Some White people don’t like being called “white“.
Why do we need labels? Why can’t we all just be people?
Those of us with post-colonial backgrounds might raise an eyebrow at this,
Some people have always had labels affixed to them. If you’re not white in the U.K. you likely spend a lot of time negotiating various labels both those you affix yourself for others and those they place upon you. Where you’re from, where you’re really from.
But being white does not normally necessitate this. If you’re white you’re assumed to be from here. This is perhaps where the anger comes from. If you’re accustomed to being accepted wherever you go it can be difficult to feel that you suddenly require explanation.
There’s a historical irony to this. White as an ethnicity was a conscious creation of racial theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was shaped by the need to differentiate Europeans from inferior, colonised races; and by efforts to fashion and preserve hegemony by Protestant elites in America. Who got to be white has always been up for negotiation, but the principle of exclusion was vital.
Having moved from an identity based on reified differentiation, Whiteness became the default from which everything else is an exception. If you are the generic option then you must, by definition belong. However much space is allowed for people that differ from you (and that space can contract as much as it expands) it is clear that you are making space for others at your indulgence. They might be allowed to stay (or they might not), but that’s not the same as belonging.
The consequences of this trope become clear when a broadcaster comments on the number of white people that attend a Brexit rally and unleashes a torrent of white grievance. Grievance that would be called identity politics if the parties involved had more melanin.
But the consequences are bigger then just Jon Snow being made to give a public apology. The consequences of the White default are that members of the Windrush generation can face sudden deportation to countries they left as children. They are that MPs like Diane Abbott and David Lammy can face continual vicious racist abuse and death threats. Because some people think that just being born here and then getting elected does not give one carte blanch to criticise a state that fundamentally isn’t for you. They are that the Mail can decide a Black MC is being “ungrateful” when he castigates the failure to offer justice for the Grenfell disaster. The consequences are that Shamima Begum’s newborn baby can be left to die in a camp for the sin of having an abused teenager for a mother. Because the rule of law is only conditional for people who are exceptions to the rule.
It does not matter that the Home Secretary who revoked Shamima’s citizenship is not white. Not being white does not necessarily inoculate you from the overwhelming logic of the white default. Especially if your career ambitions rely on it not doing so.
White is not the only default. A recent book has pointed out how much of our lives takes men to be the basic unit of measurement, across culture, design, healthcare. And people who are LGBT have a lot they can tell you about the assumptions of heteronormativity that run though discussions of sexuality. These are just two examples. Each of these defaults have their own historical roots, and modes of expression. But all of them reinforce the idea that the generic is the common good. Everyone else has narrow sectional interests which are granted more or less tolerance depending on the times. To draw attention to this dynamic is to engage in divisive identity politics, and even the default are not free to do that.