White Privilege

I wrote this article for one of my university units for my Behavioural Science Degree where I was working with Indigenous Youth and communities in Western Australia 9 years ago in 2011. This is unedited from then and I feel it still carries value today, perhaps now more than ever…

Whiteness exists and is a legitimate concept within society. It has developed from years of history, racism and colonization, having been interwoven unconsciously and powerfully within the minds of Indigenous and non Indigenous people. The concept of Whiteness is directly related to issues of Power, Status, privilege, exclusion, economy, politics, falsely believed dominance and White supremacy. The concept of Whiteness suppresses and undermines what it means to be human. It places human value and opportunity on the uncontrolled factor of ethnicity, culture and most of all skin colour and racial heritage. Alongside other contributing factors, Whiteness being largely unconscious presents a barrier to any form of reconciliation between Indigenous and non Indigenous people. Any issue becomes problematic for resolution if it is unrecognised and not acknowledged to allow possible solutions to take effect.  

         The concept of Whiteness does exist strongly within the fabric of Australian culture and society; it is a legitimate, real concept and shapes the way the majority of society function. It will be shown how Whiteness affects any notion of reconciliation and communication between races, cultures and Indigenous and non Indigenous people, shaping each and every individual thought process and belief, with a powerful focus on race, and culture. Exposing the existence of Whiteness and acknowledging the existence of Whiteness shows how it contributes negatively to the reconciliation process. Generally, the first physical attribution of any kind the human race will notice of others is the colour of their skin; from the presumption of the individual attaches that person to certain cultures, religious groups and therefore stereotypes. As Whiteness is related strongly to skin colour, it can be seen how it is entangled within everyone’s unconscious thoughts and belief systems. Whiteness is not an entity in itself and is not self-dependent for existence; it relies heavily on other societal factors such as race, gender, politics, sexuality and class (Sullivan, 2008). Determining what supports the existence of Whiteness, such as the notions of Equity and Equality and the concept of Colour blindness alongside possible solutions to understanding Whiteness is necessary to the process of Reconciliation.     

Whiteness is multi-faceted, racist and compromises various elements and considerations which contribute to its reality and condition. Whiteness has adapted and evolved with society and is primarily covert, with its roots layered deep within history and colonialism (Suchet, 2004., Matsebula, Sonn and Green, 2007b., Willet, 2007 & Stevens, 2007). Defined not by what it is, but what it isn’t Whiteness refers to what it means to be White (Matsebula et al., 2007b).  White skin with Western features reins, unspoken supremacy, over other ethnicities and races (Green & Sonn, 2006). Reinforced by influential structural institutions such as the media, Governments who through legislation create, habitual dominant cultural practices and class systems (Green & Sonn, 2006., Diangello, 2006 & Suchet, 2007) and at a social level, it is the dominance of non Indigenous people over Indigenous people which reinforces White supremacy (Diangello, 2006). Whiteness directly maintains this dominance and silent power via a perceived notion of supremacy through believed naturalness by non Indigenous people. (Suchet, 2007). Whiteness has come to mean ‘normality’, universality, and type a benchmark for what it is to be human. It does this without taking into consideration any other existing race or culture (Altman, 2004., Norton & Baker, 2007). Closely linked to the origins of White Supremacy and Colonialism, Carey (n.d.) states the White-skinned or light-skinned person with western features may not buy into the ideologies that Whiteness pertains; it provides the White person with unearned privileges, an unfair advantage that is predisposed by skin colour, not work capacity. This privilege generates an advantage for a member of an already perceived superior group further leading to oppression (Altman, 2004).

