It was an unnerving but useful lesson: to speak about whiteness when whiteness is surrounding you is to come up against what you speak about. I should know this by now, I know, but each time I encounter this problem, it comes up in a different way. I hope never not to learn from this, even if I do not hope for this!
I think I need to keep writing about institutional whiteness: I still don’t think I have quite described how we can experience whiteness in or as a sense of being surrounded.
In On Being Included I described whiteness both as surround and as around:
Researching diversity involved me in lots of conversations about whiteness as a kind of surround, or just as what is around. You can feel estranged from an around. In an informal conversation, one practitioner talked about her sense of alienation from her college. She talked about the experience of being surrounded by whiteness: ‘It’s not just the people here now. They even name the buildings after dead VCs.’ Acts of naming, of giving buildings names, can even keep a certain history alive: in the surroundings you are surrounded by who was there before.
To begin noticing whiteness is to notice this surrounding: you become aware of how histories of whiteness are preserved or carried forward in the present. To become a stranger is to be estranged from that whiteness, and to register its weight as oppression. One might think with Marilyn Frye here. Frye reminds us that there is a ‘press’ in ‘oppression.’ She notes:
the root of the word ‘oppression’ is the element ‘press.’ The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce’ (1983: 54).
To feel whiteness as oppressive is to be shaped by what you keep coming into contact with in such a way that you are restricted. I am speaking, here, of non-white people who inhabit white spaces, spaces that have become white through who as well as how bodies gather. This is how a ‘not’ can be so tight (we might think a ‘not’ is quite roomy!). You might experience yourself becoming tighter in response to a world that does not accommodate you. You have less room. Sometimes a world can be so tight that it is hard to breath. In my previous blog on depletion, I suggested that diversity work involves the effort to create spaces that can be experienced as breathing spaces.
I have been thinking more and more about my own experiences growing up, surrounded by whiteness: whiteness was at home, on the street, at schools, in books, as teachers. I was never not taught by a white person. Not once! I only ‘registered’ this fact fairly recently. I was schooled in whiteness.
Why do I say being surrounded by whiteness at home? After all I was at home, and I was not white because my father was not white. I first explored this question in the third chapter of Queer Phenomenology, ‘The Orient and Other Others.’ I noted then how as a daughter of a white English mother and brown Pakistani father, as someone who was born in England, and who lived in a white neighbourhood in a city in Australia from the age of four, whiteness was ‘at home,’ even if I did not ‘own’ it. We could say that whiteness was part of my background, and not just in the background. I wrote:
So yes, whiteness was around me, in the neighbourhood in which I lived, but it also pointed to an “elsewhere,” to the “there” that was England. England was certainly within my horizon, and it was there, insofar as I did not live there. Objects pointed me towards there. My mother’s body was a proximate whiteness, and her proximity meant other objects were available: the Christmas cards from England with white snow; English names and friends; the body memories of cold white days, the grandparents, aunt, and cousins with their white faces and red hair. What objects gather, in our homes. We should take care to remember how such objects arrive. Whiteness is not in these objects, as a form of positive residence; but is an effect of how they gather, to create an edge or even a wall, ‘in’ which we dwell. For me, if the things that gathered were ‘around’ whiteness, then they also pointed me to England, to somewhere that I did not quite inhabit, a point beyond my dwelling, and yet also a point within that dwelling. Objects have their own horizons: worlds from which they emerge, and which surround them. The horizon is about how objects surface; how they emerge, which shapes their surface and the direction they face, or what direction we face, when we face them. So if we follow such objects, we enter different worlds.
It was interesting going back to this chapter in thinking about whiteness as surrounding as well as around. I had forgotten that ‘this’ had been part of my own picture back then! And I also spoke too then of how your own body can be an object amongst other objects that disturbs the picture:
Comments made about ‘our complexion;’ letters that described unknown cousins whose names became familiar; visits to Pakistan that open up new worlds, new tastes, and sounds and sensations on the skin; the excitement of the arrival of my Aunt from Islamabad, who they said I was so ‘alike;’ all these experiences of being at home and away were lived, at least sometimes, as wrinkles in the whiteness of the objects that gathered. They gathered, but did not always gather us around. It is not that the disturbances meant that things no longer had their place; it is just that the objects did not stay still, as they came into contact with other objects, whose ‘color’ created different impressions.
Perhaps what I am getting at now is this: to be surrounding by whiteness can be to feel the cause of your own disturbance.
To feel surrounded by whiteness is thus also to feel on perpetual guard; it can be a paranoid feeling, a feeling of being watched, of standing out and standing apart. You have to be careful. Carefulness has always interested me as a relation of persons to things: how when I am trying to be careful about something whose persistence matters I tend to become anxious, thus more likely to cause the breakage I fear. I know now to be more cautious about this sense of oneself as cause. But just note how carefulness can mean being too full of care, a ‘too-ness’ that means caring can be a way of slipping up.
And maybe that is how whiteness becomes so anxious for those who are not white, who inhabit this ‘not.’ We become too full of care; for we are afraid if there is a breakage, we will be judged as ‘behind’ it (Willful Subjects is at one level a book about who gets judged as the cause of a breakage – of broken relationships and worlds as well as broken things). We become aware of our own bodies as things that seem to get in the way. The more we try the more we seem to slip up.
Perhaps we need to claim our disturbance as part of a political cause. Just a part, not the start.
Frye, Marilyn (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.