NB: In this blog the term ‘white’ will be used to describe those racialised as white within the UK as a white nation (Hage, 1998; Hunter, 2010), and those that benefit the most from white privilege. Though many Ukranian asylym seekers may in cases be racialised as white, their culture sits juxtaposed to the dominant thus ‘not white enough’, so may not always be seen as white by white British people (see what Kalwant Bhopal writes on this in the context of Gypsy Roma Travellers (2018: 29-47). Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White may show another context in relation to Irish migration into the United States.
“Extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007).
People tell me I spend too much time thinking and need to actually write the thing I spend so much time thinking about! However, with this blog about Ukraine, I did not want to jump on the journalistic bandwagon of being “the first” or “right”, but being thoughtful. I wanted to offer something different to mainstream consensus of “big evil Putin”, and talk about some of the discourses to race that I have been thinking about in relation to the images I have seen over the last months (much inspired by tweets, threads, and conversations lead by many Black and Brown scholars on Twitter).
Following the University’s response to the crisis, it brought me to consider how there has been more “action” than in prior crises, including Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine. For those of us descended from Black and Brown migrants who came to Britain between the 1948 Nationality Act and 1971 Immigration Act, I do not have to explain the pernicious ways British foreign policy has often tried to keep Black and Brown people out and white people in. For example, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill that seeks to criminalise asylum seekers, and introduce powers to revoke the citizenship of those with dual nationality (likely to impact up to six million people). When we critique the racist double standards in their response to Ukraine, white people are surprised while Black and Brown people are not.
The ease to which Britain adjusted to the cause of white Ukranians but did not and have not adjusted – to not only overseas crises in Somalia, the Yemen, and Palestine – but also at home in Europe to Black Lives Matter … is deplorable. Meanwhile numbers of Black and Brown asylum seekers are left to drown in the Channel. Seemingly, when white lives are on the line, things move! As Olena Lyubchenko writes, “Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination are increasingly understood by local elites to be bound up with incorporation into ‘fortress Europe’ and the making of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ as ‘white’ and ‘European.’”
The way organisations rallied around the Ukraine crisis shows when it is politically relevant to white structures and institutions, and it comes to white lives, there is a will and a way to go above and beyond what is reasonable. Meanwhile organisations that made Black Lives Matter statements in 2020 are giving lip service to anti-racism in their celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (ahem) and gaining influence from it. Yet, equality commitments extended to Ukranian asylum seekers are not extended to Black and Brown people, both those domiciled in white nations and those migrating from areas of the Global South – where a white nation can be described as a country “… whose self-understanding, collective symbolic and affective practices, as well as material relations, are enacted through the naturalisation of whiteness via processes of external … and internal … colonisation of Black subjects” (Hunter, 2015).
If there is to be an example of ‘white solidarity’, the British response to the war in Ukraine is certainly among them. For people not racialised as white, though what’s happening in Ukraine is awful, when similar things happen to Black and Brown people, white institutions do not rush to our defense. Whether it is Somalia, the Yemen, Palestine or other Black / Brown countries, white supremacy is very much in play in whose lives are seen of worth. The treatment of Black and Brown students fleeing Ukraine at the border is also of note in the face of white supremacy and Neo-Nazism itself.
In dominant media discourse, Black and Brown people continue to be dehumanised. A pattern of constructing white Europeanness as civilised in juxtaposition to “senseless” conflicts in the Global South continue. A way of thinking that Edward Said long pointed out in his discussion of the East / West binary in Orientalism stating it as “… the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it” (Said, 1979: 3). This behaviour finds itself in ‘whiteness as ownershhip” (Harris, 1993), and through the white institution of the media making claims about the Global South “Describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1979: 3).
The above quote from Charlie D’Agata as well, also revisits colonial formations of that term “white” as civilised yet at the same time othering “Black” and “Brown” as something uncivilised.
Maya Goodfellow writes:
“As they plundered, exploited and brutally controlled colonies and the people in them, all to enrich Britain as part of the growth of the capitalist project, colonialists swore by the racial hierarchy. Whiteness was not simply a descriptor; it was used to give anchor to the idea that Europe was the place of modernity and civilisation. White Europeans – in particular white upper-class men – were thought inherently modern and sophisticated; their black and brown counterparts, the opposite. The former, human; the latter, not. These ideas live on, subtly drawing a line between the developed and the developing, the advanced and the backward” (Goodfellow, 2019: 51)
The University of Northampton’s response did not really do anything, much in the same trajectory as their 2020 Black Lives Matter statement. Words lost behind inaction with no reference to Russian and Ukranian students studying at the university, nor the continuous racial trauma Black and Brown students are forced to experience. Only this time to see Black and Brown people victim yet again to ‘white terrorism’ (hooks, 1992; Yancy, 2017). For people racialised outside of whiteness, countries like Britain can be a wasteland with no escape. And this is when we are forced to create “safe spaces” seperate from the dominant.