         As Allen (1997) indicates the origins of Whiteness are socially constructed (Mills, 2007) and has been designed by the White person, to exploit the Indigenous or Black person, for the purpose of Power and unquestioned social status. The concept of being White came into more powerful fruition in the 17th century, with its origins lying in Virginia, USA. Laws were created specifically to provide only White people with privileges, even for those who held a social status of ‘poor’. This was designed to oppress Black people and maintain power for the “perceived” ruling elite. The concept of covert racism began here, Whiteness is entrenched in colonialism, oppression and slavery and has been maintained, adjusted, adapted and reinforced overtime via means of the institution (Willet, 2007., Sullivan, 2006., Sonn, 2004 & Saxton, 2004). Causing the existence of White supremacy, referring to the system and dominance exhibited by White people consciously or unconsciously, whether covert or overt. White privilege refers to the edge this system provides non Indigenous over Indigenous people (Mills, 2007). Whiteness is fluid, however, the racist component of Whiteness is solid and destructive, which is structural and has weathered various culture shifts throughout the years. This is the power of History, false truths and ideologies, nationalistic or macro discourses such as legislative action, policies, hierarchal direction and action by dominant figures within society which via the pathway of action go against verbal dialogue. Directly affecting discourse at a micro-level amongst community members, enhancing the dominant groups’ power hold (Green & Sonn, 2005., & Steyn, 2007).

White privilege through skin colour and maintenance of power and dominance over Indigenous people is achieved at a subtle, covert, inexplicable and unchangeable level (Sullivan, 2006., & Taylor, 2007). White power can never be separated from this privilege (Suchet, 2007). According to Baldwin (1993) privilege provides a sense of safety and security, as seen in our education system. There is limited written literature provided to our youth, written by Indigenous people, providing information from an Indigenous perspective. There are few qualified Indigenous teachers are there teaching not only specific Indigenous history but teaching from an Indigenous perspective. (Hughes, 2007., Sonn, 2004., & Sullivan, 2007). This is a covert exercising of power, namely by middle age, White males functioning within government bodies exhibiting a power-play which oppresses specific cultures wholly and in part, their cultural knowledge and their ideologies (Sullivan, 2006). By not implementing programmes or designing the Education system to be more flexible and accommodating to all cultures, expressing a truly inclusive multicultural system becomes nonexistent. Part of Whiteness is the lack of information available regarding Indigenous experiences as a collective and as individuals in any context; this is part of the oppression that Whiteness produces (Hughes, 2007). The social construction of White privilege has infiltrated the education system and tremendously influenced the distribution of wealth, prestige, power, opportunity, status and education (Sullivan, 2007).

As Mills (2007) states, another factor contributing to the foundations of power are misperceptions that are socially constructed. The flow and direction of power are maintained by allowing individuals to believe (namely non Indigenous people) that their mindset is not damaging. This flow of power is maintained from a top-down approach, by dominant non Indigenous social figures, positioning them as authors of knowledge, marginalizing Indigenous people and in turn benefiting non Indigenous people (Hughes, 2007). This approach allows the non Indigenous person to ignore self-expressed racist behaviour and brand it as anti-racist (Sullivan, 2008). Through this structure within society, privilege is distributed and unchallenged norms of society are unchanged and allocated based on ethnicity, race and skin colour. English ethnicity determines group separation leading to boundaries of ‘them’, or the ‘other’ (Long & Hylton, 2002).  Two of these great misconceptions which actually fuel power, rather than diminish it, which the general non Indigenous population believe to be true are; attempting to be non-racist via the notions of equity and equality and the notion of colour blindness.

The fact that White people feel that we as people are all on a level playing field, in regards to social opportunities is whiteness in itself, it is drumming of the notion of equality from dominant leading and governing institutions over time, it is a concept of understood equality rather than equity, being one of the leading factors contributing to what Whiteness is. The reality is, we, as individuals and as groups are not on level playing fields, our history is still embedded within all of us. Socially, Non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people alike must understand their social role in the community; it is largely influenced by the past. These racial institutions are instilled within all people, it provides Whites with an unrecognised and unconscious unfair social advantage based on historical White supremacy (Mills, 2007., & Applebaum, 2005). What perceptions of equality actually do is place non Indigenous people in cumulative positions of privilege, hence it is not that Indigenous people receive less, but because of non Indigenous privilege, the non Indigenous person receives more. From this understanding, receiving benefits at someone else’s expense is a contribution to inequity, regardless of intentions (Diangello, 2006).

