[Written by Sophia White (she/her)]
[Image Credits: Florence Bridgman (she/her)]
Content warning: Discussions of race/racism
In a world where power has historically been structured by racialisation, there is no denying that whiteness functions as the norm. Fueled by a dark history of colonial subjugation and supremacist narratives, whiteness is the system that constantly reifies expectations of privilege and perpetuates the oppression of people of colour. Coming to terms with the extent and depth of racism is inevitably painful and demoralising, but not only for people of colour. We are all victims of whiteness and we all suffer its consequences in various ways. So why, then, does whiteness persist as an ideology if it serves as a detriment to us all, driving a wedge between people and escalating tension and hate?
Interestingly enough, neither race nor ethnicity is detectable in the human genome, so it has no inherent physical or biological meaning. Racial categories emerged historically as social constructs to categorise seemingly distinct groups of people, either on the basis of shared physical or social characteristics. While race may be a social construct, it has had very real material effects on the lives of people throughout history. In the age of modern colonialism, whiteness was customarily treated as the property of personhood to justify theft and control. Whiteness appeared as the natural index of entitlement and the law accrued benefits to citizens because of their whiteness. The notion of whiteness was thus inherently constructed to exclude, and common law played a crucial role in legitimising this mindset.
Flash forward to the present, and white supremacy is still alarmingly on the rise around the world, and yet so many of the very structures that were created to privilege white people also seemingly hinder them. Take the consequences of capitalism on the white working class, for example. Struggling working-class white voters tend to repeatedly vote against their own interests, citing that issues raised by marginalised communities are not their problem. Consequently, the white working class—while still privileged over marginalised groups—also suffers under whiteness as an ideology.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois famously attributed the failure of labouring class unity to the “psychological wage” associated with being white. In the post-Civil War era, he argues that working-class Southern whites were complicit (or at least passive actors) in their own political and economic disenfranchisement. By favouring the social advantages that came with being white, they forfeited real power and material well-being. Race “drove such a wedge between white and Black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest,” Du Bois wrote.
Is this what is still happening today? Is the psychological advantage of being white more appealing to some than the potential for a united class coalition? Why are so many low-income voters determined to elect hard right, elitist politicians who are likely to cut the programs they rely on the most? Are working-class white voters working against themselves by making common cause with political causes that are fundamentally detrimental to their economic self-interest?
It is important to remember that racism fundamentally stems from a fear of the Other and a lack of understanding, which is why conservative politicians like Trump have been able to capitalise on people’s worst fears and ethnic tensions in elections. False beliefs about what will benefit voters and what will hurt them ultimately work to reinforce white supremacy. White voters’ attempts to defend their status in the racial hierarchy by opposing issues like gun control, healthcare expansion, or public school funding, for example, typically end up backfiring and harming them as well as people of colour. For example, in the case of gun control, the majority of America’s gun death victims are in fact white men, and most of them die from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. But the right to carry a gun has been coded as a white privilege and is reminiscent of colonial America, a time during which landowners would carry guns and bestow the right on to poor whites in order to quell uprisings from victims of colonisation.
Whiteness continues to orient people in specific ways, functioning as a bad habit. In order to combat such a habit, white identity needs substantive reconstruction with a new way to reframe and accept the difficult historical past. Part of white privilege has been precisely white people’s ability to ignore the ways in which white racial identity has benefitted them. Race may be a social construct lacking in biological validity, but it is real and powerful enough to alter the fundamental shape of all our lives.