“Images of Whiteness: Exploring Critical Issues” – that sounds like an interesting conference, doesn’t it? More than 70 people from around the world spent a couple of days at the University of Oxford last week, to talk about the various fields where people (think they) are undertaking research into Critical Whiteness Studies. Besides being all panicky about finishing my paper a day before I had to present it, I thought it was a mostly thought-provoking experience.
However, as you can probably sense from the tone, there is a But, as there almost always is when academics (and pseudo-academics like myself ;)) come together, and even more so when academia (especially the humanities which are predominantly white, at least in their canonised works, self-presentation and perception) occupies itself with critically assessing structures of discrimination. Whereas the “habitus”-issues were reduced to a minimum this time (e.g., I wasn’t the only one unsure about which of the forks to use next at lunch…), my hopes to enjoy a mostly racism free conference for a change were quite quickly stifled, due to several factors.
I’d like to visualise one of them subtly here:
I was quite curious to see how many POC were attending the conference – and out of roughly 70, there were 6 (including myself); which, I have to admit with a lot of unhidden resentment, was the highest ratio of POC I’ve ever experienced at an academic conference in Europe. In any case (and however romanticising that might sound): it was a very relaxing and energizing experience to be able to socialise and talk to other POC academics for a change; something I, as I realised again, too rarely have the possibility for. Furthermore, it most certainly helped to digest the racist BS that was about to happen (…if only because one doesn’t have to constantly and elaborately explain why something is racist to other people of colour).
I have to add that I also a number of very smart, friendly, curious and incredibly reflected people working on whiteness and racism (as I had hoped for a conference entitled as this one) and am really looking forward to meeting them again and hearing more about their work.
Still, situations created and claims made by other white participants were making a mock out of this conference’s motto at times. The second session of the first day, for example, was one of those awkward moments where the only thing popping to my head was: “Are you fucking serious?” One of the organisers gave a paper about images of whiteness and ideals of whiteness in South Korea, completely lacking any historical contextualisation and culminating in the claim that “whiteness” was more of a “class” than a “race” marker (…which is funny, obviously, since the mere word for her “class”-marker is racialised, FFS).
One of my fellow panelists, talking about the ideology of “colour blindness” in Norwegian schools and clearly a person who would describe herself as an anti-racist, neglected to actually talk to racialised children about their feelings and experiences on this ideology (substituting her view as theirs), and then casually dropped that “Pakistanis usually marry their cousins.”
Another presenter talked about her experiences in anthropological “field work” in Paris’ banlieu clubs with Afro French men who hit on her, and how many white women were seeking out sexual relationships to them because of their “hyper-masculinity,” that in turn is belittling white men for their “sissy-ness.” Historical context? Political context? Offering another way to read this than Black Men “sexualising white women?” Nope.
Finally, adding to my already unhappy experiences with white women from South Africa, [which is not to say that every white South African is inherently racist, but that the vast majority of South African white women I have ever met were eager to share their blunt (and only rarely subtle) racism, occasionally congratulating me on my light skin shade, and at one time actually talking about how evilly they’re treated by Black people who were “like kids” and had “to touch everything” – yes, I am serious], another participant repeatedly felt the need to compliment me and other people of colour on their hair, and then told a friend of mine, another Afro german PhD student participating in the conference, that her hair was “awesome” and that she was lucky because wouldn’t “need a bike helmet” when driving her bike.
That pretty much ended the pub evening prematurely.
So… yeah. Personally, the racist remarks were kind of expected, although not in this mere stupidity and WTF-ness as they were brought forward. A conference on Critical Whiteness with that many (white) participants is bound to have some “But what about teh whitz?”-claims happen; and some people seem to not have caught on to the idea that Critical Whiteness is about critically reflecting structures, actions and personal behaviour that create(d) and perpetuate relations of domination and discrimination, not a self-help group for white people whining about how miserable it is to miss the bus.
What irritated me most is that there were rooms full of people claiming they’re doing research on Critical Whiteness, and none of them said a goddamn word whenever “incidents” like the ones mentioned above occurred. No one besides the friend of mine and me said a peep at the pub when the “bike helmet”-BS happened. No one, not even the panel chairs, said a word when the “cousin-marrying” or “whiteness is a class, not a race-marker”-BS happend. I am not sure if this was complete obliviousness or nervousness or embarrassment or uncertainty whether one should react when POC are present and are about to react to such claims themselves. To me, this was another, very annoying example of the issues I tried to address in a previous post, urging people to Say Something!
I expect people to react in situations like this; even more so those who claim to be working on Critical Whiteness. I expect people to not think “Oh, there’s someone who looks non white enough to care about racism, so I’ll let them defend themselves” whenever a person of colour is (directly or indirectly) verbally attacked. I expect people to know that casually dropping racist BS like that is never okay, and that if you stay mute, I interpret that as agreement or cowardice. Finally, I expect people to think before they speak, and if they say discriminatory stuff, as most of us do at least occasionally, to stop talking, to apologise, and to try harder next time. You know, the common sense approach…