who the institution is shaped for, and who it is shaped by). Racism would not be evident in what ‘we’ fail to do, but what ‘we’ have already done, whereby the ‘we’ [the institution itself] is an effect of the doing.The recognition of institutional racism within the Macpherson report reproduces the whiteness of institutions by seeing racism simply as the failure ‘to provide’ for non-white others ‘because’ of a difference that is somehow ‘theirs’.

So the claim was that the note of institutional racism as this exists in UK statute continues to reproduce a deficit model of racialised institutional actors.

One of the Diversity Team project leads, the Principle Investigator Sara Ahmed went on to write about institutional whiteness in this way in her book Queer Phenomenology:

The institutionalization of whiteness involves work: the institution comes to have a body as an effect of this work. It is important that we do not reify institutions by presuming they are simply given and that they decide what we do. Rather, institutions become given as an effect of the repetition of decisions over time, which shapes the surface of institutional spaces. Institutions involve lines, which are the accumulation of past decisions about “how” to allocate resources, as well as “who” to recruit. Recruitment functions as a technology for the reproduction of whiteness.

In Ahmed’s 2012 book On Being Included which is rooted in the work done for the Integrating Diversity Project she explores the way in which the institutionalisation of diversity work forms a central part of the institutionalisation of whiteness. Her provocative and important claim is that diversity work supports whiteness as much as it puts it into question.

We need to think about the relationship between diversity and what we might call “institutional whiteness”. We can think about how diversity involves a repicturing of an institution. The institution might not have an intrinsic character, but it is given character in part by being given a face. Diversity might create a new image of the institution or even a new institutional face. In the diversity world, there is a great deal of investment in images. Diversity might even appear as image, for example, in the form of the multicultural mosaic, as Elaine Swan (2010) has carefully analysed. An institutional image is produced in part for external others. The investment in diversity images might teach us about the importance of diversity as a way of managing the relationship between an organization and external others (…diversity becomes a form of public relations).

This work gives us powerful insight into the ways that whiteness institutionalises through practices of human resource management, public relations and communications practices.

I build on these observations in my own work developing data from that same project, but also from my work in the UK National Health Service to look at how this institutionalisation of whiteness works neoliberally via emotion. I consider how professional identities, professional ethics and values and routes through career progression form part of the internal institutional dynamics of whiteness. I consider how institutional cultures which enact whiteness can work through these professional processes to produce forms of paranoid delusion which frame everyday interactions between different institutional actors including users, co-workers, leaders. This paranoid delusional culture works through the space-time compressions linked to neoliberal practices of productivism which in turn frame ideas of institutional success and failure contemporary in public as well as private institutional contexts.

In this excerpt from the final chapter of Power, Politics and the Emotions ‘Mobilising Hopeful Fictions through Differentitated Uncertainties’ I consider this issue of the way whiteness is actively reproduced through progressively more paranoid and relationally violent institutional relations. Such that violence is the structuring institutional affect of the contemporary organisation. Whiteness operates as a fundamentally self destructive impulse for the institution. It lies at the heart of what I think of as the neoliberal suicide.

Going back to where I began in Chapter 1 then, whiteness ascends as the cultural manifestation of governmental power through a delusional fantasy structure enacted through paranoid forms of belonging via feelings of persecution, jealousy and exaggerated self importance which relate to the illusory nature of governing omnipotence. Ghassan Hage argues that national identifications work in this sort of paranoid threatened way where in the case of Australia, for example, ‘Whiteness operates as a symbolic field of accumulation where many attributes such as looks, accent, “cosmopolitanism”, or “Christianity” can be accumulated and converted into Whiteness’ (Hage, 1998, p. 232). In Power, Politics and the Emotions the tight coupling of subject and object in Chapter 4 exemplifies the way in which paranoid belongings enact the institutional space as white. Such forms of paranoid belonging are cumulative where fantasies of control over the other lead to the fear of being controlled by the other as a form of retaliation which in turn begets more aggressive attempts to control the other. It is through this paranoid structure that good and bad become progressively more split, projected into good subjects, bad objects, until the ability to collectively symbolise (in the sense of recognising the space between the subject and object) is lost altogether. What is interesting here is the way that belonging to a governing ideal, as a certain sort of governing subject, as a professional, general practitioner or nurse, for example, is differentiated as good and bad through a cultural common sense that threats to the governing order are managed through cultural means. This shows very powerfully the paranoid fantasy structure of whiteness in its institutional operation.

