Defending Race Privilege on the Internet: How Whiteness Uses Innocence Discourse Online

As the debate around the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation rages, we are reminded that, in order to be reproduced and maintained as dominant, ‘Western Civilisation’ has to be always be imagined as under threat. The impetus for the creation of the centre stems from the delusion that the positionality of the ‘West’ isn’t already the norm, and that this needs to be rectified through establishing an entire centre to sing its praises. With these debates taking place, it’s an apt moment to reflect on the everyday strategies mobilised to defend white normativity, the ‘reasonable middle’ and innocence, in response to perceived threat. My article, ‘Defending race privilege on the Internet: how whiteness uses innocence discourse online’ is just out with Information, Communication and Society and deals with just this topic [1].

The analysis of the article is drawn from comments sections of three online articles: Aamer Rahman’s incisive takedown of Game of Thrones, Mikki Kendall’s account of her hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and a response from Goldsmiths University student, Bahar Mustafa, who became the target of controversy when she requested white people and men not attend an event she had organised. Each article is challenging in some way to white centrality, and I was interested to see how commenters under the articles responded to this challenge. As we all know, race plays out online: arguably, it does so in ways that are particularly interesting to scholars and activists. Research in this area often makes use of Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin’s theory of ‘two-faced racism,’ which argues that racism has shifted location in the last decades from a more ‘frontstage,’ public arena to the ‘backstage’ of private discourse[2]. The Internet creates a useful study resource, therefore, in that it allows a glimpse of a third zone, which blurs the boundaries between front- and back-stage racism and thus allows a view of racism’s other face. Researchers have found that white people are likely to display more honesty on racial matters in an online space, and that online forums provide a more accurate indication of racial attitudes than survey responses. In this instance, I used these comments sections to analyse a ‘backstage’ of honest responses to a sense of challenge to whiteness, that nevertheless, due to their moderated nature, remained within the confines of acceptable normative discourse.

I identified four kinds of argumentative strategies: 1) appeals to white vulnerability; 2) to ‘common-sense’ and ‘reasonable’ values; 3) to the immutability and innocence of the ‘real world’ and ‘facts’; and 4) to the healing power of race-blindness. Each tendency connects to existing Critical Race and Whiteness scholarship, and will also probably be familiar to anyone engaged in discussions of race online or elsewhere. Internet scholarship has seen a considerable level of optimism surrounding the Internet as the creation of a democratic public space, and a space in which race identity and racism are transcended. Anyone who has ever actually been online will not be surprised to read that these hopes were never realised – one of the most stable characteristics of the online space is the ubiquity of racist (as well as other kinds of) abuse. But ‘acceptable’ white supremacist values are also reproduced in this space, and it was this kind of discourse in particular that I was interested in in this article.

 

1.    White vulnerability

The first kind of comments identified were focussed on hurt and threat, with the criticism of whiteness being characterised as traumatic and hurtful. One commenter wrote under Rahman’s article that ‘all white people should just be eliminated from the planet,’ and another compared Mustafa’s statements to the lethal shooting at Charlie Hebdo offices. Under Kendall’s article one commenter posted that ‘feminism is such a minefield.’ Many comments also focused on voice and on the right to speak, express opinions and produce art – a right which many commenters saw as profoundly threatened by the expression of race-critical opinions. ‘I’m a white male. Am I allowed to comment on this?’ reads one post under Mustafa’s article. A comment on Rahman’s article stated sarcastically ‘You are right, from now on, we white folks will avoid at all costs using themes from other cultures/races from our fictional works. It will be like they never existed.’ There are also many accusations of ‘reverse racism’ or racism against white people made against all three authors as well as supportive commenters.

White vulnerability is one component of the logic by which a notion of innocence is recruited as a means of protection and justification of whiteness. Through an imagining of great vulnerability, whiteness is able to avoid the content of even the gentlest critiques by focusing only on the hurt that such a critique entails. White vulnerability also manifests in the phenomenon of ‘white women’s tears’ in which white women, when asked to consider the racial implications of their actions, instead burst into tears, as described by Ruby Hamad here. Tactics of white vulnerability redirect focus to the emotional hurt felt by those who are asked to reckon with their racism, rather than that felt by whoever experiences its effects.

 

2.     Common sense and the ‘reasonable’ middle

The second type of responses assert that critiques of racism are too complicated or too strenuous for the white commenter to grasp. These kinds of responses often invoke a discourse of the argument going ‘too far,’ of being ‘unreasonable’ or overly politically correct. Many use scare quotes around terms or seek in other ways to parody nuanced analyses of race. Commenters resisted systemic understandings of racism and sexism, arguing for ‘common sense’ or appealing to dictionary definitions of the terms in order to attempt to portray more developed understandings as unreasonable or excessive. Comments also identified certain spaces or discourses in which such structural critiques hold sway: with references to ‘edgy,’ ‘leftist,’ ‘PC,’ ‘Stalinist,’ ‘hipster,’ ‘tumblr,’ ‘left wing lesbians,’ ‘identity politics,’ ‘intellectual,’ ‘pseudo intellectual,’ ‘theory-speak,’ ‘Marxist,’ ‘the NUS today,’ ‘the ranks of organised feminism,’ ‘Jezebel,’ ‘echo chamber,’ ‘cliques inside cliques,’ and parodying self-identification with oppressed identities.

