Behind 2016’s Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity

Amanda Taub, New York Times, November 1, 2016

Call it the crisis of whiteness.

White anxiety has fueled this year’s political tumult in the West: Britain’s surprising vote to exit the European Union, Donald J. Trump’s unexpected capture of the Republican presidential nomination in the United States, the rise of right-wing nationalism in Norway, Hungary, Austria and Greece.

Whiteness, in this context, is more than just skin color. You could define it as membership in the “ethno-national majority,” but that’s a mouthful. What it really means is the privilege of not being defined as “other.”

Whiteness means being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion and even food are the default norm. It’s being a person who, by unspoken rules, was long entitled as part of “us” instead of “them.”

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“It’s fundamentally about ‘who are we?’” said Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. “What does it mean to be part of this nation? Is it not ‘our’ nation anymore, ‘our’ meaning the ethnic majority?

“These kinds of questions are really front and center, even though they’re not necessarily verbalized.”

The questions can seem like a sudden reversal after decades of rising multiculturalism, through the civil rights movement in the United States and the European Union’s opening up of borders.

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White people’s officially privileged status waned over the latter half of the 20th century with the demise of discriminatory practices in, say, university admissions. But rising wages, an expanding social safety net and new educational opportunities helped offset that. Most white adults were wealthier and more successful than their parents, and confident that their children would do better still.

That feeling of success may have provided a sort of identity in itself.

But as Western manufacturing and industry have declined, taking many working-class towns with them, parents and grandparents have found that the opportunities they once had are unavailable to the next generation.

That creates an identity vacuum to be filled.

“For someone who is lower income or lower class,” Professor Kaufmann explained, “you’re going to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity.”

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A recent Gallup study found that Mr. Trump’s supporters tend to earn above-average incomes for their communities, but also tend to live in majority-white areas where children are likely to be worse off than their parents.

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The formal rejection of racial discrimination in those societies has, by extension, constructed a new, broader national identity. The United States has a black president; London has a Muslim mayor of Pakistani descent.

But that broadening can, to some, feel like a painful loss, articulated in the demand voiced over and over at Trump rallies, pro-Brexit events and gatherings for populist parties throughout Europe: “I want my country back.”

The mantra is not all about bigotry. Rather, being part of a culture designed around people’s own community and customs is a constant background hum of reassurance, of belonging.

The loss of that comforting hum has accelerated a phenomenon that Robin DiAngelo, a lecturer and author, calls “white fragility”–the stress white people feel when they confront the knowledge that they are neither special nor the default; that whiteness is just a race like any other.

Fragility leads to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness, even threat. And it can trigger a backlash against those who are perceived as outsiders.

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For decades, the language of white identity has only existed in the context of white supremacy. When that became taboo, it left white identity politics without a vocabulary.

If you are a working-class white person and you fear that the new, cosmopolitan world will destroy or diminish an identity you cherish, you have no culturally acceptable way to articulate what you perceive as a crisis.

Some of these people have instead reached for issues that feel close to their concerns: trade, crime, the war on drugs, controlling the borders, fear of Islamist terrorism. All are significant in their own right, and create very real fears for many people, but they have also become a means to have a public conversation about what society’s changes mean for white majorities.

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There will not likely be a return to the whiteness of social dominance and exclusive national identity. Immigration cannot be halted without damaging Western nations’ economies; immigrants who have already arrived cannot be expelled en masse without causing social and moral damage. And the other groups who seem to be “cutting in line” are in fact getting a chance at progress that was long denied them.

Western whites have a place within their nations’ new, broader national identities. But unless they accept it, the crisis of whiteness seems likely to continue.

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