‘White Privilege: A Challenge to Leaders’
Facilitator: Dr Muna Abdi
7th May, 2020
3.30pm – 5.30 pm
We offered the following provocation to this meeting. The provocation is followed by a reflection.
This provocation considers whiteness through two distinctly separate but entwined perspectives of the abstract and the institutional. I begin with the abstract.
In recent years, the conceptualisation of whiteness and its positioning within the anti-racist movement has become increasingly visible in mainstream discourse. Terms such as ‘white privilege’ seem to have become an intrinsic part of the anti-racist lexicon. It is however important to ask, how this new lexicon is being used and understood in the context of racial oppression. There seems to be two parallel micro narratives that have emerged within the anti-racist movement in its use of whiteness concepts, manifesting in a polarised tension between how whiteness is understood and used. It could be argued that for a significant number of black and brown bodies within the movement, whiteness represents oppression and colonial trauma that still percolates in our social systems and interactions. While for those racialised as white, a consideration of whiteness appears to have become a preoccupation with the self and one’s own negotiations and processing of whiteness and what that means for them.
I argue that this sizemic shift is in fact a representation of the very racism that critical whiteness acknowledges. In a British context, anti-racist spaces that were historically ‘safe’ for black and brown bodies now seem to have become infiltrated with a dominating whiteness discourse, which re-centres whiteness. This manifests in the way in which the focus seems to have shifted from the lived experiences and traumas of melanated people to self-realisations and negotiations of whiteness. It also manifests in the dominance of whiteness discourse in third and educational sector equalities work, which has arguably become preoccupied with educating white people about their privilege or so-called subconscious bias, positioning those managing racial trauma (which often manifests in daily microaggressions) indirectly encouraged to once again ignore the feelings attached to their experiences and adopt a clinical detached presence in these spaces. To continue the oppression of dehumanisation by self-dehumanising for the comfort and engagement of ‘activists’ racialised as white.
There is a notable and concerning lack of representation of people of colour in EDI (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) leadership positions. There is an additional lack of representation of voices from within black and brown communities leading these conversations in power and with agency. There is a disconnection between the utopian rhetoric that accompanies this discourse and accompanying practice. This disconnect and lack in representation reflects the sheer inequality between those that are racialised as white and those that are not. Whiteness remains positioned as hierarchically superior and the normative.
The Institutional (in the context of Leadership)
The challenge for white leaders committed to meaningful change is to critique and challenge the incentivised legalised narrative and to understand their positionality in broader racially oppressive social dynamics.
I argue that the institution is a micro level representation of systemic and structural racism. There is a binary framing of inclusion in institutional spaces, alongside a box ticking patronising framing of people of colour, whereby the position starts from white as normative.
Who decides whose voice gets heard, is important? Until there is an authentic re-humanisation of p.o.c, there can be no meaningful change. A change which manifests in all voices being treated as equal, valid, and important.
A participant challenged the reference to ‘brown’ as a ‘new’ racialisation. I found this perspective to be an intriguing insight into the divisions within communities fighting racial oppression in its various manifestations. My use of the word ‘brown’ has always been a form of activism. Just as there is no geography attached to blackness, in shedding Asian or Arab origins for an equally ambigious ‘browness’, I have used this term to stand in solidarity with the African diaspora. From a similar perspective, I have sometimes adopted the term ‘persons of colour’ to subvert the hegemonic homogenization into a strength in numbers. These positionings do not claim the same level of trauma experienced by those belonging to the African diaspora, nor adopt a competitive positioning in which we move into trauma comparisons. I will go on record again as I have done so before and say, the oppression experience of black communities has been atrocious and still is. That colonial racial hierarchies once established, still represent in the varying degrees of treatments and oppressions that we still experience independently of each other as black and brown, but also collectively in institutional spaces. As I have said before, I am consciously resistant to colonially compliant attitudes. This includes playing into the divide and rule rhetoric where the in fighting takes away the focus from the bigger struggle. We all struggle in different ways. The difference may be similar, but it will never be the same. We must acknowledge this as a starting premise and respect each other’s experiences, historical traumas, and rights to self-define without monopolising the struggle with a singular rhetoric. Whether that is whiteness itself and how this is negotiated by those racialised as white. Or whether this manifests as in fighting on the terminology that we are using to self-define. There is a bigger struggle here that needs, unity, peace, and respect. As black and brown people we already struggle for basic respect and dignity, the least we can do is ensure that we give it to each other.