‘I’m Not Just White, I’m French’
Constant Assertions of Individuality are Akin to ‘White Lives Matter’
In the last few years, I’ve encountered an interesting response from certain white people when discussions of race and racism are broached: the clarification of specific European culture. In other words, when racism becomes a topic of conversation, some white people deflect the conversation by referring to the country in Europe from which their ancestors originated. This operates as more than casual conversation, shifting the topic from the all-important political and economic relevance of ‘whiteness’ and collective oppression to individual experiences, which results in avoidance of the original topic, white privilege. White supremacy’s long-standing, highly-entrenched reality was the direct, desired result of European dominance worldwide; this fact requires we focus on collective behaviors rather than switching topic to ‘individuality,’ which always favors white people since they are the only ones considered truly individual. As such, when white people respond to discussions about structural racism and white supremacy with statements about their own personal background, they engage in a form of distraction and gas-lighting which replicates their privilege by avoiding the discussion.
When discussions about white supremacy and racism ensue, the ‘liberal’ options are to discuss these issues in a cogent, honest fashion regardless of who may or may not feel guilt or to avoid the topic with a distractor, lie, or — if all else fails — -outright denial. When the denial includes oneself, it is politely called ‘white ignorance’ to spare white people any sort of active responsibility for these conclusions. When white people respond to discussions about racism with the statement, “I’m not just white, I’m from [fill in the blank with European country]” they paraphrase “White Lives Matter.” This is problematic because white lives have always mattered in the last 500 years or so: white people have always been granted individuality, the ‘right’ to be the backdrop against which all others are compared (and rendered, inevitably, inferior), and the ‘right’ to look down on others while simultaneously denying that they are doing so, AKA white ‘ignorance.’ As a result, statements specifying one’s cultural background, at least in the context of discussions about racism and equality, function to distract from the discussion point: white supremacy and the advantage that all white people have, collectively, in a white supremacist culture. As a result, these statements support white supremacy by reorienting the discussion away from collective reality.
Discussions about racism and white supremacy are discussions about POWER, not culture. White supremacy was invented for one reason only: so that a minority of human beings could have power to dominate, oppress, and subordinate the majority. This establishment, active for 500 or so years, continues. Therefore, any discussions about racism and white supremacy must focus on power and the way in which this egregious invention has, while falsely elevating a minority, greatly oppressed the majority worldwide, for about half an era. This discussion point is necessary because it is the heart of white supremacy: power and dominance on a social level, in a collective context. When white people shift the conversation to individuality — that is, their individual background — they distract from the acknowledgement of collective responsibility that all WHITE people have, regardless of their native country. As a result, this ‘I’m not just white, I’m [so-and-such individual]’ type of response simply shirks collective responsibility. In the context of power, being white is not a ‘just,’ it is a massive advantage. Avoiding this reality, and the discussion that must ensue to eliminate white supremacy, is a form of denial.
In this act, the white person deflecting the conversation point — -power and the way in which resources are distributed in society, not just in the US but worldwide, as a direct result of white supremacy — is actively avoiding the conversation which must take place in order to move forward. The necessary conversation in this context includes collective accountability, and avoiding it comprises active racism because it supports a racist status quo. Robin DiAngelo, in White Fragility, underlines the types of responses that many white people have when faced with the reality of their privilege: “I will be the judge of whether racism has occurred, and “How I am perceived by others is the most important issue.” (p121.) In addition, she reasserts that a focus on individuality denies the historical context of slavery and, as a result, denies dominant culture and white privilege.
In a white supremacist society, individualism is only available to one group: white people. All white people. Whether or not that white person is from France, England, Sweden, or Poland is irrelevant when it comes to discussions of current realities and historical power: all white people have it. There were a few groups of white people who, for two generations or so, were considered ‘not white.’ This period was relatively brief — perhaps two generations — and is discussed with inordinate focus. Other groups of people have NOT entered the realm of white despite multiple generations in this country. Far East Asians, Indians, Middle Easterners, Pakistanis, etc are not treated like white people despite, in some cases, 4+ generations in the US. Europeans are considered white; a brief period of semi-exclusion relative to the 20+ generations of white supremacy is hardly comparable to the experiences of non-Europeans. This fact is another distractor: ultimately, Europeans become white. Others don’t (with the exception of Russians.) Responding to discussions about racism with an assertion of one’s individuality is a form of complicity with white supremacy because it dissolves the collective responsibility that all white people have to address their racial privilege.
This attitude, a product of ‘backlash,’ allows that white person to assert individuality — which he/she/they already have — at the slightest hint of collective responsibility. In other words, the white person, already deemed important enough to be individual on the basis of being white, will not tolerate any erosion of this privilege AND simultaneously cloaks it in the ‘innocent’ statement of ‘culture:’ ‘I’m only talking about my background; why can you talk about couscous and I can’t discuss my culture?’ Because we aren’t talking about couscous when we’re talking about racism: this discussion is about power, and how white people automatically get more of it, permanently, just for being born.
Discussions about racism and white supremacy are discussions about structural realities, collective behaviors, and allowance for continued supremacy through active denial. This active denial is carefully cloaked in the term ‘white ignorance’ which proactively coddles white people by implying that both awareness and intent are lacking without commenting on the impact to POC of this constant, embedded white privilege. Note that, despite multiple efforts for centuries to avail white people of these realities (Douglass, Baldwin, Coates offer examples from a wide range of time), it is still called ‘ignorance.’ How can this be ‘ignorance’ when the truth has been expressed for more than a century? It isn’t: it is, at some level, active denial.
