The fury of ‘white people’ with Jon Snow shows a total lack of self-awareness on race | Myriam François

Reactions to the Channel 4 presenter’s Brexit rally remark revealed how unused people like me are to being racialised

“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place.” Ofcom received more than 2,500 complaints about this off-the-cuff remark made by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow while covering last month’s pro-Brexit demonstration in London. The media regulator has this week launched an investigation into his comments.

It seems many white people were offended simply by being identified as such. Why might that be?

First, white people are not used to being marked out by race. Despite habitually racialising others, we generally don’t take well to being racialised ourselves. Acknowledging our “whiteness” means accepting that our worldview isn’t universal nor objective. It is a white perspective, forged by a particular experience. The “facts of whiteness”, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, make many white people uncomfortable.

It’s telling that Snow’s remark has sparked more outrage than the fact that a rally held in a city with 40% black and minority-ethnic population was almost entirely white. Far-right extremist Tommy Robinson addressed crowds in Parliament Square and somehow this doesn’t raise questions about race? If we weren’t so intent on ringfencing white people from any introspection, white people themselves might legitimately ask why the leave campaign has attracted so many racists and so few people of colour.

Standing next to a racist doesn’t make you a racist, but not confronting one at a rally being held in your name probably does. Between “white is normal” and “white is right” is a very fine line.

As is so often the case in discussions about race, appeasing white people’s anger at being questioned has taken precedence. Channel 4’s hasty apology for Snow’s comments only served to reassure white people that their expectations of double standards are legitimate.

In today’s Britain, a vital part of the “white mythology”, as Jacques Derrida once phrased it, is the idea that no one is actually racist. US academic Robin DiAngelo points out that this is because many people still think of racism as “dislike of people because of race”, rather than a “system into which I was socialised”.

March to Leave demonstration in London
‘It’s telling that Jon Snow’s remark has sparked more outrage than the fact that a rally held in a city with 40% black and minority-ethnic population was almost entirely white.’ March to Leave demonstration in London. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

In The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen explains that the “white race” was a notion created by the ruling class in 17th-century America as a means of exerting social control. At the time, indentured servants, both black and white (Africans and poor European), had joined together in a rebellion. Much like efforts today to cordon off the white working class from the wider working class, racial categories were used to undermine class-based solidarity, effectively ensuring African Americans would be excluded.

In order to justify this division, entire edifices of meaning were constructed. We called on pseudo-science to claim white people were more evolved. Our denial of education and the impoverishment of those we enslaved, or later colonised, were used as evidence of the inferiority of their culture.

Today, many of these same myths are rehabilitated by far-right groups, whose sense of power partly lies in their mission to resurrect an “authentic” vision of Europe. After all, white supremacy was once the official line. How can we possibly confront its mainstreaming if we, as white people, balk at even being reminded of our whiteness?

For centuries, white people have believed the entire world is ours – and for the best part of the last century, it pretty much was. We have internalised that everything within that world should be subservient to our whims: of course you should serve bacon at my hotel in Muslim-majority Morocco. Why don’t you speak English in Spain? Your Filipina nanny expects holiday pay? What do you mean, I can’t take a picture with that African baby?

We often believe that white culture alone forged notions of universal rights and justice, which we benevolently shared with the world: we abolished racism out of the goodness of our enlightened hearts and things like democracy, equality and art are simply products of our “advanced” civilisation.

Whiteness today may not be as visible as it was under systems of apartheid or slavery. It’s much harder to see in its contemporary incarnation – restrained by race hate laws and pesky EU jurisdiction against discrimination – but the intellectual and cultural edifice of whiteness has never truly been dismantled. We’re swimming in toxic whiteness but take offence at anyone pointing it out.

Snow’s comment – as with so many recent “race rows” – was a perfect opportunity for an honest conversation about white racial identity. About our complicity in structural racism. No white liberal exceptions. But it remains unclear whether we wish to confront this myth of colour blindness as a mask for our white privilege – or whether we harbour a more or less conscious longing for the days when white people’s privileges simply couldn’t be questioned.

We often like to cordon off racism as what bad people do on the fringes. But when white nationalism seeps from the fringes into the mainstream – on primetime radio shows, Amazon bestseller lists – and their figureheads are hired by mainstream parties, we must ask ourselves where this traction is coming from. And what exactly we’re doing about it.

The conversation around race is always an uncomfortable one – and white people, myself included, are not used to being uncomfortable. But the first step is accepting the rather obvious fact that yes, some of us are “white”. Now let’s talk frankly about how whiteness is being weaponised.

• Dr Myriam François is a research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Soas University of London, and founder of the blog We Need to Talk about Whiteness


Myriam François

The GuardianTramp

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