Thursday, 12 December 2013

White privilege: Multiculturalist and Social Constructionist Approaches to Race

Invariably absent from discussions on race (and diversity training seminars) is the concept of whiteness and the implications of being white. Indeed, perceptions of race are premised on the false binary of ‘white’ and (/versus) ‘people of colour’, wherein the invisibility of whiteness precludes critique of the relative power white people enjoy. Legal academic Baraba J. Flagg notes that white people, -a group that holds more social and economic power than people of people, are often unconsciousness of being white, but tend to be aware of people of colour.  This lack of awareness is one fundamental aspect of what it actually means to be white.

Being white is often unconsciously understood among whites in North American and European societies as being normative. Such ideas were reinforced by the now discredited ‘scientific’ field of eugenics, which held all races to be divergent (and digressive) from the white norm. Remember that race is a social construction with no relation to biology or genetics. Norms reflect the values and beliefs of the dominant groups in society. It is normative for example, to say that Europeans discovered North America, that it was a New World. If whiteness is normal, what does that communicate of the experience of being of another race?

For historical reasons, being white has provided advantages that are rooted in the oppression of non-whites. The false binary of race reinforces the preponderance of whiteness as a privileged racial category.

Until today many social institutions such as the legal system and education policies discriminate in favour of white people, even if unwittingly or in subtle ways. In their everyday life, whites seldom have to think about their race or the perception of their race by others. One could say that to better understand racism, it is best not to think of discreet racial categories, but to critically examine the relationship of race, and especially whiteness, with social, economic and political power. Whilst bigotry and prejudice can be committed by anyone, racism is described as prejudice + power, which is why some social scientists assert the notion that because of the disproportionate privilege of white people in the United States and Europe, anyone can be a racial bigot but that only whites can be racist.

Exposing and critiquing white privilege challenges the notion of meritocracy, especially in such ideals as the American Dream, which has more to do with the privileges available to those who hold, or upon whom is bestowed, social and political ascendancy.

If white privilege exits, it follows that there is a moral imperative to provide redress. Some policies such as affirmative action are direct, highly visible, and very controversial. Much of the controversy stems from the lack of awareness of white privilege. Many well-intentioned people believe in Multiculturalism as way of addressing the issue of racial (and religious etc) equality. What is missing from multiculturalist thinking however, is the acknowledgement of race as a position of social power. Multiculturalism instead portrays every group as equal but different, and positing that the answer to racism lies in mutual respect and celebration of our differences. Whilst it would be wrong to disagree with this premise, activists from the social constructionist side argue instead that all groups should be equal, and that all groups are worthy of celebration, but that when it comes down to it, we are not in fact equal in terms of social power. From this perspective race is not about difference, it is actually about power and how power produces what we observe as the distinctions between the groups we consider to be racial categories.

Whilst multiculturalism as an approach is praiseworthy, it is lacking in its ability to critically analyze the unfair power of whiteness over all over groups. Because of this multiculturalism feels very safe to white people, - it might entail a superficial exploration and celebration of the foods, clothing, language and customs of other groups. Without discussion of the inherent power relations between the groups, there is not likely to be a greater understanding of how social injustices and inequality create differences- the same differences often seen as being racial differences. To give an example, a predominantly white organization may ask someone (a white person) to arrange more whites at the organization to work with people of colour in staging an event at which other whites are able to ‘look at’ the clothing, music, dance or food of other cultures. If power remains unaddressed as such events, they can act to reinforce the power of whites to be introduced to other cultures as a form of amusement, and from a position of comfort and relative power. Challenging racism then, has more to do with rendering whiteness visible and exposing the power imbalance.

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