White-out? A response to Andrew Wilson

I am hesitant to write something on this topic because it’s an absolute minefield but I’m challenged to do so partly in response to a recent post by the Minister Andrew Wilson on why we should be abandoning self-identifying as White. The obvious issue with his appeal should be apparent from that last sentence, who is this we he is talking about exactly?

Putting aside issues of definition, in the entry itself he lists a number of points about why he feels the label should be abandoned and these are, in his words:

  • The obvious problem. My skin is not white. Not even close.
  • The historical problem. Nobody in the ancient world was white. The term only started being used four hundred years ago.
  • The gradual problem. If you walked across Eurasia from Portugal to Korea, you would notice that there is no point at which people suddenly look different.
  • The Mediterranean problem. Northern Europeans (“butter people”), are eager to champion their classical and Judeo-Christian heritage, classified Greeks, Romans, and Eastern Mediterraneans as white when they are not.
  • The purity problem. The colour white symbolises purity in all kinds of cultures, and this has insinuated its way into racial classifications today.
  • The theological problem. It may be because I’m talking about Revelation a lot this term, but it has struck me again recently how powerful the symbolism of “white” is in Scripture.
  • The ambiguity problem. As recent discussions about “whiteness” continue to show, the term can be used to refer to skin colour, or to racially supremacist power structures, or to both.

The Problem of Opting Out

The points themselves can all be granted, I think they’re broadly right, but where Wilson falls short is his inability or unwillingness to propose an alternative. This can be taken as an argument merely for ‘opting out’ which is but a short step towards classical liberal attitude of colour blindness. Which has its own legacy of problems. In the words of critics of the concept these are:

  • Colorblindness Invalidates People’s Identities
  • Colorblindness Invalidates Racist Experiences
  • Colorblindness Narrows White Americans’ [or British] Understanding of the World and Leads to Disconnection
  • Colorblindness Equates Color with Something Negative
  • Colorblindness Hinders Tracking Racial Disparities
  • Colorblindness Is Disingenuous

Of course I am assuming Wilson is advocating colour-blindness precisely because he hasn’t made a positive case for an alternative. I could be wrong yet his argument is largely met and shown to be lacking, I believe, by critics of colour-blindness when it comes to race.

The Problem of Definition

Of all his points Wilson’s most salient one, I think, is his last. What do people mean by White? As a term it has a cultural potency at the moment, mainly in a negative sense, yet Wilson falls into the trap of everyone who attempts to diagnose and describe culture falls into when trying to talk about it. The cultural critic and poet TS Eliot wrote on this:

Culture cannot altogether be brought to consciousness and the culture of which we are wholly conscious is never the whole of culture: the effective culture is that which is directing the activities of those who are manipulating that which they call culture.

TS Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: Notes on Education and Culture : And Conclusion

In this I’m not talking about ‘White Culture’ but the word ‘White’ as a cultural token used in any number of ways that Wilson touches on in his proposition. Yet what Eliot is talking about is that any attempt to diagnose or summarise aspects of culture, in this immediate case around terms like ‘White’ or ‘Whiteness’ or any Colour-ness, will inevitably fail to embrace the full scope in which that term or aspect of culture is actually realised. What we do see, or rather experience, is the ‘effective culture’ that brings such things about in the first place. Arguably Marxists would say this is an example of the hidden curriculum. This means that by trying to actively communicate or propagate culture, or an aspect of it, we will destroy or deform it. It is an emergent property in which the ‘effective’ culture might be radically different to the ‘described’ culture and ones experience of it can vary to the next. We do not have a culture but rather cultures. As an aside this is one of the problems I have with the British government’s employment of ‘British Values’ in the context of education, as elsewhere.

The Problem of Asymmetry in the Proposition

Wilson’s post, if anything, shows an anxiety about being associated with the term White in the public sphere. Eric Kaufmann, has recently written a lot about this trend and the degree to which it relates to life in modern, multicultural societies. Most recently in his recent book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. On the origin and propagation of multiculturalism he writes:

Multiculturalism, which originated among small circles of bohemian intellectuals in the 1910s, came to be established in the elite institutions and mass culture of Western societies from the mid-1960s. Once ascendant, these values created new taboos that drew the boundaries of acceptable debate. These frowned on any expression of a national identity in which the ethnic majority was accorded a prominent role. Since slowing the rate of ethnocultural change is a primary motive for restrictionists, and this was viewed as beyond the pale, the desire to reduce immigration was considered racist.

Second, multiculturalism, as its name suggests, encouraged minority groups to celebrate a politicized version of their identity. At multiculturalism’s heart, therefore, lies a contradiction: White majorities are compelled to be cosmopolitan, urged to supersede their ascribed identity. Minorities are enjoined to do the reverse.

