Reflecting on the Reading Group (#DTMH): Whiteness: An Introduction by Steve Garner

Howard Johnson

I am a British born Afro-Caribbean teacher; teaching English and Sociology at GCSE and A Level. Last year my personal reading had led me to Critical Race Theory (CRT) – initially from reading Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence Of Racism – a principle advocate of CRT; which had subsequently lead to my enquires into Whiteness Studies.

Fortuitously, I was invited to the #dtmh reading group on Steve Garner’s book Whiteness: An Introduction. To my surprise, I was shocked to see that the meeting was chaired by a black academic: Dr Nathaniel Coleman. Interestingly, an attending PhD student, from mainland Europe, told me of her surprise that Dr Coleman was the first black academic she had met. I was somewhat mortified in having to reply that our experiences were far from different. This apparent coincidence was important to me, since over the years I have become much more intensely aware of, and subject to, the interconnected systems of inequity that are constantly and slavishly enacted within British institutions. Yet, I would not have imagined that this reading group would have been so stimulating. My attitude has largely been that racism was always active and permanent- and that for the most part, most people racialised as white, simply understand racism ‘as just’ prejudice – a conclusion stemming from a specific position in the racial order.

The first three meetings dealt with the introduction, whiteness as terror and whiteness as a kind of absence- and I was thinking to attend perhaps just one or two of them- go-off and read the book. But Dr Coleman’s presentation(s) of the information was always engaging; making the group a safe place in which to respond openly and hear others comment. These three chapters drew me in deeply. I had in the past read some critical discourse around whiteness as to its viability as a useful concept- I had previously thought broadly about white privilege as simply a set of actions that would reinforce racism on a day to day basis – a pattern for which I could see no end.

It was becoming clear to me that whiteness was constantly adapting, and that it had no stable meaning. From this perspective, I have learnt the ways in which it is both invisible and yet very-visible, or unmarked because of its normalisation; and at the same time heavily marked. I was very impressed how Garner drew on Dyer’s (1997) book (which I had not known about) showing that whiteness survives because, as he says ‘it appear[s] not to be there’. This was a powerful notion for me – as well as hearing personal, often anecdotal, comments from the group – which made the process so much easier to perceive; and to relate to the racial realities around me.

Another powerful area of analysis, for me, was Garner’s idea of whiteness as terror. I have always felt emotionally that some forms of new racism (Bonilla-Silva 2009) is in fact terror. It was incredibly engaging to hear comments about whiteness as terror from members of the group who came from diverse cultural backgrounds. This discussion was exceptional as Dr Coleman centred and contextualised the points and comments that were made. This session helped bring meaning and purpose to my own concerns and experiences. Garner also discussed whiteness as supremacy – deliberating on aspects of Charles Mill’s The Racial Contract – it was very interesting to connect the ways in which Mill’s framework for white supremacy included the cognitive-evaluative, somatic as well as the metaphysical. For example, I was touched by the term Mills used – ‘subpersons’ and linking that with ‘Other’ and Garner’s reference to ‘sovereign individual[s]’. In my experience there is no respite in noting racist acts or racist persons but there is often a personal unease, that I am aware of, when at institutions in which ‘sovereign individuality’ is so openly evident as part of the fabric of its make-up. This was an important point for me- and so see this aspect shared by others in reading group was uplifting.

I thoroughly enjoyed this reading group and attended every session. It has set me on a course for further academic studies and exploration. Garner’s book on whiteness is a very powerful tool which I will use as a critical lens in which to understand racism and its relational systems of subordination and oppression as sustained through the construction of whiteness. Through this reading group, I have learnt many new concepts around the whole issue of ‘race’. It has helped me to connect much of my personal reading and experiences to a key concept of whiteness.

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