Whiteness As An Institutional Wall

Then there are the Institutional walls. Discussions about the lack of gender and ethnic diversity often blame a lack of access to “diverse” journalists on lousy hiring practices, failure of self-promotion, lack of professional commitment, an inability to locate talent or some organisational operations failure. They often call for more decisive efforts and better campaigns to introduce a more diverse workforce in the newsroom in hiring and assignment decisions. However, they rarely touch upon the institution and a persistent culture and social order within the mainstream media institutions. Whiteness is not about colour. It is about the institutional structure and a way of seeing the world assumed to be normative and appropriate. Social worlds form whiteness, allowing certain bodies to do more, other bodies to be blocked, specific ideas to be adjudicated as “truth,” and others as “beyond the pale” of decent discourse [Madiha Tahir, “The Ground Was Always in Play,” Public Culture, (2017) 29 (1 (81)): 5–16].

Sara Ahmed tells us to see whiteness “as a category of experience that disappears as a category through experience…[making]…whiteness ‘worldly.’” Whiteness is a habit that can become a background to social action, ensuring that whiteness exists as a normative background experience from which all the rest of the others are evaluated and their horizons determined. The term “White men,” as Sara Ahmed has argued, is not just a descriptor but an institution and a structure:

When we talk of “white men,” we are describing an institution…to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution, I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure…“White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.

[ Sara Ahmed, “White Men,” Feminist Killjoys Blog, November 4, 2014].

Institutions are sustained by relationships, structures, rules, norms, networks, contacts, habits, values, and practices that ensure persistence and continuity. Predominantly white spaces work through a very tight, close-knit, deeply relationship–based social order where almost everyone knows everyone else. Recognition, recruitment, employment, and rewards are deployed to ensure the continuity and growth of the social order. Certain bodies move easily within institutions, while others require policing and monitoring their conduct.

White men refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived.

[ Sara Ahmed, Living A Feminist Life, Duke University Press, 2017:152–153].

The Whiteness of US media constrains it ideologically, as a social and economic class, something we never talk about when it comes to media. Its privileges are a powerful determinant of who gets noticed, what stories get told, what perspectives are adopted, what arguments are made, what narratives are ignored, and which are silenced. Class allegiance is critical for getting “into” the network because those not aligned to it ideologically are also most likely to offer uncomfortable and problematic challenges. Class works through networks and relationships, and getting access to these networks and relationships requires financial and social capital. Typical US media interns come from specific class backgrounds because of the high cost of living in major US metropolitan centres and the unlivable wages paid to interns looking to make their way into careers in journalism. Class allegiance crosses racial and ethnic identities and is a crucial reason why seemingly diverse newsrooms continue to produce racially suspect work. This is not new news, but evident to many for decades. As a 1994 study revealed:

Even if newspapers can manage to achieve demographic parity (in their hiring of minority journalists) with the general population, that alone will not guarantee a more honest and representative brand of reporting. The problem lies as much in our attitudes as in our statistics.

[ Ellis Cose, “Seething in Silence; News in Black And White,” In Everette E. Dennis, Robert W. Snyder (Eds), Media and Public Life, 1997:30].

The fact remains that regardless of the ethnicity or colour of the journalists, stories from mainstream newsrooms and photojournalism outlets reflect the dominant newsroom values, which in turn reflect the prevailing societal values. As Stuart Hall argued, there is a dialectic between society and the newsroom, as the audience is both the “source” and “receiver” of the media message. Editors and publishers “draw topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situation’ from other sources and other discursive formations within the wider socio-cultural and political structure of which they are a differentiated part” [Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” In Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe & Paul Willis, Culture, Media, Language, Routledge, 2005(1980):119]. Hall, however, could have added that newsrooms draw their personnel–writers, editors, photographers–from the same society they cater to.

As Yahya R. Kamalipour and Theresa Carilli found out in their 1998 study of culture and diversity in the American newsroom:

When journalists of colour arrive in newsrooms where coverage reflects a hegemonic understanding of class, the racial diversity they bring may not be equally diverse in terms of class…Journalists of colour covering news about non–White Americans similar to White Americans indicates the powerful, implicit common sense that dictates the routines and conventions of the newsroom .

[Yahya R. Kamalipour & Theresa Carilli (Eds:), Cultural Diversity and the U. S. Media, SUNY Press, 1998:55].

This implicit common sense, or ideology, defines the normative social order in which people are invited, selected, hired, or rejected. The question of diversity is only complete if we understand these institutions’ culture and social order. It is equally incomplete unless we realise that the implicit common sense implies white privilege, US exceptionalism, and neoliberal capitalism. This implicit common sense is the atmosphere of a new US institution, or what it calls its’ atmosphere.’ “Is there anyone who has not,” Teresa Brennan asked, “at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’?” [Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, Cornell University Press, 2004:1].

Institutional atmospheres are how bodies and minds are stopped, ideas foreclosed, truths ignored, and world views rejected. They are how specific ideas circulate quickly, and particular bodies are welcomed with open arms.

tmospheres can be an institutional wall, a way in which some are stopped without being formally stopped; a way in which some are stopped even when they appear to be welcomed. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels acknowledge how social exclusion often works through atmospheres, as a polite way of excluding or eliminating some bodies. They write: “Society behaves just as exclusively as the state, only in a more polite form: it does not throw you out, but it makes it so uncomfortable for you that you go out of your own will” (Marx & Engels, The Holy Family, [1845] 1956:129).

[Sara Ahmed, “Atmospheric Walls,” feministkilljoys, September 15, 2014].

This “atmospheric wall” can welcome some while encouraging others to leave. It ensures that some stand out or cannot pass through the hierarchies of the organisation. Or are just made uncomfortable and made to feel different. Even when staffed with an appropriate level of gender and ethnic members, these atmospheric walls constantly check and measure who is allowed membership and who is stopped [Sara Ahmed, “Atmospheric Walls,” feministkilljoys, September 15, 2014].

Relationships, structures, rules, norms, networks, contacts, habits, values, and practices are sustained by institutions that ensure their persistence and continuity. Predominantly White spaces work through a very tight, close-knit, deeply relationship-based social order where almost everyone knows everyone else, and recognition, recruitment, employment, and rewards are deployed to ensure the continuity and growth of the social order. Institutions are made “white” through work. An institution or organisation isn’t just there; it is built and sustained. Only some people can get it. There are gates.

As Sara Ahmed has argued, recruitment ” functions as a technology for the reproduction of whiteness.” Recruitment restores and renews the organisation’s body and depends on “gathering bodies to cohere as a body” [Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory, vol. 8(2): 2007: 149–168].

That is, the demands of diversity come up and meet the institution’s needs. You can be ethnic but must share its implicit common sense to belong, progress, and succeed. Once an institutional environment is stable and the conditions of your thriving are defined, they no longer have to be made explicit. Some more than others will hence belong within it. Still, because we no longer notice the reproduction of the stabilised institutional environment, we assume that “they [those who belong] are here because they just happened to fit, rather than they fit because of how the structure was built.” [Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory, vol. 8(2): 2007:149–168]. For those who do not fit in, the institution becomes a place where they must constantly explain themselves, be asked to change, be questioned, be suspected, face walls, prove their credentials, justify their interests, and resist typecasting.