Whiteness As Unfinished History

It took me a while to fully understand this wall’s nature and its many layers [Much of my understanding of these walls comes from my readings of feminist scholar Sara Ahmed. Her work on institution walls and the way racism and sexism continue to inform the cultures at the academy is the basis of much of my thinking in this chapter. In particular, related to walls, see Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, 2017].

Most importantly, it took me time to understand how we experience these walls, for they are not permanently raised in our path as blatantly and insensitively as they were in front of me that afternoon in the editor’s office. After the 9/11 attacks, we witnessed a particularly blatant form of white privilege by which US and European journalists confidently and righteously peddled”raced and gendered portrayals and demonised cultural representations of Muslims and Islam, with the accompanying assumption of the superiority of Western culture” [ Tariq Amin-Khan, “New Orientalism, Securitization and the Western Media’s Incendiary Racism,” Third World Quarterly, 33:9, 2012:1595-1610].

However, these walls are trickier to spot and appear in three different forms: nativist, institutional, and discursive. The nativist form is where a journalist is selected based on an idealised conception of their ethnic, racial, or national identity and then assigned to report and cover communities and geographies that match the identity. The institutional wall appeared within organisations where a certain kind of “white male”–a character Sara Ahmed described as an institution and a structure–could enter and move about quickly. The discursive wall was liberal; Eurocentric discourses define the “objective” common sense, and all others are reduced to speaking about the world and history through those Eurocentric frames. 

These are the walls of the fortress of whiteness in US media [Once again, to clarify: when I use the term “whiteness,” I do not mean an ethnic or racial category but an ideology and worldview. ] One of the easiest to recognise is the “Nativist Wall.”Arjun Appadurai has argued that the term “native” is associated with an ideology of authenticity: “Proper natives are somehow assumed to represent their selves and their history, without distortion or residue” [Arjun Appadurai, Arjun, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology, 1988:3]. Of course, Western journalists who travel the world can operate without explanation or even qualification anywhere. They can acquire ready-made expertise, complexity, depth, and diversity. They can be garlanded with broad authority to speak from anywhere, regardless of their inexperience, lack of language, ignorance of socio-historical context, and even personal interest in the issue, geography or community. However, the “native” is trapped geographically, historically, and permanently tied to a particular place. As an extension of this assumption, the “native” journalist is assumed to possess an insider’s knowledge regardless of background and experience. 

As a result, these fixed definitions of “native” and “non-native” do an equal disservice to “non-native” journalists who may have dedicated their lives to long-term residence and immersion in another society and may possess more significant and more profound knowledge of it than so-called “natives” educated and resident abroad and who return merely for short periods. It seems to have escaped the gatekeepers of Western journalism that in the very world they otherwise celebrate–of globalisation, multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism–identities have “become even more complex at this historical moment in which global flows in trade, politics, and the media stimulate greater interpenetration between cultures” [Kirin Narayan, “How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?” American Anthropologist, September 1993, New Series, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Sep. 1993), pp. 671-686].

These simplistic ethnic definitions and categories say nothing about a journalist’s qualifications and potential. 

Yet, in the eyes of the American editor, I could never be like a Koudelka, a Nachtwey, a Salgado, a Peress, or a Webb. The White, Western correspondent isn’t constrained by her culture or imprisoned by her ethnic lineage. She is exempt from the restriction of authenticity because of her complexity and diversity. She is not of a place, geography, culture, or local lore. She can operate globally and often without speaking local languages and with little or actual knowledge about history, politics, or culture. She does not face the same qualifiers of race, ethnicity, class, culture, geography, nation, or religion as the “native” must. And quite often, she isn’t required to have the same experience and knowledge. 

There is privilege and power at play here, as well as the historical and cultural inheritance of the Westerner. She can and does roam and represent the world with confidence and credibility. The “native “journalist, on the other hand, cannot; she can only represent herself, her “geography,” and “culture.” As Sara Ahmed has argued:

Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space and what they ‘can do.’

[Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory, vol. 8(2): 2007:149–168].

Certain bodies can do more and do it more comfortably. Ahmed argues that this ability to do more comes from spaces, institutions, and social worlds formed not only by whiteness but also by whiteness. “Whiteness functions as a habit, even a bad habit, which becomes a background to social action.” As Ahmed elaborates:

For bodies that are not extended by the skin of the social, bodily movement is not so easy. Such bodies are stopped, where the stopping is an action that creates its own impressions. Who are you? Why are you here? What are you doing? Each question, when asked, is a kind of stopping device: you are stopped by being asked the question, just as asking the question requires that you be stopped.

[Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory, vol. 8(2): 2007:149–168].

Certain bodies move easily within this world, while others are blocked. Of course, some can find a way to “pass as white”– ideologically, politically, strategically, intellectually, they can speak and write from the world view of white privilege and presumption. Others, however, can get stuck. Or are stopped. As we can now see, there is something anachronistic about initiatives and ways of thinking that operate along with the “insider”-“outsider” or “native”-“non-native.” dichotomy. It assumes that identities are fixed and “readable” by some better than others. The constructions of “difference” and “cultures” as set, self-contained, isolated, insulated, and un-entangled social systems have roots in the colonial encounter. But in a world of global human, cultural, technological, financial, and commodity flows, the idea of “insider” and “outsider” cannot hold. 

The writer, academic, researcher, documentarian, and artist Trinh T. Minh-ha pointed out how, as a woman, she faced these issues:

She who “happens to be” a (non-white) Third World member, a woman, and a writer is bound to go through the ordeal of exposing her work to the abuse of praises and criticisms that either ignore, dispense with, or overemphasise her racial and sexual attributes.

[Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Post-coloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989:13].

For Minh-ha, the obsessive focus on “difference” became what she was all about, forcing her to reflect on her place and how she wanted to be placed and seen.

Writer of colour? Woman writer? Or a woman of colour? Which comes first? Where does she place her loyalties? On the other hand, she often finds herself at odds with language, which partakes in the white-male-is-norm ideology and is used predominantly as a vehicle to circulate established power relations. This is further intensified by her finding herself also at odds with her relation to writing, which, when carried out uncritically, often proves to be one of domination: as holder of speech, she usually writes from a position of power, creating as an “author,” situating herself above her work and existing before it, rarely simultaneously with it.

[Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Post-coloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989:13].

Stuart Hall argued that cultural identities have histories and are never fixed. They are constantly and continuously being formed and reformed by history, culture, and power. Identities were not something we discovered in the past–fixed, unchanging, and pure–but something we gave ourselves by the way we were positioned by or within narratives of the past and the present [Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, No. 36, 1989: 68-81].

But journalism continues to “fix” identities, and spaces of White privilege continue to ghettoise the non-White. Editors, particularly those working with international and non-White professionals, insist on operating and focusing on insider/outsider and native/non-native dichotomies. They refuse the complexity of modernity, of individual lives lived across multiple geographies, languages, societies, and polities, which is the lived experience of the majority. Somehow, the “native” is expected to “know” her rightful geography and culture and be able to extricate insights and perspectives unavailable to the “outsider.” All internal complexity, hierarchies, and differences are erased.

Am I a “native” or an “outsider” to this world? What matters is not a designation of “native” or an assumption of “native” insight because of national, ethnic, or racial categories. For example, many South Asian photographers and journalists are married to European supremacy and local degeneracy narratives. There are many South Asian, Middle-Eastern, and other Orientalists in national and international media. These dichotomies of “native” and “non-native” do not stand the test of scrutiny and yet continue to inform how Western media operates worldwide. And yet, we continue to see such initiatives which lock us, the non-White, into immobility.

I remember something Arjun Appadurai once said: that the non-White is “not only persons who are from certain places and belong to those places, but they are also those who are somehow incarcerated, or confined, in those places.” Even non-Western initiatives can fall into the same trap. Majority World, a photo agency that represents “talented photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East,” tells us that its photographers have “the advantage of being able to understand and access the language, lifestyle, and locality–because it is their own” Appadurai has argued that this idea of their world is a form of incarceration as it assumes that they are “not only persons who are from certain places and belong to those places, but they are also those who are somehow incarcerated, or confined, in those places” [Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology, 3, 1988:36–49].

Furthermore, what makes them “native” photographers or journalists is their belonging to and connection to a place–they are uniquely formed by the place and adapted to it. Lastly, the most critical “part of the attribution of nativeness to groups in remote parts of the world is a sense that their incarceration has a moral and intellectual dimension. They are confined by what they know, feel, and believe. They are prisoners of their ‘mode of thought’”  [Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology, 3, 1988:36–49].

But these definitions, segmentations, and categorisations are simply untenable. “On what basis can we justify a decision to demarcate groups and define membership in one way rather than another?” Alcoff has asked presciently. “No easy solution to this problem can be found by simply restricting the practice of speaking for others to speaking for groups of which one is a member” [Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Cultural Critique, Winter, 1991-1992, No. 20 (Winter, 1991-1992), pp. 5-32].

When Howard W. French expressed an interest in reporting from Japan, he was met with disbelief. “Really?” was the response from an editor. “Could you do that? How would you cover Japan?” [Howard W. French, “The enduring whiteness of the American media,” The Guardian, May 25, 2016]. French had reluctantly accepted a post to the African continent despite his lack of interest in reporting from there. He had been “pressed hard” to take the posting because, as another White senior editor said, one could “between the episodic hard news provided by the occasional conflict or coup…amuse oneself there scribbling postcards about the exotic and primitive, or…[the]…’oogah-boogah.’” The “ethnic” is denied mobility, transnationality, and plurality, but the White is universal. The question of “the competitive advantage” of a White journalist operating in a foreign country whose language she does not speak, where she has never lived, whose people and culture are primarily foreign to her, and who has little or no experiences from the region, is never raised.

The non-White, native, alien, Other–are always asked to represent themselves, explain themselves, and make themselves legible through its discourses and prejudices. Normative society, male, Eurocentric demands that the “Other” constantly demonstrate their modernity, feminism, and social and cultural sophistication and does so through Eurocentric frames. The West exemplifies social and political norms, gender relations, political formations, legal procedures, and individual and societal liberties. All others have to mirror it or explain how hard they are working to do so. Audre Lorde said, “An old and primary tool of all oppressors is to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns…This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist, patriarchal thought” [Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” In Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 2007(1984):113].

It is what Toni Morrison called “distraction.” The Other is constantly asked to represent their “people” and “culture,” and many end up producing little more than works that parrot Eurocentric frames to appease Western desires. So obsessive has this conviction of the West’s perfection become that even migrants and refugees fleeing Western savagery and military barbarism are repainted as those “desiring” a “better life” in the West [ Slavoj Žižek, “The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival, NewStatesman, January 13, 2016].

Fleeing Western wars, brutality, torture, enforced famine, starvation, and death becomes a “desire for the West” and a pursuit of liberty and freedom. It is white racism that transforms the suffering of others into a “lack” that we can overcome only by becoming physically, culturally, and ideologically like the West [Sara Ahmed, “Progressive Racism,” feministkilljoys, May 30, 2016].