I'm Not White. I'm Irish
The difference between racialised and ethno-cultural identities
In the previous blog I unpacked the notion of privilege, with the question "when am I White?" Now I know some of you were thinking, "but I’'m not white, I'm Jewish or Irish or Italian" etc. And while this is true "culturally speaking", we live in a world that is racialised; where people are seen for the colour of their skin and treated based on it.
Now this is not to say all racism is purely based on skin colour. History and context shows that in different times, and in a different context, other 'presumably identifiable' criteria can and have been used to discriminate and racialise people. However, in understanding the difference between a racialised identity versus a cultural one in our current context, we only have to think of the measures taken to secure us from terrorists and the racial profiling that goes on. We know there are extremists bent on violence in all cultures and races, and within all religions and political leanings - after all the West Coast of North America is also home to the KKK and other 'White Supremacist' groups. Timothy McVeigh does not come to mind when most people think of terrorists. However, a bearded, turbaned and brown-skinned, Arab or South Asian man does and this is the difference between a racialised identity and a cultural one.
So, why is it so uncomfortable to claim whiteness? Why is there such resistance to being called White?
I think part of the problem is that dominant groups rarely recognise their racialised identity because their dominant racialised identity ('Whiteness') is privileged. You may say there is huge variety within 'whiteness' and this is true - just as there is huge variety within 'brownness' or 'blackness' yet that is rarely recognised. While we all have our cultural/ethnic identities, we also have racialised ones.
In my case, what people see is brown-skinned, black-haired, brown-eyed woman - i.e., in Canadian terms, the immediate assumption is that I am 'Indo-Canadian'; probably Punjabi and Sikh, yet I am none of these cultural identities.
My 'brownness', means however, that certain assumptions usually follow; that I probably have an arranged marriage, am subservient, with traditional values, and live with a large extended family etc. As a result, I experience the world based on this visible classification and the assumptions that follow. My real cultural identity is not known and most often is not desired to be known. The reality is that many brown-skinned people are lumped together - just as 'whites' are. Just as you can claim your Irishness, or Ukrainian heritage - so too can people who look like me claim their cultural identities: Ugandan Asian, Fijian, Bengali, Sri Lankan, Malaysian Tamil...we all get lumped into the category of "East Indian" or "Indo-Canadian". And, in only considering the colour of my skin, it denies any roots to places of migration and histories of displacement, this is invisible - for me this is my Englishness and having been born and brought up in that culture.
Other examples include the Chinese who built the railroads and whose families have been in Canada for over a century, yet are not seen as Canadians, but would not be considered Chinese in China. Similarly, we refer to 'blackness', but again we lose the cultural identities in the simple labelling; are they African American, from one of the Caribbean Islands, from one of the many African Nations, or a Canadian African - whose identity is all but invisible to most Canadians? We refer to First Nations, as if they are all the same, yet they represent many cultures, thousands of languages and diverse territories.
So the complexity is in all the labels, be they white, black, or brown...
Yet most of us who are racialised will also acknowledge these racial labels, the racial identity as one linked to experiences of racism. So while my cultural identity reflects the complexity of my story, my racial identity is simply "brown" or South Asian - within it there is an understanding of my experience as a racialised person. So too in labelling 'whiteness' is there an understanding of what it means to be white in this context and in the racialised world we live in.
This complexity of our identities, not just racial and ethno-cultural identities, but all our identities are explored and examined in depth, in our Conscious Use of Power Workshop.
Next article in this series: "I'm White and I'm Gay", Hierarchy of Oppression and Multiplicity.