I am posting a short segment from the first chapter of my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, which was published by Duke University Press last year (https://www.dukeupress.edu/Open-to-the-Public-49485/). As the new academic year approaches, and events and workshops are being announced, I keep noticing how easily whiteness gets reproduced. Below is one example of coming up against whiteness….
What does it mean to talk about whiteness as an institutional problem or as a problem of institutions? When we describe institutions as being white, we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and create the impression of coherence. When I walk into university meetings that is just what I encounter. Sometimes I get used to it. At one conference we organize, four Black feminists arrive. They all happen to walk into the room at the same time. Yes, we do notice such arrivals. The fact that we notice such arrivals tells us more about what is already in place than it does about “who” arrives. Someone says: “it is like walking into a sea of whiteness.” This phrase comes up, and it hangs in the air. The speech act becomes an object, which gathers us around. When an arrival is noticeable, we notice what is around. I look around, and re-encounter the sea of whiteness. I had become so used to this whiteness that I had stopped noticing it.
If we get used to inhabiting whiteness (it can be a survival strategy to learn not to see it; to learn not to see how you are not reflected back by what is around), it does not mean whiteness does not still affect us. One of the pleasures of doing this research was going to policy events on equality and diversity where I did not encounter a sea of whiteness.[i] I encountered a sea of brownness. I am well aware of the dangers of what Gayatri Spivak calls – in the context of a critique of the assumption “transformativity” of global feminism – “the body count” (2000: 128, see also Alexander 2005: 135). But numbers can be affective. It can be surprising and energizing not to feel so singular. When you inhabit a “sea of brownness” as a person of colour you might realise the effort of your previous inhabitance, as the effort of not noticing what is around you. It is like how you can feel the “weight” of tiredness most acutely as the tiredness leaves you. To become conscious of how things leave you is to become conscious of those things. We might become even more aware of whiteness as wearing, when we leave the spaces of whiteness.
The labour required to leave whiteness is also worth noting: in some institutional contexts, it is hard work not to reproduce the whiteness of events. I attended a conference on sexuality in 2011 that was a very white event (this is not unusual for academic events in the UK – whiteness is the usual). So yes, I looked around the audience and encountered a “sea of whiteness.” The event was also structured around whiteness; all the plenary speakers were white. I had pointed out the problem with having all white plenary speakers to the conference organizers in advance of the event in the hope they might do something about it (but as I note in my conclusion to this book, being asked to make up numbers after an event has been advertised can be a problem: we need not to be in the position of making such points or making up the numbers in the first place). When I turned up at the event, all the plenary speakers were white (is there a still before this white? Is whiteness something that can be described as still?). I was relieved that a Black Caucus had been set up by someone in the organizing team who was an activist of colour; although at the same time, I was cautious. Did the people of colour being given a space allow the space of the event to stay white? The caucus was explicitly framed as an event for all participants of colour; and, whatever my caution, I was relieved to have the space when the time came, as it can be tiring, all that whiteness.
What happened? Who turned up? All in all, ten people came to the Black Caucus; four of whom identified themselves as white. The organizer handed out a description of the event which made explicit that the event was for people of colour. No one left after reading the description. The organizer for understandable reasons did not want to insist on anyone leaving. We sat in a circle and took turns to speak about why we had come to the event. I was very uncomfortable; hot and bothered. I had expected this time and space to be a chance to talk to other people of colour. It felt as if the one space we had been given – to take a break from whiteness – had been taken away. From the accounts offered, it was evident there were different reasons that white people had given themselves permission to turn up at a Black Caucus; being interested in questions of race; a sense of solidarity, alliance and friendship; a desire to be at a workshop rather than a traditional academic session; a belief that race didn’t matter as it shouldn’t matter. Those of us of colour tried hard – in different ways – to speak about why we wanted this event to be a person of colour event. A colleague mentions that it was interesting that a Black caucus would have forty percent white people; she used percentages, I think, because numbers can be affective. I talked about the relief of entering queer space after the fatigue of being in straight space, as a way of making an implicit analogy, as an appeal for recognition. Eventually, a white person leaves in recognition – and gives recognition – that we needed a space of relief from whiteness. A second person follows, but aggressively, saying we had made her unwelcome; forced her to leave. One by one the white people leave, each offering an account of leaving, and a different account of why they had come. When the Black caucus became itself, such joy, such relief! Such humor, such talk!
What I learned from this occasion, was the political labour that it takes to have spaces of relief from whiteness. I also realized the different ways that whiteness can be “occupying.” Although the aggressive way of leaving was the most obviously difficult to deal with, we also need to account for the more sympathetic or caring ways of leaving the space. They may help us to explore how whiteness can be occupying through or as care (what we might call simply a caring whiteness or even a sorry whiteness). I was struck how apology can be a form of permission: how apologizing for turning up at a person of colour event as a white person might be a way of giving oneself permission to turn up at a person of colour event. The struggle against the reproduction of whiteness is a struggle against these forms of permission.
Alexander, Jacqui M. (2005). Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2000). “Claiming Transformation: Travel Notes with Pictures” in Sara Ahmed, Jane Kilby, Celia Lury and Maureen McNeil (eds.), Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism, London: Routledge. pp.119-130.
[i] These events as policy events in the UK were for all public sectors, that is, they were not specific to Higher Education, where it is much harder to encounter a “sea of brownness.” I have attended some academic events that were experiencable as “seas of brownness” in the UK. They included: inaugural lectures for women of colour professors, as well as events that are specifically on race or racism, or that are addressing the work of scholars of color.
Ooops I apologize for the typo above. I just wanted to say thank you. This essay is incredibly insightful and helpful. I’m really enjoying the blog!
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