Insidious Whiteness

Insidious (ɪnˈsɪdɪəs/) adjective: 1. Intended to trap or beguile 2. Stealthily treacherous or deceitful 3. Operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.

Particularly since the development of the Black Lives Matter movement, the question of the role of the white ally has taken a prominent role in our national discourse on race, racism, and solidarity. This question is not exactly new — Peggy McIntosh wrote about white privilege as an invisible knapsack back in 1988 — but it is taking on a renewed political urgency.

In the Netherlands, where I’ve lived, worked and studied for almost three years, whiteness is just starting to make its way into the public sphere. Cultural anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of Gender Studies at Utrecht University Gloria Wekker captured the recent debates and tensions in her book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, released last April. She uses the concept of ‘white innocence’ to describe the Dutch self-image and the relations it simultaneously produces and obscures: “Innocence speaks not only of soft, harmless, childlike qualities, although those are the characteristics that most Dutch people would wholeheartedly subscribe to; it is strongly connected to privilege, entitlement and violence that are deeply disavowed,” she writes. This ‘innocence’, paired with the self-representation of the Dutch “as being inherently on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations,” is precisely what enables white supremacy to operate so smoothly. This claim of innocence “contains not-knowing, but also not wanting to know capturing what philosopher Charles W. Mills has described as the epistemology of ignorance.”

Although Wekker is specifically investigating historical and contemporary Dutch racial politics, her use of ‘innocence’ will strike a chord with many beyond its borders: Wekker’s examples of white Dutch people claiming not to “see race” or using irony and humor to bolster their self-image as not-racist are sadly nothing specific to the Netherlands and nothing new.

What I want to suggest is a slight twist in the terms: from white innocence to insidious whiteness.

This, of course, is also a shift from referring to white self-image or self-representation to naming it from the outside, from the position of the non-white Other. In that sense, the terms do different work. But it is my conviction that ‘white innocence’ does not exhaustively describe the effects of what it hopes to name.

Here’s an example: A few months ago, I was at a costume party, talking to a young, white Canadian woman — let’s call her Lily. At one point, the conversation turned to Black Lives Matter, which Lily had been talking about recently to her mother, expressing their shared mixed feelings about the slogan. Lily repeatedly, heartfeltly told me that she “really wants to understand”, but as someone from Canada — where “things are different” — she found it difficult.

There are manifold possible responses to this. For a start, there are chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement active across Canada, calling attention to the workings of anti-black racism and white supremacy. Not to mention that the indigenous peoples of Canada would likely disagree with her differentiation of Canada from the U.S. when it comes to the historic and ongoing perpetuation of racist and colonial violence.

On the surface, the conversation was what Wekker would probably diagnose as a classic case of white innocence, the peak of which came when Lily tried to convince me that if things weren’t already fine, they would be soon, because “no one in this room would discriminate against anyone based on race or sexuality or gender or anything else.” (She also told me, with a wounded expression on her face, that she understood racial prejudice because a teacher in elementary school had called her “Wonderbread.”)

But something else was happening, something beyond Lily’s justification of her willful ignorance and her visions of a post-racial future, something that stuck with me and made me realize I wasn’t satisfied with ‘innocence’ as a conceptual tool. Throughout our conversation, Lily continued to ask me to affirm that she was a good person. She’d stop to interject comments like “Oh, you must think I’m a horrible person” and “I don’t want you to think I’m a horrible person,” or to ask, quasi-rhetorically, “Do you think I’m a terrible person?”

I inwardly rolled my eyes and grudgingly said no, but also that it wasn’t the point, and that she could do better.

In the days following, I thought about what I wanted to say:

Challenging an anti-racist movement because you refuse to critically engage with its motives and goals, while in the same breath putting me in a position to comfort and affirm you, is insidious whiteness at its finest.

Part of the reason I’ve even continued to engage in this conversation relatively calmly with you is because you successfully manipulated the tropes of vulnerability and innocence that have historically stuck to white femininity.

If you actually possessed the good intentions you make such a point of, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place, because you would have taken the time to learn about this issue on your own instead of asking me, a woman of color, to explain things for you.

Your constant requests for affirmation of your goodness is a mechanism of a system of oppression that produces the illusion that white individuals, white bodies, can somehow be separated from the structure of white supremacy. As Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad argue, “it is this tendency [to separate the two] that so easily clouds our understanding of whiteness and motivates us to embrace white allyship” while in fact “whiteness is indivisible from white people.”

Your manipulation of the situation to position yourself as the fragile one, the vulnerable one, the one in need of comfort and reassurance, is emblematic of what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility. This performative enactment of white fragility leaches energy away from crucial anti-racist work by demanding that anti-racist discourse be couched in terms that won’t upset you.

I found myself trapped in a situation that I felt compelled to resolve  — because I do believe in the potential of interpersonal interactions to effect change. But by putting me in a position to affirm her goodness, Lily diverted the conversation away from the issue at hand—the role and strategies of Black Lives Matter—and towards her moral character. My affirming her, rather than stating any of the above, became the resolution to the conversation. This trap, laid by “good intentions,” is what insidiousness captures that innocence does not.

As Sara Ahmed argues, declarations of whiteness are often ‘non-performative’, doing something other than what they claim to do: in this case, saying “I want to understand” meant Lily did not, in fact, want to understand. By the time this became clear to me, it was already too late: I was trapped.

This “conviction in regard to one’s moral innocence or goodness” is what Marilyn Frye calls a characteristic of whiteliness, “the ways in which whiteness is performatively enacted.” Drawing on this concept in her book, ‘Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy,’ Barbara Applebaum argues that the desire to ‘do something,’ ‘to understand,’ is more often than not at its core an effort to protect this conviction. Wanting to be a “good white person,” she suggests, is part of the problem, not its solution.

Yet the fact that white people (or ‘whitely people’, as Frye names them) “generally consider themselves to be benevolent and good-willed, fair, honest and ethical” continues to take center stage in our conversations about whiteness, solidarity and anti-racism. We are seduced, time and time again, by this claim of white innocence. But as I have argued here, the trap that this claim creates needs a name, too — a term that describes and explains its efficiency. This I call insidious whiteness.

The author would like to thank Ann Kremen and Katayoun Arian for their feedback during the writing process.

Sophia Seawell is currently finishing her Master’s degree in Gender and Ethnicity at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She works part-time at Mama Cash, a feminist grant-making organization, and is developing workshops about gender and sexuality with Stichting SexMatters.

Edited by Jessica Jiang and Kristine Mar.

3 Comments
  1. Sophia, I am grateful for your pointing out the non-obvious but pervasive way we distance ourselves from responsibility for keeping all the goodies while pretending to share. I need to be called out on my biases. Thanks for your passionate cry against my excuses.

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