Fifty Shades Of White(ness): Introduction



Fifty Shades Of Whiteness Funambulist 2
Armenian fedayi who volunteered in self-defense militias against the Ottoman mass murders of Armenians. The person on the right is Eghisapet Sultanian (circa 1895).

Welcome to the 48th issue of The Funambulist. Following the paths traced by some recent issues, it attempts to articulate a rather precise editorial argument, offering what is hopefully a productive dialog between different contributions. The general argument behind this issue is that if we are to consider whiteness at the global scale, we require a more complex understanding of it than the one constructed in opposition to white supremacy in the United States. To a certain extent, this U.S.-based concept makes sense as an interpretative framework within their settler colonial context—in the way it flattens whiteness into a single “shade” when various European migrant groups colonized stolen Indigenous lands. Yet, nuances produced by the distinct political trajectories of each group prior to becoming settlers exist, and should be dignified with deeper analysis (cf. Mitchell Joffe Hunter’s contribution about Askhenazi Jews settling in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century). Furthermore, for other contexts, it is crucial to strongly nuance the way processes of racialization operate and read them through a highly contextualized (both geographically and temporally) framework, rather than through a U.S.-centric lens. 

This is certainly not to say that whiteness is necessarily more complex than what it seems to be, especially within geographies where the very structures of colonial racialization were invented (i.e., Western Europe). This is also not to say that there aren’t processes of racialization that would not fundamentally overcedes the “fifty shades of white” described in this issue’s title: antiblackness and the structural racism against Roma people (as described by Margareta Matache in this issue) certainly constitute the most ubiquitous of these processes in Europe—although, tellingly Roma people are usually perceived as white in U.K. and U.S. contexts.

The distinctions this issue intends to make is that we understand whiteness as fundamentally produced by two affirmations: first, we cannot approach race solely through a regime of visibility (i.e. what’s ‘visible’ to us) and second, race is a space-time (i.e. racializing processes always have to be understood contextually).

From here, it is easy to understand that the “shades of whiteness” discussed in these pages are not literal shades that would follow the logics of colorism, but rather, degrees of proximity to whiteness, proportional to the exercise of political power. 

Nothing speaks more to the  necessity for context than the word “Caucasian,” as used by the U.S. bureaucracy to designate European settlers on the land it occupies. How did West Asian people (Abkhazians, Armenians, Chechens, Ossetians, and many more…), who have been racialized by the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and still today by the Russian Federation and other European states, end up in the category of whiteness in the U.S. settler colony, created by the British, French, and Spanish empires? Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question involves 19th century theories of colonial science and the collaboration of European empires, as described by Keto Gorgadze in the following pages. The complexity of racialization appears even more clearly when considering Armenians specifically: while the Turkish ethnocratic state and its Azeri proxy perpetuate the Ottoman murderous violence against them, their strong presence in western diasporas, their relationship to Christianity, and their apparent proximity to Europeanness often place them in the delicate situation of witnessing the symbolic and opportunist seizing of their struggle by white supremacist agendas. In parallel, some of their Maronite neighbors (in particular in the diaspora in France) seem to accommodate themselves quite well within the analog whitening myth of their descendance from Phoenicians (a term forged by the Greeks, externally from the peoples it designated), claiming to be unaffected by fourteen centuries of Arab presence. 

The contextuality of race is made evident when considering “white” Eastern Europeans. As Kasia Narkowicz shows in her contribution, “white” Poles can simultaneously incarnate one of the main targets of British racist speeches surrounding the campaign for “Brexit,” be racialized as Other yet still be perceived in proximity with whiteness in contrast to Black and other non-white immigrants within a western European context such as Sweden, all while calibrating the standard of whiteness in Poland’s structural racism and brutal contribution to Fortress Europe. It also shows us how whiteness is not solely anchored into a regime of visibility: it also infiltrates the perception of people’s names, accents, the use of a “foreign” language, etc. Furthermore, race does not solely operate within a geographical context: its temporal component is also crucial to consider.

If we stay in Poland for a second: let’s consider how busses of Ukrainian refugees, fleeing the 2022 Russian invasion of their country, were given a safe passage deep into the European Union. Contrast this with how West Asian exiles had to risk their lives and health through the forests bordering Belarus and Poland, despite fleeing similar circumstances in different contexts, due to being attributed a further proximity (or none) with whiteness. Much has been written (often in 280 characters) about this contrast, caused by an assumed definitive Ukrainian whiteness, as Darya Tsymbalyuk discusses in her contribution. Observing that a significant number of Ukrainians are, in fact, not white, although important, is beyond the point here. What seems crucial to understanding however, is that this whiteness granted to Ukrainians by western European and North American narratives is temporal and conditional. Insisting on the precarious and opportunist (for western states) nature of this ‘positive’ racialization (on which Ukrainians have very little control) seems to me more productive than the characterization of the Russian colonial invasion and the Ukrainian resistance to it as a fight between two embodiment of whiteness, a claim made to suggest that the global anti-racist movement should not engage. For many Ukrainian refugees living within western European societies built on structural racism, a durable existence remains precarious. 

