Tuesday, November 24, 2020

About Us but Not For Us: Phenomenology and the Decentring of Whiteness

by Andrew Tebbutt
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I had a number of reactions after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. It was of course horrifying to see a Black man restrained and suffocated in broad daylight, but over time I found myself increasingly disturbed by the subtle naturalization of police violence in certain responses to Floyd’s death. When a New York police officer declared: “I am not Derek Chauvin. [My fellow officers] are not him. He killed someone. We didn’t. We all restrained,” I wondered whether it was really up to us as regular citizens to draw this distinction, whether the tarnished reputation of police is really our problem when Black people are asked to accept a heightened possibility that they will be killed in encounters with police. I thought also about the destruction of property in many of the protests that Floyd’s killing inspired, and I found ironic that a nation, having established itself on the enslavement, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Black and Indigenous people, would now complain that parts of this establishment are being destroyed. These were the issues that stood out to me when I began thinking about how I could contribute to this Ground Motive series, and I was eager to speak out.

Soon, though, I began to notice many of the ways that Black voices had already addressed police violence, the destruction of property, and other issues related to systemic racism. Although I was angered by the violation and marginalization of Black and Indigenous lives, both in Canada and the U.S., I started to wonder whether anything I would say would in the end just be about me and, like Abbi, I began to feel as though I shouldn’t say anything at all. 

But then I realized that, as someone who hopes to make a profession out of teaching philosophy, it was not so easy to let myself off the hook. Perhaps I did not have some brilliant new insight to offer to the conversation about systemic racism; still, my role as an educator made it necessary for me to engage with this aspect of our society and its history, if only by educating myself about the ways that I as a white man can make a difference in the struggle against systemic racism and white supremacy. Emboldened by this line of thinking, I bought books, watched YouTube videos, and had conversations with friends and colleagues about race and racism. I thought about how I would integrate the topic of racism into my winter 2021 ICS course, following bell hooks’ advice that the choice to include Black authors on your syllabus means that you should actually talk about race in your class (rather than simply profit off of the perceived “diversity” of your reading list). As an educator, neither silence nor passivity was an option for me, and if I wasn’t yet prepared to be a spokesperson for anti-racism, I could nevertheless do everything possible to educate myself on the issue.

This, basically, was my mindset when I was stopped in my tracks by some lines from an interview with author and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman:

What we see now is a translation of Black suffering into white pedagogy. In this extreme moment, the casual violence that can result in a loss of life—a police officer literally killing a Black man with the weight of his knees on the other’s neck—becomes a flash point for a certain kind of white liberal conscience, like: “Oh my god! We’re living in a racist order! How can I find out more about this?” That question is a symptom of the structure that produces Floyd’s death.

I was familiar with the oft-repeated dictum that it is not the responsibility of Black people to educate white people about systemic racism and the struggles against it. Not only is it my job as a white person to educate myself about these issues (the resources for this self-education already exist in the countless Black voices that have been speaking out for centuries), but Hartman’s words seemed to elevate the burden, and to turn it around. Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I have provided this brief walk-through of my own thinking over the last few months because I suspect that I am not the only white person to experience an eagerness to make things better while finding it difficult to locate a place for himself in the struggle against racism. And I think this is precisely the point that many persons of colour want us white people to notice—that, as white people, we do not immediately have a place in this struggle. Or, more specifically, one of the central obstacles for people of colour is the fact that our place in the struggle is as yet too much at the centre, given the extent to which whiteness defines the landscape of our social order. Thus, another reason why we as white people don’t need Black people to educate us about racism is that we are already at the centre of it. As white people, we are essentially involved (as beneficiaries) in structures of racism and white supremacy, the destruction of which, however, is not for us. As a white person, one might say, the struggle against racism and white supremacy is about me but not for me, requiring first and foremost the destabilization of my comfortable place at the centre of the social order.

Consequently, the effort to dismantle racism will be disorienting for white people, given how much of the world is “for us” in ways that we typically do not notice. In her essay “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” feminist theorist Sara Ahmed discusses race and institutional racism using the theme of orientation, and develops an account of whiteness, not as a matter of skin colour or any other such visible trait, but as a function of the mutual shaping of our bodies and the spaces in which they move and act. 

Ahmed begins with the well-established phenomenological insight that our own body is in the first place not the assemblage of head, torso, limbs, etc., that we observe in the bodies of other people, but rather is our point of orientation in the world, our point of contact with the world, which for the most part recedes into the background of whatever action currently occupies and engages us. Of course, I have fingers, and I can turn my attention to them in the same way that a doctor can inspect my body as an object, but my way of living my fingers—for example, in typing this sentence right now—in fact pushes “my fingers” as explicit objects or body parts into the background of my engagement with the world. The lived body, phenomenology shows, is in fact not an object at all, but is rather a kind of mutuality between my activity (as a subject) and the world that supports it.

