TERRA INCOGNITA: The politics of whiteness and white nationalism

It is increasingly common for people to be labeled “white” as a way to delegitimize their views, and as a kind of insult.

People protesting against racism (photo credit: REUTERS)
People protesting against racism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We need to talk about the problem with white feminism,” says a woman with dyed red hair in a recent video produced by Al-Jazeera. She highlighted examples of ostensibly “white” women who don’t “acknowledge the struggles of women of color. Want an example?” she asks. The actress Gal Gadot. The video then goes on to claim that although Gadot speaks about feminism and equality, she does so from a “white,” privileged place.
Someone pointed out that the woman presenting the video was also white. But the presenter retorted on Twitter: “Apparently I’m white. I thought my surname would be a giveaway.” Zab Mustefa, the presenter in the “white feminism” critique evidently felt that her last name, Mustefa, made her “non-white.” Yet Gadot and Mustefa look similar, so why was Gadot labeled “white” while Mustefa can’t imagine that she would also be seen as “white.”
Ashager Araro, a black Ethiopian Jewish woman, disagreed with Mustefa on Twitter. “Unlike you, I don’t have a ‘white side’ to choose to identify with – whether you realize it or not, you yourself are privileged and should not be speaking as if you understand our struggle.”
This kind of back and forth is emblematic of the politics of whiteness that has become common globally, especially on social media. It is increasingly common for people to be labeled “white” as a way to delegitimize their views, and as a kind of insult. For instance, CNN hosted a panel of American Republican women recently. Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American journalist, noted that “these operatives are typical GOP white women.” She says that “decades and decades of white American denial about racism, misogyny and bigotry in this country brought us Trump.”
Who were these “white” women? Gina Sosa was running for office, but she was also a “Cuban-American” according to her election material. Irina Villarino also appeared to be a woman of color as did Angela Vazquez, Lourdes Castillo de la Pena and Rhonda Lopez. Numerous Twitter accounts called them “white.” But why were they called “white”?
For many people in the West, and increasingly globally, navigating this “whiteness” question is important. Charlotte Clymer of the Human Rights Campaign, with 166,000 Twitter followers, points out that “while wealth is certainly an exacerbating privilege, the primary driver here is whiteness. Young white men in poverty have a degree of privilege... that young men of color do not.”
I READ through an hour’s worth of tweets about “whiteness” to get a sense of the conversation. Muqing Zhanq writes: “White people use DNA tests to stake fraudulent claims to non-white identity.” Therefore, even if a person is non-white they “are still functionally white because whiteness and non-whiteness are structural experiences.” A woman claiming to be 75% Native-American agrees and says that even though she is indigenous, she is actually white because she was “raised outside of the culture.” In another thread, a woman notes that “women of color have moments with one another completely outside of whiteness and it’s honestly healing.”
Ida Wells writes on social media that “whiteness has been and remains the sharpest tool in the arsenal of the ruling elite.” At a conference, a speaker “talks about whiteness as a bioethical problem. Medicine played a central role in the cultivation of white nationalism.”
Whiteness gets called out in many places and venues, including a taco shop in Philadelphia and a Belfast advertising campaign called “your Belfast.” A critic notes that: “white hegemony is so normalized and so deeply ingrained in our societal makeup that numerous people involved in making this video either did not notice or did not mind that there is not a single person of color.”
Woke to this conversation, many elite institutions are challenging whiteness and channeling its politics – not by becoming less white, but by just pretending to be more diverse. For instance, an art school in France that lacks minorities “digitally inserted black students into a class trip photo.” The Emile-Cohl Art School later apologized. Nancy Leong, in a column at Medium online, says institutions will showcase diversity even when they are known for discrimination. This is how our society processes the “whiteness” critique. Elite institutions remain white, but they drape themselves in a mask of diversity and even pay lip service to challenging “white privilege.”
America’s more “progressive” bastions particularly lack the diversity they talk about. The National Center for Educational Statistics found in 2015 that 42% of full-time faculty in the US were white men and 35% were white women. Pause for a second. That’s 79%. In an America where the estimated numbers who self-identify as white on the census is about 62% why are faculties at liberal institutions lacking diversity? Newsrooms in America, including in left-leaning oulets, tend to be 70-80% white, according to a recent survey at the Columbia Journalism Review.
