Updated: May 6, 2022
Whiteness relates to identity, but it is very much more than an identity position. This is why WhiteSpaces resists the temptation to start from a discussion of white identities. Its starting point is to explore whiteness as a formation of power.
Richard Dyer in the first essay his classic book White explains the power of whiteness in terms of the way that whiteness works as 'the' general universal, via its supposed non-remarkability in everyday culture for those positioned within it.
There is no more powerful position than that of being 'just' human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can't do that - they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of a race. The point of seeing the race of whites is to dislodge them/us from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges and sufferings in its train, dislodging them/us by undercutting the authority with which they/we speak and act in and on the world.
Reni Eddo-Lodge articulates from her experience as a Black women how whiteness works as this sort of normalising code in her 2017 book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
When I was four, I asked my mum when I would turn white, because all the good people on TV were white, and all the villains were black and brown. I considered myself to be a good person, so I thought that I would turn white eventually. My mum still remembers the crestfallen look on my face when she told me the bad news.
Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born into an already written script that tells us what to expect from strangers due to their skin colour, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded as white. Blackness, however, is considered the 'other' and therefore to be suspected. Those who are coded as a threat in our collective representation of humanity are not white. These messages were so powerful for that four-year-old me had already recognised them, watching television, noticing that all the characters who looked like me were criminals at worst, and sassy sidekicks at best. (2017:85)
Later at the end of that chapter she states:
When I write about white people in this book, I don't mean every individual white person. I mean whiteness as a political ideology. A school of thought that favours whiteness at the expense of those who aren't. To me, its like yin and yang. Racism's legacy does not exist without purpose. It brings with it not just a disempowerment for those affected by it, but an empowerment for those who are not.
Understood in this way whiteness operates as a normalising generalising code; a mythology, a mentality, a way of just being [‘good’/ ‘right’/ ‘proper’] in the world which provides the hidden cultural and emotional structure to what we see as normal, usual behaviour. It is judged and understood against the particular, the supposedly unusual. This mythology is powerfully obvious however, from the perspective of Blackness.
Whiteness as a metaphor for (governing) power
The public/private divide which frames mythologies of governance as rational rather than relational is fundamental to the operation of whiteness as a broader cultural mythology of the general which interconnects the thoughts, actions interactions and bodies that make up all of our worlds.
This normative governing ideal is the one that is associated with rationalities and techniques and practices seen as outside of culture. This idea that some things are ‘outside’ of culture and some are ‘inside’ frames the (apparently) seamless alignment between whiteness and governance through which technical expertise is associated with ‘good practice’, prioritising technique, what 'works', over relationships or cultures and therefore over (human) need. It is in this way that whiteness and governing institutional power become fused.
I explain this alignment between technical rationales and whiteness via the hidden cultural liberal politics in the first chapter of Power, Politics and the Emotions. (The empirically focussed chapters can be understood as deeper explorations into examples of the actual practices and processes through which this alignment occurs, is sustained and/or resisted.)
[T]his pretence to the prioritisation of the general universal technical serves to hide a particular ethnoracial white masculine social ideal (Brown, 1995; Duggan, 2003). This is a particular white masculine ideal naturalised first within liberalism via the public/private state/family split, progressively more entrenched through neoliberalism’s increasingly aggressive assaults on social difference. Thus, in a deft reversal of the public/private dichotomy, the fear of social difference in general is actually a fear of particular forms of social difference such as Blackness, femininity, debility and Islam amongst others. All of these differences have been denaturalised within liberalism, associated with intimate passion and embodied experience rather than with the general via an association with reason and cognition (see Chapter 2 for more on this split) reserved for the white masculine heterosexual Judaeo-Christian subject. The faith in the supposedly general technical is therefore actually anchored to a particular set of privately enacted behaviours, attributes and abilities associated with a normative subject. The denaturalised and thus particularised forms of difference such as Blackness, femininity and queerness, for example, are nevertheless fundamental and internal to liberalism’s and neoliberalism’s emergence as governmental formations. They are just not widely recognised as such.
The ascendency of neoliberal whiteness
Following this line of argument about (certain) social difference as liberalism’s constitutive outside, it is possible to see this repressive melancholic dynamic as the means by which Western (neo)liberal democracies come to increasingly know the Other, whilst paradoxically refusing the crucial knowledges as to how that Other became known. Imperial histories are left out of the liberal political story which becomes the story of the state. In the English context this means that the British and European colonial histories so crucial to understanding the enactment of the British state are split off from the contemporary presence of minoritised citizens in the UK (Fortier, Ferreday & Kuntsman, 2011; Gilroy, 2004; Hesse, 2000). Chapter 4 presents a powerful example of this happening. The relationship between the British/English majority (idealised to be white) and the racialised Other is understood to be severed. (White) knowledge is effectively split from the (racialised) social relations of its production.
From within such a melancholic dynamic, racialisation processes are Manichean and repressively split; polarised, where:
[r]acialization [...] operate[s] through the institutional process of producing a dominant, standard, white national ideal, which is sustained by the exclusion-yet-retention of racialized others. The national topography of centrality and marginality legitimizes itself by retroactively positing the racial other as always Other and lost to the heart of the nation. (Cheng, 2000)
But this resistance to knowing the racialised Other, this fundamental ambivalence towards the Other’s subjectivity, and therefore its humanity, is also a failure to know the whitened (neo)liberal self. I use the notion of whitened here specifically to draw attention to the way that whiteness is a fantasy position which comes to be through material, symbolic and affective work (Hunter, 2010). As such, whiteness takes on different meanings in different times and places; it is both elastic, bringing different groups of people (for example, the Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans) into its purview, and also frustratingly fixed. But within modernity, whiteness operates as the metaphor for the dominant liberal norm. It is the unknown empty standardising ideal against which race can be seen. Whiteness is indescribable in its generality, its apparent everythingness; the dominant standard of humanity against which the (raced) particular is measured (Dyer, 1997).
