what to give up

In her blog post last week, Arabella asked, “What sorts of disintegrations of our field are necessary for its institutions to move beyond diversity agendas …?”. I like the word disintegration and how it tears at the notion of integration — integration on whose terms? The word seems to underline the power of difference: to be ‘against integration’.

But Arabella’s question also reminds me of one of the starting points for this work. It was Royona, presenting at the Dance Studies Conference in Malta in July 2018, who asked quite directly what white people are prepared to give up in order to build and do anti-racist work. And so, as a white person continuously benefiting from the pleasures and possibilities afforded by the colour of my skin, I ask myself (again) what am I prepared to give up?

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).


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.