Whiteness

What does it mean to be white? Of course, it is a political construct. I can count numerous people amongst my companions whose skin is broadly the same colour as mine, but none of them are considered white by those that must define us.

Presented with an ethnic monitoring form, many will always select White British, though I know from form designers that not even White Other would satisfy the statisticians: in their minds, most of these people are supposed to select Other. The trouble is, people do not naturally define themselves by the quantity of melanin in their skin — and so most people do not understand the political conception of whiteness, which is to tie this pinkish-yellowish hue to an indigenous or semi-indigenous identity.

Here’s an illustrative anecdote. After settling in West London in the year 2000, I became friends with an engineer, whom I would regularly encounter at our local mosque. After months of sharing little more than salams, he invited me to join him for lunch at his home. It was on a bus journey through Southall, while marvelling at the Indian-majority demographic, that I first discovered that this friend of mine was not White British but in fact a Pakistani with very light skin. I felt rather daft at that point.

Perhaps that just shows how pervasive the political construct of a white identity is. The very same gentleman would ultimately introduce me to my beloved. I still the recall the moment when I passed a photo of her onto a family member who — after spending hours trying to dissuade me from going ahead with my very rushed marriage — exclaimed, “Oh, she’s white!”

In fact, most people from that latitude have skin pretty much the same same hue as mine, as do billions of people living north of the Tropic of Cancer, east to west. Perhaps if Europeans had had more success colonising those regions, they would have come up with a different means of classifying their subjects as inferior. Confronted with an ethnic monitoring form for the first time, many Algerians, Syrians, Turks, Central Asians and East Asians might think, “Well none of these categories really fit, so I’ll just tick white.”

In reality, white identity is entirely contextual. Amongst my work colleagues, I am defined as White British. However, I spend a large proportion of my life moving amongst South Asians, many of whom like to play a guessing game as to what I really am. Men who stop to give me a lift to mosque when they see me walking in the street regularly ask me where I’m from. One old man asks me, “No, where are you from originally?” every single time we meet. Amongst some locals, I am affectionately known as that Syrian brother, because, well, where else could I be from?

Unfortunately, political constructs of identity are pervasive. I have spent a lifetime imbibing the concept of whiteness, which is everywhere pushed, through literature, politics and media, to define who belongs and otherise everyone else. And yet we have a Head of State whose lineage includes Armenian, Czech, Danish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian ethnicities, amongst others, whose late husband was half Greek, half Danish, who was himself born in Greece.

These not only belong, but are the very archetypes of belonging. We can be from everywhere, but still belong, for no other reason than that our epidermis lacks a natural toolkit to protect us from the ionizing radiation of ultraviolet sunlight. But inherit DNA which increases the quantity of melanin in your melanosomes, and all of a sudden you do not belong. By this definition, my adopted children, half of my cousins and a quarter of my nieces and nephews do not belong. A friend of mine, whose grandfather was an English aristocrat does not belong. This is what is meant by whiteness.

A peculiar European and North American obsession, it seems, for I have wandered amongst other peoples abroad, where my belonging has never been questioned. I have prayed in mosques all over Turkey, and have never been considered an other. In that land of many hues, I have always blended in, but for my woeful language skills when engaged in conversation. Nobody really cares where you are from originally.

The believer knows that it is not where you’re from or your tribal lineage that makes you special. We are all one, united by the One. The Quran is explicit that what gives you an edge is your conduct alone:

O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Lo! God is Knowing, Aware.

Quran 49:13

If an individual wishes to celebrate the particular colour of their skin, that’s no business of mine. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However there is no real superiority of one hue or another from a physiological point of view. Those lacking natural pigmentation may be disadvantaged as global temperatures increase due to climate change, because their skin peels and burns rather than tans, risking the development of skin cancers, but may conversely be better able to naturally synthesise vitamin D.

Whiteness as a political construct is really an outdated concept, not supported by facts or scientific endeavour. Academics and politicians focussed on preserving a white identity do so purely for political reasons. If people with this pinkish-yellowish tinge really cared about preserving the colour of their skin, they wouldn’t spend a fortune in tanning salons or lying on Mediterranean beaches each year. It’s all an apparition. The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct.

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