Pandaemonium

THE MAGICAL QUALITY OF WHITENESS

This essay, on immigration, identity and the obsession with whiteness, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 5 September 2021, under the headline “To be truly British, the country needs to stay largely white. Really, Lionel Shriver?”


They have seen the passing of the American Indian and the buffalo; and now they query as to how long the Anglo-Saxon may be able to survive.” So wrote William Ripley in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly in 1908.

Ripley was one of America’s most renowned academics, professor of political economy at Columbia University and of economics at MIT. By the early 20th century, his chief preoccupation had become the fear that white people, which, to the American elite at least, meant “Anglo-Saxon”, were vanishing from the population.

“Whereas, until about 20 years ago, our immigrants were drawn from the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic populations of north-western Europe,” Ripley wrote, “they have swarmed over here in rapidly growing proportions since that time from Mediterranean, Slavic, and Oriental sources.” He was worried that Anglo-Saxons were showing a “low and declining birthrate” while “the immigrant horde… has continued to reproduce upon our soil with well-sustained energy”.

A century on, such fears of “white decline” have returned in certain circles. Until recently, issues of “white identity” and of “white decline” were confined to the far-right fringes, where notions such as that of the “great replacement”, the belief that white people are being driven out of their “homelands”, flourished.

Increasingly, though, mainstream conservatives – academics, politicians, writers – are taking up the call. The latest comes in an essay by the novelist Lionel Shriver in the Spectator. It’s entitled “Would you want London to be overrun with Americans like me?” But it’s not Americans like her that worries Shriver. Her fear, rather, is that “white Britons” are “becoming a minority in the UK”. “The lineages of white Britons in their homeland commonly go back hundreds of years,” she writes, and yet they have to “submissively accept” the “ethnic transformation of the UK… without a peep of protest”.

For Britain to remain Britain, it has to remain predominantly white. To say so, Shriver insists, is not racist. It is difficult, though, to know what else it could be. “For westerners to passively accept and even abet incursions by foreigners so massive that the native-born are effectively surrendering their territory without a shot fired,” Shriver claims, “is biologically perverse”. This is the language of the British National Party, of the AfD in Germany, of Marine Le Pen in France. To describe immigration as “incursions by foreigners”, to view black or brown people moving into your town as “surrendering one’s territory” and to regard non-white immigration as “biologically perverse” is not just to stray into racist territory, it is to jump head first into the swamp.

There are legitimate arguments to be had about immigration. I am more liberal about immigration than most, but I have long argued that we should not, as many do, dismiss those calling for tighter controls as “racist”; some are, most probably not. Conservative proponents of tighter controls react with fury at the charge that their arguments may be racist, insisting they are concerned purely about numbers. Increasingly, though, the question of race has become explicit. Shriver’s is but the latest in a series of arguments by prominent conservatives bemoaning the decline of the white population or defending the legitimacy of white “racial self-interest”.

Many conservatives argue that in their obsession with white decline, they are speaking for working-class white people, whose views have been neglected by the metropolitan elite. Yet nine out of 10 Britons disagree with the claim that “to be truly British you have to be white”. Two-thirds of Americans think that the declining share of white people in the US population is “neither good nor bad”. On both sides of the Atlantic, ordinary people seem more rational about whiteness than does Shriver. “White declinists” are using working-class white people as alibis for their own prejudices.

One of the ironies in all this is that many of those who most worry about “white decline” are also among the most strident critics of identity politics. Taking part in a debate in defence of the proposition that “identity politics is tearing society apart”, Shriver argued that she had been a “fierce advocate” of the US civil rights movement because its goal was “to break down the artificial barriers between us” and “to release us into seeing each other not as black or white… but as individual people”. “The colour of my skin,” she added, “is an arbitrary accident… the boxes into which I have been born are confinements I have struggled to get out of and I would wish that liberation to everyone else.”

Except, it seems, if you are a non-white immigrant. Then, the “arbitrary accident” of birth becomes an essential feature of one’s identity, the “artificial barriers between us” need to be emphasised, the “confinements” of ethnic boxes maintained and people seen not as “individuals” but as “black or white”.