A contribution missing from this issue—although it was planned—has to do with the national refusal to assimilate to European whiteness. Such a refusal could be found in the sustained Irish anti-colonial struggle, although it would require much critique. More convincingly is the key role played by Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Initiated by Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno, and Josip Broz Tito, its first summit took place in Belgrade in September 1961. The “treason to whiteness” advocated by Noel Ignatiev (1992) is elevated at a national level here, in a strong commitment to solidarity with nations refusing to align with either the western capitalist bloc nor the Soviet Union and its allies. But such a “treason” is also contingent on time, with the racist mass murders of Bosniaks and Albanian Kosovars by Serbian militaries and paramilitaries in the 1990s, or more recently, the construction of a border wall at the Schengen limits between Slovenia and Croatia, while the latter marks the limits of the European Union, excluding the rest of what used to be Yugoslavia.

Questions pertaining to the relations between Indigeneity and whiteness are also central to the issue. By this, I do not mean the claims made by white supremacists groups in Europe that delusionally claim the term “Indigenous” for themselves. Rather, these relationships ought to be studied for the way European colonizers deem some Indigenous peoples to be in closer proximity to whiteness, in contrast with “darker,” “more savage” peoples. This is the case of Polynesians in contrast with Melanesians, as described by Maile Arvin in a conversation with Anaïs Duong-Pedica (who has helped me in many ways to put this issue together), but also of Amazighs in contrast with Maghrebi Arabs. In the colonial enterprise of the “civilizing mission,” based strongly within scientific racism, Europeans thus created racial hierarchies that indicated who was more likely to assimilate and move one shade closer to European whiteness—but never giving the colonized the full extent of political power afforded to whiteness. Some reminiscences of such an ideology (on a less dramatic level) can be found in the current fetishization of Sámi people within various spheres of cultural production. Far from being in solidarity with their struggle for land and against resource extractivism, we have lost count of cultural projects that seem to only see Sámi Indigeneity as a peculiar paradox of an Indigenous people “looking white.” 

In parallel, a colonial process imagined by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers in Abya Yala (the Americas) was to drown Indigeneity into whiteness by forming national racial projects aiming at the intermixing of Indigenous peoples and European settlers. As we discuss with Mónica G. Moreno Figueroa, this is called “mestizaje” in Spanish, and it has become a paradigm to approach racial identities (or rather, the supposedly lack thereof) in Latin America. But mestizaje is merely an ideology of whiteness that skilfully dissimulates the still-operating conditions of settler colonialism and structural racism against both Indigenous and Black peoples. Such dissimulation is further deployed by the prominence of the U.S. epistemology of whiteness that flattens all communities south of its colonial border into one racial identity, blurring the political line between southern European settlers and Indigenous peoples.

These questions raise another more complex and delicate one, which goes back to the critique of reading race solely through a regime of visibility: the question of what came to be called “passing.” I have to admit that I certainly have no confidence in making this question any less complex. In challenging race’s regime of visibility/recognition, while also paying respect to the fact that this visibility is precisely what makes darker-skinned people more targeted by racist violence, reflections that go further than individualistic and sometimes self-indulgent accounts are rare.

The notion of being more targeted is important because, although it does determine crucially significant aspects of one’s life, it also speaks to how we often approach race through an economy of suffering.

The concept of “white privilege” is particularly illustrative of this. At best, it is a tautology that fails to recognize that whiteness is precisely the system that constructs a position of political domination through racialization. At worst, it defines “white” solely based on visual recognition and on the individualist level, designating a political condition for those who are likely to be spared from recognition-based violence (such as police brutality for instance). In doing so, it crowns a value system constructed upon the degree to which one is subjected to this type of violence. Although the concept of white privilege is certainly aimed at supporting people who are the most directly and intensely affected by racialization, it does not constitute a sufficient foundation for an anti-racist project in itself.

I hope that these imperfect considerations might influence your reading of this issue before drawing any conclusions, in the spirit of trust that characterizes our relationship between readers, contributors, and editor(s). Such a spirit allows for hesitation, vulnerability, and at times failure, which are necessary to walk the path we’re walking together. With this in mind, I wish you an excellent read. ■