mute institutional racism

In 2008 Angela Davis presented the Vice Chancellor’s Oration on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. The speech was called Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism (published at https://truthout.org/articles/recognizing-racism-in-the-era-of-neoliberalism), and is about the prison-industrial complex as an institution of racism. As part of her thinking she makes a case that “individual eruptions of racism” are “connected to the persistence and further entrenchment of institutional and structural racism that hides behind the curtain of neoliberalism.” Davis says that racist incidents (and she uses the example of how some golf journalists suggested that Tiger Woods was so good that his competitors would have to “lynch him in a back alley”) are loudly “treated as individual and private irregularities” whereas the “contemporary persistence of racisms within institutions and other social structures” are “mute”.

Here are some excerpts:

The path toward the complete elimination of racism is represented in the neoliberalist discourse of “color-blindness” and the assertion that equality can only be achieved when the law, as well as individual subjects, become blind to race. This approach, however, fails to apprehend the material and ideological work that race continues to do.

While laws have had the effect of privatizing racist attitudes and eliminating the explicitly racist practices of institutions, these laws are unable to apprehend the deep structural life of racism and therefore allow it to continue to thrive.

This invisible work of racism not only influences the life chances of millions of people, it helps to nourish a psychic reservoir of racism that often erupts through the utterances and actions of individuals, as in the cases previously mentioned. The frequent retort made by such individuals who are caught in the act—”I’m not a racist. I don’t even know where that came from”—can only be answered if we are able to recognize this deep structural life of racism.

— Angela Davis, 2008

knower and known

The three of us (Royona, Arabella and I) have been thinking about how our conditioning as academics constructs the way we know things; that knowing something about, for example, white supremacy is filtered by being bound to academia, and how academia expects ideas to be understood, translated and communicated.

Here’s Azeezat Johnson:

One example of these imperial histories can be seen through the distance assumed between the (majority white and middle-class) academic knower and the (majority non-white and working-class) academic known. Through this distance, the academic ‘knower’ is able to position themselves as separate and above the ‘field’ that is being studied. The academic knower ‘becomes the backdrop of nature itself, the omnipotent position of the gaze’. This objectifies those bodies that are positioned as outside the role of The Academic. This is particularly pernicious given the over-representation of white bodies within academia: there has to be a sustained critique of the way such knowledge is created through the neutrality of whiteness.

— Azeezat Johnson [1]

Such objectification is inevitably going on in this research: I am that academic knower, gazing through the neutrality of whiteness. But the objectification in my case is also complicated by the sense that when it comes to contemporary dance, I associate myself with the field or ‘tribe’ of contemporary dance. It is a collection of people to which I belong. I am on the inside, while at the same time on the outside looking in.

[1]: Johnson, A., 2018. ‘An Academic Witness: White Supremacy Within And Beyond Academia’, in: Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R., Kamunge, B. (Eds.), The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship In Times Of Explicit Racial Violence. Zed Books, London, Chapter 2 (no page number).

Unwitting racisms

Here’s bell hooks on…

the problem with ‘diversity’ politics

discussions of race that erase (and perpetuate) racism

the unwitting racism of white liberal environments:

In contemporary society, white and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists. This erasure, however mythic, diffuses the representation of whiteness as terror in the black imagination. It allows for assimilation and forgetfulness. The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror, but it has also become a way to perpetuate the terror by providing a cover, a hiding place. Black people still feel the terror, still associate it with whiteness, but are rarely able to articulate the varied ways we are terrorized because it is easy to silence by accusations of reverse racism or by suggesting that black folks who talk about the ways we are terrorized by whites are merely evoking victimization to demand special treatment.

Attending a recent conference on cultural studies, I was reminded of the way in which the discourse of race is increasingly divorced from any recognition of the politics of racism. I went there because I was confident that I would be in the company of like-minded, progressive, “aware” intellectuals; instead, I was disturbed when the usual arrangements of white supremacist hierarchy were mirrored in terms of who was speaking, of how bodies were arranged on the stage, of who was in the audience, of what voices were deemed worthy to speak and be heard. As the conference progressed I began to feel afraid. If progressive people, most of whom were white, could so blindly reproduce a version of the status quo and not “see” it, the thought of how racial politics would be played out “outside” this arena was horrifying. That feeling of terror that I had known so intimately in my childhood surfaced.