Such double standards are not peculiar to Shriver. The writer Douglas Murray, for instance, is similarly hostile to identity politics, arguing “skin colour is of no significance, which is what I think and I hope society can end up thinking” while also denouncing the fact that “white Britons [are] a minority in their own capital city” and asking: “Were your derided average white voters not correct when they said that they were losing their country?” It’s a common thread running through much conservative criticism of identity politics.

In truth, rightwing critics have never been hostile to identity politics. They just want to push their form of identity politics. The critique of identitarianism is, for them, a useful weapon with which to attack the left, while promoting their own insidious notions of identity. Meanwhile, many on the left, who rightly condemn the racism of the “white declinists”, are themselves drawn to defend their own version of identity politics, not recognising that in doing so they make it easier to rebrand racism as white identity politics.

For both right and left, whiteness has come to acquire an almost magical quality. On the one side, whiteness is something to be protected, something too little of which transforms British communities, and mysteriously makes them less British. On the other, whiteness has become an embodiment of privilege or wickedness and racism seen not in social or structural terms but in the inherent qualities of being white.

It’s an obsession that replaces political argument with magical thinking and gives new legitimacy to bigotry. Racism matters. Whiteness does not.

13 comments

  1. I think the main concern of these conservative writers is the slow territorial erosion of British monoculture in terms of history, heritage, Common Law systems and basic principles of fairness which is closely associated with white anglo-saxons but not necessarily if newcomers have integrated.

    This British monoculture has been placed in opposition with a multiculturalism that embeds affirmative action (or indirect discrimination) policies which provides ‘people with special ethnic differences’, ‘people with special racial differences’ and more recently, ‘people with special gender differences’ with what are perceived as multicultural privileges that are not afforded to the majority culture. These multicultural privileges were, as you know, explicitly sanctioned by the Race Relations Act 1976.

    Thus, whilst nonBritish cultures are protected by multiculturalism, British culture and heritage is not. Hence, territorial encroachment of foreign cultures, especially those in which patriarchy, sexism, genderism and homophobia are protected from wider national scrutiny, will bound to be seen as both a demographic threat and a cultural threat.

    As such, what these conservative thinkers do not make explicit, is that their central concern is culture and how nonBritish multiculturalism is demographically usurping British monoculture.

    Perhaps their difficulty, and mine too, is how to frame this opposition between British monoculture which doesn’t depend on the colour of someone’s skin but does explicitly support historical notions of British heritage and the continuity of British traditions such as Common Law, the English language, democracy, equal opportunity and equal treatment whereas nonBritish multiculturalism embeds multicultural privileges and affirmative action for special minority groups, the rejection of British heritage and the rejection of the English language.

    In this respect, nonBritish multiculturalism is reactionary although liberal metropolitan advocates seek to frame this reactionary tendency as progressive unless of course, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion treats British monoculture with the respect and dignity afforded to nonBritish multiculture.

    At present, there appears to be no evidence of that so of course proponents of British culture have legitimate concerns concerning demographic cultural replacement.

    Much emphasis is placed on nonBritish multicultural lived experience whilst at the same time, the lived experience of British monoculture is subject to discriminatory negligence. Or maybe we should start toppling and denigrating multicultural artefacts to even up the reactionary affirmative action of Progressives.

    • Andrew

      As Kenan has written about for years, you’re conflating multiculturalism as public policy with immigration and diversity.
      It’s perfectly possible to want to challenge the former whilst supporting the later and in fact the correlation between support for multiculturalism as public policy doesn’t split on racial or ethnic lines. There’s scores of non white Britons rejecting, deeply concerned about and even actively campaigning against the worst aspects of multiculturalism and plenty of ethnically white Britons who support it.

      • There is a difference between feeling an attachment to British culture and heritage and being legally British.

        Multiculturalism cannot be decoupled from immigration and diversity when the whole point of multiculturalism is to facilitate the inclusion of imported foreign cultures and to facilitate British cultural fluidity.

        In this respect, multiculturalism is a territorial cultural threat to the integrity and continuity of British culture as witnessed by efforts to ‘decolonise’, ‘cancel’, ‘diversify’ and ‘reimagine’ British heritage in order to essentialise, reify and normalise the unequal treatment embedded within multicultural ‘affirmative action’ and multicultural ‘indirect discrimination’.

