01-04-2015

Reflections on the Whiteness Reading Group

Jayanthiny Kangatharan

Prior to attending the Reading Group on whiteness, led by Nathaniel Coleman, I had little to no understanding of the concept of whiteness. Although I was only available to attend three out of the ten sessions, I quickly became aware of my luck in having had the chance to attend these meetings as soon as the group discussions started.

I identified my privilege in having been with a group, if only briefly, that eloquently discussed the notion of whiteness after reading Steve Garner’s book “Whiteness: An Introduction” that helped me intellectually makes sense of some of my own life experiences as a person who is not racialised as white in our society. Listening to other people’s comments on, and observations of whiteness, helped me realise that my own experiences were actually real, and how they added to Garner’s own empirical work on how whiteness operates in British society.

The Reading Group showed me how the historic construction of whiteness is intrinsically linked with racism, and why needs to be understood with regard to other racialised identities such as blackness. The discussions evinced the fact that the era of overt and legalised racial discrimination cannot be seen as belonging to the past. Rather, whiteness illustrates how the impact of the construction of race that led to the maintenance of white hegemony can still be felt by people not racialised as white today. The study of whiteness therefore needs to be at the centre of our scholarly discussions on racism and racialisation.

The Reading Group also clarified why, from the perspective of whiteness, people who are not racialised as white, represent threats to its hegemony. Presented as posing serious risks to public safety can be made sense of when seen as part of the systematic practice of discrimination that is inherent in the concept of whiteness. The connection between whiteness and capitalism was also explored: this connection manifests itself in imperial expansion, and forms of institutional racism, and can be encountered in everyday life through poverty and the structural deprivation of non-white communities, and racialised residential segregation. Thus, racism is based upon the oppression of non-whites and their exploitation through institutions which reproduce the socioeconomic, socio-legal and physical superiority of whiteness.

Moreover, listening to the Reading Group discussions as a PhD student in Psychology, made me realise that from a psychological perspective, the creation and practice of race ultimately serves to make non-whites uncomfortable with their identity of being non-white. Consequently, this contributes to the perception that being white means being superior, and implicitly non-whites are to be considered as second-class citizens, or sub-human. Such discriminatory treatment can affect non-whites’ perception to such an extent that they will discriminate against each other on both a conscious and unconscious level. In other words, many non-whites have accepted unequal power relations with whites, and discriminatory treatment, as a normal part of their everyday life.

Such discriminatory behaviour amongst non-whites as result of their psychological oppression leads everybody in society to perpetuating racism – the notion that whiteness is superior is continually reproduced..

In addition, my attendance at the Reading Group made me aware of the links between popular manifestations of racialised inequality, such as in Hollywood, where critical films about black history are ignored, to European laws that exclude non-whites from human rights legislation, and black people dying under suspicious circumstances in police custody. The group discussions made me realise that racialised discrimination in the past as described in Garner’s book is still very much alive today, although it occurs in more subtle ways at both conscious and unconscious levels. The group has also helped me understand how the principle of divide and rule worked by categorising people through labels such as asylum seekers, travellers, black and minority ethnic people, refugees and migrants serves to control non-whites more effectively.

Thus, the Reading Group made me understand more clearly that in contemporary society non-whites can only effectively challenge exploitation and promote equality the day we genuinely embrace diversity. We must celebrate our cultural heritage, take back economic ownership over our resources, visibly share our original, individual contributions to academia and research, develop our awareness of our spiritual identity, remember our history and create our own future. Overall, I found the Reading Group incredibly enlightening and immensely useful and insightful, and I look forward to educating myself at future reading groups.

Jayanthiny Kangatharan is a PhD student in Brunel’s College of Health and Life Sciences

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