By imagining a segmented community of extreme and unreasonable others who participate in an ‘echo chamber’ of elite, trendy or otherwise cliquey discourses, commenters are able partition off critiques of racism as not relevant to their worlds. Such discourses also construct the ‘mainstream’ – that which is not included in this imagined leftist/Marxist/feminist/edgy/intellectual echo chamber – as neutral by comparison. By attacking the ideological conformity, cliquiness and discursive habits of those who express anti-racist opinions, commenters imply a world outside of such habits which is ideologically diverse, inclusive and discursively indeterminate. In these statements critiques of racism are positioned as in excess: going ‘too far,’ employing concepts that are too complex and criticising too much or too harshly. Such characterisations position whiteness – in comparison – as gentle, simple and reasonable.

 

3.     ‘Real world’ normativity

Appeals to reality, the actual events of history, or ‘facts’ of the ‘real world’ were common in all three comments sections. Commenters on Rahman’s article heavily emphasised assertions that the series on which Game of Thrones is inspired by actual historical events (‘So you get mad when fiction aligns with actual history?’). As the show includes dragons, zombies and magical bombs of green fire, these commenters’ definition of true or actual history would appear to be rather generous. This kind of strategy was extremely common: commenters seemed convinced not only that their understanding of history was unassailably correct (one wrote with confidence that ‘historically, the west [sic] has been more developed’), but also that a reproduction of the racial logics of history must necessarily be blameless.

The argumentative strategy of appeals to the ‘real world’ was also apparent under Kendall’s article, where one comment countered any finding of fault with feminist movements for serving the needs only of white middle class women because ‘white middle class women are the heart of the [feminist] movement and always have been.’ Another, in the same theme, wrote that ‘Feminism has done more to address the needs of white women because most who have participated have been white.’ The empirical claims made in these statements are obviously suspect. However, even if they were true, such claims do not axiomatically lead to a moral defence of silencing women of colour who seek to change the situation.

 

4.     Colour-blindness: The ‘kumbaya’ approach

‘Kumbaya’ comments appealed to a naïve innocence of race – a kind of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ response. They referred to ‘skin colour’ (which should be ignored), ‘humanity’ (which should come together) and ‘divisiveness’ (which should be avoided). The very first comment on Kendall’s article claimed that, ‘Perhaps the world would be a better place if we started refering [sic] to each other as human beings rather than colours.’ Another commenter under the article presenting Mustafa’s analysis wrote:

… TAKE THE PIANO – PLAY MUSIC USING ONLY THE WHITE KEYS, PLAY SAME TUNE USING ONLY BLACK KEY – THEN PLAY THE TUNE AGAIN USING ALL THE KEYS AND LISTEN TO THE HARMONY – LESSON WE ALL HAVE TO LIVE TOGETHER SO LET US LEARN TO HARMONISE AND MAKE THIS DAMNED WORLD A BETTER PLACE FOR ALL [sic, all caps original]

Obviously these comments varied in the sophistication with which they present this argument. But they all share a similar basic principle: race is a construct designed to divide humanity, and the most effective means to combat its divisive nature is to deny its existence. This leads to a convenient situation in which to be ignorant of racism (as many of these commenters obviously are) is in fact a virtue. What this approach means, most conveniently, is that any critique by a commentator of colour that makes white people feel uncomfortable can be quashed with the claim that it is ‘divisive’ and ‘denying our common humanity.’

 

Through a critical discourse analysis of these comments, I reveal argumentative strategies which recruit notions of white innocence. The reproduction of whiteness through techniques of innocence is the topic of my PhD thesis (in progress), and this article was a useful opportunity to test the ideas outlined there in an applied setting. In these strategies in defence of whiteness, tropes of white fragility and hurt emphasise white vulnerability; resistance to involved or thoughtful critiques underwrite white simplicity; appeals to the ‘real world’ render neutral white centrality; and the naiveté of ‘colour-blind’ whiteness is reified as an antidote to both racism and racial criticism. The idea connecting each of these strategies, and drawing them into a coherent whole, is the construction of whiteness: imagined as essentially and immanently innocent.

 

 

 

 

[1] This blog post is a bare-bones synopsis of the content, and anyone wanting to chase up any scholarly leads missing from this truncated version should get in touch.

[2] Picca, L. H. & Feagin, J. R. (2007). Two-faced racism: Whites in the backstage and frontstage. New York, NY: Routledge.

Anastasia Kanjere is a white settler postgraduate student in the Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Her research interests include critical race and whiteness studies, critical border studies, continental philosophy, culture studies, motherhood, vulnerability and (in)security, and critical childhood studies.

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