        • In this respect, multiculturalism is a territorial cultural threat to the integrity and continuity of British culture* as witnessed by …

          * I mean British heritage

  2. Andreu Nin

    Despite his deserved reputation as an honest intellectual, Kenan Malik writes vile propaganda. Malik imitates the New York Times, Le Monde and countless others in characterizing the term “great replacement”, as popularized by Renaud Camus, as a conjecure dealing with race. However that is an abominable lie. He didn’t bother to read Renaud Camus’s Great Replacement to see what Camus actually says.
    Here is a quote from Renaud Camus’s Great Replacement, pages 19-20 of the French edition:
    It’s true that individuals can become part of a people, integrate into it, assimilate into it; and in France there have always been people who have done so, out of love for its language, its culture, its civilization, its landscapes, its history, its art of living, and simply out of love for France.

    But I have a friend, a young man, a Frenchman of Moroccan background, who is deeply attached to France, to its culture and to the French language, and is very grateful to our common homeland for all that it has done for him, he tells me. He is a teacher at a priority education zone in the Paris region. All [start page 20] his pupils, almost without exception, come from the other side of the Mediterranean, just like his own family. But he assures me that everything that in-nocents [this is a term that Camus invented and means more or less “French patriots”] like me say [about Arab youth in France] is not only true and relevant, but actually understates the way the adolescents who fill his classroom talk and think. I concede that they do not actually use the term “colonization“ but conquest is very much on their minds, and conquest is reflected in their attitudes and their speech, and in their eyes conquest is inevitable, it is merely a matter of time – and they eagerly look forward to it and take great pride in it.
    They laugh when their teacher, my friend, tells them that he is French just like them. They cannot believe for an instant that he is speaking seriously. They think he is trying to gross them out by saying such nonsense. When he actually told them that he was not only a Frenchman but a French patriot and very proud of his French homeland, they felt that he was really going too far, it was no longer funny, he should not talk like that, he was overdoing it.

    • Andrew

      “Despite his deserved reputation as an honest intellectual, Kenan Malik writes vile propaganda”

      If he writes vile propaganda how can his reputation as an honest intellectual be deserved?
      If you want people to read very long rants, might I suggest not having an opening sentence that makes literally no sense.

    • Nick from Suffolk

      I look forward to a day when Britain is predominantly mixed-race and everyone stops pigeon-holing individuals as black or white. A practice that is in itself, demonstrably racist. But I guess there are too many with too much invested in division, anger and revenge to allow that. A shame really.

  3. Funny – not! – that, if we reversed the races of the dominant indigenous culture, this would be considered colonialism.

    As for race? It’s not an issue with most Whites. Hence, the fightback against the pro-immigration, diversity, multiculturalists arguments. It’s about culture and the long-held attitudes of mores of it. For a nation to stay the nation it has been in any way more meaningful than lines on a map, it has to maintain the core components of its culture. Immigration and multiculturism attack that when the immigration is from wildly divergent cultures – most of which in the West’s case are made up of non-Whites.

    Frankly, in this context, the vagaries of race have been weaponized by those who hate Whites.

    • Ah, yes, colonialism, just the same as people migrating from one country to another. Nothing to do with the forced occupation of another nation, and the denial of the most basic of rights to the colonised. Let’s see what colonialism actually involved, shall we?

      This is Hans Sloan – the man whose collections helped found the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum – describing in his book Voyage to the Islands, the punishments meted out to slaves by British colonists in the West Indies:

      “The Punishments of Crimes of Slaves are usually for Rebellions burning them, by nailing them down to the ground with cooked sticks on every Limb, and then applying the fire by degrees from the Feet and Hands, burning them gradually up the Head, whereby their pains are extravagant. For crimes of lesser nature Gelding, or cropping off half the Foot with an axe… For negligence they are whipped till they are Raw, some put on their skins Pepper and salt to make them smart.”

      And this is a British officer, Lieutenant George Cracklow, describing what happened to Indian rebels captured during the so-called “Indian Mutiny” in 1857:

      “The prisoners were marched up to the guns, their irons knocked off, and lashed to the muzzles with drag ropes, the muzzles pointing just behind their shoulders… The guns exploded. I could hardly see for the smoke for about 2 seconds when down came something with a thud about 5 yards from me. This was the head and neck of one of the men… On each side of the guns, about 10 yards, lay the arms torn out at the shoulders. Under the muzzle… lay the remainder of the bodies with the entrails scattered about.”

