The Silencing Force of Whiteness

Leonardo Custódio

In the first week of June, I participated in the workshop “Racism and Anti-racism in the Nordic Societies”[1], at the Södertörn University in Sweden. It was the first time I attended an academic anti-racism event. As a black newcomer to the field, I felt the discussions were rich and enlightening. However, I also felt how whiteness[2] in the academia can be silencing. Based on my experience in the workshop, this text is a reflection about the silencing force of whiteness in the academia and how it can affect the participation of black scholars in predominantly white groups, environments and debates.

Since I moved to Finland from Brazil in 2007, I have grown used to being one of the few or the only black person in public spaces. That has happened in academic events and elsewhere in bars, festivals, museums and other places. When it happens, I often resort to sarcastic whispers or SMS messages to my wife: “Guess, again, who is the only black person?”

During the Södertörn workshop I sent her the message again. This time I was not sarcastic, but genuinely surprised. How come I was the only black person in a room to discuss racism and anti-racist issues? I am not questioning the capacity of white people to discuss racism. Nevertheless, I was certainly expecting a more diverse room.

To be clear and fair, in addition to me, one of the keynotes – Dr. Karim Murji – was not white. Plus, another keynote – Iranian Professor Halleh Ghorashi – and some racialized non-European and Eastern-European participants with migrant experiences are also considered, in a Western European context, people of color despite their white or light skin[3]. Despite their presence, I felt very alone in my blackness.

I have little experience in anti-racism research. So far, my research interests have been focused on struggles of the poor against social inequality (Custódio, 2017). However, after defending my PhD in 2016, I have turned to online and offline anti-racism media activism. Therefore, participating the workshop was a great opportunity to start familiarizing with anti-racism debates. I was also interested in how racialized scholars participate in these debates. That is why I was so taken aback the white predominance among participants. Alone as a black person, I decided to be quiet and observe.

Throughout the first day, I heard nothing about whiteness in the academia.

The first keynote speaker, Professor Halleh Ghorashi talked about the challenges to collective actions and solidarity in times of increasing individualism. She also talked about our own complicity to the excluding character of academic structures. That was an opportunity to discuss academic complicity and the white predominance in the university system, but none of us raised the issue.

The second keynote speaker, Professor Mattias Gardell, described how ultranationalist, fascist and racist acts and movements happen in the Nordic countries. He also argued that the Left needs not to fear itself and instead be bolder in its actions against fascism. In hindsight, I believe we could have discussed about how more racialized voices in these debates could contribute to an increased boldness of the Left. Again, however, none of us raised the issue.

Discussions about whiteness in the academia only came up in the second day.

First during Dr. Karim Murji’s keynote speech. That is when I felt like a black elephant in the anti-racism room, my racialized twist to the idiom about uncomfortable situations or problems with which a group of people avoids dealing.

Dr. Murji’s speech was about activist research and how scholars engaged in race critique must also act in public debates and political action. As he proceeded, I felt a combination of excitement, anxiety or fear.

I was excited because from that moment on it was impossible not to raise the issue of there being only one black participant in the workshop. I was also anxious to raise the issue as soon as the speech ended. Problematically, however, I was also afraid.

When the Q & A started, my hands started shaking. I wanted to raise them. I wanted to ask: how many of you here in this room feel awkward or uncomfortable about the fact of discussing racism and there only being a handful of non-white scholars in the room? But I did not ask anything.

As my hands shook and my mouth refused to let my pressing thoughts out, I realized how whiteness is a powerful silencing force.

Would I have been quiet if I were white? Maybe. Would it have mattered for me and my career if I were white and spoke up? Possibly not. I know because in the complexities of everyday life I also experience moments of privilege as a highly-educated, financially-comfortable man. For example, it has taken me a deep process of forced reflexivity, as Professor Ghorashi put it, to understand my privileges and prejudices against black women in the Brazilian context.

Would I have noticed the black elephant in the anti-racism room if I were white? Maybe if I had experienced a similar process of forced reflexivity. Would I raise the issue and risk identifying myself and my privileges as part of the problem? Maybe…not.

If I were white, being silent would be a decision without greater consequences other than potential discomfort. In the case of a lone black person in a predominantly white room, however, the stakes are significantly higher than an uncomfortable feeling.