Colour blindness is another movement or false belief that the non Indigenous person believes eludes them of racial responsibility or that the non Indigenous person feels that by practicing the notion of colour blindness they are in fact practicing anti-racism (Mills, 2007). This is a fallacy, and as Mills (2007) continues to discuss this topic he shows that colour blindness being part of a mechanism which Whiteness is produced (Matsebula et al., 2007b) merely enhances White supremacy and Whiteness itself. It does this by assuming that ‘other’ cultures (not being White) have no culture and have no relevant history. Colour blindness ties in tightly with notions of equality and equity; fundamentally it is an ignoring of one’s heritage, cultural practices, lifestyles, beliefs, history, race and the colour of their skin. Everyone is believed to be equal, but in reality, we are not all equal, due to the foundations that we all separately arise from. By ignoring someone’s skin colour, cultural heritage and race, essentially existence is being ignored and considered irrelevant. Hence placing the non Indigenous person further up the hierarchal social ladder by giving them legitimacy in action and self-branding themselves as innocent bystanders, fair, equal, generous, giving and non-racist. By falsely believing in equality being the correct path to fairness, the non Indigenous person diffuses themselves from responsibility (Matsebula et al., 2007b).

         Further, Sullivan (2007) indicates that Colour blindness assumes an individual’s actions are beyond a cultural and historical context, justifiably ignoring race, thus creating further distance between groups and once again creating that ‘other’ mentality. For example; one would state that all individuals have a fair and equal start in life; it is up to them to make the most of it. This mentality simply further supports the notion of not taking into account oppression and years of conditioning to feel inadequate, weak, inferior and being made to feel not worthy of achievement. Although its intentions are meaningful, Colour blindness is problematic when applied practically. By blocking one’s colour of skin, we block the creativity and uniqueness of race, culture and personal and collective history, which fundamentally are part of who a person is; allowing all positive contributions this culture has provided society to be meaningless. Secondly;  by practicing colour blindness we conveniently block all the systematic harm the dominant group has passed on to Indigenous cultures, leading to an excusing of action and relinquishing of moral obligation and not acknowledging one’s part in covert racism. So in attempting to act anti-racist one actually enhances racism and hinders reconciliation. Understanding cultures becomes difficult, and the non Indigenous person distances themselves from recognizing their racist past and present. The application of colour blindness alters one’s language and thought pattern.

If anti-racist practices are not the solutions to eradicating Whiteness, White supremacy, creating equity and finding a path to reconciliation, what is? Ratele (2007) believes that Whiteness studies should focus on the bond that is created by racism against minority groups, the special bonds which are formed, and unity created because of sustained oppression. Ratele (2007) & Green, Bishop and Payne (2003) further state that history has shown that minority groups are the majority challengers of Whiteness, and in order for reconciliation to occur all parties must be involved in challenging false ideologies and understanding racism to its fullest. This supports the view that non Indigenous people must take responsibility for their place within society also. Further, Matsebula et al (2007a) state that reconciliation can become hindered due to the fact that non Indigenous people have simply never experienced the covert or overt racism that Indigenous people have. Dominance is represented by ideology and false belief. A key to reconciling this is a constant self-analysis from the White person, and consistency in changing historically formulated, false premises, attitudes and beliefs that have shaped the way culture is expressed today. If the non Indigenous person does not accept the truth that their skin and Western physical features reigns unquestioned dominance and supremacy over every other ethnicity in the world, and that by possessing these features creates an unchallenged, unearned privilege, power of action and supreme voice then reconciliation becomes difficult.