“If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming even more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed…In an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” Eric Kaufmann
Eric Kauffman, a Canadian white male teaching at a British college, has published a book called Whiteshift which appears to broadly encompass the dictates of backlash and the way in which white people assert their individuality, framing them as victims. He discusses this as if white supremacy is a norm and any erosion of it an unfair deletion of ‘white interests.’ In this quotation, for example, he writes, “If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming even more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed…In an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/a-political-scientist-defends-white-identity-politics-eric-kaufmann-whiteshift-book.)
Here, he illustrates a significant bias in the way he phrases these sentences, focusing on white individuality as if it is the norm. That is, the ‘West’ should ‘return to normal’ implies that the last 500 years of oppression is normal(!); his words imply that polarization comes from nonwhite peoples. His statement re: white interests is framed as if white interests are not being met instead of underlining the fact that white interests are the only ones that have mattered for the last few centuries. He neglects to mention that America’s true ‘normal’ was Native American/Indigenous peoples, and that European occupation was a brutal disruption of this norm.
Kauffman’s opinions are a paean to white fragility: anything which erodes white power must reorient it such that white power is maintained. He does this through a reassertion of white individuality, as if the past was exceptional and any erosion of it must be compensated for by a reminder that, yes of course, white people are overtly individual. The real individuals. Kauffman tells the reader that historical emphasis on the individuality of white people is desirable without any mention for the way in which this stance has oppressed the entire rest of the human race.
“The singularity of whiteness is the main reason Caucasians object to any mention of racism without ‘Not all white people.’ They do not tolerate the collective whiteness that they simultaneously use to excuse mass incarceration, racial profiling, police brutality.” Michael Harriott
Michael Harriott, writing for The Root, states “The singularity of whiteness is the main reason Caucasians object to any mention of racism without ‘Not all white people.’ They do not tolerate the collective whiteness that they simultaneously use to excuse mass incarceration, racial profiling, police brutality.” (https://www.theroot.com/the-privilege-of-white-individuality-1819184476) He hits the nail on the head when he states that white people, as a rule, do not tolerate collective whiteness. They react to this by asserting their individuality as a reminder that they are the real individuals. One way this is done is by referring to individual cultural backgrounds as if this cultural specificity will erase collective privilege. Which, of course, it doesn’t. To acknowledge collective whiteness would be to acknowledge white privilege, oppression, unfair benefit. The only moral response to this acknowledgement would be return of unfairly-obtained resources. It appears that, collectively, most white people will avoid this inevitable humane response even at the cost of self-reflection and self-honesty.
An assertion of one’s individuality in a context in which it already exists is a form of psychological homeostatic maintenance: the individual white person helps to maintain white supremacy by refusing to focus on collective, social realities. Ultimately, this is a refusal to take responsibility for the choice of passivity which continues to maintain this power. Discussions about racism and white supremacy are not about pierogies, tours of the Eiffel Tower, or a visit to Harrod’s for a nice bottle of Penhaligons perfume; they are discussions about power, money, and the way white people collectively have most of it as a result of historical brutality and thievery and current similar behaviors paired with a denial of them. Sidelining these important discussions by channel-shifting the conversation to individuality and culture — much ‘nicer’ topics — only serves to maintain the status quo.
“Chauvinist legitimation narratives that portrayed European-based societies as the progressive vanguard of the human race produced an almost invisible support structure for the collective self-esteem of all those who could claim such a European identity…” Linda Martin Alcoff
Linda Martin Alcoff summarizes this assertion of individuality and its connection to European identity in a few brief sentences: “Chauvinist legitimation narratives that portrayed European-based societies as the progressive vanguard of the human race produced an almost invisible support structure for the collective self-esteem of all those who could claim such a European identity… The “new” or “modern world” legitimation narratives proclaimed that European-based societies led the world in maximizing individualism.” (Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self, p 285; my emphasis). This invisible support structure, a collective advantage to white people worldwide, is clear to POC’s who do not get this support. By denying this collective support exists, white people deny that there is a genuine moral problem in society which gives them benefit while depriving others of it.
By focusing on white individualism in discussions about racism, white people are able to reassert this superiority to maintain the ‘homeostasis’ of white superiority. But this stance actively ignores the derogation which POC’s must tolerate in order for white people to benefit collectively by refusing to acknowledge social realities. By re-centering that white person’s individuality, he/she/they avoid discussing privilege AND reassert their manifest-destiny given right to be the real individuals. So: ‘I’m not just white, I’m (fill in the blank with European background.)’ But in reality, any assertion of individuality which doesn’t include discussion about the derogation of POC which has resulted from white supremacy— simply isn’t comprehensive.
Any assertion of white individuality in the context of discussions about racism is inappropriate when considered comprehensively. The deep-seated need that many white people seem to have to shift the conversation from collective racism to individuality lacks accountability for collective unearned advantage and is ultimately a defense mechanism that upholds the status quo. These advantages come at the expense of a wide range of POC, and in particular, Native/Indigenous Americans and African-Americans. This lack of accountability should be negotiated internally rather than pushed outwards and shoved down the throats of POC’s in the form of fragility, defensiveness, and a reassertion of individuality which, compared to all POC, white people already have in droves. Unfortunately, though, it is not: rather, this attitude is used to defend power.
When white people resort to discussing their specific European background in the context of a discussion on racism, they distract, they gaslight, they avoid, they deny: they use their fragility to avoid dealing with the truth. They do not deal directly with the issue at hand: white privilege, collective white behaviors that maintain unearned benefits of all sorts in white hands, and the way in which their fragility continues to support the status quo and white supremacy.
This denial is no different from active white supremacy and should be negotiated the same way: not as innocence or ‘ignorance,’ but as a very real, passive-aggressive approach to the maintenance of white dominance.