Check your whiteness

Trigger warning: Whiteness is discussed in this article. May cause an emotional response.

This article was written on the stolen land of the Jagera, Yugara, Yugarapul, and Turrbal Nations. Sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to elders, past, present, and emerging – their wisdom has deeply informed my politics and organising. I’d also like to acknowledge the conversations I’ve had with Quinn Thomson, Shelley Cheng, Anna Carlson, Adam Sharah, and Natalie Osborne, without whom this article would not have been possible.

“There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just. We have to hesitate, to temper the strength of our tendencies with doubt; to waver when we are sure, or even because we are sure [my emphasis]. A feminist movement that proceeds with too much confidence has cost us too much already.” Sara Ahmed

“Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful.” Austin Channing Brown

The left has a whiteness problem. We need to have a frank discussion about how whiteness operates, how whiteness protects itself, and how whiteness limits the revolutionary potential of our projects and politics. While whiteness is something that the broader left must deal with, it is also something that has emerged in the early days of Flood Media. This article is an attempt to have some of these difficult conversations and I hope it will go some way in helping make whiteness visible and contribute to its decentring.

In Talkin’ up to the white woman, Aileen Moreton-Robinson uses “the concept ‘subject position’ to denote a socially constructed position whereby one’s behaviour is significantly shaped by what is expected of that position rather than by conscious intention.” The subject position you speak from has nothing to do with identity, it refers to how your body is racialised and sexualised, and how these markers make you “known”. For example I am “known” to be a white man because my genitals mean I was assigned male at birth and my Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, Scottish, and Irish heritage means that I have pale olive – “white” – skin, and as Moreton-Robinson explains, “skin colour is the marker for objectifying difference in the social construction of ‘race.’” I don’t identify as white but my body is marked as white. Despite not being trans, I don’t really identify as male either but even when I wear a dress, people mark me as a man and use he/him pronouns. To say I speak from the white male subject position does not mean I am claiming a white male identity, but rather represents my understanding of the structural position I involuntarily occupy and wield.

The subject position we speak from affects what we say, which means that two people can say much the same thing but have it convey something quite different. As Walter Mignolo explains in The Darker side of Modernity, we can no longer assume “that rational and universal truths are independent of who presents them, to whom they are addressed, and why they have been advanced in the first place.” For example you might be a white person who wants to advance an anti-racist agenda and decide to call out Kanye West for his recent anti-black remarks. Before you did so it would be worth recalling that you are a white person calling out a black person and as Ijeoma Oluo explains: “There are people who will love to see you tear down Kanye, not because what he’s saying is absolute trash, but because he’s a black man. There are plenty of people who will love your comments about Kanye, not because they address Kanye’s absolute dedication to selfishness and ignorance, but because they feel the same way about all black people.” Even though you thought you were calling out anti-blackness, because of the structural position you speak from, what you said might get lost, and all some people will see is a white person hating on a black person. This is a structural phenomenon that has nothing to do with your identity or intentions. As a white person, sometimes there are things you should just stay out of because no matter what you say, by the very act of speaking, you end up reinforcing the status quo.

None of this is to say that any particular subject position – which are not necessarily internally consistent – has any greater claim to truth or objectivity than any other. Acknowledging the subject position we speak from is an acknowledgement that our perspective is always situated and partial. But it is also more than this, it is – as Mignolo argues – an acknowledgement of our “situatedness within the colonial matrix of power, and where you are located within the epistemic [theory of knowledge] and ontological [theory of being] racial coordinates of imperial knowledge.” Our material bodies are how we experience the material world, but our bodies are also marked by discourse, dictate how we participate in discourse, shape what we can say, and impact how what we say is heard (if it is heard at all). Being cognizant of these factors outside our control, we might decide to do away with all claims to objectivity; to put objectivity in parenthesis such that all perspectives become equally valid. As Mignolo explains, “objectivity without parenthesis leads to an epistemology of management, on the one hand, and of obedience on the other…Objectivity in parenthesis, on the other hand, opens up the doors for true inter-epistemic (and intercultural) dialogues.” While no one person – or group of people – can ever access Objectivity or Truth, dialogue with objectivity in parenthesis between people from a wide variety of different subject positions might just be the best we’ve got.