I am not an immigrant to this country, though racialised outside of whiteness often places me as a “space invader” (Puwar, 2004) and means I can be treated like I am from somewhere else both “internally” and “externally” colonised (Hunter, 2015) in this white nation fantasy (Hage, 1998). As Black and Brown migrant bodies continue to be drowned in the seas, the 2020 Netflix film His House positions the experiences of Black asylum seekers fleeing South Sudan as pure horror. To think, the only reason people flee their countries like that and chance the seas, is if what you’re fleeing is scarier than the unknown of your destination. “Be one of the good ones” says the social worker (Matt Smith) with a wry smile.
The war in Ukraine reminds us that whiteness constitutes itself differently for those read as white, where in Britain the treatment of Gypsy Roma Traveller [GRT] people follows this pattern. Further to the treatment of Eastern Europeans such as Polish and Romanian immigrants. The legal rights of GRT people will be eroded further should the government’s Crime, Policing and Sentencing Bill reach fruition. Whiteness is as exclusively about being white as patriarchy is exclusively about being a man. It’s much more complex, but we do not get to the crux in our media culture of sound bites and simplistic answers to complex questions. Discussions about racism needs to change to extend the gaze to many shades of whiteness.
Emma Dabiri writes:
“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.
In truth, this is the work of whiteness, whose invention was to serve that function. Saying that all “white” people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, location, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness – the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence – we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses.”From: What White People Can Do Next (2021: 45-46)
Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010), all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place/geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and really how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.
Social discourses to Palestine and Black Lives Matter are two examples of Black and Brown lives being beyond the interest of white institutions, while Ukraine reminds us in spite of their reality, white lives matter more. In 1985, co-founder of Critical Race Theory Derrick Bell coined a term called ‘interest convergence’ to describe the way US civil rights only became a priority when it met the “interests” of white people. Ukraine in much the same way is a declaration of white solidarity, where under white supremacy whiteness will always protect itself over the interests of those racialised outside of it.
For as long as the invention of race has ‘existed’, the protection of white interests (ownership – see Cheryl Harris) has always trumped the protection of Black and Brown lives. Ukraine aside, to think the police are there to protect you is a mark of privilege when it is the job of the police to uphold the status quo which implicates upholding white supremacy. Black and Brown students at the border were just “objects” to be moved out of the way, no different to how Black and Brown students are seen and treated on the streets in the Global North including at school and university campuses.
Nirmal Puwar writes
“There is an undeclared white masculine body underlying the universal construction of the enlightenment ‘individual’. Critics of the universal ideal human type in Western thought elaborate on the exclusionary somebody in the nobody of political theory that proclaims to include everybody. In the face of a determined effort to disavow the (male) body, critics have insisted that the ‘individual’ is embodied, and that it is the white male figure, of a changing habitus, who is actually taken as the central point of reference. The successive unveiling of the disembodied human ‘individual’ by class theorists, feminists and race theorists has collectively revealed the corporeal specificity of the absolute human type. It is against this template, one that is defined in opposition to women and non-whites – after all, these are the relational terms in which masculinity and whiteness are constituted – that women and ‘black’ people who enter these spaces are measured” (Puwar, 2004: 141).
The constructing of ‘white’ as neutral is central to white supremacy and this is also what makes Diversity and Inclusion such a problem (Bhanot, 2015). However, the Ukraine crisis further shows how whiteness can come with qualifiers and that white supremacy will use those seen as ‘less white’ to discriminate against those (overtly … schema-wise) marked outside of that ‘white’ category. Tao Leigh Goffe tweeted “Skin is a passport. Epidermal citizenship”, in my opinion to act as a double meaning. Firstly, that skin is a literal passport and can grant citizenship through various levels of “white-skin privilege” (Allen and Ignatiev, 1967; McIntosh, 1988; Kyla Lacey, 2017; Eddo-Lodge, 2017; Bhopal and Henderson, 2021).
However, there could be a further meaning to mean a passport through spaces coded as white, and citizenship in certain spaces that Black and Brown people would not be granted entry to. So, our discussions around whiteness must extend to how it appears through various social markers including class, gender, culture, political affiliation and more. If the Ukraine crisis is to be our conduit, it shows our conversations and knowledge-building around whiteness must extend from what one scholar names as “the more fasionable white privilege” into a more critical conversation about white supremacy (Mills, 2004: 31) where whiteness can work like a virus – mutating, splitting, growing, reproducing, adapting, multiplying (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000; Chow, 2002; Wiegman, 2012).
We have work to do!