Without even considering whether the audience was able to shift from the prevailing standpoint and hear another perspective, I talked openly about that sense of terror. Later, I heard stories of white women joking about how ludicrous it was for me (in their eyes I suppose I represent the “bad” tough black woman) to say I felt terrorized. Their inability to conceive that my terror… is a response to the legacy of white domination and the contemporary expression of white supremacy is an indication of how little this culture really understands the profound psychological impact of white racist domination.

bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination”, in Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Ruth Frankenberg (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), pp.176-177. Emphases added.

Thank you to Cristina Fernandes Rosa for recommending this essay by hooks.

Whiteness and / Whiteness Of and My Brownness

We have been asking ourselves: what title could have best captured our project’s anti-racist aims and intended outcomes? We are also reflecting on initial conversations with a project participant who invited us to consider: What does the conjunctional relationship between ‘whiteness’ and ‘contemporary dance’ imply? How might it be different had we positioned instead a prepositional ‘of’ between the categories?

We’ve just officially finished week one of our project and we have already questioned the appropriateness of its title, our proposed research methodologies and what power structures they assert, the hierarchies always already embedded within the research design and the varied privileges afforded amongst the project team members, and how these impact the varied stakes we each hold in the project.

As the only person of colour on the project team, the pressure I feel to not mess this up is indescribable. Yet, I am conscious also, that racism within contemporary dance and beyond is not a problem of my making.

At the end of week one I am left wondering then: how to get beyond the racialisation of my emotional labour in these circumstances?

narcissistic project

The obvious danger in examining whiteness as a structure of racism is in how it might unintentionally centre whiteness itself:

This raises another issue rooted in identity politics: in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice. I have not found a way around this dilemma, for as an insider I can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny. So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a “both/and” that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.

— Robin diAngelo, 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. [e-book, no page number]

George Yancy warns against the potential for examining whiteness to become a narcissistic project:

This does not mean, however, that whites who choose to give their attention to thinking critically about whiteness are incapable of doing so, though it does mean that there will be white structural blinkers that occlude specific and complex insights by virtue of being white. Therefore, people of color are necessary to the project of critically thinking through whiteness, especially as examining whiteness has the potential of becoming a narcissistic project that elides its dialectical relationship with people of color – that is, those who continue to suffer under the regime of white power and privilege.

— George Yancy, 2012. Look, a White!, p.7

We cannot not discuss whiteness, not least because racism is a white problem, and yet at the same time we must attempt to not feed the capacity of whiteness to go un-named, adapt, and consume; the whiteness that Michael Eric Dyson describes as a “highly adaptable and fluid force that stays on top no matter where it lands” (foreword to diAngelo’s White Fragility).

belonging

Human beings are desperate to belong and our desire to be located in tribes is immensely powerful.

To what do we pay greatest allegiance? Family, language group, culture, country, gender? Religion, race? And if none of these matter, are we urbane, cosmopolitan, or simply lonely? In other words, how do we decide where we belong? What convinces us that we do? Our put another way, what is the matter with foreignness?

— Toni Morrison1

In a relatively abstract tribe like contemporary dance how do we know or recognise that we belong? How do we know or recognise that we don’t belong?


  1. Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, p.8

gravity

You might say that gravity as a force (of attraction towards the earth) acts on us democratically. It doesn’t distinguish between anything or anyone. It just does its work.

But in questions of race, gravity sees colour:

No number of exciting black cultural artefacts can fight the pervasive gravity of default whiteness.

Jeffrey Boakye1

Much of what drives our interest in this research is the idea and experience of default whiteness.

because whiteness is privileged over colour, the norm is to never call attention to whiteness itself in ways that make white people uncomfortable. It’s expected, of course, to routinely draw attention to male and white and heterosexual people, since our society is centred on and identified with those groups. But that differs from drawing attention to ‘male,’ ‘heterosexual,’ or ‘white’ as social categories that are problematic.2

– Allan Johnson

Although Allan Johnson uses the word norm instead of default, it is the same thing. Whiteness is the invisible norm or default against which all others are made visible.


  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/13/smooth-angry-cool-powerful-how-we-talk-about-blackness

  2. Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, 2001, p.133.