This understanding of the paranoid enactment of institutional space demonstrates the important difference between melancholy and melancholia which has underpinned the approach developed in Power, Politics and the Emotions. As Derek Hook (2012) notes:

Freudian melancholia necessarily involves hostility towards a lost object that has been withdrawn into the ego. It entails the sufferer’s assault upon this lost object which, via the means of narcissistic regression, has been incorporated into the ego. These then are the conditions under which a relation to the lost object may be maintained, conditions which amount to a crippling state of internalized aggression. A constituent component of melancholia – far more difficult to romanticize than states of ungrieved loss – is the fact of a loathing, self-abjecting relation to one’s own ego that has been deemed worthless and opened up to the punitive fury of the super-ego . . .. A form of suffering tantamount to being buried with the dead, melancholia cannot be summarily equated merely with blockages of identification, with states of unending remembrance.

Whilst I am not claiming that all institutional spaces are literally deathly, I am interested in the ways that they can become toxic, materially, as well as symbolically and psychically. The enactment of institutions can debilitate governing subjects, making them generally fearful and self as well as other abjecting. It is this point about the violent enactment of loathing and self abjection in institutional space which I have been aiming to highlight in Power, Politics and the Emotions via the idea of a potential neoliberal suicide. I have been seeking to do this precisely because the sorts of traumatic toxic violences understood through melancholia, rather than melancholy, are generally viewed as separate from, rather than integral to institutional life. Institutional spaces, as they are defined in modernist rationalist terms via a public/private split, are imagined through their ability to control inappropriate, privately, supposedly individually generated emotionalities, like hate, fear, loathing. This control is dependent on the externalising of violence which, from a melancholic point of view, is already always there; constitutive of institutional space. My analysis of relational politics is an attempt to represent governing subjects’ struggles with this absent sociocultural past in the institutional present as a form of struggle which makes visible this absent presence of violence that relationally enacts, but is symbolically written out of (neo)liberal institutional spaces through the practices of cultural forgetting. The more this presence is materially and symbolically repressed within the institutional space the more violently it constitutes it. The racist murder of South London teenager Stephen Lawrence continues to remain emblematic of the struggles to make this link between supposedly externalised trauma and the inside of the institutional space. It looms very obviously in Chapters 5 and 7, but this is only one of a number of back stories through which governing subjects in Power, Politics and the Emotions disrupt linear institutional time which presents the past as over in order to suppress difference in the institutional present.

This brings me to the second related problem with this circular anticipatory logic whereby the world’s topography is already anticipated, assumed to be known, ready to be confirmed in practice, rather than changed through it. This problem is the tendency within this logic towards intensification, amassing taken for granted assumptions and solidifying them into an object through the practices of forward momentum, progression and speed. Speed promotes routinisation, quick, quick, hurry; more repetition, forward momentum and therefore paradoxically institutional replication and stasis, rather than change through the promotion of an engagement with difference. This is because it compresses the opportunity for stopping to think differently through encounters with others (Stengers, 2002). Speed is what holds what are relationally uncertainties together in a form already assumed to be known. It is therefore easy to imagine that we already know what the institutional problems to be faced are. As Tony says in Chapter 6 ‘we all know what’s right and wrong today’, the solutions themselves are understood to be self-evident; they don’t require thought, but quick and decisive action for resolution. There is an assumption here that the potential consequences of action are already known. This takes me back, yet again, to the linearity of cause and effect logics which assume a rationalist preemptive power rooted in the potential for governing omnipotence; the potential to know the world and the others in it. The problem of paranoid delusion from this point of view is a hyperreflexivity which knows all, but which is coupled with an ever-increasing sense of demoralisation because, in spite of an overall intensification of problem solving activity, nothing changes. It is this mix of hopelessness for the possibility of something different and growing sense of helplessness to change which produces the conditions for [neoliberal] suicide.

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