This is the point at which liberalism and whiteness become fused in their claims to represent human generality. Whiteness becomes the euphemism for the general of humanity defined through liberal universalism. The everythingness of whiteness is the embodiment of liberal values, individualism, universalism, rational progress and equality. Whiteness and state making become synonymous. But, the more abstract whiteness becomes, the more it requires imposition through material, affective and symbolic work (Knowles, 2003). Following Goldberg,
[t]he more ideologically hegemonic liberal values seem and the more open to difference liberal modernity declares itself, the more dismissive of difference it becomes and the more closed it seems to make the circle of acceptability.
This means that the various ideas of equality, diversity and inclusion and related concepts like community cohesion and human rights operate as powerful euphemisms for attempts to resolve racialised and ethnicised difference within the framework of the liberal nation state. They work to collapse and elide other relations of social disadvantage within their purview such as those of gender and sexuality and serve to reinstate whiteness as an unmarked general. Following Wiegman neoliberal whiteness is the ‘governing ethos of the popular’, ‘best conceived not as a project, not even as a distinct phenomenon but as the cultural condition’ of post imperial times.
The claim I am making here is much larger than one about whiteness per se, it is about a broader liberalising imperative which underwrites a range of revisionist political projects addressing ethnicity, gender and sexuality, all of which are intersecting and all of which coalesce in defining the parameters of humanity. In this sense whiteness could be seen as the liberal governing ethos of neoliberal capitalism. And, from the perspective of the continuities between liberalism and neoliberalism, whiteness is the ethos of the impulse to govern, whether it be most recent incarnation of this neoliberal governing ethos is decoupled from ‘any conscious modesty or humility, from any finitude’, it is the ‘reach for the perfect replica and the perfectionism of the momentary’ (Goldberg, 2009, p. 263). It is not just that whiteness is sameness. It is the generalising universalising impulse, the impulse to have power over life, the ultimate controlling impulse.
The power of whiteness as the euphemism for the modern liberal subject lies in its epistemological power to control the criteria of incorporation and existence into general human existence. Because of the relationship between epistemology and ontology from within the performative frame outlined further in Chapter 2, this epistemological power translates to an ontological power. Ethnicising processes, by which I mean the process of producing ethnic difference as a means to differentiate problematic racial homogenisations like the idea of Blackness, can be seen in precisely this way; as the paradoxical production of difference in order to enact the generality of the supposedly non-ethnic. Particularisation and generalisation work together to objectify. But this objectification process amasses power for the objectifiers, the knowers, positioning them omnipotently, controlling the rhetorical (again in the performative sense outlined in Chapter 2) terms of life itself.
As an extension of this epistemic-ontological process neoliberal whiteness works biopolitically in the sense that Chow (2002), Koshy (2001) and Puar (2007) have recognised following Foucault (1994). Neoliberal whiteness comes to be through its micromanagement of information, bodies; objects in general, via ever more complicated techniques for rendering the world of difference knowable in order to manage the threat to life (material, social and affective) that it presents. It works by the careful management and containment of difference, bringing difference into sameness; gathering allies as it does so. Therefore, an important consequence of the ability to define the world is the ability to bring difference inside to create inclusion. Normative (neo)liberal whiteness is extended through its silent benevolent outreach; through the very power to reach out and to offer inclusion to its excluded Others (women, older or queer subjects, for example); and thus through the power to make decisions about which groups come into its purview on the basis of which form of inclusionary/exclusionary bargains. Whiteness becomes civilisational and untouchable in its promotion of the general ‘good’. Invitations to come into the human race operate as invitations into neoliberal whiteness.
Whiteness as micro relational practice of global colonial power
What I am pointing to in this idea of whiteness then is that whiteness is the metaphor, the mythology for something larger than itself, of global [colonial] capitalism; that the ways this works through our everyday practices is via practices of whiteness. The idea of whiteness is therefore what holds together the philosophical ideas of structure and agency, it is what glues together ways of talking, categorising and knowing the wold - our epistemologies and our ontologies - our ways of being in the world. The idea of whiteness stands in for a host of other practices of power. Whiteness is the metaphor for power in global capitalist contexts which becomes lived and real at the micro relational level by our most intimate of actions.
One of the examples I often use to explain this performative connection between intimacy of daily life and the worldliness of global capitalism is taken from a great paper by Benjamin Myers (2008) who on the relationship between the work of maintaining straight white teeth and whiteness.
Every time I brush my teeth, I enact a politics of whiteness. Every ounce of mouthwash that rinses over my teeth works to reinforce the hegemony of my white teeth. Every mint-flavoured strand of floss that wedges itself between my teeth is part of the ritualistic power structure that make my teeth white and make my whiteness desirable. My white teeth show that I have been educated on how to be hygienic. My white teeth demonstrate that I have the means to keep myself healthy. Every tube of Crest Toothpaste I buy is a cog in the wheel of the corporate machine of Proctor and Gamble that seeks to commodify whiteness.
I consider a range of these ideas on whiteness in a talk I did for International Women's Day 2018 at the Royal Society of the Arts on the Steps at RSA House. Or in my interview with Colleen Cameron on her show #Unspoken.