Shaun Stanley
Shaun Stanley

Not all pale-skinned people are ‘white’

In certain circles I could suggest, “the real problems of the world are those caused by white masculine capitalist hegemony!” I might get a few heads to nod. I could then assert, “Down with white power! Whiteness must fall!” In the right circles this may well get me some applause.

There would be others, however, who would feel attacked and victimised. “Why is he attacking us because of our race? Sure, we are white, but we aren’t causing the problems he’s talking about”. Others may become quite angry. “Well, if you don’t want whiteness then why don’t you stop speaking English?!” Such is the status of our social discourse.

Some headway was made by Louise Ferreira in explaining why such responses are inappropriate and borne from misunderstanding. I’d like to make further headway. My proposals are in line with what I’ve previously said. Social phenomena are too complex to be simplified in black and white terms. We should be concerned to eliminate from our discourse those portions that are inaccurate and unhelpful. Much of the way we speak about “race” is like that.

If you ask an ordinary person what “race” refers to they tend to say that “race” refers to skin colour. This is not the way those schooled in the social sciences think about it. “Race”, “racism”, “white”, “whiteness”, “black”, “blackness”, and all such variations, take on a technical meaning, distinct from their common sense meanings, in a language I call “racialised language”. I find the language to be polarising, inaccurate and unhelpful.

It is because these words are repurposed in social justice (and social scientific) circles that confusion arises. It’s the responsibility of those of us who use (or understand) this language to explain it to those who don’t understand it.

Hence Ferreira tells us that “whiteness” does not refer to skin colour. It is the name for the social phenomenon whereby “[white] culture, norms and values are considered the norm, the standard”. More particularly, it names the phenomenon whereby the “way white people exist in the world … is what is normal, and it gives [white people] social, political, economic and cultural power”. Hence, we are told, movements like Open Stellenbosch are opposed to “white cultural hegemony, not white people”.

She goes on to say a few other things, but I’ll focus just on this portion of her article. These are claims that are difficult for me to understand. “Culture”, or “cultural hegemony” is a feature of the world that depends on the behaviours of individuals, or groups of individuals. Presumably “white culture” denotes that set of values, beliefs and practices which manifest in the behaviours of white individuals, or groups of such individuals. We may suppose that culture to be “hegemonic”, though, were that my target, I’d suggest that was excessive.

It seems then that to be opposed to white cultural hegemony must reduce to an opposition to white individuals (or groups of them), and their individual beliefs, values and practices. One would be confused, then, if one was opposed to “white hegemony culture” and not opposed to “white people”. This is because there is nothing more to a culture than the behaviours exhibited by certain individuals, or groups of individuals. To be opposed to some culture is to be opposed to all the people instantiating it. But Ferreira has emphasised that this is the incorrect interpretation. How should we account for this apparent confusion?

This confusion is the result of an illicit “reification”. “Reification” is a process of recasting abstract entities as concrete entities. For example, people will often talk of social “structures” (structural racism, say). They speak as if such structures are concrete entities, as if, say, they have street addresses, or geographic coordinates. But it would be a mistake to ask “where’s this structure of racism? I’d like to visit it so as to dismantle and deconstruct it”.

Social structures aren’t concrete entities, they have no physical locations, and it’s a mistake to write or think about them as if they do. Social structures are abstractions. They are manners of describing complex sets of behaviours exhibited by individuals. Such, anyway, is all the evidence we ever have of them.

The solution then is to resist illicit reification. Back to the problem at hand: Ferreira, and others, imagine that it is possible to be opposed to “white hegemony culture” without being opposed to “white people” because, I think, they have reified “white hegemony culture”. They regard it, incorrectly, as a concrete entity quite independently of whichever individuals exhibit such culture.

“White hegemony culture” is not an entity independent of the set of individuals who instantiate it. To oppose “white hegemony culture”, properly understood, is to oppose all “white people” who instantiate it.

The trouble is that it is not true that people with pale skin all exhibit the behaviour of “white people”. Consider that carefully. I think it follows that since “culture” is simply a collective term for the behaviour and values of individuals, or groups of individuals, “white culture” must reduce to the behaviour and values of “white people”. It’s also quite plain to see that not every person with pale skin exhibits all these qualities all the time. If that’s correct then it must follow that not every person with pale skin is “white”.

There’s a second problem, then, and it is the problem of “ambiguity”. The phrase “white person” is ambiguous in at least two ways. A “white person” can instantiate “white culture”. A “white person” can also possess pale skin. And a person with pale skin need not instantiate white culture.

This is what the author must mean when she says that to be opposed to “whiteness” is not to be opposed to “white people”. Unless the author is accused of simple incoherence, the best interpretation of her claim must be understood as I’ve just explained. If I’m correct so far then this should account for the confused reactions of people with pale skin to the opposition to whiteness.

Sometimes certain people feel incorrectly implicated in others descriptions and evaluations of social problems. To say, as we imagined I did at the start, that the society’s problem is “whiteness” may well appear to implicate otherwise innocent people. This appearance would be illusory, of course. Ferreira went some way to explain this and, I hope, I’ve elaborated on that. Certainly, who we are opposed to are “white people”. There is nothing more to “white culture” than its manifestation in the behaviour of “white people”, after all. But just as certainly, not all people with pale skin are “white”.

It would be easier to avoid these misunderstandings if we used words which were generally clearer. The claim that “white people” are to be opposed since they instantiate “white hegemonic culture” is, once all that is understood, insubstantial. It’s equivalent in content to the claim that satanists should be opposed since they instantiate demonic hegemonic culture. The important questions still remain unanswered. Who is a satanist? Who is “white”? And this is a tricky question because we know, at least some of the time, that pale-skinned people aren’t “white” in this sense.

But finding the definition of the word “white” in this context is an unhappy task. What we would be better off doing is just eliminating the word from our discourse and simply saying what we mean. After all, words and concepts are all dispensable in favour of equivalent (and clearer) words and concepts.

This is all another way of saying what I said before. Our social discourse is not as clear as it could be. It is peppered with illicit reifications, vague or ambiguous terms and is often polarising and frequently unhelpful. Nothing would be lost, in real terms, by being clearer. People forget this when I suggest that what is required, ultimately, is that such decayed terms be eliminated from our discourse. That, nevertheless, is my suggestion.

The problems of the world cannot be described by two words, their variants, and a hashtag. We do a disservice to our readers when we insist on speaking in such inexpressive idioms. Whatever “white hegemony culture” is, it is unhelpful to describe it as the result of “white ways of being”. We’ve seen that an opposition to this (as sensible but trivial as an opposition to “badness”) does not imply an opposition to all people with pale skin. It implies an opposition to “white people”, but who, exactly, is “white”, and what, exactly, they do, remains undefined.

Ferreira and I wouldn’t need to embark on this two-tier translation if only those at the forefront of the discussions would be less obscure. “Racialised language”, as I suggested in the beginning, is inaccurate and unhelpful, and we’ve gone through two reasons why that is. “White”, “whiteness”, and variations remain undefined. As some say, to find a definition for a word is to find a way of eliminating that word from one’s discourse with no loss of meaning. Such, I believe, should be the fate of terms like “white”, “whiteness”, “blackness” and, more generally, racialised language as a whole.

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