Brendan O’Neill

Oxfam’s strange obsession with ‘whiteness’

Oxfam’s strange obsession with ‘whiteness’
(Photo: iStock)
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Remember when it was considered wrong for workplaces to harangue their employees about their racial origins? Ah, those were the days. Sadly, they’re long gone. Now it’s all the rage for employers to sit their staff down and berate them about their skin colour and all the problems it apparently causes.

The latest workplace to go down this weird road is Oxfam. There’s disquiet in Oxfam’s ranks after its UK employees were asked to take a ‘whiteness’ survey. The 1,800 workers were told to state their ethnicity, define themselves as ‘non-racist, anti-racist or neither’, and open their eyes to how terrible whiteness is.

‘All echelons of power, to some degree, exist to serve whiteness’, the survey told Oxfam’s bewildered employees, 88 per cent of whom are white. Racism is a ‘power construct created by white nations for the benefit of white people’, it continued. ‘Whiteness’, the survey declared, is ‘the overarching preservation of power and domination for the benefit of white people’.

In short, whiteness is bad. Really bad. To be white is to be complicit, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in a rotten social system singularly designed to hold up whites and push down everyone else. Not surprisingly, white workers at Oxfam, who consider themselves pretty decent, non-racist folk, were ticked off by this hectoring, hyper-racial work survey. One said she felt ‘under attack for being white, English and voting Leave’.

To feel under attack in your place of work for being English or for voting to leave the EU is really out of order. It suggests a prejudicial attitude towards employees on the basis of their national heritage and their political convictions. But to feel under attack ‘for being white’ is far worse. It raises the possibility that in the UK in 2021, people feel they are being demeaned on the basis of their race, over the accident of their skin colour, the thing that should matter least when we’re weighing someone up. That should worry everyone who is opposed to racial prejudice and racial thinking.

To get a sense of how bad this all is, just imagine if Oxfam — or any other organisation or company for that matter — carried out a ‘blackness’ survey. Imagine if an employer made its black workers answer questions about their ethnic heritage and their racial attitudes. Imagine if it provided them with a list of all the problems with ‘blackness’ and essentially told them to try to be less black. We would be outraged, right?

Well, if someone can explain to me why it is acceptable – and apparently ‘progressive’ – to do precisely that in relation to ‘whiteness’, I’d love to hear it.

Oxfam isn’t alone. A fretful obsession with ‘whiteness’ is sweeping through institutions and businesses across the Anglo-American world. Coca-Cola recently faced a backlash after it used a training video instructing its employees to ‘try to be less white’. Be ‘less ignorant’ and ‘less oppressive’, the video said. That’s white people for you – ignorant, harsh, basically a bit evil.

A museum in the US has drawn up a list of the traits of whiteness. These include ‘rugged individualism’, ‘planning for the future’ and ‘following rigid time schedules’. These are bad things now? Also, are we saying black people aren’t strong-willed individuals or good time-keepers? That sounds pretty racist to me.

Meanwhile, corporations are bulk-buying books by the likes of Robin DiAngelo – author of White Fragility – so that they can train their staff to be… well, less white. Less horrible. Less stupid. As the American journalist Matt Taibbi says, ‘whiteness experts’ like DiAngelo make ‘thousands of dollars an hour’ from telling big businesses and their employees about the horrors of whiteness.

The demonisation of whiteness is inescapable. White people are told they enjoy ‘white privilege’. If you push back against this idea and point out that the majority of white people — like the majority of ethnic-minority people — are just decent working people who were born with not a silver spoon in sight, you’ll be told you are suffering from ‘white fragility’. Get upset and people will laugh at your ‘white tears’. Just be less white, okay?

In this era of identity politics, whiteness has been turned into a kind of original sin. To be born white is to be born bad – privileged, self-serving, blind to the needs of others. The only hope for us poor white souls is to self-flagellate (‘check your white privilege’) and heed the modern-day priests of the anti-whiteness movement.

Anti-whiteness really does feel more and more like a religion. It has it all — sinners (white people), holy books (anything by Robin DiAngelo), penance (having to sit through work training exercises telling you how bad whiteness is), and deliverance (when you successfully become ‘less white’). Everyone agrees that ‘white pride’ movements are deeply problematic. This new cult of white shame is just as sickly and weird. Here’s a radical idea: how about we judge people by their character, not their colour?