‘White people need to engage, or we will never learn’: Conversations with White Edi students about race
This conversation was q-White strange
The media landscape is filled with stories on racism that focus on non-White trauma. While these stories are valid and important to tell, they also put the responsibility on marginalised communities to discuss social change.
Many well-meaning White people assume that for non-White people, being passed the mic to speak about race or injustice is the way forward. But it’s not.
Many non-White individuals (like myself) are frustrated for being called upon selectively to discuss issues related to trauma or identity, and ignored when the buzz dies down.
And there are so many issues, during the pandemic, anti-Asian racism has become horribly overt and openly hateful across the world, and we still see lots of anti-Black racism in a multitude of forms.
But ‘black square summer’ of 2020 was a LOT for Black people especially. Having masses of White people discover the weight of racism at once was overwhelming. That led to a lot of guilt-dumping from White people on the black people they knew, or White people reaching out solely to talk about racist trauma.
I want to contribute to taking some of the baggage off non-White shoulders by speaking to White people about race. We had conversations that range from (lack of) seasoning and the meaning of allyship. Here’s five conversations that contribute to the massive and complicated topic that is identity:
Carl – Third year
What three words come to mind when you think of White male identity?
“Entitled. Lack of understanding for other people’s experiences, ignorance. Privilege. Being able to do things without having to think twice. I used to go for walks at night alone. I thought nothing of it until speaking to my female friends. Awareness to other people’s issues is key. White men are the reason that we see the world as racially diverse and specific but meanwhile their identity appears devoid of meaning.”
How do you think Western knowledge maintains Whiteness as a neutral identity?
“Historically, Sweden was leading racialised eugenics research even though we don’t want to think of ourselves as the bad guys. There’s a sense of entitlement for people to feel as though we are able to create a radicalised world without being included in the system. White people misuse their power and need other people less than to feel better. Race science was used to justify slavery. I just think that it was a tool to solidify a way of treating people poorly.”
There have been Spice Wars initiated by Western powers in the past, like Britain’s invasion of Indonesia in the 1800s. If you could resurrect a spice-stealing coloniser right now, what would you say to them?
“I’d say, why would you do that? Why would you steal so many spices only to not use them? Lol.”
Izzy – Fourth year
What words come to mind when you think about Whiteness?
“It’s not spoken about much, it’s very neutral, bland, generic. Visible. Based on where I’ve lived these words come to mind. I didn’t see that there was a mismatch between my surroundings and a diverse world. I didn’t really notice the lack of representation of other ethnicities in media because where I lived was also very predominantly White.”
What do you think about White people who get offended about jokes about White people not seasoning their food and things like that?
“It’s weird for people to be offended by that. It’s ignorance, the type of people who will say reverse racism is real. And it’s not. I think it’s crazy.”
What are your views on ‘White saviourism’? I believe it perpetuates racist tropes that infantilise and dehumanise non-Western communities.
“It really puts the West on a pedestal by painting the rest of the world as hopeless. My school organised those mission trips yearly and a lot of people I know did it. Most of them did it to put it on their CV as volunteering. They probably didn’t see the negative side, just thinking it’ll make them look good.
“If I scroll on people’s Instagrams, voluntourism pictures come up. At my school it was called Them Kenya trip, one year it got cancelled because of a disease – shows the conditional nature of the help.
“All the kids were outside crying at the news that it was cancelled – literally only because their holiday was being cancelled not even the service of it. Grown adults should be aware of these issues. The people I know that went on the trips did think it was a good thing they were doing, they didn’t see the harm, and neither did I at the time. But I do think that the adults that organised the trip should have been more aware of the more complex issues.”
What do you think about the tension between Whiteness and social justice?
“People will tell me that White people posting about BLM/ social justice is a tactic to make themselves look better as a cop-out. A lot of racism is about being defensive. White people will deny being racist before you say anything directly. But the truth is that allyship is uncomfortable, not defensive.
“People are so afraid of being called out or corrected on talking about race that they don’t do anything. I think that’s unhelpful, white people need to get over their fear of being called racist and actually engage with these issues, or we will never learn.”
Anna – Fourth year
Did your parents ever have a conversation with you about racial inequality growing up? If so what did it look like?
“My parents are both left-wing and see themselves as liberal, and they taught me universal values about being kind and respectful. But they didn’t speak to me at length about people that look different to me. They didn’t really sit down and talk to me about race growing up but after George Floyd they’ve started to educate themselves.”
Do you think there are limits to the British national curriculum?
“The only Black history was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This is a classic part to include and it perpetuated the idea of dehumanisation of black people being all there is to know about the community. Most of the history was about the world wars, stuff about the suffragettes.
“There weren’t many black people in my year and those that were were constantly reminded of it. At house parties the N word was often thrown around which was alienating and offensive to the black people there. But these social issues were always underplayed and it’s linked to those curriculum gaps.”
How do you think the curriculum paints Whiteness?
“Whiteness is portrayed as normal, expected, it’s not challenged, it just is what it is. All the people we’re taught to idolise are white eg. Robert the Bruce. We don’t learn about British colonialism, it’s glossed over. Whiteness isn’t challenged – people try to act like anti-racism is a personal attack.
