White is not something that brown and black people invented. ‘White’ is a term that a group of people used to construct not just difference but supremacy. It was necessary for establishing political and cultural institutions, as well as economic systems, that favour this group.
There is vast literature around this undertaking, captured in speeches, letters and diaries written by white people to explain or justify colonisation and slavery. The language was not always antagonistic; often enough racial difference was held as a matter of fact, even natural/divine order.
As when Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens said: ‘Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.’
Or in any of statements made by the second Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin, including: ‘A white Australia is not a surface, but it is a reasoned policy which goes down to the roots of national life, and by which the whole of our social, industrial, and political organisations is governed.’
Or when Rudyard Kipling poetically encouraged American colonisation of the Philippines in 1899 as ‘the white man’s burden’:
Take up the White Man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child
So it is worth taking stock when white people take issue with BIPOC using the term ‘white’ to describe the systematic and historical injustices that have been heaped upon them.
Being offended by the word — usually in an appeal for civil discourse — is active derailment. This behaviour seems to take place in public spaces occupied by brown and black people, and might not seem much more than attention-seeking.
But it is insidious. It drains time, energy and mental resources from people already struggling to be heard, to have their own experiences validated. It advances nothing in the conversation or in efforts to improve material conditions. Being a nice person doing it is irrelevant; the effect is the same.
No one should be under any illusions that manners (and policing manners) leads to structural justice. Non-white peoples have fought for every freedom and right, on their terms, and they continue to do so. The nature of progress is that it starts out rude and impolite.
Telling black and brown people that using the word ‘white’ is divisive — that is not anything that they don’t already know. It is the very contour of their experience.
Criticising them for calling white people what they called themselves to install systems of oppression is beyond gaslighting. It reflects a disturbance within the accuser, not the accused.
As Wiradjuri man and museums programmer Nathan Sentance puts it: ‘Instead of asking “why are you making me uncomfortable?”, settlers should ask “why do I feel uncomfortable?”’.
These dynamics play out in public spaces, but also (perhaps less audibly) in relationships. White supremacy is nothing but comprehensive.
I’ve dwelt over certain incidents in the past few years, which I had hesitated to link to a broader sphere. There is a world of hurt in some of these experiences; they involved friends, people that I thought I could be vulnerable with. The hurt is entangled with childhood trauma, cultural conditioning and my own personal inadequacies. I had to go through a process.
Toward the end of that process, a thing that stood out: all these people are white.
I’m not after vindication or consolation. But I have to give away some detail to show a pattern: The person who got mad and broke up our friendship after I insisted that a misleading photo not be used for a public event. The person who got mad and broke up our friendship when I couldn’t be convinced that you could use the term ‘rust belt’ in Australia. The person who posted a screenshot of our DM conversation, with a ‘Fuck you’, after he pitched and I said that a publication I work for doesn’t normally run long-form essays but could he write it as an op-ed. The person who said that he felt ‘jumped on’ because I didn’t go along with every idea he raised for a project that I had initiated. The person — a dear friend who had grievously hurt me — who cut me off when my hurt lingered and interfered with her self-image as a good (Christian) friend.
These things clustered, and for a good long while, I had to wrestle with the idea that something must be deeply wrong with me. Part of me will always wonder that, I suppose.
However the idea that I might have copped this not just in the ordinary run of humans being shit with each other, but because I am not white. Well. That does things to you, too.
People like me, we have had to examine and re-examine our worth over and over and over. Some of it is within the range of ‘normal’. Life happens.
What white people don’t get is that brown and black people also live with a low, constant, penetrating hum in their ear, one that forces them to think harder and longer and better. One that makes them want to scream just to hear their own voice.
White people don’t hear this noise. Because they are it.