Many white people – leftists included – forget or ignore that they speak from a structural subject position, that their bodies are raced, and that the “race issue” is something that affects everyone and everything. White people have the luxury of being able to forget or ignore their race because, as Moreton-Robinson explains, “Whiteness remains the invisible omnipresent norm.” It might be obvious that this inability to see whiteness as a race might be anathema to anti-racist and anti-white supremacist struggles. What might be less obvious (to white people especially) is that whiteness and race is a fundamental enabling factor in global capitalism and the sidelining of race actually works to derail anti-capitalist agendas as well. As Maria Lugones explains: “The invention of race is a pivotal turn as it replaces the relations of superiority and inferiority established through domination…in biological terms.…It makes conceptual room for the centrality of the classification of the world’s population in terms of races in the understanding of global capitalism.” Expanding on this, Moreton-Robinson writes in her new book, The White Possessive, how “from the sixteenth century onward race and gender divided humans into three categories: owning property, becoming propertyless, and being property.” It is impossible to separate white supremacy from capitalism.

Everyone’s experience of capitalism is racialised and gendered because everyone’s body is racialised and gendered. However if we see race and gender as only affecting some people, we might make the mistake of assuming there is some sort of “fundamental capitalism” which we all experience but that because of their identities some people experience a distorted capitalism that is racialised and/or gendered. It is impossible to grasp how capitalism works without understanding the enabling work done by white supremacy and patriarchy. As bell hooks explains in an interview: “I began to use the phrase in my work ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination [my emphasis] that define our reality and…[that] all of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives [my emphasis].” This point of simultaneous functioning must be stressed. As hooks explains in another interview: “Significantly, this phrase has always moved me because it doesn’t value one system over another…Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.” As such, whenever anyone singles out capitalism or economic oppression for special mention (unless they provide a strong supporting argument), I start to worry they have a limited understanding of the material conditions that shape our lives.

This understanding of subject positions and the simultaneous functioning of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy might help us understand why Max Chandler-Mather’s piece A New Left Future: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – which was published by Flood last week – received a stinging critique that claimed it misrepresented Ocasio-Cortez’s views and came from a place of white supremacy. My intention here is not to provide a full analysis of Chandler-Mather’s article, but rather to consider why the article might have been received as it was. I’ll also provide some tips so that the Flood editorial team – which I am part of – as well as white people more generally, can respond to critique better in the future.

Chandler-Mather quotes an interview with Ocasio-Cortez: “This idea of, like, race or class is a false choice. Even if you wanted to separate those two things, you can’t separate the two, they are intrinsically and inextricably tied.” From this we can see that Ocasio-Cortez comes from a position similar to those espoused by hooks, Moreton-Robinson, and Lugones (it’s worth noting that while these academics provided the intellectual vocabularies to make sense of interlocking webs of oppression, they didn’t create the idea – which I imagine would be quite apparent to people who live at the intersections of multiple oppressions). Ocasio-Cortez makes it clear that you can’t separate race from class because both function simultaneously and shape all of our experiences – not just the experiences of people racialised as not white. Despite including this quote, Chandler-Mather claims that:

"Ocasio-Cortez’s politics is, in my view, far more than a basic form of intersectionality. It understands that the primary experience of poor African-American and Latinx people is one of structural economic inequality - that the history of capitalism in America is racialized and gendered - but that this experience of a common set of material conditions unites people across racial and gendered lines."

In referring to the “primary experience” of poor African-American and Latinx people, Chandler-Mather has done exactly what Ocasio-Cortez explicitly said you couldn’t do and separated race from class. While racial oppression can be materially experienced as economic oppression, to speak of it only as economic oppression makes invisible (whitewashes) the racialised aspect of said oppression and oversimplifies the complex interlocking systems of oppression that shape our worlds.

To me this is a clear misrepresentation of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform and analysis of the world. What makes this worse and potentially explaining why the piece was labelled as coming from a position of white supremacy, Chandler-Mather occupies and deploys the white male subject position while Ocasio-Cortez occupies the subject position of woman of colour. It’s worth noting that while Chandler-Mather doesn’t explicitly acknowledge his standpoint, as Moreton-Robinson explains, “the standpoint of each and every academic is embedded in their texts.” Because of the subject positions the two parties occupy, what might have just been a case of misrepresentation becomes a case of a white man knowing what a woman of colour meant to say better than the woman of colour knew herself. While it is unlikely that this is what Chandler-Mather intended, his intentions in this case are actually irrelevant.

As explained above, my intention is not to fully analyse Chandler-Mather’s article. Nor do I wish to provide a counter analysis of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. The reason for this – and potentially further explaining the trap Chandler-Mather fell into – is neatly captured in an exchange between Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer on the podcast Pod Save America:

“I think everyone has tried to draw national lessons from this and it’s too early to know anything.” The second presenter then sarcastically replies: “Do you mean to say people irresponsibly drew huge national conclusions from one race? (laughter) And did those conclusions match these people’s specific political and policy preferences? (laughter) On all sides? (laughter) Here’s what happened, the better candidate won.”

