Guest Post: Whiteness

A guest post by Rumblestrip:

The death of George Floyd in Minnesota has turned the spotlight yet again on the fractious topic of race relations and police brutality in the United States. With terrible regularity, we see news headlines about a person in the US (usually “black”) being killed by a police officer (usually “white”). Sometimes the victim has committed a relatively petty crime; sometimes they appear to be entirely innocent. In most cases the police seem to have used sustained, disproportionate and unreasonable force.

Floyd’s killing has flung a match into a tinderbox of simmering resentment not only in the United States but around the world.

So it was that I was walking through The Octagon late this afternoon, and observed the remnants of a protest in solidarity with those protesting in the United States. The crowd was youthful, peaceful and earnest. I was sympathetic. But I was particularly struck by a large fabric banner strung up under the statue of Robbie Burns. Starkly, it proclaimed: “Abolish Whiteness.”

I was momentarily baffled. I am “white” – if you go back a few generations my heritage is mainly Scottish – and until that moment I found myself in agreement with the protest. I stared at the banner for several seconds. A few questions occurred to me:

–          What exactly do they mean by “Abolish?”

–          By what method would they hope to see this abolition to be carried out?

–          What exactly do they mean by “Whiteness?”

I wondered if there are any circumstances, ever, where it would be acceptable to display a banner proclaiming “Banish Blackness” or perhaps “Banish Maoridom?” If such a banner would be considered a stain and embarrassment on any person hoisting it (and, to be clear, that is precisely how I would feel about it)… why is this “Abolish Whiteness” banner any different?

Let’s be charitable and assume that “abolish” is just a generic term for disapproval: “Boo to whiteness.” The question remains, what do they mean by “whiteness” and why did someone feel the need to raise a huge banner disapproving of it?

In the most slavishly literal sense whiteness refers to skin tone. If your skin is on the lighter end of the human spectrum, if you have a certain look, typically (but not entirely) associated with European ancestry, then you’re “a white”. But the people who hoisted the banner wouldn’t be happy if we just hit the tanning salon. No, what they are really referring to is the nebulous idea of “white culture.” It seems impossible to define, but make no mistake that it is a terrible thing and it is inextricably tied to the problems seen in the US.

It comes with the increasingly common, and lazy, narrative: the problem here is not racism per se, not systemically awful police training, not general militarisation of the police (although these might be side effects of it). The real problem is the “culture” inextricably tied to a race – one race.

By being born white, we have apparently been tarnished by a form of original sin — racism and bigotry might as well be branded into our flesh. (This is, to shovel on the irony, an entirely racist perspective.)

Don’t derail this narrative by mentioning well-known incidents where black U.S cops have killed innocent whites (Justine Ruszczyk) or indeed where white U.S. cops have killed innocent whites (Daniel Shaver) – just keep your focus on “whiteness bad.”

Don’t point out that on a global scale, “whites” are actually a distinct minority (about 10-12% of the world population). Don’t point out that, say, for all the shame and horror of slavery in the United States, it was hundreds of thousands of white men who gave their lives for the cause of emancipation in the US Civil War. Don’t go digging into homicide statistics from around the world to uncover some uncomfortable truths about who is killing who, and how often, these days.

No, don’t try to defend “whiteness,” whatever that means – no matter your humbleness, no matter the depth of your sorrow and sympathy and solidarity for your black brothers and sisters in humanity – if you dare to defend your racial identity as a white person you’ll risk being branded as a racist, perhaps a white supremacist, maybe even a fascist. Don’t worry – those insults are practically meaningless these days. (A shame, because there are still some real fascists and white supremacists out there, and if we throw the terms around willy-nilly we will find ourselves lost, like the boy who cried wolf, when we really need to use them accurately.)

In conclusion, at its core this banner is incoherent – a vague call for intolerance in the name of tolerance; a formlessly racist sentiment in the name of racial equality.

We desperately need a world with less hate and more understanding. The sentiments expressed in this banner are doing nothing to help.

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