Eric Kaufmann, How ‘Asymmetrical Multiculturalism’ Generates Populist Blowback

I quote this because Wilson’s piece focused specifically on the notion of being White but one could have easily written a piece where one universalised the critiques he employed.

  • The obvious problem. My skin is not exactly [colour].
  • The historical problem. Nobody in the ancient world saw themselves according to modern concepts of skin colour or race.
  • The gradual problem. If you walked across Eurasia from Portugal to Korea, you would notice that there is no point at which people suddenly look different.
  • The cultural problem. People include or exclude people from their racial group based on the perceived advantages in doing so.
  • The cultural problem. Colours have cultural significance which when transposed to skin colour lead to unintended conclusions.
  • The theological problem. Bible associates different colours with different things which when transposed to skin colour lead to unintended conclusions.
  • The ambiguity problem. As recent discussions about “colouredness” continue to show, the term can be used to refer to skin colour, or to racially supremacist power structures, or to both.

You might quibble with my reworking of his points but I think it isn’t a stretch to say that Wilson, in his piece, generally approaches it in a vein that is in broad alignment with Kaufmann’s description of a majority culture superseding its ascribed identity in the context of a multicultural society. This isn’t necessarily a new thing either, Kaufmann goes on to quote, in the same piece, from Randolph Bourne a leading American left-wing intellectual of the early 20th century:

It is not the Jew who sticks proudly to the faith of his fathers and boasts of that venerable culture of his who is dangerous to America,” declared Bourne in reference to Jewish immigrants, “but the Jew who has lost the Jewish fire and become a mere elementary, grasping animal.” Bourne’s moniker for ethnic minorities who had assimilated to mainstream America was “cultural half-breed.” On the other hand, Bourne continued, “the eager Anglo-Saxon who goes to a vivid American university to-day [finds] his true friends not among his own race but among the acclimatized German or Austrian, the acclimatized Jew, the acclimatized Scandinavian or Italian. In them he finds the cosmopolitan note. In these youths, foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents, he is likely to find many of his old inbred morbid problems washed away. These friends are oblivious to the repressions of that tight little society in which he so provincially grew up.”

Wrapped up in this cosmopolitanism was a critique of Anglo-Saxon cultural and political domination and a vision of a nation of hyphens as the prelude to world peace.

Eric Kaufmann, How ‘Asymmetrical Multiculturalism’ Generates Populist Blowback

Again given the contextualisation of Wilson’s point we do not know his views on the subject but his writing certainly would not jarr with the writing of someone like Bourne on this topic.

The Problem of Class

The other issue, then, of opting out of terms like White is that it will arguably contribute to a growth in identity politics amongst white people, not a decline. Kaufmann argues that this asymmetrical approach to multiculturalism actually displaces poorer or working class majority culture communities, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of globalisation, which creates a market for Populism. Kaufmann writes:

Multiculturalism attempts to surmount its contradictions by assigning whites the role of cosmopolitan while casting minorities as locals. Yet the contradictions in asymmetrical multiculturalism — identity and community for minorities, cosmopolitan individualism for majorities — are being pushed to the breaking point by demographic change.

Eric Kaufmann, How ‘Asymmetrical Multiculturalism’ Generates Populist Blowback

This frames the contemporary advancement of White (I do not know a better alternative term) individuals and communities more broadly in terms of individualistic achievement compared to minorities who can retain their ascribed communal identities in addition to achieving new ones. These are distinctions that the author David Goodhart associates with those he calls ‘anywheres’ who are predominantly defined by their achievements and ‘somewheres’ defined by their ascribed identities. This places any discussion of colour, White in particular, into the realm of class because achievement is not an inherited characteristic and must be worked for. It also means that to deny an ascribed identity of any sort that can be accorded to the term ‘White’ can be seen as a means for high achieving ‘Whites’ to advance as they have less to lose compared to their underperforming counterparts. This compounds existing issues of class in our society and provides fuel for resentment amongst white working class communities as they begin to fall behind other sections of society.

And in the words of Matthew Goodwin who has written extensively on Populism:

It has been said that the task of responding to populism is a waiting game: demographic trends favour liberals. But there is compelling evidence that the narrative of generational change, popular on the left, is helping the populists. One study found that when white Americans were reminded that their group will be outnumbered by non-whites by 2042, they became even more anxious and more supportive of Trump.

These divides are being exacerbated by other long-term currents. Increasing rates of higher education, the corresponding spread of liberal values, and the tendency for political and media elites to congregate in the big cities all mean they are increasingly detached from the everyday life experiences of blue-collar workers, non-graduates and small-town or rural inhabitants, who tend to be socially conservative and provide the fuel for national populism.

