Tackling white supremacy requires facing up to bullying

Everyone in power in universities, as elsewhere, must grasp their inherent capacity to dominate, intimidate and exclude, says Timothy Carey

November 16, 2021
Black and white hands touch knuckles
Source: iStock

I recently had the good fortune to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s powerful 2018 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. As a white, middle-aged male, I initially felt confronted by the title, but I reasoned that my discomfort perhaps indicated I should get acquainted with what was inside. I’m glad I did.

I was not completely new to the concepts of white supremacy and white privilege that Eddo-Lodge, a British journalist, discusses in vivid detail. As an Australian academic, I have had various cultural appreciation experiences with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. While I was a director on the board of the Australian Psychological Society, I initiated, co-developed and delivered an apology to these peoples on the society’s behalf. I was also the director of Flinders University’s Centre of Remote Health, which had a policy of cultural safety and regularly provided cultural awareness courses to both university students and health and other service professionals.

THE Campus views: Bullying by supervisors is alive and well – now is the time to tackle it

My awareness has also been heightened by living in Rwanda and gaining some sense of what it means to be a minority. I am very clear that my Rwanda experiences do not come close to what black and brown people in countries like Australia, the UK and the US endure on a daily basis, but I find them instructive nevertheless.

Still, to understand racism and white privilege as embedded elements of the structures and systems of society was revelatory. My greatest illuminatory moment, however, was Eddo-Lodge’s point that white supremacy is, ultimately, a function of the positions of power and dominance that some people hold relative to others. It was profoundly moving for me to read that “the politics of whiteness transcends the colour of anyone’s skin. It is an occupying force in the mind. It is a political ideology that is concerned with maintaining power through domination and exclusion. Anyone can buy into it, just like anyone can choose to challenge it.”

She seems to be suggesting that anyone can be a white supremacist if they are in a position of power. Ultimately, white supremacy is about the extent to which we impede the life opportunities of others, including people to whom we provide services. You are not condemned to behaving as a white supremacist if your skin is white. Nor are you unable to dominate and exclude others if your skin is another colour. Bullying and intimidation by an office manager who happens to be a black woman is no less potent and insidious than if they were a white man. White supremacy is about power, not pigmentation.

Other authorities provide implicit support for Eddo-Lodge’s position. In her recent book, Hospicing Modernity, University of British Columbia professor Vanessa De Oliveira Andreotti uses the term “coloniality” to refer to that vestige of colonialism in which positions of power are used to organise matters such as relationships and labour. And Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal explained her infamous “white lives don’t matter” tweet as referring to white structures and ideologies. Gopal’s remarkable 2019 book Insurgent Empire adds important nuance to this area by emphasising the agency of those who were colonised and the role this agency played in changing colonial relationships and structures.

Corrupt leaders throughout the world have demonstrated for decades that people of any race or ethnicity can bully and intimidate. This sentiment is not intended to absolve white people from any responsibility for their actions. Nor is it meant to cast a blame net widely (blame is rarely helpful). The point is that if we are to genuinely and fundamentally improve social relations, all people in positions of power – in universities, as elsewhere – need to understand that they have the ability to dominate, intimidate, exclude, or bully, however inadvertently. This will enable them to recognise it when it occurs. Only then will they be able to organise their relationships differently.

The courage of personal responsibility is critical if we are all to live lives of our own design and not obstruct others’ attempt to do the same. We must move beyond an attitude of “empowerment of others”, because systems and structures that position people to empower others are exactly the same systems and structures that provide fertile ground for depowering. Rather, we need to depower relationships through the structures of policies and laws.

Universities should audit themselves to examine the extent to which they are structured to mitigate against white supremacy and coloniality. A progressive step forward would be to state explicitly that claims of bullying and harassment will be assessed without consideration of the status, gender, race or ethnicity of the bully or the bullied. Also, constructively disruptive conversations with students about these topics should become routine. Generic critical thinking skills courses would be the ideal forum to include discussions about racism, coloniality, and white supremacy. Gopal’s work on agency would be invaluable.

The argument here is not so much that we should subsume colonialism and white supremacy within broader constructs, such as bullying. They remain important concepts. They should be considered, however, as part of the entire social milieu, from which no one is removed or immune.

Ultimately, unless policies and procedures are developed based on an explicit acknowledgement that white supremacy transcends skin colour and racial affiliation, we will never make a dent on inequity.

Timothy Carey is a scholar, researcher, author and speaker with a background in clinical psychology, statistics and education. He is the director of the Institute of Global Health Equity Research and the Andrew Weiss chair of research in global health at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

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Reader's comments (4)

Why call it "whiteness" if it transcends skin colour?
Hi Stephen, It's a great question and something that came as a surprise to me although it makes sense to me now. I still have lots of learning to do in this area but one of the keys was the quote from Eddo-Lodge I used in the article: "the politics of whiteness transcends the colour of anyone’s skin. It is an occupying force in the mind. It is a political ideology that is concerned with maintaining power through domination and exclusion. Anyone can buy into it, just like anyone can choose to challenge it." I think it makes sense that the business of using power to dominate and exclude woud have initially been labelled "white supremacy" because those powerful positions were filled almost entirely with white males. White males probably still predominate in these positions but not exclusively so. The point I wanted to emphasise was that it's the position that permits the supremacy. How that position is used by whoever occupies it is not determined by skin colour but, rather, a person's attitudes towards others and the way they structure and build relationships. If we're going to promote more constructive relationships we need to focus on the way people in positions of power use their power, regardless of their skin colour. Tim
Dear Timothy, Thank you for an insightful and inspiring piece. I have to admit I did not think that you answered the question above. If whiteness is a portmanteau signaling power, hierarchy, dominaton, exclusion, patriarchy shouldn't we just use those terms. We have other portmanteaus like governmentality or ideology.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree. I don't think I answered the question above either but I think Eddo-Lodge does a marvelous job of answering it. You ask a terrific question. I'm not familiar with the term "portmanteau" but if I'm understanding it correctly, I'm not sure what the justification is for using the words you provide rather than whiteness or white supremacy. Surely we could just flip the question you ask to instead wonder why we're not using the term "white supremacy" more often when we're referring to dynamics such as domination and exclusion. In my limited experience I think it's useful to use and discuss the term "white supremacy" if only because so many people are uncomfortable with it. If we're ever going to thoroughly restructure our ways of relating to create greater opportunities for all, it might be helpful to understand where many of our structures and ways of doing business come from. For the same reason I would support a wider use and examination of De Oliveira Andreotti's term "coloniality" (she didn't create the term but uses it in her writing). For me, there is something about terms such as "white supremacy" and "coloniality" that highlight the importance of systems, policies, and structural forces, in a way that other terms do not. Pragmatically, I'd be in favour of using whatever terms help to draw attention to, and eradicate, the use of positions within institutions and organisations that enable domination, exclusion, and bullying.