Talking politics; thoughts on 'decentralizing whiteness' and other notions

My family never talked about politics. Now anyone who knows my family would know that this is a lie; my family, of course, like any other Australian family of its kind and social class talked about politics incessantly.

From the morning breakfast, at a local café around the corner, when newspaper articles would be shared, read aloud from and then at the dinner-table when the latest ‘outrage’ committed by the government, or an individual politician (most probably some comment, or decision) would be recounted and the positions taken.

It was a family that spoke often, frequently about politics as government – the most recent betrayal, mistake or as I said ‘outrage’ - but did not speak about politics as it’s understood today more broadly, relating to race, or class or gender.

Today though I remembered something that made me smile. In my parents’ house –  a nineteenth century terrace, with floor to ceiling bookshelves in every room, apart from the kitchen and bathroom, of course – as a teenager I came across Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and Baldwin’s No Name in the Street (alongside The fire next time) - the original hard-cover versions - and I think there was Angela Davis’ autobiography as well. My mother must have bought these books when they were first published in Australia in the late 60s and 70s.

Looking at photographs of my parents at that time they look so anti-modern, non-radical and non-fashionable; dressed in sombre colours, jumpers, sensible skirts and sometimes tweed, for my father. He is often smoking a pipe. They only ever listened to Classical music and the radio (nothing pop, or rock music related). Hippies, or yippies, White Panthers they were not.

They were lapsed Catholics – who distanced themselves from the religion after the Second Vatican (this was their ‘political moment’) who had grown up in a country that they said would be uncrecognisable to me. Until university, for example, they had never met a non-Catholic (this was not unusual in Melbourne, a city defined by sectarianism – the division between Catholics and Protestants that continued up until the mass arrival of immigrants from Europe in the post-war period).

Thinking about my mother today, with four young children under the age of five, buying these books by Black American radicals made me miss her. But it also struck me as funny imagining this woman who had probably never met a non-white person at that point reading Cleaver’s gunshot prose, written when he was an inmate at Folsom State Prison.

As I said before she was not someone you could call remotely political – at least not in the 2017 sense, even though she spent her entire professional life as a teacher working with migrants and refugees.

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece by Seattle writer and self-described ‘internet yeller’ Ijeoma Oluo on how to remain active in the era of Trump and much else besides, one part read:

Just about every aspect of western culture centralizes whiteness. Our history, infrastructure, medical system, justice system, education system, entertainment industry – and yes, our social justice organizations – all do this. Whiteness is default, it’s ubiquitous and it’s insidious.

We don’t have to purposefully center whiteness. When we neglect to decentralize it, it will be automatically centered. So work to decentralize whiteness: in your children’s school lessons, in your PTA meetings, in your office meetings, in your city council meetings, in the film and TV you watch, in the music you listen to, in the leaders you support ...

I get this, of course I do: I’m hyper-alert to the absences of entire groups of people in films, newspaper articles, in advertisements whether it be based on racial background, or gender to the point that some friends tease me about it. The problem was that 90 % of the Guardian readers didn’t understand this idea of ‘decentralizing whiteness’. It left them stumped and many got defensive. 

If Oluo had said, we need to ‘increase diversity’ there would not have been an issue. Such thinking is commonplace, but by using the jarring – at least for readers of a middle-brow, mainstream newspaper in the UK (it’s hardly Marxist Central) - term ‘decentralize whiteness’ the readers were flummoxed, struggling, wondering if they were being attacked and possibly dehumanised.

What did that phrase mean, some of the readers asked; did it refer to a people, or a series of traits and behaviours linked to a people; if so, isn’t that kind of comment, linking a skin-colour with the behaviour of all people in a group, racist?

There is nothing wrong with throwing linguistic hand-grenades, trying to unsettle people to get them to think differently, but when it gets to the point that people shut down because of how it’s said rather than what is said, as writers as communicators, there is an issue. For all of those non-political readers, unschooled in theory, who are older perhaps, where does the responsibility of the writer lie?  

One response might be to say, though; well there is space for all kinds of politics, as represented by these books of essays and non-fiction from a few decades ago and then there is the kind found in the writing of Oluo and her allies fighting the Identity Politics fight and that there’s room for both. That could be one reply.