         Reconciliation should not alter the Indigenous way of life and culture to suit mainstream Australia. Forcing Indigenous people to succumb to Western life is oppressive; which is an exhibition of further segregation and continual dominance. The non Indigenous person is imposing their values and culture upon a group of people who have their own, specific historical culture. Indigenous culture is being ignored and regarded as worthless and unnecessary. Non Indigenous groups want to maintain dominance via means of exercising power and belittling Indigenous groups and placing focus on ‘them’. Focusing on ourselves rather than viewing Indigenous people as the problem, (which in turn maintains and increases the power of the white person, and legitimizes action on our behalf) is part of true reconciliation. Admitting responsibility are initial steps towards real reconciliation. Constant and regular portrayals by the media of the Indigenous community in a negative light, then blaming them for their actions, is a scapegoat, from avoiding issues such as systematic oppression and structural issues that exist within Government policy and legislation, and generally negative attitudes of the broad public. Non-indigenous Australia appears to want to play the part of advisor and presume to have all relevant knowledge of Indigenous culture; by doing this voice is taken away from Indigenous people. Focusing on obvious and overt institutional racism will not allow Whiteness to be knowable; knowing the subtleties and covertness of Whiteness will generate awareness towards reconciliation. This generation may not be directly and physically responsible for separations and colonization of the past, but these past attitudes thought processes and historical events affect the treatment of Indigenous people and govern the way we think and act this day and age (Carey, n.d).

         Diangello (2006) explains how social dynamics shape our beliefs and power plays. As White people, we are given advantages by the way we perceive Indigenous people. This adds to the dynamics by which we understand Indigenous people, and further ads to the barrier it creates to any form of reconciliation. White skin dominates public forums and sets the precedent for social belief systems, stereotypes, false ideologies of fairness and White supremacy. It allows non Indigenous people to look down in a negative way upon Indigenous people in a guilt-free manner. Again justified by placing Indigenous people within the category of ‘other’ (Long and Hylton, 2002) separating non Indigenous people from Indigenous people and unconsciously making non Indigenous people better than Indigenous people. This is enhanced further, by blaming the ‘other’ for their actions and accepting no responsibility as a common member of society who maintains these covert racist norms, by simply being part of society and having White skin, it’s through social construction that White skin is allowed the capacity to rein dominance (Mills, 2007). Our practices and customs as non Indigenous people deliberately exclude Indigenous people, this then disengages and segregates Indigenous people further. Allowing non Indigenous people to believe that Indigenous people do not want to be part of  ‘mainstream’ society, and further isolation and blame is constructed. Perhaps non Indigenous people feel that Indigenous people are culturally deficient within the realm of mainstream society, but in reality, it is a self-created segregation by non Indigenous people that initializes this parting and places Indigenous people outside the ‘norm’ of mainstream society (Diangello, 2006).

         There are many complex issues surrounding Whiteness, as Whiteness in itself is highly complex and requires multiple facets of contribution from diverse areas of life in order to function and continue its prominence (Suchet, 2004., Matsebula et al., 2007a & Stevens, 2007). If society truly wants to become balanced, neutral, respectful and understanding of diversity then it has no choice but to recognize its origins, its culture and all that our history entails (Carey, n.d). Recognition of non Indigenous history and admittance of responsibility of these past actions is necessary in order for reconciliation to take place (Matsebula et al., 2007b). One must examine their own selves in order to begin to remotely understand the oppression of others, on an individual level and in a group setting (Sullivan, 2006., Long and Hylton, 2002). Social Status must be relinquished and power must be distributed evenly (Matsebula et al., 2007b). In order for this to occur, fear must be eradicated from each and every individual and appreciation must be prominent of other communities and diverse cultures. Labelling diverse cultures as ‘others’ hinders the path to reconciliation and destroys any chance of building a positive relationship and understanding of the difference in race. 

One is glad to be of service.

STEFANOS SIFANDOS

Relational Alchemist, Speaker & Author

STEFANOS SIFANDOS

Relational Alchemist, Speaker & Author

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