These voters are correct when they say that the West’s political systems have become less representative of their views because, on balance, they have. The proportions of degree-holders and affluent politicians who sit in legislatures are at record highs, while the proportions of politicians with working-class backgrounds are at record lows. Ensuring that our institutions are representative of all groups is another helpful response, as is involving citizens in decisions about these issues, for example through greater democratic innovation.

Matthew Goodwin, Why national populism is here to stay

This is also compounded by the effects of discussions around White Privilege with White liberals. Something that seems to not actually have much effect on the views of White people towards other races but more blind to the issues effecting White Working Class (WWC) communities. A recent paper on the subject reported:

Studies revealed that while social liberals were overall more sympathetic to poor people than social conservatives, reading about White privilege decreased their sympathy for a poor White (vs. Black) person. Moreover, these shifts in sympathy were associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor White person’s plight. We conclude that, among social liberals, White privilege lessons may increase beliefs that poor White people have failed to take advantage of their racial privilege—leading to negative social evaluations.

Complex intersections of race and class: Among social liberals, learning about White privilege reduces sympathy, increases blame, and decreases external attributions for White people struggling with poverty

Wilson’s writing on the topic I think here is indicative of these findings because by eschewing any talk of being White he shifts discussion of self identity much more firmly within the realm of what one has instead achieved. Especially by not talking about the issue of race as a social component of our identity more broadly he writes in terms which will disproportionately hinder white working class individuals. The solution to this is, according to someone like Kaufmann, is the opposite of Wilson’s proposal. To actually encouraging some moderate facilitation of White culture, identity, and conception of self in a constructive manner. This isn’t an argument for White nationalism but a necessary step towards a genuinely multicultural society. As Kaufmann writes:

Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina, in work informing her forthcoming book White Identity Politics, distinguishes between an attachment to white identity and the dislike of racial minorities. This reflects the well-established psychological finding that, in the absence of overt conflict, there’s no correlation between attachment to one’s own group and hostility to outgroups. In the ANES, those who feel warm toward conservatives tend to feel cool toward liberals and vice-versa, but, on average, whites who feel warm toward whites tend to feel warm toward blacks.

The first represents what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff term a “common enemy” identity, whereas the latter is a “common humanity” identity in which in-group identification carries no negative charge for outgroups. We urgently need to start a conversation about a moderate, inclusive white identity, open to intermarriage and Michael Lind’s “beiging” and freed from the dehumanizing toxicity that decades of asymmetrical multiculturalism have stamped upon it.

Eric Kaufmann, How ‘Asymmetrical Multiculturalism’ Generates Populist Blowback

This is the golden mean between denial or supremacy, I believe.

Conclusion: White or Wrong?

In nearly any other setting I wouldn’t touch talk of race or being White with a barge pole. Yet I do not think Wilson’s advocacy for abandoning the term is in any way constructive. Whether we like the term or not, people do talk about it and the term is going to be used. CS Lewis said on the topic of reading “if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones.” I think it is the same here; having a good discussion of race is better than a bad one when discussion is going to happen whether you like it or not. If you don’t others will, and you might not like what they say.

With that said Wilson touches on the amorphous way that the term is used. For a five letter word it’s an incredibly complex and messy one to throw around. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it is what it is. Like most things in life. These words should never be an idol in our lives but we can admit they have some sort of utility for talking about things related to our own culture. I cannot define it precisely because of the reasons I quote from Eliot. To attempt a comprehensive definition would not reflect the full spectrum of use the term experienced but rather my editorialisation and attempt to shape it. One of the biggest problems we have today is the policing of language. What I will say is it’s a relative term of differentiation which has picked up a lot of baggage, predominantly in America recently. I’d rather talk of nationality, yet even that is politicised and subject to many of the same issues. As recent statements, which I’m sympathetic to, by John Cleese on London not feeling English make clear.

What I do think is that as a Christian one can talk confidently of being White, or Black, or whatever safe in the knowledge that these are subsumed ultimately in our identities as Christians which is our primary identity. I have more in common with, and an instant trust of, a Christian who differs in cultural, national, or racial background than someone who happens to have the same skin colour as me. In my own Church in London I am a racial minority and I don’t pretend to be blind to any differences, instead I’m grateful to God for them. Out of all these different backgrounds he’s called us all together.

Update

On the subject of John Cleese’s recent comments Eric Kaufmann actually just published an article on the subject thats teases out the difficulty in even defining a word like English and the way this can differ as a cultural term between individuals. I think the same thing rings true for the term ‘White’. It’s gotten more messy, but that doesn’t mean we should likewise advocate the abolishment of any talk of being ‘White’ or ‘English’.

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