Why we need more than speeches about the problem of whiteness

Myriam François

In The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, Prof Joel Dinerstein traces the word “cool” to its earliest usage, by legendary jazz musician Lester Young. During the segregation era, white America wanted to consume black entertainment, often without recognising black humanity. In fact, despite endemic anti-black violence, African-American artists were expected to perform on stage for white audiences – with a smile. Smiling, it turns out was a requirement of the job – probably to make the white audience feel more comfortable with the incongruity they’d created.

But what made Young an icon of cool, it turns out, was that he refused to smile. And to remove his shades. When asked to do so, he responded: “I’m cool.”

Young’s act of resistance to the rules of a game set by white supremacy elevated him from musical virtuoso to an icon of defiance against racism.

I was reminded of him this month as I watched one of the few black presenters from my childhood have his own “cool” moment. Andi Peters made a name for himself in the 1990s presenting a kids’ show from a “broom cupboard” with his sidekick, “Wilson the butler”. He now presents the competition segment on GMTV, where he smiles exuberantly as he plugs the latest prize, a task we assume to be below the pay grade of GMTV’s main – all white – hosts.

But this month Peters did the unthinkable: he didn’t smile. Not for a whole minute. Instead, clearly exasperated by Piers Morgan’s “confusion” as to why there were no black or brown nominees at the Baftas – for a second year running – he revealed a truth we’re usually shielded from. “Take a look around,” he said, pointing to the film crew, “I am the only black person in this room,” a fact that seemed to shock his co-hosts.

Whiteness is often spoken of as “invisible” to people racialised as white – which is why it is entirely possible that no one else in the room had either noticed, or felt this was an issue. The fact a case has to be made for diversity is itself a symptom of whiteness.

Yet, as Peters continued talking, it was his subsequent exposure of his personal frustrations that really struck me. “I have been working in this industry for 30 years. I may not have my own show in a prime-time slot but I have been on telly for 30 years.”

Despite his years in the game, Peters is often cast as a cheerful sidekick. Smiley enough to allay viewer stereotypes – just enough diversity on GMTV to hold off the human resources department – but without getting the big TV jobs, when many white presenters from his generation have had their own prime-time shows.

Despite racism frequently being the subject of TV debates, we rarely think of ourselves, our teams or our offices as being part of the problem. The problem is at the Baftas, or the Oscars, or the football terraces, not in the room you’re currently working in.

Related: Justin Welby says he is 'sorry and ashamed' over church's racism

But last week, a traditional British institution did exactly that. Members of the Church of England synod backed a motion to apologise for racism, and to “stamp out conscious or unconscious” racism – with the archbishop of Canterbury conceding that the church is “still deeply institutionally racist”.

The admission stands in contrast to wider discussions of racism within our society, especially in the broadcast media – typically with bullish white presenters grilling a black or brown expert on racism on the veracity of their statements. This is a power play intended to portray the very existence of racial discrimination as something to be “debated”, rather than believing the experiences of people of colour.

Modern Europe was forged by an ideology of white supremacy that – regardless of our politics – is the mood music of our culture. Historically, it informed the direction of science, assumptions in philosophy – and, crucially, what constitutes valuable or noteworthy art. The Church of England has begun to recognise that. And it’s not alone. A growing number of white voices are vocalising the problem of whiteness.

Joaquin Phoenix’s speech at the Bafta awards this month was heralded as a landmark moment for the British film industry. “I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it,” he said. Indeed, the motor behind the study of “whiteness” has been, from the start, to encourage those in positions of power to be active participants in not only recognising those structures but ending them.

This struggle is not just an academic debate – it is about whose stories and histories get told, whose ideas are recognised, who gets to speak with authority

After his Oscar win last week, Phoenix continued on a similar theme: “The greatest gift that [the film industry] has given me … is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless.” Yet the truth is, there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the “deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”, as Arundhati Roy reminds us. People can be silenced by many things – missing invitations, closed meetings and of course the social and economic implications of denouncing racism in the industry that represents your bread and butter. It took powerful white men to denounce whiteness at the Baftas, largely because if you’re Joaquin Phoenix, or even Prince William, there’s little to lose by speaking out. You might actually stand to gain. Power-endowed white men are the group most able to commit to diversity pledges, investing in educating staff and monitoring biases and their impact. But there is a very real risk, as society becomes increasingly aware of the social pitfalls of explicit racism, that instead of making space at the table, or of making real change, we hear little more than a white lament.

These “confessions” (as opposed to pledges to take real meaningful action) provide a cathartic, yet largely illusionary, sense that change is happening. And we risk acknowledging the existence of a problem, yet always pointing elsewhere to locate it. Such as Morgan denouncing the Baftas’ lack of diversity in the studio he shares with Peters.

Challenging whiteness involves talking about it – and a little introspection, for sure – but, more than that, it involves concrete, remedial action.

Beyond the grandstanding is a battle for survival for minorities no longer content with the crumbs. Struggling artists churning out epic work, only to be overlooked – by those seemingly so keen to perpetuate cultural inertia – or, at best, relegated to the “urban” category.

Related: Great speech, Joaquin – but you should have just boycotted the Baftas | Suzanne Moore

Will this be the year we see ethnic-minority bishops in senior positions? Will Phoenix’s next choice of a director to work with be one currently unrecognised in the awards lists? And, as the president of Bafta, does Prince William intend to remedy the judging selection process?

This struggle is not just an academic debate – it is about whose stories and histories get told, whose ideas are recognised, who gets to speak with authority and who takes real action. This informs the stories that create our national sense of self, the ideas shaping our culture, and the debates over whose history becomes our common mythology. The conversation about whiteness may be under way, but earnest words shouldn’t become a convenient distraction from concrete action.

• Myriam François is a journalist and research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Soas University of London