The problem, Ahmed points out, is that this mutuality does not function in the same way for all bodies. The world we inhabit reflects the history of this mutuality, each of us inheriting a particular world in which to orient ourselves. As Ahmed explains, we can see—or rather, we do not always see, but should—the mutual shaping of body and world at work in the way that white bodies in particular mark the point of orientation for most of our everyday environments and institutional spaces. “Spaces acquire the ‘skin’ of the bodies that inhabit them,” she writes; they “take shape by being oriented around some bodies, more than others.” Ahmed’s point is that our bodies orient us in space—are enabled as the site of our worldly activity—insofar as that space is oriented around our bodies, and that this mutual orientation is in place for some bodies more than others. Here, Ahmed speaks of the “whiteness of space,” the way that white bodies are granted the privilege of receding into the background of the social world, of “sinking” into their environment and going unnoticed in a public space that is set up precisely to support and accommodate them. Not to notice your body, accordingly, is to live in a world in which the mutuality of body and world is comfortably coherent—which is to say, to live in a white (and, typically, “able”-bodied, male, cisgender) world. In such a world, other bodies are destined precisely to be noticed, not to fit in, and thus to be denied the comfort and capacity provided to those bodies whose shape the environment has adopted.

Reading Ahmed’s piece led me to reflect on the “spatial whiteness” of the environments in which I grew up. The fact that as a kid I was hardly ever confronted with the reality of racial difference is evidence, not of the absence of race, but of the thoroughgoing whiteness of the spaces in which I moved. Not that I didn’t encounter people of colour growing up in the Niagara region (I did), but the relevant fact here is the way in which they were noticeable for me—the way in which, if I wasn’t easily able to categorize their otherness (“Oh, she’s a migrant worker”), they appeared out of place (“Oh, I wonder where they’re from—because it surely isn’t here”). 

I mention this personal detail because I think the disorientation of whiteness applies even to those of us who claim—sincerely—not to harbour racist ideas or opinions. For, as Hartman and Ahmed are suggesting, the struggle against systemic racism isn’t primarily about ideas, but rather is about space—that is, the spatial and material context of the world we have in common. We should, of course, be committed to the idea of antiracism, but what these and other voices are saying is that intellectual debates will have no traction if they are not premised on a spatial and material reorientation of our world. Here’s Hartman again:

The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning “how to be more antiracist.” It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.

It is natural to ask here: so what can we do? What I am hearing from many Black voices is that we will overlook the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy if we look too hastily for clear solutions and action steps, treating these realities as issues “over there” that involve Black people only and about which we might simply educate ourselves. The root of the problem, rather, is the way that whiteness forms the point of orientation for our social world, and so the struggle against racism must begin with a rigorous reflection on whiteness, lest we pursue “practical solutions” that serve only to perpetuate spatial and institutional whiteness. As Ahmed writes,

We… need to describe how it is that the world of whiteness coheres as a world… A phenomenology of whiteness helps us to notice institutional habits; it brings what is behind, what does not get seen as the background to social action, to the surface in a certain way. It does not teach us how to change those habits and that is partly the point. In not being promising, in refusing to promise anything, such an approach to whiteness can allow us to keep open the force of the critique. It is by showing how we are stuck, by attending to what is habitual and routine in "the what" of the world, that we can keep open the possibility of habit changes, without using that possibility to displace our attention to the present, and without simply wishing for new tricks.

In this effort to make habitual whiteness more noticeable, I think Ahmed’s caution against “wishing for new tricks” is important at two levels. First, it can help us reject those demands for clear solutions that are nothing other than veiled dismissals of the critique of whiteness—e.g., “Until you give me clear practical solutions, I’m not going to hear you.” The demand that Black voices articulate themselves reasonably, consistently, and with applicable actions steps—is this not actually a refusal to really hear what these voices are saying, a reluctance to be unsettled and disoriented in the ways that an uprooting of racism really requires? We may not be this overtly cynical, but the disingenuous nature—conscious or not—of some demands for clear practical advice has led to a reluctance on the part of persons of colour to translate the struggle against racism and white supremacy into simple ‘how tos.’

At a second level, though, Ahmed’s caution offers a challenge to those of us white people who earnestly want to know how to help, by shifting the conversation away from what “we” as white people can do to change things. Indeed, Ahmed reserves her most piercing criticism for the question: What can white people do? 
“The sheer solipsism of this response must be challenged,” she writes, for the ways that it “re-position[s] the white subject as somewhere other than implicated in the critique.” In other words, the question What can white people do? centres the agency of white bodies as the source of change, rather than as already deeply implicated in the problem of racism. Ahmed is thus asking us to notice how the orientation of this question—“How can I, as a white person, contribute to the resistance, to your struggle”—denies the reality that white people are already at the centre of the struggle, comfortably involved in (if not altogether dependent on) the very structures that the struggle against racism aims to dismantle.

