29th Sep 2020


On 'whiteness', 'privilege' and other tropes of minority identity politics

It is time to "shut up and listen" you would hear them say.

At other times they will ask you to "use your privilege" and "speak up".

Read and decide

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  • (Photo: Dyab Abou Jahjah)

If you say something they don't approve of, they will tell you to "educate yourself", or even propose to educate you.

"Stop being toxic", "stop being fragile", stop these crocodile tears of "innocence". Sounds familiar?

If you are white and you have another approach to the fight against racism than what a "person of colour" is saying, you will very likely hear this.

If you are a man and you try to make a point on gender equality you are very likely to hear it too.

If you are heterosexual and you have a point to make in the fight against homophobia that does not please a gay activist, some version of this narrative may come your way.

The problem we are facing today is that the debate on equality is transformed into a debate on identity. An identity that is not seen anymore as an expression of cultural realities, linguistic diversity or religious doctrine.

Identity from a minority perspective is nowadays focalised around two central characteristics: colour and gender.

Do not get me wrong, I am aware of the importance of colour and gender in the debate on equality. And I am not going to reproduce the classical leftist analysis claiming that inequality results from class differences and nothing else.

That analysis is reductionist. It is also often used to keep oppression forms based upon racism and sexism in place.

Nevertheless, we are facing a big problem with the rising minority identity politics paradigm, and the intellectual intimidation tactics its adherents are using in the debate. This is risking to jeopardise the struggle for equality altogether.

In this article I want to formulate some critical notes towards that paradigm, taking the anti-racist struggle as reference.

On who we are

The term People of Colour (POC) is used within the minority Identity politics paradigm to define who we all are, as opposed to being white.

It is the racist American slavers and French colonists who coined this term in the 18th century.

This is not a decolonial term, it is a colonial term. It flattens the rich cultural and religious identities of the people it labels into one racialised container.

To accept it is to accept being defined in function of the presumed white "Other". Already by accepting to be referred to in function of the other, one has established inferiority.

I am not a person of colour, and I am not saying this to reproduce the cliché of "I am only human". I am not only human.

My ethnic identity is a reality, and it means something. It is an active identity in function of myself and not a passive one in function of an "Other".

I choose to speak about ethnicity and not about colour or race. Ethnicity covers racialised features, as in colour and other visible physical differences.

But it also covers elements related to culture, religion, nationality, and language. It cannot be reduced to a physical feature, pigmentation, or any element used by a racist establishment to label me. It is above all my language, my culture, my faith or the lack of it, and my nationality, as I and my peers live and define them.

And while I do live in a reality in which I do belong to an ethnic minority, and because of that reality, I am discriminated against, ethnically, I do not believe this to be absolute.

Certainly not in the sense that it is related to the cultural essence of the parties involved. In Lebanon for instance, I belong to the ethnic majority, and there I am not discriminated against.

So to better understand the reality of discrimination, I do not look within my ethnicity or that of an "Other". Instead, I study the dynamics of majority/minority regardless of ethnicity.

On who "the Other" is

"Minority identity politics" adopted an essentialist and ahistorical approach to racism and discrimination.

It hijacked the label "whiteness" from its academic and anthropological context and turned it into a racial label. Whiteness is now used to claim that racism, violence, and exploitation are quintessential to "whites" and their culture.

By doing that, it establishes the identity of the "White man" as "problematic". That identity is thus identified with the system of oppression.

And since the system of oppression is identity based, liberation must be an identity as well. It is the identity of the "indigenous" peoples and the "POC" that is righteous, liberating, and hence superior.

This vilification of the majority's identity, while romanticising that of the minority, extends to other sociological majorities.

Not just "White" identity, but also "male" and "heterosexual" identities are defined within the "minority identity politics paradigm" as being essentially "oppressive" and malign. While "coloured", female and homosexual identities are presented as essentially "oppressed" and benign.

By adopting this approach, instead of fighting structures, these minority-identity activists are fighting people. And instead of calling for solidarity, they are "calling out" what they consider racial and gender privilege.

Afro-American Struggle vs European minority frustrations

In the context of the USA and the struggle of Afro-American populations for equality, colour was and is indeed central.

This is due to the uprooting of slave populations from their original homes and cultures. This process has flattened other ethnic features and put color at the centre of the oppression system.

It also forced slaves to develop alternative sub-cultures. These sub-cultures forcibly resembled the racialised incubator they thrived within. Importing this paradigm and projecting it fully into the European context is absurd. It loses historical and societal contextuality and becomes a mere dogmatic projection.

A frustrated intellectual vanguard among European ethnic minorities imported and adopted this approach.

This intellectual "elite" had to survive under the yoke of monolithic euro-centrist hegemony.

Its members are confronted with the classic dilemma facing minority leaders within a racist context: being a Parvenu or a Pariah as Hannah Arendt puts it.

Those with more dignity than pragmatism, refused the parvenu role and hence fell partly or fully, gradually or at once, into the Pariah role.

As these pariahs became more frustrated and cynical, they reacted with a paradigm shift. They abandoned the leftist frame of analysis, that they correctly perceived as reductionist and colonial. "Minority identity politics" became their epistemological middle finger to the racist establishment.

Zero-Sum Game

This approach is very seductive.

