Long Reads Opinion

Whiteness in the 21st century

The recent news item in Britain that exposed the interrogation by the Buckingham Palace aide, Lady Susan Hussey of Ngozi Fulani, the Black British-born chief executive officer of Sistah Space, was premised on bad faith and the racist assumption that Ngozi Fulani could not be British because she was not White. It speaks to the enduring existence of Whiteness or some White people being racist without knowing it. To add to the ordeal was the fact that Lady Hussey invaded Ngozi Fulani’s personal space and body by repositioning one of her locks without consent which obstructed Lady Hussey’s ability to read Ngozi Fulani’s name badge. Many people of Afrikan descent with dreadlocks or other Afrikan hairstyles have experienced intrusive and invasive touching, which is another manifestation of Whiteness that considers White people – and I emphasize, some White people, not all – to have the prerogative to touch and examine the bodies of the “other.” Such a prerogative shares similarities to the manner in which Afrikan bodies were touched and examined on the auction block during slavery.

Circulating on WhatsApp soon after this incident and in direct response has been a short and insightful TikTok clip by a White South Afrikan of Irish origin. He points out that “For every Black Briton who is assumed to not be British, there’s actually a secret equivalent which is the undercover immigrant, and that is a White person who is assumed to not be an immigrant because they are White.” He then declared himself to be an undercover immigrant who has learned to see how people speak about immigrants when they think an immigrant is not around. After 30 years of being in Britain, he reveals that rarely does someone ask him, “where are you really from?” If he does reveal he is South Afrikan, he observes that seldom ever is such a question put to him. In short, because his skin is White, it is assumed he is not a foreigner, despite the fact that White people came to South Afrika from the 1600s onwards from Britain, Holland, and elsewhere, and many now live in the UK. Implicit in the questioning of Lady Hussey was the belief that British nationality could only be equated with White skin and that Ngozi Fulani was born outside of the UK when Ngozi Fulani emphatically told the aide she was born in London, yet the aide persisted in her verbal assault.

More importantly, her questioning also suggests that such racist thoughts and ideas are deeply institutionalized within the UK royal establishment. Lady Hussey is unlikely to be the single bad apple that liberals and apologists tend to proffer as needing weeding out in order to be rid of racism so that everything can continue as before. Lady Hussey’s questioning lends credence to Meghan Markle’s revelation in her interview with Oprah that someone in the royal household questioned how dark Meghan’s baby’s skin would be.  In short, if it was surprising to hear that racist thinking and ideas circulated in the royal household at the time of the interview with Meghan and Harry, Ngozi Fulani’s encounter is ample evidence of the existence of such prejudiced attitudes in the royal household.

“It speaks to the enduring existence of Whiteness”

But is it really surprising that racism is endemic in the royal establishment when King Charles II founded the Royal Adventurers Company in 1660 to trade in Afrikan captives from West Afrika and appointed his brother, the Duke of York, as governor of the company? The British involvement in the slave trade had sanction, support and royal money from the highest of institutions, i.e., the Crown. Privateers and Englishmen who brought riches from this trade to the Crown and Britain were knighted for their endeavors.  Among them are Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir George Clifford – to mention just a few.  Therefore, the Crown had no moral compunctions in participating in this trade, and to this day, no formal apology has been expressed for this direct involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

The origins of Whiteness/racism

Since the encounter of Christopher Columbus with the Indigenous people of the Caribbean and the subsequent arrival of the Spanish, Portuguese, and other European conquistadores, including the British – all claimed the right to conquer the lands of others, impose their ways of knowing, in addition to dominating, killing, torturing, raping and enslaving the bodies of the “other,” that is, people who did not look like Europeans. Racist thinking – that is, the unconscious and conscious belief in the superiority of Europeans – and I acknowledge that not all White people are racist, led Europeans to see the “other” as less than human, chattel;  an object to be gazed upon in the human zoos that existed in many Western societies in the 18th and 19th century.

This was the horrendous fate of Congolese Ota Benga, a 4 ft 11-inch man who was exhibited in Monkey House Exhibit in the Bronx Zoo in New York, USA in 1906 as an animal. Similarly, in 1810 the Khoisan Afrikan woman Saartjie Bartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” was brought to Britain from South Afrika. She was paraded across Ireland and Britain, including at Piccadilly Circus in Central London since White Britons would pay to see her semi-nudity and strange physical attributes. There is also the relatively unknown story of the young enslaved albino woman, Amelia Newsham, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica and was subjected to a White gaze as an “animal” in the spring and summer of 1758 by curious Britons who paid a shilling to see her. She was the subject of extensive curiosity of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus who went on to divide human beings into racial categories outlining a hierarchy of being, with Europeans (Europaeus Albus, read White) being at the top of the apex.  

“racist thoughts and ideas are deeply institutionalized within the UK royal establishment”

When we talk of racism today or racism historically, we are simultaneously attempting to understand “Whiteness.” The origins of racism have their historical antecedents in the rise of the transatlantic slave trade that endured for over hundreds of years – from the 1400s to the late 19th century, with Cuba and Brazil being one of the last countries to renounce slavery in 1886 and 1888 respectively.

