Whiteness: an introduction – Steve Garner Chapter 9 – Racial purity, integration and the idea of home
Why does my voice self-consciously hush when I say “white”? And why do I struggle to identify as a person “of colour”? When I say “white”, I simultaneously point out my own non-whiteness. Whiteness is visible only when contrasted with non-whiteness, and so “colour” is visible only when contrasted with “white”. In the construction of race, not being white comes at a considerable cost. What is the cost of being “of colour” and why do I try to shrink myself when my colour is brought into focus by whiteness? When non-white people in the UK grow up enveloped by institutional white supremacy, we learn to fear being Othered under a white gaze. When I am Othered I cannot perceive myself in my surroundings, and instead sense a murky, translucent superiority that I can neither see nor emulate in order to be one of “us” instead of one of “them”. I am Othered as an unsightly obstruction; an eyesore in the middle of green, rolling, English countryside; a threat to the quality of life in my surroundings. There is a significant discomfort that Garner explores in this chapter – culture as race in the UK, obscuring whiteness and making it difficult to pinpoint.
If you can trace the migration of your ancestry from the past to the present, where is your home? Is it where you started or where you are now? If you started elsewhere, can you keep any of the comforts, ways and rituals of where you started or must you dilute or conceal them or – more extreme still – eradicate them from your life entirely? Is your “home” phenotypically determined – that is, can we tell where someone supposedly belongs just by looking at them? Much of the popular rhetoric around human migration in the UK would lead us to believe that where we belong is determined by our “culture” (i.e. our race), and that where we belong (or deserve to be) is of utmost importance in deciding who can access citizenship and – more importantly – who cannot. Under the construct of whiteness, non-white people can be tolerated (i.e. they can become citizens) if their culture is inconspicuous, invisible and ever-shrinking all at once – “[we] can be on the British side of the dividing line if [we] adhere to a code of not trying to ‘be different’”. For those who already look ‘different’ (read: not white), the cost of following non-white cultural practices is marginalisation. Showing interest in and respect for our own ancestry is a threat to real British culture. We are told, for example, that the spread of non-white cultures catalyses the much feared (and seemingly unsubstantiated) demise of Christmas that Garner outlines in this chapter. The three ‘takes on integration’ from Jack, Denise and Bill could have been transcribed from conversations I have had myself with white English people about race and integration. Emulating and showing unfaltering loyalty to whiteness is the goal of integration in these examples – waving the English flag, and abstaining from unreasonableness (read: cultural practices racialised as other-than-white). Though in the UK we are hardly taught explicitly about race at all, race impacts our relationships with our surroundings and the people in them in varying and complex ways that can be difficult to navigate.
Having been taught so called ‘colourblind’ readings of social science subjects at school and university, reading an analysis of race and whiteness that speaks to my own experiences is truly illuminating. My professional field is education. Reading chapters like this helps to address my own dissonance between what I was taught (or not taught) at school and university about race and what I understand from experience of living in the UK day to day as a “mixed race” person. To read an analysis like Garner’s is to imagine pedagogy that equips us with the conceptual tools to debunk whiteness and understand it as contingent on racial hierarchy and the racialisation of non-white bodies. To answer the question posed above, my voice hushes when I say “white” because I was never taught to name whiteness in formal education – it has loomed over me – an invisible, discomforting force. But it is only recently that I have been able to name it and develop an understanding of the coded language for race in the UK that names incompatible “cultures” instead. Naming whiteness and applying an analysis of it to our very own surroundings, as Garner has done for me in this chapter, challenges our internalisation of racism, gives us space to talk about our lived realities of racism and helps us to mitigate the harm enacted on us by white supremacy.