In this way, Ahmed is shifting our attention away from the practical question of resistance, and toward our desire for resistance and for the clear action steps toward achieving it. “What does it mean,” Ahmed asks rhetorically, to “assume that critiques have to leave room for resistance?”

This desire to make room is understandable—if the work of critique does not show that its object can be undone, or promise to undo its object, then what is the point of the critique? But this desire can also become an object for us to investigate. The desire for signs of resistance can also be a form for resistance to hearing about racism. If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.

Now, Ahmed is not saying that we should avoid identifying action steps or pursuing real changes. But she is encouraging us first to become aware of the ways that racism, as rooted in the very spaces we inhabit, persists even where there is a genuine desire to eliminate it. Her worry is that if we press for change too quickly—too superficially, too comfortably—we will fail to hear the critique of Black voices in full, and we will simply reassert the centrality of whiteness. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should do the work of identifying practical changes that we can make as individuals and as members of communities and institutions. But we should not think of these as “ten clear steps to eradicate racism,” but rather as steps toward the unravelling of the centrality of whiteness. As white people, we must recognize our responsibility, not simply contribute to efforts to resist racism, but to expose ourselves to disorientation and to commit to the divestment of our place in the social order.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks makes the point that predominantly white communities can participate in the struggle against racism by reflecting on and studying whiteness, “so that everyone learns that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of colour are present.” As an historically—though certainly not exclusively—white community, we at ICS are poised to engage in the dismantling of racism and white supremacy, here and now, by reflecting on whiteness, by making it noticeable in our world and the world at large, and by noticing the damage that it has done and does. At ICS we are set up to reflect on whiteness in our writing, classrooms, and casual conversation, regardless of whether our work deals with race explicitly, and regardless of how new we are to the conversation. For reflections on whiteness, doing a “phenomenology of whiteness” is the first step towards witnessing the true depth and breadth of racism and the stakes of the struggle against it.
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Andrew Tebbutt is an ICS alum and recently received his doctorate from the University of Toronto. He currently serves as Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics at ICS. Among other things, his research interests include exploring the significance of ethical and religious community for the cultivation of personal identity and the development of political responsibility.


  1. I really appreciate your careful reflection here and the account of a plausible movement of reflection from initial impulse to help to the final conclusion that we come to realize that to take up issues of race as white persons means we enter a field of investigation that is "about us but not for us". There is something deeply true being communicated thereby. But I wonder if on another level it isn't "for us" too. What I mean is this: white supremacy as a systemic condition of our social and political lives oppresses racialized people and corrupts "white" people or the chief beneficiaries of a "white supremacist" society and polity. To face up to the implications of "whiteness" in this context is a true beginning but only a beginning down a road other than that "old white magic" to play on a Frank Sinatra lyric. Eventual transformation of the social arrangements that constitute white supremacy would involve liberation of one kind for our racialized and oppressed fellow citizens, but wouldn't it also liberate those of us who benefit from the present arrangements though in a different sense? For our privilege corrupts us just as assuredly as it undermines our racialized fellow citizens. Neither outcome is near, nor sure as far as I can see. To begin to follow a different road is not to say it will turn out to be the 'right' road, once and for all. But it might be blessed, and if so, thank God. In the present context we cannot but be formed by our privilege to live as the beneficiaries of that privilege, and that means to be corrupted as a matter of fact, quite apart from our intentions. Isn't it true that we need to take this examination of "whiteness" and "white privilege" on for the salvation of our own souls, so to speak? Doesn't that mean that on some level it is "for us" too?

  2. Thanks very much for your comments, Bob. I agree totally that the struggle against racism and white supremacy will be liberating for white people as well, and I do not want to be heard as saying that this struggle is "not for us" as white people in any absolute sense. My concern in the above is largely about how the problem of systemic racism is articulated and understood, and in this sense I am trying to respond to the ways that efforts to dismantle systemic racism are *first and foremost* not "for me"--that is, are not in the first place articulated in terms of my own liberation (liberating though they may be in an ultimate sense). Systemic racism is indeed about me as a white person, and in this sense it is assuredly "my problem." But my hesitation to articulate its dismantling as immediately "for" me comes from my worry that the specificity of what BIPOC voices are saying about systemic racism will be missed if we rush to articulate the struggle against systemic racism as something that's also good for white people. I'm not saying that I don't think this struggle is good for white people; I just think that the call to reflect on and decentre whiteness is a call for white people to get behind a struggle that does not necessarily benefit them directly or immediately. When what I'm being saved or liberated from are the benefits and privileges I have derived from racist social arrangements, I can't expect my salvation to be all that comfortable.