Disrupting whiteness: countering ‘white backlash’
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Cross-posted from Centre for Education and Race Equality in Scotland (CERES)Blog post by Marlies Kustatscher, Lecturer in Childhood Studies, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, and Deputy Director of CERES

After recently writing a blog on hegemonic whiteness in the higher education classroom, my CERES colleagues invited me to reflect further on ‘white backlash’, or ‘pushback’ particularly from those who would deem themselves pro-social justice.

White pushback has been seen a lot in recent events and public debate. After heightened public consciousness and support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 (albeit short-lived, see Becnel (2020)), the Capitol insurgency in the US in January has reminded us of the dangers of white supremacist ideology. In the UK, BLM activists report that the growth of the anti-racist movement has exposed previous existing fault lines and increased racial tension (Booth, 2020).

In their recent collection on Protecting Whiteness: Whitelash and the Rejection of Racial Equality Work, Lippard and colleagues (2020) describe how resistance against movements of equality, inclusion and change can take place in seemingly innocuous places and with seemingly neutral rhetoric, in media and institutions.

In the United Kingdom, in 2020 we have seen the curtailment of educational curricula in schools in England. Tory equalities minister Kemi Badenoch announced that “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt”, and that “any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” Around the same time, the Department for Education categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and banned schools from using any anti-capitalist material in their teaching.  The recent “Sewell Report” by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) is another example of a narrative that denies or individualises the structural nature of racism (see Meer and Qureshi, 2021, for a critical analysis of the report).

These developments, of course, follow years of ‘hostile environment’ policies and the Windrush scandal and therefore do not come as a surprise.

Ironically, restrictions on teaching critical race theory or anti-capitalist perspectives were imposed at the same time as the Westminster Government has accused universities and organisations of limiting free speech and has taken an increasingly interventionist approach into education, including higher education. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading scholar in both intersectionality and critical race theory, highlights that “the commitment to free speech seems to dissipate when the people who are being gagged are folks who are demanding racial justice”.  Debates about ‘cancel culture’ and de-platforming, while often couched as being about freedom of speech, are of course very much about the substance of that very speech.  They are about struggles over what the lived realities, values and experiences are that should be ‘up for debate’ – and who defines this.

A perhaps subtler form of white pushback against racial justice is to distance oneself from far-right white supremacists and to locate white supremacy as an ideology related to ‘fringe elements’ of society. Polite liberals do not do crass forms of racism.  The reluctance to engage in deconstructing  white hegemony engrained in mainstream society enables the impact of white hegemonic thinking, policies and practice to continue to be invisible and not challenged (see Nasar Meer’s lecture on ‘After Utoya’).

This can take the form, for example, of denying the experiences of Black and minority ethnic people, or trivialising systemic racism. It may also involve rejecting the idea that whiteness comes with unearned privileges for all white people. Unless white people and particularly those who stand on the side of justice take seriously the impact and reach of white hegemonic frameworks, race equality discourses will always be shaped by the voices of those in position of power within institutions.

When thinking about whiteness and white privilege, I often find the metaphor of a coin useful (see Goodman, 2015).  It is based on the idea that oppression and privilege are always two sides of the same coin. They are inherently connected and one cannot be addressed without addressing the other. This implies a shift of responsibility for change – if we truly want to eradicate racism, it means that white people need to recognise and challenge their own complicity in it.

Racism is engrained in society and institutions, and it can be perpetuated in unintentional or unconscious ways – but it remains racism. Acknowledging hegemonic whiteness means to recognise that the fight for racial equality, for white people, starts within us – but should not end there.

I would like to thank Professor Rowena Arshad for her constructive comments on earlier versions of this blog.