Unfortunately Chandler-Mather’s response was underwhelming. Rather than taking the critique in his stride and taking a moment to reflect on why the critique might have been levelled, Chandler-Mather immediately launched into a Facebook comment debate with the critiquer. While we must be confident in our convictions, as the Ahmed quote I begun the article with states, we should also “temper the strength of our tendencies with doubt.” There is every chance we might be wrong; there might be some angle we hadn’t seen – especially when the person critiquing speaks from a different subject position than we do. Sadly, as workplace diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo explains, giving white people feedback that they might be racist rarely goes well:

“In my workshops, I often ask people of color, ‘How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?’ Eye rolling, head shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever. I then ask, ‘What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?’ Recently, a man of color sighed and said, ‘It would be revolutionary.’”

Our world is racist and we are all – black or white – socialised by this racist world. This means that we have to actively work to rid ourselves of this socialisation. As Eric Ritskes writes: “Decolonization is a goal but it is not an endpoint” and “the struggle for decolonization is a journey that is never finished.” So while we must take responsibility for our actions and work towards decolonization, critique should not be understood as proof of some deep irredeemable racism, it’s simply part of the journey. Saying something racist doesn’t make you fundamentally racist, it just means there’s room for more reflection. We should listen to critique and try to actually hear what is said. We should be humble and try very hard to understand why our work has been critiqued.

We have no right to dismiss critique just because it might come from a place of anger or is couched in language that comes across as inflammatory. Yes we should try and be gentle when we critique each other but sometimes this is just not possible. People of colour are forced to survive in a world that wants them dead. They have to deal with racist microaggressions on a daily basis without losing their cool, so cut them a little slack if they snap and don’t use perfect language when calling attention to racism. As Sara Ahmed explains: “Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with.” So rather than engaging in liberal respectability politics and tone policing people, we should instead recognise that that moment of snap is actually a form of revolt and treat it as such.

Often when white people get defensive after being called out, they say they had every good intention, and that the person was just not reading them generously enough. Well, if you want people to read you generously then give others the same benefit of the doubt and read them generously; try and see their good intentions no matter the language used. People of colour have to deal with racism day in and day out and I can only imagine the amount of emotional labour – described by Anya Bayerle as “the work required to manage one’s feelings or maintain social relationships in everyday life” – this must take. Calling out racism takes a lot of strength and courage and is another form of labour. So maybe actually thank the person for having the strength to raise the issue with your work. If you don’t immediately see the problem then take the critique on notice, do your own research, and once you’ve had the time to reflect on the critique come back and engage with the critiquer. If you are interested in class solidarity across racial lines then show it by taking on some of the labour of dealing with racism rather than leaving it to – or pushing it back on – people of colour.

It's certainly very uncomfortable to have your work called racist but any hurt you feel is nothing on the violence of racism. Placing yourself as the victim of a person of colour is a trope that works to recentre whiteness and prevents any learnings to be had. As Anastacia Kanjere explains, “Through an imagining of great vulnerability, whiteness is able to avoid the content of even the gentlest critiques by focusing only on the hurt that such a critique entails.” This victim narrative is similar to another tactic which is often employed by white women to much the same effect, white tears. As Ruby Hamas explains, white tears is “the tactic many white women employ to muster sympathy and avoid accountability, by turning the tables and accusing their accuser.” While these tropes are often labelled white fragility, their effects are anything but fragile. White fragility is a powerful tactic that can be deployed by white people to avoid doing the labour of dealing with racism and uncomfortable critique.

While white people certainly receive undeserved privileges due to our whiteness, whiteness actually works against the best interests of most white people because it prevents the possibility for unity across racial lines against the common enemy of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Chandler-Mather speaks of this potential unity, but ultimately undermines it because he seems to simply expect people of colour to get on board with his version of unity, without also making clear that white people will have to perform labour to make these spaces inviting to people of colour. You can’t just expect people of colour to get on board with a project because we need unity to break the status quo. Everyone knows we need unity. There is a reason many women aren’t drawn to male dominated spaces and why many people of colour aren’t drawn to white spaces. These reasons need to be addressed. Whiteness needs to be decentred before unity can be expected, and it’s on the white people who currently dominate those spaces to do the labour required to help make those spaces accessible, appealing, and useful/valuable to people of colour. It’s time for some redistribution of emotional labour. As Moreton-Robinson explains: “it matters who has the power to dominate; if one wants to work at minimising the oppression of others from a subject position of white privilege, one has to alter one’s behaviour and attitude.”