“Or you see now post-George Floyd, some people think their relationships with non-White people always have to be focused on racial trauma. They overload them with all the racist things like what their family members have said to.”
Would you agree that White denials of racism are a means of avoiding accountability?
“I’d say, just because you can exist in the world without having your identity challenged, you have. I think it’s avoiding accountability, they don’t want to look bad and have uncomfortable situations. It’s difficult as a White person to talk about it, to challenge the things ingrained within you. Like Munroe Bergdorf said, all White people are racist and it’s because of the condition of this radicalised system we’re all under.”
Zofia- Second year
Race isn’t real, racism is. Do you agree with this statement?
“Race means there are differences, but racism is what makes those differences have meaning – usually negative. I don’t agree with the statement, especially when you think of the link between race and social experience. I grew up in South Africa and its impossible to avoid acknowledging race in that sort of environment. Apartheid only ended recently. It’s important to consider the experience of race.”
“Eugenics is a racial science inspired by genetics, which centres itself on selective human breeding. Our uni alumnus Graham Bell supported eugenics. Do you know much about race science and eugenics and how that has constructed racism today?
“I didn’t know much about it before, but I think it was developed in America but also very prominent in the UK, particularly in academic institutions. It seems as though historically issues of racism are exported to America, British institutions attempt to wash their hands of it.”
Do you think many White people’s awareness of racism is often limited to abstract, personal education and doesn’t extend into action? For instance, people will read anti-racist books but not engage with their racist family members and call it out.
“I think it’s pretty true that awareness is often limited to an abstract, personal pursuit. You’re told from a young age that being racist is bad but you’re not told what it is, how its constructed and how it affects people. I’ve seen ‘educated’ White people tolerate racist statements and sweep it under the rug to save being popular.
“A lot of people want to validate themselves and relieve their guilt, they read these books. Another big thing I’ve noticed is that people public condemn and deny contributing to anti-black racism but will say problematic things about brown, asian or other non-white marginalised groups.”
How do you think stereotypes about White people work?
“Many stereotypes that surround Whiteness correlate with nationalities. People make generalisations about white people often based on where they are from nationally like whether they are Italian, British or French. But these stereotypes are usually harmless.”
Amelia – Second year
‘Being an ally is about more than telling your non-white friend what your racist uncle said at Christmas dinner’. Do you agree and what do you think it says about the limits of common notions of allyship?
“I think the statement reflects the opposite of what allyship should be. I mean pointing out racist stuff and dumping it on non-White people is part of the problem! It is not the role of oppressed people to fix oppression which means an ally has to be aware of their privilege.”
What are three stereotypes about white women?
“There’s a strong notion of White women as being passive, fragile and gentle. There’s this false sense that White women can’t do anything wrong which lets a lot of harm go unacknowledged.”
Do you agree that the ‘Karen’ meme is about the structures that generally allow White women to cause harm rather than demonizing white women individually?
“Yes. On one hand, it shows abuse of power but on the other hand, at face value, it can reduce it to a joke, a caricature. But when you take a step back it’s a lot more than a meme. Audre Lorde talks about White women being one of the most dangerous tools of White supremacy in their ability to appear passive and non-threatening.”
“My mum lived in rural, country Australia and I went to an international school in London so there are realities she hasn’t experienced first hand. Both of my parents are pretty open to conversations and I find myself having to educate them on things like the touching of black people’s hair. Last year my dad came with me to the Black Lives Matter protests in London. We have challenging conversations and I’m not perfect but I try to educate them where I can.”
Generally, all these conversations prove that talking about whiteness is super awkward, confusing and frustratingly unresolvable. It also shows how Whiteness requires the contrast of non-White exoticness to maintain its constructed neutrality and sense of being the default identity.
“One interesting thing I never thought about is how Whiteness is categorised according to nationalities and the cultural meanings attached to them. I was q-White surprised to learn more about the ambiguity that places White people at the top of the global caste system of racial privilege.
To me, Whiteness had seemed to be an ominous, blob containing those with pale skin who happen to be European. As I’ve learned more, I’ve come to realise that the categories of race are so subjective that the idea of a White ethnicity is never something that will be stable.
We need to learn from the past, and have the courage to accept that others face realities we may never truly understand. I’m not anxiously wringing my hands, wondering why the world is hostile to non-White people. I won’t waste time begging the Lord for sweet salvation and acceptance in the eyes of White people.
I have the understanding that the responsibility should not lie with non-White people to unpack their low-caste status in this global order. Yes racism exists. Yes non-White people are forced to deal with it. But what I want to know, is what are White people going to do about it?
Discussions like these are only a humble starting point to unveil the invisible power that Whiteness holds. My interviewees’ difficulty in describing the essence of the identity they belong to, exposes race as unstable and vague.
Ultimately, White invisibility exposes this global process of racial categorisation to have been a subjective scam all along. And ladies and gentlemen, that is why specific meanings behind White, remain out of sight.