      A few weeks later, Cracklow wrote to his mother that he had got so used to the killings that thought “no more of stringing up or blowing away half a dozen mutineers before breakfast than I do of eating the same meal”.

      In the German colony of South West African (now Namibia), the local Nama and Herero peoples were rounded up and placed in concentration camps (not my word, but how Germans described them – Konzentrationslager – imitating British policy in South Africa), which were forced labour camps. This is from a typical account from a missionary visiting one of the camps:

      “A woman was carrying a child of under a year old slung at her back, and with a heavy sack of grain on her head. The sand was very steep and the sun was baking. She fell down forward on her face, and the heavy sack fell partly across her and partly on the baby. The corporal sjamboked her for certainly more than four minutes and sjamboked the baby as well.”

      In the Congo, Belgium imposed a grotesque system of forced labour, under which people were shot en masse, or had their hands and feet chopped off for failing to collect sufficient rubber to meet their quota. This is an account by a police officer in the Force Publique of on operation on a village that had not met its quota:

      “We fell upon them all and killed them without mercy. [The commander] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, and also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisade in the form of a cross.”

      And a passage from American journalist Peter Forbath’s book, The River Congo:

      “The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. In the degenerate, brutalized atmosphere of the Congo forests… the collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber. Hands took on a value in their own right. They became a sort of currency… Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected. A native might save his life by surrendering his right hand, but more often than not the harvesting of hands meant wholesale murder.”

      I know you think that immigrants have savaged this fair and beautiful land, but I doubt if even in Brixton or Bradford these are common practices.

      On the question of race, it’s not me that introduced the racial question into this discussion but Shriver, and those who seek to defend her arguments. If race is “not an issue” why such furore about “white decline”, or the possibility of whites becoming a minority? And as for cultural values, my values are far closer to those of Afghans or Syrians who have been fighting for democracy and equality than those Britons who spew out racist bigotry and are so ignorant of their own country’s history that they cannot distinguish between colonialism and migration.

      • Of course, on the other side of the coin is the intraAfrica slave trade that included burying slaves alive so they could continue serving their masters.

        https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53444752.amp

        Regarding Syria, it was democracy that set the Alawites, the Kurds, and the Druze, against the Sunni Arab majority. When Assad came to power, his Alawites took control of the army which then became the military basis of the Syrian civil war.

        https://unherd.com/2021/07/the-west-will-never-understand-syria/

        Regarding Afghanistan, the Afghan government was undone by its own corruption despite the military protection of American forces.

        https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/08/28/the-afghan-government-was-undone-by-its-own-corruption?gclsrc=aw.ds&gclid=CjwKCAjwyvaJBhBpEiwA8d38vJbqdKVbV76C_3VEmrk5cipTYW1TgEJOy1WLUf04TvP1mtXraEzLlBoCvpgQAvD_BwE

        It is therefore arguable that these tribalistic ‘multicultural’ values have a place in modern British culture.

        • Yes, I know, “but slavery has always existed” is the default response for certain people to any mention of European colonialism or transatlantic slavery. But what that has to do with my point that colonialism and migration are different phenomena, I have no idea. Nor do I know what your, shall we say, idiosyncratic arguments about Syria and Afghanistan have to do with the fact that, as I put it before, “my values are far closer to those of Afghans or Syrians who have been fighting for democracy and equality than those Britons who spew out racist bigotry and are so ignorant of their own country’s history that they cannot distinguish between colonialism and migration.”

      • *Yawn*

        Yes, you well-cited some bits of yellow journalism and sensationalist papers regarding some fraction of what was actually “Colonialism.” That doesn’t change the fact that any significant amount of Western emigration to non-White lands would be lumped under the same label. Hell! Our products are complained about as if they were invading crusaders.

        As for anything involving “White” – that is a matter of culture more than gross physical characteristics.

        • It takes a particular form of brainlessness to dismiss any historical evidence that doesn’t fit your distorted ideological views – especially when much of that evidence comes from primary sources – as “yellow journalism and sensationalist papers” – including primary sources and historical research. Given that you seem besotted by “culture”, it’s tempting to suggest that you might want to do some reading. But reading and knowledge is not really your thing, is it?

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