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back (again and again) to the starting line

Today’s #radlibchat coincided, for once, during I moment where I was almost done work but not quite but really not going to do anything else productive. I was also enticed more into it because it was being hosted by April Hancock, who is awesome. So there was that.

The topic was something I don’t really care for: whiteness. You’ll note that the third question was “do you perform whiteness?”. Now… This question amused me because its a rhetorical trap for white people. I have no idea whether or not it was intentionally set, but it worked brilliantly nonetheless. Several people who’s words and language suggested they were white either said “I don’t know if I perform whiteness” or “I don’t think I do”.

Of course, these answers are all wrong. But they are wrong in a way that isn’t necessarily about how these people do or do not act in the workplace (or life in general). Unfortunately, they were wrong because they are ignorant about what, exactly, whiteness is and how it relates to white supremacy and racism.

I left the chat feeling the same way I did a few years ago when I wrote about being eternally at the starting line. In the post, I vent some frustration that information professionals who both have the skills and the necessary access to information cannot be bothered to learn even the fundamentals about a topic like this. And… well, this played out today. I shouldn’t have had to relate the fact that white people don’t ‘perform’ whiteness bc they are, in actual fact and reality, white1.

Based on the timing of the post, people participating in the chat had at least five or so days to prepare for the chat. Preparation isn’t strictly required (as noted in the post), nor do I want to set up a framework wherein people who might have real god reasons for not having the time and opportunity (disability, being a parent, etc), should feel shame over not knowing something and not having the time to learn.

However…

It remains frustrating to try and engage in these types of conversation with privileged people who – from my perspective and knowing nothing about them – cannot be bothered to learn even the kindergarten level stuff about the subject. I’m not quite sure how anyone was expecting to have an open, meaningful dialogue about whiteness without even knowing what that is. Because whiteness isn’t about ‘colour’.

White supremacy is one of the fundamental structuring elements of the world we currently live in. There is literally no part of the world untouched by it. All our lives are impacted by it. For people of colour, knowing, understanding, being intimate with whiteness is a matter of survival. We ‘perform’ whiteness because doing otherwise usually has dire consequences.

Its about the immigrant from China who changes her name to ‘Jennifer’ because no one is about to hire Fan Bingbing. Its about the Black American who has to effect a very particular accent if she wants anyone to take her seriously. Its about all the things we do to show that we are ‘good’ assimilated Others who deserve the scraps of white supremacy.

But that’s our story.

For white people… Well. You get to come to a chat about whiteness and assume that your uneducated opinion is authoritative enough for you to disavow your place and role within white supremacy. Its about coming to a chat and clearly not doing even a little bit of the heavy lifting needed to have a productive conversation about the topic. Its about literally and actually thinking that saying, “I don’t perform whiteness” as a white person is somehow coherent and anything other than a flagrant display of your privilege and complete lack of understanding of something that negatively impacts my life every day.

And so, yet again, I get to be That Asshole who has to point out in the chat (and now in this post), that we are still at the starting line. A place I always manage to find myself at, regardless of how much time I spend trying to nudge, push, plead, and beg people to move past. I get to look like the belligerent jerk who doesn’t want to have a ‘civil’ conversation. Because. Yeah. I’m frustrated.

Its absurd, to me, that I had to point out – in a discussion about whiteness – that white people are white.

But in case anyone did miss that, here it is one more time: white people are white.

Please spend at least five minutes or something reflecting upon what that actually means and the implications of this.

  • Now... Knowing the context of April's article and the overall discussion, 'performance' here was not being used in the Butlerian sense. But rather the act of poc taking on markers of whiteness as a way to survive in the workplace and world (talking nice, eating bland food, changing your name to some anglo one, all that stuff).  </fn></footnotes>