SO WE TALK a lot about “whiteness” – but what is happening tends to be a kind of bait-and-switch in which elite, mostly white institutions talk about “racism” and “white privilege” but don’t do much to correct it. In fact, in many Western societies, it appears that minorities have more difficulty obtaining entrance to increasing insular institutions and difficulty accessing social mobility in a Western economic system that has growing wealth disparities. In many of the best paying white-collar professions, access is disproportionately granted by gatekeepers to people with family connections or who come from upper-class backgrounds. Translation: White privilege perpetuates itself, despite all the talk about “whiteness.”
Then there is the added discussion about who is really “white”, who is “white passing” and who is non-white. On the one hand, people who are white or who pass as white are easily accused of having white privilege or perpetuating “whiteness.” But it is a complex minefield because there is conflict regarding who receives white privilege and who does not.
There is an active debate regarding people who are “white passing” and this includes Jewish people and others who are of mixed heritage or appear white. For instance, an article at Babe.net describes what “passing privilege” means. Ndela Faye writes about “dealing with everyday racism as a black mom with a white-passing son.” Navigating the politics of whiteness therefore becomes an issue of who is labeled “white” and who is not.
Let’s add up what we have so far. People use “white” and “whiteness” to point out a structural issue in society and also to delegitimize the views of those considered part of the white power structure. That sometimes means one person labeling another as “white” even if they look the same. At the same time, as society talks a lot about “whiteness,” it turns out that diversity is not increasing at the highest levels, and that in order to pretend that it is, many institutions will simply create the appearance of diversity.
WE NEED to acknowledge two other aspects of the politics of whiteness. First, there is a flight from whiteness. Activists will self-define as non-white and seek to distance themselves from being white by accusing others of being white. This was clear in the Mustefa-Gadot discussion. There is an attempt to claim that people from the Middle East are “non-white” even while labeling other people from the same region as “white.” This is largely arbitrary. Someone from Edirne in Turkey with a Turkish name is no less “white” than someone from a few miles away in Greece or Bulgaria.
There is a real benefit in Western countries to being “white passing” while also being able to define oneself as a minority, because one can get the best of both worlds. This unspoken fact is rarely admitted. Musician Cat Stevens, when he became Yusuf Islam, suddenly became less white. But he is still white when it comes to privilege.
The worst of both worlds when it comes to the politics of whiteness in the West appears to be shouldered by black women, who tend to be the least represented in many sectors. A UCLA study in 2016 found that people of color were only 13% of film leads while Latinos had only 2.7% of lead roles in 2016. Of 100 films with a female lead in 2016 only several were minority women. Out of 1,352 roles, only 4% were black women.
ANOTHER GROUP that suffers in a roundabout way from the politics of whiteness is white men from working class backgrounds. This group is often derided as the stereotypical “racist,” “white nationalist” or “Trump voter.” But this group is also noted for being “left behind by multi-culturalism and globalization.” Why are they left behind? Because wealthy and connected white men still tend to dominate almost every institution in the West.
Although ostensibly these connected men suffer the critique of their “white privilege” and “whiteness,” they tend to bulldoze their way through because they secretly know that the best way to “win” the politics of whiteness is to acknowledge whiteness and then benefit from it.
Working-class white men don’t have that luxury, and they tend to be the ones derided for not “admitting privilege” or “complaining about reverse racism.” They suffer critiques of the hidden benefits of their skin color, while getting few of the benefits of their well-heeled peers. In a bizarre irony, they would benefit more by changing their name to something that sounds “less white” and then passing themselves off as minorities. The politics of whiteness would reward them for this a change in how they narrate their background.
For instance, inventing “Native-American ancestry” or claiming to be an immigrant or a religious minority is one strategy that upper-middle-class white-privileged people are increasingly using to exploit the politics of whiteness.
Who loses out in this? Actual people of color and actual immigrants, as their places in line are taken once again by those with the most privilege.
The politics of whiteness is a leitmotif of our era. It is also understood among elites to be a discussion that can largely be acknowledged and then not acted upon. That is why, despite the increasing understanding of “whiteness” and “white privilege” in the West, there has been little if any change at the top. It is also why some of the main beneficiaries of this discussion have been people who have adopted a “non-white” self-identity while still benefiting from white privilege.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman