Which box to tick? A conversation with whiteness

This is a guest post from Gabriela Greenaway, an MA student in Applied Linguistics at UCL and co-editor of Rethinking Matters.

Which box shall I tick? She asks. Sorry, what? The weary blue eyes of the midwife after a long shift look at me, then my baby, then my partner. Which box shall I tick? She repeats in a soft English lilt behind the blue mask that contrasts with her freckled light skin. We are a little bit puzzled, what does she mean? We have to fill in this form. It’s routine, she explains. She points at her computer screen. We see an unassuming little tick box next to: White. White English. White Irish. Black. Black Caribbean. Black African. Asian. Latino. Latino White Mixed…and so this list goes on. I see, I say. My baby, having just been born 20 minutes ago needs to be put in one of these boxes. My partner and I looked at each other a little bit unsure, a little bit uncomfortable. He is from Montserrat in the Caribbean. So Black Caribbean? I am from…well, my father is white English and my mother Latino from Ecuador. Which box do we tick? How is it decided which labels are included or not? What are the social consequences of these boxes? These questions run through our heads. The midwife is looking at us waiting for a response. She wants a straightforward answer. She is only doing her job. It’s standard protocol.

gabriela 2

After a long labour and a night at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, we are discharged the following day. The hospital looks empty aside from presumably the key workers, NHS staff, and essential travel. Non urgent appointments have been cancelled or postponed. Other key workers are also needed: the cleaners, the security guards, the cafeteria staff, the supermarket staff…who are these people? Which box did they tick? I wonder how surprised we would be with what pattern we would find. Driving through the historic city on our way home, there’s an eerie feeling. In the absence of the usual hustle and bustle of the streets, I feel the presence of glorified statues. Which box would these commemorated men ticked?

‘Whiteness was created in 1681’, my partner reads out loud. At home, we do a bit of research. The questions about the boxes are still meandering in my mind and this phrase gets me intrigued. I continue thinking about my baby, the tick boxes, the labels… What colour will his skin be? People ask. When we introduce him to his extended family and friends the colour of his skin inevitably comes out in conversation. I realise it will likely be a topic of conversion for the rest of his life. How dark will he be? How dark will he get? What will that mean for him? There’s a doubleness in effect; it doesn’t matter yet it does.

I ask my partner to continue reading. We acquaint ourselves with Jacqueline Battalori’s book, ‘The Birth of a White Nation’, where she argues whiteness was invented in law. Back in the early seventeenth century, to be white was not in the public framework of consciousness. People identified as French, Dutch, British etc. So, who is white? And how did it come about? We keep reading. In the U.S., laws had it that free folk were equal and had the same rights under the law in the early 17th century. Socio-economic factors gradually lead to the creation and assertion of whiteness. In the Bacon Rebellion in 1676 the labour force consisting mainly of Europeans and people of African descent rebelled against their masters seeking to improve their working conditions. The British Christian elites sought to end this united labour force. Divide and conquer, that was their approach. This in turn was reflected in a series of laws. In particular, inventing the ‘white’ label to group those of European Christian descent. White supremacy, privileges, power and freedoms begins to be codified in law. To mention a few: the anti-miscegenation laws which prohibit non-whites to marry white people. Those of African descent cannot own land. They cannot testify crimes against white. They cannot vote. In such a way, over time the label ‘white’ began to acquire meaning. Freedoms. Power. Privilege. In contrast, a new rock bottom of humiliation, systematic oppression and lifelong slavery for non-whites was enshrined in law. Black. No freedom. No rights. A slave.

I have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. It seems whiteness is a social construct made up by a few elite men in power, as a political tool to benefit from the oppressed. Sound familiar? This is relevant not only for the U.S. These laws and labels were dependent on the politics at the heart of the colonial empire, London. History shows us how these labels do more than just gather information for population monitoring in census. These labels act as a way of racialization, it is not ‘just’ categorising. It is not objective or neutral, as it is often portrayed today. Behind the labels created there are hegemonic ideologies, hierarchies and histories of colonisation and power. These labels recreate and co-construct the racial identities we think of today. They put people in the boxes, essentializing them. This tick boxing exercise is just a fleeting moment in time, a formality, just paperwork. Standard (unreflective) routine stuff if you are white, right? I think of the midwife back in the hospital. I sensed her uneasiness and sensitivity when she asked my partner whether he was from Western Africa. How do the labels work here? I wonder how she feels calling out these labels when we are supposed to be ‘colour blind’. I ask myself whether she herself has had to reflect on being white.

White is unmarked, no need to ponder over it. It is a label, an invented social category taken for granted. A social construct that has evolved with time, no longer rigid in its boundaries, accommodating Irish, Jews for example… Where does that leave me? I think back to myself how depending on context, I have been able to pass as white. I realise how people perceive us and what box we are put in is not only relational but does not account for intersectionality. At the same time, it is all made up. Herein lies the paradox. It is a made-up social construct yet with very tangible, material consequences say, whether you belong or not. A box outside the supposedly white majority that places the other as the minority, the inferior. Power asymmetry granted by the law in labels gets passed over generations, ingrained in culture. This long grim history and relevance of whiteness conveniently escapes our collective memory. Today to be white comes with subtle, unspoken assertions of power, privileges, ignorance of the suffering of those outside the box of white… The labels gradually become behaviours. We become the labels.

The horrific murder of George Floyd has sparked movements of people across the US and recently UK and parts of Europe. It also sparked something in me. How fearful should I be for my increasingly melanin blessed baby’s future? I recall a chilling text from my partner’s cousin saying, ‘I hope you know you are going to have to fight for your black son’. We have organised and divided humanity through labels. Entire countries have been founded on the bases of a dogma of categorisation. White / Black / Asian, etc… They have been used as a tool to divide the population, to exploit and deny resources to certain groups of people, to benefit some and disadvantage others, to justify violence… As a white flag to say ‘we are not racist’ because we employ x percentage of people of colour. Does this mean we shouldn’t use the labels? My partner reminds me that in the Nordic countries they do not collect information on race to the same extent as the UK. In fact, there it is illegal. They have exported a self-image of exceptional egalitarianism, so they like to think of themselves as innocent when it comes to racism and colonialism, my partner adds. Wait, this strikes me, they don’t use these labels? I wonder if in their eyes, labels = racism? Yet they still struggle with racism. Surely labels can be useful in some ways? Perhaps what the issue is, is not the labels themselves but rather how they are used. We know they can be useful for monitoring and tracking racial diversity in HR practices and targeting healthcare treatment. We know during lockdown it is Black Asian Ethnic Minorities that have suffered the worst. On the news, I see #BlackLivesMatter protesting. Like other socially disadvantaged groups, they have reclaimed their label in order to fight for equality. Reminds me of the Peggy McIntosh’s analogy of the moebius strip; if you run your finger along the surface of a twisted circle of tape, you can run your finger along full circle to cover two seemingly opposite sides without ever having to actually lift your finger to change sides at all. This analogy is to say that both sides can exist together: these labels perpetuate inequalities, but they can also challenge them. They can be a tool to monitor and control but also to fight discrimination and racism. It seems like two observations here, yet they are on the same side of the label, so to speak.

To bring this conversation back to a full circle. Which box to tick? For many people it is uncomfortable to talk critically about race, and especially for white people to reflect on their whiteness in relation to blackness and the history of its invention. What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be black today? I remember my partner saying black was put on him when he came to England. Even if I ticked mixed, will the world still perceive my baby as black anyway and therefore put blackness on him? Kind of like Obama is black not mixed. White and black were invented precisely not to be equal. Where I study in London, it is uncomfortable to see the extent of how visible racial segregation still is. Just look at the representations of where people live and job positions. Can we continue with the pretence of an innocent and insignificant tick box activity? We are all one human race. We are all equal, people say. We don’t need to go on about it, do we? We are a ‘less racist society’ according to Boris Johnson. So, this is just paperwork. Just tick a goddam box. One could wonder why bother with such questions. There seems to be proximity-distance tensions at play. We can all to varying degrees distance ourselves from different social injustices that don’t closely affect us. And we can distance ourselves from history, make it just ticking an inconsequential box, while others closely experience the deadly effects of it. We end up in the dangerous zone of racism without racists. I ask myself more questions. Without personal reflection on group labels and their interconnectedness with social injustices, can we really understand the changing complexity of racism and bring about lasting meaningful change? Rather than outsourcing the thinking and decision making to those in power.

It feels we are at a tipping point, needing a fundamental change of perspective in terms of the questions we are asking and our way of living. We are in the middle of this rupture from our past lives. At the beginning of the lockdown many were asking, is this an opportunity for change? Can we imagine a new world? New ways of being? I thought that was a very privileged, intellectual and even opportunistic way of thinking about the pandemic. Now I realise that the two giant stories – the pandemic and George Floyd’s death – can be a catalyst for much needed change. If anything, lockdown has shown us that we can be and live differently. Do we want the future to look like a slightly tweaked version of our past/present? A world where we are conditioned to uphold the very labels that oppress us, we give them our consent and power over us. How do we imagine our future in relation to these labels and less inequality? I find I don’t have the answers. Instead, I offer questions as a departure point to rethink and explore the nuanced ways in which these labels work and how they are used.

The midwife is still waiting, her red flushes visible, as she looks politely impatient after our long pause. She is probably wondering why this is such a difficult question. She repeats one more time. So which box do you want me to tick? I guess we better say something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s