As I shook quietly, I wondered: what if they think I am accusing them of racism? What if they see me as a whining, angry or ungrateful black person who did not understand how everyone there was an ally despite being white? What would be of my career if all these respectful and powerful white scholars in the field of anti-racism research felt uncomfortable because of me? Would they ever hire me, endorse my job applications or invite me to lecture in their courses?

Maybe none of these what-ifs would have happened. Then again, maybe they would have. The doubt and its reasons are the issue. My silence was less than a decision, but a consequence of the fear of possible backlashes to my professional life and welfare.

In addition to making me afraid, the idea of confronting whiteness in a predominantly white environment also made me question the sociopolitical and institutional validity of my anguish and thoughts. Self-blaming doubts throbbed in my head. Could it be me? Is it all in my mind? Am I seeing things where there is nothing?

When one grows up dealing with subtle and nuanced forms of racism in everyday life as I did in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s, questioning oneself this way is a typical first reaction. Times are different now, though. Awareness and the attitude to speak up are widespread among racialized people in institutional and everyday life around the world. Yet, double checking one’s thoughts and feelings before speaking up seems like a rather instinctive action when one’s welfare and future is on the line.

Another issue that made me insecure about raising the issue were some reactions during the Q&A.  The first two comments to Dr. Murji’s talk were justifications to why it was hard for professors to take a more political stance in their research projects. For them, taking a more openly political attitude represents a risk of losing funding and being labelled as troublemaking scholars.

As I listened to them, I wondered. If they – white professors occupying powerful institutional positions – feared for their research financing and careers for being more politically vocal about anti-racism, imagine how a black researcher in an early-stage career – whose income often depends on invitations or acceptance by white scholars – feels challenging those who could at some point be the ones deciding on whether they have a job or not? Maybe there was some sense in the self-blaming doubts after all.

Despite my fear, I timidly raised my hand. However, it was too late. Time was up. We moved to Dr. Suvi Keskinen’s presentation, the second one to raise the issue of whiteness and white hegemony from theoretical and empirical perspectives. It included very enlightening examples of anti-racism resistance among racialized minorities in the Nordic Countries. However, I could not concentrate on her talk. Instead, I kept observing whether someone in the room would relate the issue of white hegemony to the white predominance in the room.

Again, none of us made this connection. Meanwhile, I just kept thinking about my own trajectory as a researcher.

Why had I never felt the silencing force of whiteness before the Södertörn University workshop? It could be because until then I had never raised questions about whiteness in my work. I had never positioned myself politically as a black researcher in Finland. I wonder how it will be now as challenging whiteness will be an essential part of the new phase of my academic career. In this case, the participation in the workshop gave me an idea of the challenges to come. Understanding how the silencing force of whiteness operates is a very important first step not to silence to it.

Dr. Leonardo Custódio (leonardo.custodio@uta.fi) is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere

References

Custódio, L. (2017). Favela Media Activism: Counterpublics for Human Rights in Brazil. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Murji, K., & Solomos, J. (2005). Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Read more on https://www.utu.fi/en/units/soc/units/sociology/research/mchssnr/workshop3/Pages/home.aspx (last accessed on June 14, 2017).

[2] PhD Researcher Daria Krivonos has used this blog to provide a definition of whiteness useful for newcomers like myself to understand how whiteness is not merely defined in contrast to blackness. According to Krivonos, “whiteness is not a matter of skin pigmentation or phenotypical traits but a structural system of advantage that grants privilege to white people. Whiteness as a system of supremacy and privilege is based on exclusion of other groups, and hence, becomes a site of struggle for people who don’t meet the social ideal of whiteness […]”. See https://raster.fi/2017/05/11/whiteness-as-a-privilege-and-a-struggle (last accessed on June 23, 2017).

[3] By racialization, I refer both to “processes by which racial meanings are attached to particular issues—often treated as social problems—and with the manner in which race appears to be a, or often the, key factor in the ways they are defined and understood” and to “the changing dynamic by which newer activities and cultural forms are grasped or explained in distinctively racial terms, or racialized” (Murji and Solomon, 2005, 3).

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