Updated: Mar 14, 2019
WHITE SAVIOUR VS WHITE ALLY, WHITE SUPREMACY AND CAUCASIAN
Not naming whiteness spreads the ideology of colour-blindness that places racism as a marginal issue that only “bad” people create. Colour-blindness can become paralysing for white people who then struggle to cope with accusations of racism that they have unintentionally perpetuated.
This is where we need to steer away from the neoliberal glorification of individualism, by which a person is either “good” or “bad” and their value in society is entirely up to their free will and individual decisions. Such a binary lens is far too simplistic as it concludes that being racist means being bad and being anti-racist means being good. It completely ignores the fact that we are all socialised in a racialised world and that we are bound to be impacted by the colour of our skin and what society has implicitly taught us about race. Each of us has unwittingly inherited race and this has benefitted some and disadvantaged others. I find myself repeating this over and over again: racism is not just a matter of good and bad people.
The fear of being white tells us a lot about the neoliberal psyche – the desire to be perceived as virtuous and benevolent, a white saviour always there to denounce the “bad” racist, the overt white supremacists. Such reasoning ignores the fact that we live in a white supremacy, in the systemic sense of the term. As a political ideology, white supremacy is the belief that white people are superior and should dominate other races. Such an ideology underpins the colonisation and exploitation undertaken throughout Britain’s dark history. However, as a system, white supremacy is a lot more pervasive in this day and age than many would think. According to Ellinger and Martinas, white supremacy is:
“a historically-based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of establishing, maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.”
Therefore, you don’t need to believe in white supremacy (as a commonly labelled “white supremacist” would) to benefit from the system of white supremacy. Today, white supremacy is a lot more subtle and covert than it was in the past – it is essentially a system of privilege that allows white privilege to happen. You don’t need to be brandishing swastikas, white hoods and burning crosses; you don’t need to openly endorse its ideology to benefit from white supremacy. Bhopal’s recent research on white privilege in the UK helps us understand that, as a system of privilege, white supremacy is prevalent; those classified as “white” benefit from it and those classified as "other" are harmed by it. This system of privilege ties in closely to institutional racism that tends to prioritise white people over people of colour. Such double standards can be seen in the coverage of Shamima Begum and her child passing away (reduced to an "IS bride baby"), as well as in the treatment of black lives in Scotland with the on-going justice campaign for Sheku Bayoh.
Sure, we need people to denounce overt acts of racism, with the likes of the Football Lads Alliance attempting to take over the streets in Scotland. But if these battles are limited to superficial (albeit harmful) racism, with a refusal to honestly explore one's own complicity in white supremacy, isn’t it nothing more than just a performance? After all, there is a very fine line between white saviour and white ally. A white saviour is a person more interested in promoting themselves and being perceived as selfless and benevolent, without questioning their place of privilege and power. David Lammy rightfully pointed out such a dynamic in Stacey Dooley’s charity work and Seth Meyers illustrates the white saviour complex effectively in his parody. In contrast, a white ally is a person genuinely committed to helping others and willing to deal with their own guilt and discomfort in the process of grappling with their privilege and power.
So, if some white people are afraid of “being white,” then we need to question their self-interest in being anti-racist. Is it merely a question of self-image and performance, as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan asserts? People of colour are constantly forced to debunk racist narratives and create new alternative narratives for themselves; shouldn’t white people also start creating alternative narratives of whiteness by popularising a new type of white people in Scotland: racially-conscious white people?
Racially-conscious white people who aren’t afraid of honestly acknowledging their whiteness, along with its benefits and its issues in a system of white supremacy.
Racially-conscious white people who regularly question and make an effort to unlearn their own racism, while sincerely apologising and making amends when causing harm (human mistakes are bound to happen).
Racially-conscious white people who consistently use their privilege to provide platforms and opportunities that empower people of colour (without restricting the latter's agency and individuality).
Racially-conscious white people who genuinely fight for social justice on a regular basis, and not just when it looks good on their CV.
That’s what a white ally should be. It's also what we should expect from every anti-racist educator.
Finally, please don’t say you prefer being called “Caucasian.” When my friend claimed she didn’t like being called “white,” it had a lot to do with the desire to distance herself from the mainstream narratives of white supremacists. Ironically, the history of the term “Caucasian” has a lot to do with white supremacy’s perverse operations that muddy the waters and mystify race. If people knew how the word “Caucasian” became popular in the US, perhaps they would distance themselves from it and choose the label of whiteness.
Technically, Caucasian – the people of Caucus – should include North Africans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs and North Indians and it has nothing to do with skin colour. In the 18th century, the German anatomist Johann Blumenbach decided that the people from the Caucasus Mountains were an ideal form of humanity and he labelled four other races as “physically and morally degenerate” forms of “God’s original creation.” His eugenics and his flawed system of racial classification was adopted by the US to justify racial segregation and slavery. “Caucasian” was used to privilege a category of whiteness specific to Northern and Western Europe and it became a tool to reject anybody else who tried to claim their whiteness. For example, a Japanese man could not be classified as “white” despite his light skin colour because the US Supreme Court ruled that he was not Caucasian. On the other hand, an Indian was told he could not become a citizen because, even though he was technically Caucasian, he did not have white skin.
It is clear that the word “Caucasian” was actively used to promote eugenics and Eurocentric white supremacy, to privilege whiteness and to alienate people of colour. While the label “white” is not perfect either – as are any racial categories because of the fluid and sociological nature of race – it is worth considering the discomfort it causes, as opposed to the misleading comfort found in the word “Caucasian.”
And so, dear white people, please acknowledge your racial identity along with the fear and guilt it generates. Beware of the fine line that separates white saviour from white ally. Since schools and classrooms are microcosms of wider social structures and hierarchies, all educators (white and of colour) should also spend more time recognising the role they play in the system of white supremacy still present in Britain.