Whiteness: Deconstructed

Part Three: Whiteness, The British Working Class and Far Right Mobilisation

In this third part of the whiteness series, the creation of the white working class as an oppressed group in the UK is interrogated, examining how and why this has fuelled right-wing political mobilisation in defence of its assumed dominance.

Another unstable group within whiteness is the British white working class. This group was considered non-white in Victorian Britain, referred to as the ‘great unwashed’ by the white ruling class, but is now positioned as the authentic postcolonial exemplars of whiteness. Research by Alastair Bonnett (2000) in his book White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives shows how the British white working class were not just marginal to initial formations of whiteness in Victorian Britain, but actively excluded from it. Whereas white identity was incorporated by white American lower classes from the late 17th century (for reasons stated in part two), the British working class were only able to employ their whiteness in the 20th century, coinciding with, but not as the result of, the wave of non-white immigration from the Commonwealth. In 16th century Britain, bourgeois whiteness provided a hegemonic meaning as a form of ‘hyper-whiteness’ in an ambitious social project that allowed the working class in colonial settings to claim white advantage. The British working class was aligned with non-whites, enabling the assertion of racial distinctions between them and the privileged class – the poor were considered the ‘dark other’ of bourgeois whiteness.

© Johny Pitts

By the 20th century the British working class were enabled to adopt a white identity due to a shift from liberal to welfare capitalism in which the living standards of the working class were raised beyond recognition through state-led initiatives, enabling the formation of a popular nationalism in which ‘welfare came wrapped in the Union Jack’ (Bonnett, 2000). Bourgeois conceptions of national identity became untenable because working class claims to Britishness could no longer be ignored. Whiteness was adapted by the working class to differentiate them from immigrants and politically mobilise them in a xenophobic response to immigration, creating a coherent national community with colour as the bar to inclusion, in a contemporary conflation of whiteness, Britishness and working class identity. This conflation evokes rural England as a key site in the production of whiteness, linking notions of empire to the conditions of contemporary Britishness, usurping class as the most salient theme of British national identity.

Whiteness has therefore been effectively used as a ‘rallying call’ to poor white populations. In a 2009 report entitled Who Cares About the White Working Class? commissioned by racial equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, Kjartan Sveinsson argues that ‘those promoting race equality urgently need to get involved in the current discussion on whiteness’, in order to undermine the populist discourse that pits the white working class against ethnic minorities. As he explains: ‘feigning white working class disadvantage as an ethnic disadvantage rather than as class disadvantage is exactly what rhetorically places this group in direct competition with minority ethnic groups’. Thus, whiteness has been used as a basis for far-right political groups such as the BNP, the EDL and more recently UKIP to demand the retention of white power and white rights, as well as also being the basis for the campaign to leave the EU. Whiteness only comes to the fore when threatened, in which case it becomes an incredibly effective basis for political mobilisation.

For example, the British media portray the white working class as both voiceless and marginalized, with the term ‘working class’ only tending to surface in relation to attacks on multiculturalism. Within the contemporary British context of multiculturalist state policies, this has led to the depiction of the white working class as a new ‘victim group’. For example, governmental reports regarding the 2001 mill town disorders in the north of England indicate that this section of the working class felt anger and resentment over what they felt to be unfair resource allocation to immigrant communities. This positioning provides further platforms for the far right political movement. The entrenchment of multiculturalist policies in the UK and affirmative action in the US has led to the construction of this victim group in both countries because of, as Pickering explains, ‘the paranoid idea that whiteness is no longer the signifier of privilege, that the privileges of being white are undermined’. The depiction of the white working class as white is thus a modern phenomenon within the context of multiculturalism that positions them as ‘the authentic carriers of whiteness’ despite the fact that the British working class have had just as precarious a relationship to whiteness as have Jews, Poles and the Irish.

The working class has therefore been effectively racialized for political ends, with class-based oppression erroneously perceived through the lens of race as a form of racialized disadvantage. A 2017 Runnymede report entitled Race and Class in Post-Brexit Britain posits that race has been positioned as an oppositional category to class in a form of ‘whitening of class identities for racist ends’, consigning racist violence to an affliction of working class white people, thereby diverting attention from state-sponsored racist violence. The Runnymede report argues that the homogenous white working class is a myth, given that the contemporary working class is more likely be made up of women and ethnic minorities, and the label serves to divide agendas because the assumptions on which this conflation are based are false. Confining racism to the white working class diverts attention from those in power who create the policies that afflict this class, situating the white working class as pawns to maintain white privilege, as well as preventing a more inclusive British identity.

As discussed in section two, it is the instabilities of whiteness that contribute to its dominance. The British working class was denied the privileges of whiteness until it became politically untenable to maintain this, at which point they were not just given the privileges of whiteness but positioned as postcolonial exemplars whom are being victimised by ethnic minorities. Whiteness remains a contested category, neither static nor uniform, but historically contingent, class specific and politically manipulated, continuously redefined and reinvented for specific political ends.

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