17 Feb, 2021
Everything from US states to the classics to British TV is now routinely criticised for being ‘too white’. How has this happened when describing something as ‘too black’ would be considered unacceptable?
Have you heard of the expression ‘too white’? In the jargon of the Western elites, ‘too white’ serves as a synonym for words like ‘unpleasant’, ‘problematic’ or ‘toxic’. Just listen to Tom Perez, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee in the US. He claims that New Hampshire is ‘too white’ to have the first primary for the election of a president. He also thinks that Iowa is ‘too white’ to have the first caucus during the election campaign.
According to the New Republic, the American Department of Justice is ‘too white’. A survey of minority businesses in the US concludes that local chambers of commerce are ‘too white’. Apparently American TV is also ‘too white’. Television in the UK does not get a free pass; Sir Lenny Henry insists that it is ‘too white’. A former head of comedy at the BBC agrees with this assessment and suggests it would not commission Monty Python today, because it is ‘too white’.
It appears that the UK’s green sector is also ‘too white’. Former head of Friends of the Earth, Craig Bennett, insisted that it must leave behind its “white middle class ghetto.” Even poor old Extinction Rebellion is indicted for being “too white, too middle class and lacking in empathy.” The sense of outrage conveyed by the term ‘too white’ can attach itself to the most unexpected of targets. I am obviously unaware – because I did not know, but now I do – that even ‘dyslexia heroes are too white’.
Numerous sources insist that classical music is ‘too white’. Time and again I hear the claim that philosophy is ‘too white’. Some would even want to cancel the most important philosophers that ever lived, like Plato and Kant, because they are ‘too white’. In fact, virtually every university discipline – from classical music to mathematics through to history – has been condemned for being ‘too white’.
In a defensive tone, Leicester University denied that it was dropping Chaucer for being ‘too white’ after it proposed to replace him with modules on race and sexuality. However, the way it communicated its denial suggested that it too regarded the state of being ‘too white’ as an expression of a cultural sin.
The expression ‘too white’ serves as a rhetorical idiom that conveys a sense of moral outrage towards a particular target. The mere evocation of the term signals the sentiment that there is something inherently flawed and immoral at stake. The charge that something is too white is unanswerable, which is why you rarely hear someone argue back and reject the claim. Even when the most absurd targets, such as European period dramas are indicted for being too white, the response is likely to be an embarrassed agreement.
Over the years, I have become accustomed to people informing me that this or that provincial village or town that they visited is so white. I never thought about it much until an American colleague came to visit me in my former home in the tiny village of Throwley, in Kent. After our walk, he informed me that although the countryside was nice, the village was ‘too white’. I tried to explain that there are many small villages throughout the world which are ethnically homogenous. He was taken aback by my response and suggested that Throwley was by definition a community that was culturally and morally inferior to London and other diverse places.
Our conversation ceased when I pointed out to my American colleague that when I conducted my Ph.D. research in small villages in the Rift Valley of Kenya, I never thought that it was remarkable that all the members of these communities were conspicuously black. It never occurred to me that these villages were ‘too black’. In his eyes, my refusal to agree with his statement that Throwley was too white indicated that I was beyond redemption.
For my American colleague, the word ‘white’ contains the implication of an accusation. There was a time when ‘white’ referred to a colour or a group of people with relatively light skin.
But now it has come to be associated with malevolent qualities. ‘White man’, ‘white people’… these are no longer descriptive words, but rather speak to some kind of transcendental evil force. “This is about whiteness,” said some university students during a recent protest, confirming how ‘whiteness’ has become a way of saying ‘wicked’.
The word white is now used by commentators in a similar way to how other race-related categories were used by racial thinkers in the past. And the evilness of ‘white’ continues to intensify, it seems. It works as an original sin that endows its carriers with white privilege.
The accusation that something is ‘too white’ has little to do with racism or justice. It has become an affectation used by those – often white – people who wish to signal to the world that they are ‘aware’ and morally superior to the rest of society. It is not the motive of racial justice but the impulse to draw cultural distinction between an enlightened elite and the plebian mass that encourages them to chant it is ‘too white’. We know because when they say something ‘is too white’, they clearly do not refer to people like themselves.