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Whiteness matters: on domination and seeing what’s not to be seen

Photograper Margaret Bourke-White

“We may be on our way to genuine hybridity, multiplicity without (white) hegemony, and it may be where we want to get to – but we aren’t there yet, and we won’t get there until we see whiteness, see its power, its particularity and limitedness, put it in its place and end its rule. This is why studying whiteness matters”. ~ Dyer, 1997

I am more a watcher than a talker (though I can talk too!) always have been.  A few years ago I was heading to a ‘Critical Race and Whiteness studies’ conference in Adelaide Australia and got delayed at Auckland airport for 6 hours.  I imagine some people would be frustrated; for me it was a great chance to sit around, drink a lot of average coffee, and observe.  I noticed who passed through the airport – clad in business suits rushing off to important positions in corporate offices.  I saw the newly-tanned, ‘windswept and interesting’ – seemingly returned from exotic far away places.  I watched those who walked through that had piloted the planes, and staffed them.  And I observed the workers who served at the fast-food counters, cleaned the tables, swept the floors, unloaded the luggage. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that the division of these tasks and activities was very much on the basis of that supposedly no-longer-real category ‘race’.  It is predominantly white people who travel, who hold the more elite positions involved in the daily workings of an airport/airline; and predominantly brown people who clear the tables and lug the luggage.  No doubt this observation would hold true of airports in many if not all Western countries.  I know that it is an observation that pushes back on widespread insistence that ‘we’ operate on level playing fields, in a world of equal and colour blind opportunity where our failure to ‘succeed’ or thrive is the result of poor personal choices.  Hence for the most part it is an uncomfortable observation that is not meant to be seen, and shouldn’t be spoken of. It is in keeping with Angela Davis’s observation that the bodies that fill prisons right around the world are predominantly brown/black also.  It speaks to the power of whiteness, as this post also hopes to.

Continuing on the trip to conference; when I eventually arrived in Adelaide half a day behind my original schedule, I caught a taxi from the airport driven by a white man with a very thick Eastern European accent.  He asked me what I was in Adelaide for, and given that I was by now tired and a little stressed at being so behind, I didn’t have the energy to think too hard about how my reply might be received.  When I told him I was headed to a ‘Critical Race and Whiteness’ conference he raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, you’re one of those Mowrees, are you?  You’ll be on the side of the Abbos then.  You know, if it wasn’t for us, they’d still be swinging from the trees”.  No, not joking.  I thought how quickly this relatively new immigrant had managed to become ‘us’ in Australia.  Such is the power of whiteness.  In a country where many non-white immigrants and their descendants still await belonging and are not depicted as ‘true blue’ Aussies despite the length of their stay.  Where the indigenous Australians – black fullas, have never been included in ‘us’, as his very words indicated.  Forget ‘swinging from trees’, they were classed in the category of trees not too long ago; as flora and fauna until 1967.

Its not necessary to attend a conference on Whiteness, or sit in airports or courtrooms, to see how Whiteness plays out.  Just pay attention when you’re watching television or going to the movies.  I remember with no small amount of embarrassment seeing the movie ‘Monsoon Wedding’ 10 years ago and being struck by the Indian father in the story playing golf.  I had no idea Indian people played golf and the ridiculousness that this was a surprise became obvious once I realised who most of the movies and television programmes I’ve seen are about.  White people.  While media critiques will often highlight the under-representation or stereo-typed roles of coloured bodies on-screens big and small, rarely do they talk about the over-representation of Whiteness.  If you were an alien observing planet earth through its movies and television shows you would be forgiven for believing the population of the world is 85% white.  Instead of the reality where white people (depending on how you define ‘white’ – often as fair-skinned and arising from Europe) make up somewhere between 15-20% of the world’s population.  Much less if you check out white-supremacist websites where numbers are underestimated in order to rally fear around the invasion of the black/brown or Asian ‘other’.  What this over-representation of Whiteness does is normalise all aspects of being white.  Which, as Louis CK discusses comically in the video below carries many advantages.  Of all of the movies I’ve watched in the past few months, the vast majority of them centre around white people – their lives, their experiences.  But they’re not labelled white, often not seen as white – rather they take up the very space of human – normal.  Truly, our intimacy in the West with the lives of white people is profound.  In a million tv/movie roles we see the down-and-out white person, the white business person, the white alcoholic, the white ‘bad’ mother, the white ‘good’ father – is it any wonder white people hold the monopoly on individualism?  Their possibilities are endless.  The possibilities for the ‘other’ are limited to stereotypes or caricatures – that enable the ‘other’ to be known at merely a glance.