The slave trade was then replaced with the colonial conquest of the Afrikan continent by the major European powers. It was Leopold II who referred to the Congo as the “magnificent cake” since being in the geographical center of the continent; it was a massive territory replete with considerable mineral and agricultural resources that the Belgians exploited by cutting off the hands of the Congolese who failed to meet quotas of rubber extraction.

The legacies of the transatlantic slave trade dispersed Afrikan people around the globe, while the impact of that physical domination of the bodies and land of Afrikan people survives in the 21st century. Racism continues to reconfigure itself like a chameleon and harm the lives of Black people (and White people) in a myriad of ways, alongside new forms of coloniality that exist in the unfair trade deals and illicit flows of wealth that hemorrhage from Afrika to the industrialized world. Such exploitative processes and practices continue to hinder Afrika’s efforts to industrialize. There is also the denigration of Afrika and Afrikan people by Europeans which was seen during the pandemic in April 2020 when a  French doctor openly proposed that Covid vaccines be tested first on Afrikans – despite the fact that the pandemic and its fatalities were adversely impacting the West. One of the doctors said, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Afri[k]a, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?”

Since the tragic killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, anti-Black racism in the UK and globally continues, which the Black Lives Matter movements around the world continue to bring attention to.  Numerous examples abound. During the initial outbreak of the pandemic, Afrikan students in China, in Guangzhou, were subjected to anti-Black racism, as were Afrikan students fleeing the outbreak of war in Ukraine. In Britain, in December 2020, there was the equally shocking case of a 15-year-old Black girl – known as “Child Q” who was stripped and searched at school for a false accusation that she possessed cannabis. Not only was the young girl on her period at the time, but her mother was not informed to be present during such a traumatic experience.  Italy had its own George Floyd horrifying incident that was captured on video when the disabled 39-year-old Nigerian man, Alika Ogorchukwu, was beaten to death by an Italian man.. 

“Whiteness,” that is, the covert belief in the superiority of people of European descent, could only and can only exist alongside a definition and beliefs about “Blackness” or racist ideas and stereotypes of people of Afrikan descent. These binary negative beliefs, attitudes, and expectations prevail to this day. Yet, they were born out of slavery. In short, the enslavers believed that the enslaved were lazy, unreliable, dangerous, savage, criminal, licentious, unintelligent, threatening, and inferior to both disparage Black people and justify their enslavement. These stereotypes, prejudices, and expectations of people of Afrikan descent remain in unconscious and conscious beliefs held by some White people today and explain why Black men are often killed by White policemen who operate with racist misandric notions of the inherent deviant behavior of Black men and boys. For example, in early December, two young black boys aged 13 and 15 were arrested and treat with disproportionate force by the British Transport Police “after one had forgotten their Oyster card.” The weeping mother narrated her distress during a BBC interview when for two hours, she did not know where her boys were held as she searched for them.

“When we talk of racism today or racism historically, we are simultaneously attempting to understand ‘Whiteness’”

The Ngozi Fulani experience also happened in the same week that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was labeled as racist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTIQIA+ following the tragic suicide of a young Black trainee firefighter, Jaden Francois-Esprit, who had been subjected to racist abuse in the service. In an interview, Mr. Dawes, a former Black employee of the LFB, said he would not currently advise a Black person, a woman, or a gay person to join the service.

The work of anti-racist movements remains incomplete

Anti-racist movements, groups, and individuals have a long way to go in challenging anti-Black racism. Conversations and actions are necessary, but so is action on various levels – in the private and public spheres. Back in the noughties, I recall the action of my colleague at West London College making an effort to introduce me to others who were wholly unaware of our working relationship. He was White, male, and 6ft 4in and older. I am Black, female, and 5ft 2in tall. It was unspoken, but he and I were very much aware that in a predominantly White space, it would be assumed that he was the line manager.  The reality was I was his line manager, and he quietly and assertively made it known in appropriate forums and circumstances in order to challenge assumptions and implicit notions that managers are male and White.

Genuine White anti-racist individuals must cease being bystanders when Whiteness/White privilege/racism is enacted. They must act, speak out, condemn and critique in active solidarity and ongoing painstaking work in destroying Whiteness/anti-Black racism.

In addition, unconscious prejudice or “Whiteness” often rears its head in covert ways in which some White people – consider they have a monopoly on knowledge, ideas, information, etc., or are motivated by competitiveness, and therefore do not let Black people finish what they are saying or give them the space to articulate their views and ideas (or go on to appropriate such ideas). Some men do the same to women (i.e., mansplaining) on the grounds of an unconscious belief in male superiority. To put it differently, if there is to be genuine equality between men and women and White people and Black people – listening without interrupting with unconscious bias (or patriarchal ego) motivating this action is a key step. Such actions are only part of the long journey to eliminating “Whiteness” or racism in the 21st century.

2 comments

  1. Thank you Dr Ama Biney to remind us of today still not addressed and implemented to change an overdue nasty situation maintaining a historical trauma to African psyche

  2. A concise overview of key societal happenings that justifies the crucial need for continuous dialogue. Activism of ALL society is required to be alert to and, call out racist behaviour in all its forms. Only then can such mindsets begin to be demolished. The oppressed have for far too long carried the burden of educating the oppressors.

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