The invisibility of Whiteness

I have come to realize that colour blindness uses “whiteness” as the default key and mimics the norms of fairness, justice, and equity by “whiting” out differences and perpetuating the belief in sameness and equality. The denial of power imbalance, unearned privilege, and racial discrimination is couched in the rhetoric of equal treatment and equal opportunity. The pretense of not seeing colour is motivated by self-deception. To be colourblind not only denies the central importance of racial differences in the psychological experience of people of colour (racism and discrimination), but also allows the White person to deny how his or her whiteness intrudes upon the person of colour. White teachers, for example, frequently admonish their African American students to “leave your cultural baggage at home and don’t bring it into the classroom”. They have little awareness that they bring their whiteness into the classroom and operate from a predominantly white ethnocentric perspective.” i(West, 2010)

Over the past few months, I have found myself engaging in and listening to conversations with diverse groups of individuals on issues relating to systemic forms of oppression that exist in society, due to historical systems such as colonialism and apartheid. Within these conversations and dialogues, the stark lack of involvement of white people has become apparent to me. Of the few that have engaged in these conversations, some have left offended or been unable to handle the realities that emerged in the dialogues. In reading literature and engaging in one on one conversations with white people, I have realized that for white people, whiteness as a system or ideological construct is often mistaken to be a direct attack of the white individual. Secondly, in contrast to people of colour, white people do not experience perpetual racism in its various forms and the inequalities that are a consequence of the oppressive systems of colonialism and apartheid. The urgency of dealing with racial hierarchy and white supremacist systems is paramount. White people do not currently see these oppressive systems as their struggle, even though it should be something they fight against. The marked absence of white people engaging in dialogue with people of colour is disheartening as people of colour desire to build a new society where oppressive systems and hierarchy are dismantled, however the invisibility of whiteness prevents this.

Whiteness does not refer to skin colour. Rather, it is a social and political construct resulting in a learned behaviour that is based on an ideology of beliefs, values, habits and attitudes that result in unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour. It represents a position of power, where the power holder defines the categories, which means, the power holder decides who is white and who is not. Whiteness is relational, in that it only exists in relation or opposition to other categories in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness as whiteness defines itself. It is a state of unconsciousness, in that it is invisible to white people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference, which is a root cause of oppression. It shapes how white people view themselves, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned. Whiteness is a set of normative privileges granted to white skinned individuals and groups; it is normalized in its production and maintenance for those of that group in such a way that its operations are invisible to those privileged by it, but not to those oppressed by it (Henry & Tator, 2006)ii

The spirit of Ubuntu (umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu or “I am because we are”) is a core value to African people and in general white people do not think in terms of “we”. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of society as individuals. Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. Therefore white people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it. Due to the complexities and invisibility of whiteness, white people and people of colour in our context, are not having a discussion about race. People of colour, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system, whilst white people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.

There is an urgency for white people to begin to rise in this struggle to dismantle the oppressive systems in our society in South Africa and globally, by engaging in these important dialogues within groups and individual conversations, and by beginning to challenge the status quo. In order for engagement to happen, there is a need for individuals to grasp the concept of whiteness in its totality.

Would you be quick to listen and acknowledge whiteness as a system of oppression? Or would you, like most white people, stay silent and let it happen?

Robyn Curran – Izwe Lethu

i West, Wendi, “The “Invisibility” Of Whiteness: A Study Of Racial Identity Of White Faculty In Predominately White Colleges And Universities” (2010). Capstone Collection. Paper 2388.

Henry, F., & Tator, C. (Eds.). (2009). Racism in the Canadian university demanding social justice, inclusion, and equity. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press.


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