Like all forms of identity politics, it is efficient in mobilising marginalised groups in society. However, it is proving also to be very efficient in provoking segments of the majority population into radicalisation.

Because when you define oppression based on identity features only and you associate it, in an essentialist way, to the identity of the majority you are actually calling for a clash, that will be expressed in identity narratives and that is a zero-sum game.

Taking into account the balance of power, people adopting this approach are shooting themselves in the foot.

The only people they are intimidating are those who care about what they are saying, thus their natural allies. They are driving these allies at best into silence and in worse cases into the arms of racists and sexists.

What privilege?

Next to defining the identity of the other as "problematic" and giving it an essentialist pejorative qualification as "whiteness" and hence silencing every debate by pointing out features of that "whiteness", and imposing the "shut up and listen" relationship pattern, these POC and intersectionality activists are abusing the concept of privilege and using it in an absurd manner.

Not being discriminated is considered to be a privilege enjoyed by whites in the context of racial discrimination and by heterosexual men in that of gender discrimination.

So instead of putting the emphasis on the plight of the discriminated and the wrongdoing of the discriminator(s) they are pointing the finger to those who are not discriminated and calling their privilege out, asking them to take distance of it.

Not being discriminated is not a privilege, it is the default status that should be enjoyed by everyone.

When we are calling for equality and advocating measures to eliminate discriminations, the emphasis must not be on targeting the group that is not discriminated because of it enjoying an imaginary privilege.

The true privilege in society does exist, but it is not the absence of discrimination on racial and gender features.

The real privilege is that of people who can get away with wrongdoing, tax evasions, major crimes and who can abuse power.

No regular white person can get away with wrong-doing because of their colour. Only elites can, and elites come in all colours and ethnicities. The only privilege that exist is elite privilege and yes it must be abolished.

Moreover, male heterosexual members of the majority in any country are all discriminated on age, on disability, on social status and financial situation.

That they are not discriminated on their ethnicity or on their gender does not mean they are privileged, and they cannot and must not take distance of that.

How should we fight racism then?

We are all potential fuel for a system that is more than ever driving up inequalities and concentration of wealth.

We are right to point out structural racism and the widespread colonial bias and mindset and to expect and demand solidarity in that fight.

And we are right to condemn those who do not answer that call for solidarity and even more those who are racist and colonial.

But to categorise this system, and its dominant ideology as whiteness, hence essentialising a whole ethnicity as practically evil is straightforward (cultural) racism.

The argument that racism is always related to power-relations and hence a minority group cannot be racist is not convincing. Racism is not only a system, and its expressions are not just materialist in nature.

Racism is also an ideology, and psychological abuse. As an ideology, racism from minority towards majority is perfectly possible. History is full of stories on minority groups turning the tables, taking power and committing racial crimes and even genocides against majority groups.

We fight racism not because we are its victims; we fight it because we are opposed to it. Therefore we expect those who are not its victims to join this fight with us, on equal basis, because this must not be a tribal thing.

Sure we, as its victims, have more insights into how we experience it, and hence we could better testify on our victimhood. In this time we live in, that is dominated by social communication and emotionality, victimhood may seem to be the only valid argument.

"Shut up and listen", is to be placed within this mindset. In reality, in the world where things have to be done, where systems have to be changed, we need full knowledge of root causes and operational modes, and a shift in the balance of power.

This cannot be achieved by claiming the moral high-ground based upon victim-emotionality.

Good poetry and music can be made with that, some nice stories can be told, clicks and likes gathered, but no substantial change will follow.

The need of minorities and discriminated groups for safe-spaces where they can be exclusively among each other and share their experience and be supportive, is something I understand and support.

This is not separatism.

It is a human right to gather with your peers on any level. The political and social arenas, however, cannot be safe-spaces.

They should be "commons" where all people can meet and debate and try to change the realities we are facing. Any attempt to define a political program departing from the interest of only one group in confrontation with other groups is a form of sectarianism. Do it on basis of identity and you have sectarian tribalism.

The biggest sectarian tribalist movement nowadays in the west is the identity-obsessed far-right.

It is also by far the most dangerous one. It has the potential to destroy liberal democracy and install latent or even open fascism.

Fighting this movement is an enormous responsibility and cannot be done by emotionality and cynicism.

For as far as it is tempting to essentially vilify those who vilify you, to essentially hate those who hate you and to answer sectarianism with more of it and to double down on identity politics, we must not fall into that trap.

The answer to the far-right is a broad mobilisation based on solidarity and equality against racism, sexism, colonialism and other forms of inequality. In this mobilisation, in Europe, White heterosexual men are not only welcome, they are necessary.

They are welcome because everyone who believes in the principals of equality and solidarity is as much a part of this struggle as anyone else.

Regardless of the number of discriminations they are subjugated to. And they are necessary because everyone who is willing to do something for this cause is a contributor we cannot miss.

We should not compare our predicaments to boast with hardship. Being eloquent at expressing our frustrations, and intimidating and silencing our allies because they presumably have less pain and trouble than us, amounts to fighting for the victory of our enemy.

Author bio

Dyab Abou Jahjah is a Belgian/Lebanese author and opinion-maker. He is also a long standing civil rights activist.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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