Research in Social Justice

Championing a peaceful and prosperous existence

Why ‘Whiteness’ matters in the Real World

By Ornette D Clennon, author of Black Scholarly Activism between the Academy and Grassroots

The discourse on ‘whiteness’ at first glance seems like an extremely academic and niche discussion. In public discourse, the term ‘whiteness’ usually prompts bewildered questions such as “why do you blame all White people?”, “why are you being racist?” and “what about Black people…?” And for a critical race scholar debating with a lay person it can be quite a challenge to get across that ‘whiteness’ as a term is not really about White people, per se but about a system of cultural governance and societal ordering that has historically evolved from the medieval clash of political dominance between Dar al Islam and Christendom, the early Valladolid debates about the human rights of colonised Amerindians and (mature) colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade (amongst others). Without a widely acknowledged and popular shorthand that resonates with the general public, all of the ethical issues associated with these landmark events that are essentially concerned with shaping the Western identity, are hard for a lay person to get to grips with.​​​​​​​

But why is this important, especially now? In our current era of the rise of populism ‘whiteness’ becomes crucial to understand because without it the rise in race-hate crimes, xenophobia, ethnic pay gaps and racial disparities in health, education, housing, employment all point to an ‘invisible’ issue that seems hard to resolve and is intractable. If we traditionally view these disparities as racism or even structural discrimination, what we are saying is that these social inequalities are merely embedded within the system and are ultimately just a result of the system. In the real world of social justice activism, this means that an inordinate amount of time is expended trying to convince people that somehow they are part of the system or at least are unwitting beneficiaries of the system and as a result still perpetuate the social injustices that maintain these disparities. This becomes an even bigger task as people are often reluctant to see their own complicity and as a distancing mechanism, label the whole discourse as “identity politics”, where it is kicked into the long grass.

So we are left with fighting an un-ending battle, as we seem to tinker at the margins of a system resistant to change. How is the concept of ‘whiteness’ useful to us in these conversations? Well, it becomes crucial to understand that xenophobia (and its child, racism) are not products of a system to be eradicated by economic and legislative tinkering. They ARE the system! What does this mean, exactly? Here is where the concept of ‘whiteness’ comes into its own. Whiteness as a term describes how the modern world, as we know it, historically came into existence through the delineation of gendered racial identities that were initially pegged to private owners and their property (i.e. the means of productions); literally the (male) slave owners and their slaves. Of course, I am now also talking about the development of colonialism, capitalism, advanced capitalism and now neoliberalism (and its neo-colonialism effected by its global secret financial networks).

So ‘whiteness’ becomes a shorthand for the historical processes which used race and gender as building blocks to create what is essentially our “Western” identity. When we begin to understand these historical processes and their propensity towards growth and violent domination for the generation of profit, we can begin to see that populism and its accompanying rise of race hate and xenophobia and the seeming implosion of neoliberalism (with its impending environmental catastrophe) did not come out of nowhere. In fact, all of this can be tracked back through history by observing consistent patterns of behaviour, underpinned by Western beliefs about itself that can be collectively identified as ‘whiteness’.

In our fight for social justice, we need to champion an everyday understanding of ‘whiteness’, which encapsulates a publicly understood historical narrative that explains the origin of today’s phenomena, much like MacPherson did with “institutional racism” and systemic failure. Again, why is this so important? It is only when we can truly join the historically racial and gendered dots of the development of Western identity, that we can leave the blame game behind, as we all genuinely begin to learn the lessons from past mistakes rather than being slavishly doomed to repeat and reproduce them.

About the author

Dr Ornette D. Clennon is a Visiting Research Fellow and a critical race scholar in Health, Psychology and Communities Research Centre, Manchester Metropolitan University, where he leads the Critical Race and Ethnicity Research Cluster. Ornette is also Visiting Professor at the Federal University of the Amazonas. Ornette writes for Media Diversified and Open Democracy and is a Public Engagement Ambassador for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). He is a community activist at local, national and international levels and works with The Ubele Initiative, Locality, Alci Matos Community (Manaus, Brazil), MACC, Making Education a Priority (MEaP), Black British Academics and the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education. Ornette’s enterprise and activism work has been recognised with the 2011 NCCPE Beacons New Partnerships Award.

Ornette is widely published and his previous books include Alternative Education and Community Engagement: Making Education a Priority (2014), Urban Dialectics, The Market and Youth Engagement: The Black Face of Eurocentrism? (2015), International Perspectives of Multiculturalism: The Ethical Challenges (2016) and The Polemics of CLR James and Contemporary Black Activism (2017).