But if you still harbour any doubt about the re-presentational power of whiteness, here’s a simple test you can do from the comfort of your computer chair.  Go to google images, and google ‘happy man’.  Google ‘angry man’.  Google ‘happy woman’.  Keep googling with any descriptor you can think of.  As you scroll down through the vast array of images google provides, you will no doubt spot the odd black or brown face, and other non-white* people, but you should also get the idea of what dominance looks like.  I originally went googling these images expecting to find that googling ‘angry man’ or ‘violent man’ would bring up more black/brown faces compared to white ones, whereas the reverse would be true for more positive descriptors.  To my surprise, no matter what adjective I used, the colour was the same.  Which only highlighted to me the power of whiteness; of being seen as normal – as the yardstick by which all other things, or rather people, are measured.  Whilst theorists have argued extensively about ideologies of white supremacy, perhaps a shift is needed to discussing the omnipresence of white normalcy.  This total white-wash has consequences on many levels and in many lives every day.  From the aesthetics of the perfectly formed nose, the correctly textured hair to the appropriate diction – all reflect a racialised, a distinctly white ideal that is not labeled as such but rather is simply ‘beauty’ or ‘intelligence’.  A world created in a singular image.  Whiteness = humanness, or as Dyer puts it “Whites are not of a race, they are the human race”.

Here in Aotearoa, amongst the numerous ways this dominance plays out is in the distinct media colouring of crime.  In 2010 a story hit the headlines nationwide about a King’s College 16 year old that died following a binge drinking incident.  It was one of a string of similar fatalities that had been covered in the media over the previous 12 months.  Described in television coverage as ‘a poster boy for a fit and sports-mad 16-year-old’, the New Zealand Herald began its story “It was a typical teenage white lie – he was going to study with a friend”.  A white lie – white denoting a lesser form of untruth.  James Webster gets to become ‘typical’ in other words ‘quintessential’, one of ‘us’, a true New Zealand teen.  Note the photo of a much younger Webster – a sympathetic selection of imagery to accompany the story.

Yet another Herald story covering the boy’s funeral used the headline “College pays tribute to lost student”.  Here he is a student, not a lout, a tagger, a troubled youth – a student, and he hasn’t died as the result of untruths and excessive under-age alcohol consumption, but is ‘lost’. In general media coverage of this story highlighted the role of problematic teen drinking and type of drinking as the real reason behind the sad death. In other words, the public are asked to look at themselves, ‘our’ attitude toward binge drinking as New Zealanders, and the problem of teen drinking on the  whole.  To see themselves in this boy, and this boy in themselves.  I am sceptical as to whether, if this had been a brown youth from South Auckland dead from drinking, a similar connection would be invited.  I am reminded of Elaine Brown’s passionate prose on Little B – a 13 year old African American ‘super predator’ who was tried as an adult and jailed for life, as a prime example of the singling out of brown/black children in ways not apparent for white youth.  She compared Little B with Kip Kinkel – a white American boy who killed his parents and shot up his school.  In the aftermath media focussed turned to questioning the nation – was there teenage anxst in America?  Newsweek ran a story entitled ‘When teens fall apart’ – again, the invitation.  Kip Kinkel is emblematic of broader social problems; black/brown children are singularly and inherently bad.

The effects of the domination of Whiteness are far reaching, as a future post hopes to cover.  If they are to be addressed, then seeing Whiteness is imperative.  As Hone Kaa so insight-fully put it at Waitangi in 2006 “It’s good that you Pākehā are who you are, and it’s important that you know who you are…but you need to understand how you are who you are – and how powerfully you are who you are.”  I’ve been to a number of diversity/treaty hui which begin with the words “this is not about making” or “there is no point in” or “we don’t want Pākehā to feel guilty”.  To be clear, I don’t subscribe to this kind of reassurance.  Not that the purpose of this piece is to make anyone feel guilty.  But why the hell are people so afraid to actually FEEL anything.  My purpose, as Dyer puts it at the outset, is to end the rule of whiteness – however that might come about.  Feeling guilt or shame I would suggest may just be appropriate.  After all, if I have to carry rage in my puku (stomach) and grief in my heart as a result of the ongoing colonial process, it seems to me a fair trade.  My own experience suggests that feeling pain is a valuable if difficult journey, yet often what is unknown or unseen on the other side of (if it ever ends, or merely subsides a little) can make the journey worth taking.  I wonder whether at the level of inter-ethnic conflict, or an interpersonal one, people change when they feel the pain of their own responsibility.

♦ ◊ ♦ ◊ ♦

For another ‘non-white’ view on Whiteness – check out this blog, the writing is fabulous:

Once you begin seeing past the illusion, the mirage starts to fall. But not without pain. This is why you see people fight so hard against seeing the issue of “race” in America; why you’ll hear them yell so loud, and so senselessly. The more their reason loses ground to their frustration (Because inside they sense there is a flaw and it is one that points their way) the more crudely the attitude is displayed; the more vulgar they may become. To use the metaphor of the film, The Matrix, itself—it hurts, getting sucked out of that warm pod where you are floating, and fed your nutrients by cables and hoses. The cold air hurts, and looking for the hidden layers hurts the eye or the heart sometimes. But the effort and the pain is worth it, because once you make that decision, you feel the truth of what you see, now. And you can build yourself and your thinking into something honest, something that takes into account all types of people as worthy of the same love and same respect as if you were seeing your mother in their place, or yourself, or your child … There IS a dominant image in America, and it has been painted by the Dominant Culture. There is, messaged relentlessly, a preferred way to look, to sound, to be. There are consequences to be levied behind this evaulation. Many have suffered those worse than I. But like Che said, I feel them. If Mexicans are suffering, I feel that. If Blacks are being beaten by cops because the cops hate their color, I rage at that, it affects me. If a man is belittled across the street by a person in the room in which I sit, that pisses me off and I will say so.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael #

    Everybody knows just how vulnerable Pakeha are to our emotions. Isn’t it to these finer sentiments that we dedicate all of that over-exposure? How ironic that after we broadcast to you all of these testimonies to the nobility and complexity of our feelings (*) that we then demand that you spare us the discomfort of two of the fundamentals: guilt; shame. Those emotions, like cooking, cleaning and carrying, take work. You see for yourself our attitude to such things. These are contracts to be outsourced.

    The title ‘Pakeha’ was given, a gift free of the politics of whiteness. Look at what we have done with it, leaving it and returning to it like a half-gnawed bone, unable to claim or repudiate it, unable to draw nourishment as we poison it with our own saliva and bile and phlegm. The spirit in which it is offered up to us generation after generation adulterated by our insistence that this honorific yield to whiteness.

    Whiteness, like angst and wist, doesn’t take or invite work. It is an evasion, an abandonment, a forgone conclusion. There is nothing to be taken from it except the numbers who so intransigently occupy its imaginary, and we ultimately have no intention of going anywhere. Unless that somewhere is a better paying job in Australia or Singapore.

    Ahhh – White flight, now that sounds like a solution. Why ‘catch up’ with Australia when you can catch a plane? When the stampede disappears over the horizon and the dust settles, there might be a few Pakeha left. Any power from that point will have to be borne of work.

    * is it obvious I don’t watch much tv or go to many movies?

    March 21, 2012
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Yes it is. Obvious!! Kindly remember that blog etiquette means it is not polite to write comments that are smarter than the original post ;)

      An abandonment, an evasion … much like colonisation. BTW glad to see in your description it is white people chewing on bones!! Thanks for dropping by.

      March 21, 2012
    • Rochelle Kupa #

      Did you actually read the article or is ‘Pakeha’ enlightenment/education, work that should be outsourced, by all means, come to Australia, you would right in.

      December 13, 2012
  2. mitjournal #

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, very strong and powerful….:)

    April 1, 2012
  3. KS #

    Fantastic blog! I’ve lost track of the number of times I had an “a-ha” moment while reading this and your earlier posts. Those “a-ha” moments take me back to conversations I’ve had in the past, but was never able to articulate thoughts as fluidly or as convincingly as you do.

    I note that it has been some time since your past blog post. I hope this delay is only temporary.

    I am particularly looking forward to the next installment of those things my history teacher never taught me.

    Hurry up!

    June 4, 2012
  4. j.yang #

    I think it might be more likely that whiteness on TV is more represented because you’re judging Western media from white majority countries and typing English terms into Google, and that media from white majority countries have bigger budgets and thus a global following.

    I can tell you that whites are not overrepresented anywhere in Asia, if at all. And having lived in the UK, I must say the opposite is true. It’s not uncommon to see a British TV program or commercial where half the cast isn’t white (just look at the recent Olympics opening show), a very disproportionate amount considering the UK is only roughly 10% visible minorities.

    August 1, 2012
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Thank you for your comment j.yang. However you appear to be missing the point. I am not arguing that the over-representation of whiteness in western media is the result of a concerted campaign to ‘get darky’. Fortuitously for some, such overt action is not necessary. This over-representaiton may well be based on the dominance of English language and the distribution of wealth and resources. But how did this language come to spread, and what brought about the current distribution of resources? On who’s backs (labour, theft of resources etc) have fortunes been made? It is more than happy circumstance or chance that colonial practices past and present enable the ideological domination of the ‘othered’ in western societies to continue. You may have a point on representation in Asia, though I suspect even that is in a process of change. Cheers.

      August 2, 2012
    • Rochelle Kupa #

      Except that we are not talking about Asia or Africa, and Europe is inheriting the legacy of being past colonisers, and not coping too well with that legacy.

      December 13, 2012
  5. Reblogged this on .

    February 10, 2013
  6. Jerry #

    While i do agree with almost everything you say, i feel that there can be no good from feeling guilt or shame simply for being white. How can this help things? it will only breed resentment and more racially based hate.

    I’m a white teenager and whenever i read something like this i do feel guilt and shame, my self esteem drops and my ability to have an effect on those around me is diminished. but I’m not the person you want this to happen to. its the white people who will not experience guilt or shame for the deeds of their ancestors, who have no empathy or understanding for people of other ethnicity’s who you want to…………………………wait what are you even trying to achieve?

    March 13, 2013

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