Racism is a diverse constellation of words, actions and practices. Their common denominator is hierarchy structured by whiteness. While whiteness denotes power and privilege, it is not a one-dimensional power structure. Nuances of whiteness and its internal distinctions partly contribute to how various practices upholding white privilege are identified as racism.
In research discussions, whiteness is generally understood as a complex ideal that cannot be reduced to an interpretation of skin colour. Although whiteness is identified based on skin pigment, hair texture and eye shape, it is not a quality of a person’s physical features but rather an interpretation made on the basis of such features. Moreover, interpretations of whiteness are equally linked to clothing, the language spoken, religious symbols and nationality, for instance. Such attributes constitute the ideal of whiteness, and racism founded on racialising interpretations draws on this ideal.
Whiteness that feeds racism is not in itself a quality of physical or cultural features. Instead, such features are used to draw conclusions, varying in content, on the origins of the person possessing them. A personal example quoted by the late cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, illustrates the fickle, vague, context-dependent nature of whiteness and other racialising distinctions; the way he was positioned in relation to the ideal of whiteness varied depending on the context. Hall recounts how he was a part of the social elite during his youth in Jamaica, being relatively light-skinned and part of the educated middle class. In Great Britain, however, without question he was seen as a black migrant.
Whiteness is shaped through distinctions based on class, gender and sexuality, among others factors. One way of analysing the multidimensionality of whiteness is to distinguish between extreme whiteness and ordinary whiteness. This distinction, which sociologist Steph Lawler borrows from Richard Dyer, a cultural theorist, provides additional nuances to discussions within whiteness, from a perspective based on whiteness. Thus, the distinction applied by Lawler enables closer examination of the conceptions of racism.
Having studied popular discussion in England, Lawler shows how the distinction between extreme whiteness and ordinary whiteness is linked to class. Whereas extreme whiteness and racism are readily portrayed as a quality of the working class and/or underclass, middle-class whiteness is conspicuously ordinary. In Finnish discussion, class divisions are also potentially intertwined with the urban/rural divide.
Attributing the problem of racism to drunken, stupid, poor, uneducated, old-fashioned or rural people is an example of separating extreme whiteness from ordinary whiteness. While extreme whiteness is relatively easily identified as racism, ordinary whiteness fades into obscurity. Naturally, ordinary whiteness is invisible mainly to those who fit the ideal it defines – the boundaries are often quite clear to those excluded from whiteness.
If “racists” are disregarded and viewed as characters who fail to adapt to societal and cultural norms, those who meet the norms are rewarded with the assumption that they are non-racist or anti-racist. Pointing accusatory fingers at certain individuals makes it possible to imagine a racism-free space around the accusations. This way, “good citizens”, i.e. the white middle-class and those in positions of societal power, can seemingly distance themselves and wash their hands of racism. In other words, the image of an underclass or working-class racist provides the white middle-class and elite with a way of detaching themselves from racism.
Lawler’s reflections also offer the opportunity to consider whiteness and the discussion on racism in Finland. Is it that racism is viewed as a problem linked to people positioned in the margins of society and to the far-right movements made up of these people? The group of people openly advocating extreme whiteness is not determined by class or place of residence, and racism is not a problem of the poor or uneducated. However, images of the common people, shunning the urban elite, can be used to legitimise open racism. In such a case, anti-racism is labelled as elitism, whereas speaking for white supremacy is branded as “the voice of the common people”. Members of the political elite, for example, are using these images to their advantage.
In order to dismantle racist structures, we need to focus on the ordinary and conventional – including how educated urban citizens and the middle-class participate in upholding not only extreme whiteness, but first and foremost, ordinary whiteness. Ordinary whiteness produces an ideal that establishes new hierarchies, for example, in school and in educational choices, in the property and job markets, and in migration controls that abide by racialising boundaries. Evaluations of good schools, attractive neighbourhoods, desirable neighbours, trustworthy tenants or qualified experts, among others, may reproduce ordinary whiteness.
Identifying and dismantling racist practices requires us to become aware of the multidimensionality of whiteness. Acknowledging the connections between whiteness and class is an integral part of challenging racism.
Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham; London: Duke University Press.
Dyer, Richard (1997) White. London; New York: Routledge.
Hall, Stuart (1999) Identiteetti. Vastapaino: Tampere. Translated into Finnish and edited by Mikko Lehtonen and
Hage, Ghassan (2000) White Nation. Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge.
Lawler, Steph (2012) “White like them: Whiteness and anachronistic space in representations of the English white working class”. Ethnicities 12(4), 409–426.
Photograph: Markku Ojala