What we learned at 2018’s Resisting Whiteness Conference

Resisting Whiteness is about how we can create long-term, institutional anti-racist action in the UK. Here’s a breakdown of what we learned at this year’s conference

Feature by Katie Goh | 28 Sep 2018
  • Resisting Whiteness

“We refuse to accept a historical ‘world order’ we did not choose,” are the opening words of 2018’s Resisting Whiteness conference, a day of panels and workshops organised by a collective of queer and trans people of colour. Divided into three panels and a final in-conversation talk, Resisting Whiteness is about creating anti-racist action in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the wider UK. Whiteness, we are told, is not just a skin colour. Whiteness comes in the form of the structures and institutions that consciously and unconsciously perpetuate inequality and racial discrimination. To resist whiteness is to resist these social, political, and economical structures that are so deeply imbedded into our society, they feel impossible to escape from. The conference then is an escape rope, a dialogue weaved together by and for people of colour.

Structure and Change 

The conference’s first panel was on institutional whiteness: how people of colour navigate these spaces and whether it’s possible to work within these structures without perpetuating racism. Chaired by NUS Women’s Officer, Shuwanna Aaron, the panel was a conversation between Layla-Roxanne Hill, a writer, researcher, and member of the Scottish Trade Union Congress Black Workers’ Committee, and Jacob V Joyce, an artist and activist who is a member of the sorryyoufeeluncomfortable collective.

Drawing on their respective fields – Hill’s background in trade unions and Joyce’s background in the art industry – both panellists spoke about the need to be more than a diversity token within institutions as well as the emotion labour people of colour have to do within these structures. When asked by an audience member how white people can be allies, Hill summed it up best with the phrase: “See it, say it, sort it.” 

So, how radical can institutional change be? Joyce and Hill are both pessimistic about institutional change happening naturally without people of colour being at the tops of structures. Joyce references Angela Davis’ definition of radical – to grab something by the roots – as the only way institutional change can happen. Sow and implement the seeds of change.

Labour and Trauma

Mental health was the second panel’s central topic. Chaired by Rianna Walcott, the co-editor of the Colour of Madness (and contributor to The Skinny), the panel consisted of psychologists and mental health experts: Dr Erica Mapule McInnis, Guilaine Kinouani, and Amal Azzudin.

Our understanding of mental health is rooted in a white past. Historically, people of colour have not been involved in discussions about psychology and today, mental health clinics and councillors don’t know how to deal with the nuances of speaking to a person of colour about their mental health. Walcott said she no longer will speak to a white therapist because to much of her time is spent explaining and code-switching.

Dr McInnis, whose work is in wellness and healing that leans towards African psychology, described how looking to the past and our ancestors’ histories can be the answer to mental health treatment today.

Azzudin, who works with refugees and asylum seekers, spoke about how the process of seeking asylum and refugee is designed to harm people’s mental health. All three panellists discussed how diaspora communities in the UK suffer from mental health problems because of additional political stresses of being targeted by the government. Class, money, and being a non-native English speaker are additional barriers that many people of colour face when attempting to receive treatment.

Being and Nationalism

Chaired by Ketaki Zodgekar, the third panel featured the always delightful Jackie Kay, Scotland’s national poet, as well as Suki Sangha, a founding member of RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance and Reeta Loi, founder of Gaysians and a member of Burnt Roti and UK Black Pride.

The opening question was what everyone identified as on the panel: British, British-Asian, Asian, Scottish-Asian. The panel's main focus was on the idea of nationalism and how people of colour construct national identities within the white space of the UK. Kay and Sangha spoke about the additional identity of being Scottish, and Scotland’s history as a colonised country that also participated in and reaped the benefits of the British Empire.

Kay, who was adopted, and Loi, who was disowned when they came out as queer, spoke about how they have constructed their own identities when severed from their families and ancestry. “If you can survive the loss of losing that part of you, it’s a liberation,” said Kay. The main take-away from the discussion was that a person can contain multitudes: instead of forcing to take one identity, we can be Scottish and British and Asian if that’s what we choose. Identity can be a liberation rather than the more common policing of nationalities.   

Final take-aways

The final talk of the day was between Dr Ima Jackson, a clinician, lecturer, and researcher who works closely with refugees and migrants, and Diva Mukherji, Vice-President of Education at the University of Edinburgh Student’s Association. The discussion was on anti-racist strategy within institutions. Dr Jackson spoke of institutions as a white vacuum where buzzwords like “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are thrown about to create an illusion of progress while nothing is done to acknowledge institutions as powerful places of whiteness. It was pointed out that capitalism is the root of institutions’ supremacy, commodifying and perpetuating an all-encompassing narrative of whiteness.

2018’s Resisting Whiteness conference largely looked at institutional racism as the source of white supremacy within the UK. Anti-racist action must come in the form of institutional change rather than individual action, which goes against the mainstream anti-racist narrative that focuses on the individual rather the collective.

The conference made active attempts to be inclusive: childcare was offered as well as safe spaces where people of colour could reflect and relax. Criticisms of the conference were openly discussed: the fact that it was largely a student and middle-class audience in attendance. 2018’s Resisting Whiteness conference is a testament to how badly these discussions are needed, especially in a predominately white community and city like Edinburgh. How we are to implement the action that was discussed is another question and a long-term challenge for the conference. For the white people in the audience, the conference is also a testimony of what you can learn if you are willing to shut up and just listen for an afternoon.