By Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa
“there’s no reference for what I want to do. Why can’t I simply speak without having to have that speech legitimated by god knows who?”
– Dionne Brand
- whiteness. Similar: White Anger; Gaslighting; Tone Policing; White Ignorance; White Ascendancy; White Fragility.
Academics usually wield concepts in one of two ways: either as weapons or as armor. The route we choose depends on whether we want to survive something or conquer it. This is also how we approach linguistic forms and structures. We mutate the boundless depths of feeling and thought, of possibility and promise, into something clear-cut; into something digestible and knowable; into a standardized rhythm, so that we can express our ideas as undeniable truths, truths that either free us or constrain others. Or both.
We already know who uses academic language to dominate and constrain, but we rarely talk about those of us who use it to survive and liberate (even if to no end).
Academia is rife with rhetorical and discursive violence. Indeed, it is rhetorical and discursive violence. That is undeniable. But, at the same time, many of us find reprieve, even refuge, in it. Whether this is constructive or not, it is something to be considered. For many BIPOC[i] writers, concepts are simply legitimized incantations of our lived realities, descriptions of the words spoken to us and the emotions they transmit and transform. Similarly, form and structure are just more generalized ways of giving order to our embodied experiences.
Racism is traumatic. Trauma is chaos. Structure is comforting.
Language, especially the stylized, jargonized, and precise language of academia, thingifies feelings and renders them into citable structures that can articulate the chaotic sensations of violence. A peer reviewed article on racism is literally validated “proof” of its existence.
It is for this exact reason that I find academic writing to be so useful when interrogating the racisms of my life – when attempting to define, for example, “white rage”. It is also why I do not find academic writing useful: to organize chaos, is to betray what made it chaotic.
For those of us who write to survive, our writing becomes a dual site of affirmation and complicity; beauty and violence; resistance and loss, thereby begging Spivak’s (1988) famous question as to whether we can speak at all. Personally, I believe we can speak, but only in muddled and inexact tones. To paraphrase a friend of mine, the Other can speak and be heard, we just can’t speak and be heard by everyone, and that’s kind of the point (Ali 2018, 22),
This piece is an incantation of my lived experiences as a white-biracial person of colour who has had to navigate white rage in peculiar and uncanny ways. There is no right or even good way to introduce this subject, as it is a subject that is synonymous with my worlding. Instead, there are only the memories I think of, and the language I know through which to digest them; the language I have armed myself with and used to survive; the language I know to transmit and translate; to speak and not be heard. I can make them academic, but also, I cannot.
- See Whiteness
I shouldn’t have to.
Tone Policing; White Ignorance.1
“We need to be rational and unemotional when talking about racism”. *quickly starts yelling at me*
Translation: Your emotions are making me uncomfortable and do not belong in this space.
- A white colleague, 2016. [blinded] University, Toronto.
White Anger; White Ascendancy.2
2“I will not apologize for not being racist”.
Translation: I refuse to be held accountable for my racist actions and will not consider your point of view if it in anyway threatens my notion of myself as a “good” person.
- My white mother and current member of QAnon, April 2020. Text message.
White Fragility; Tone Policing.3
3“You were aggressive and confrontational.”
Translation: You are not allowed to call out my racism unless you are willing to sanitize your rage, dilute your pain, and mince your words so drastically that they lose all meaning.
- A white colleague, August 2020. Instagram DM.
Gaslighting; White Ignorance.4
4* Insert the inarticulability of being ‘managed’ by a white scholar who knows how to polish the racism out of their words while still allowing it to shape and direct their actions. *
Sensation: a rage that starts in my gut and moves through my body like a hot chill.
- Retracted out of fear.
All of the Above.5
5“Calling me racist was a bullying tactic to tear me down”.
Translation: BIPOC who defend themselves against whiteness are emotional terrorists.
- White organizer, August 2020. Forwarded email.
“A lot of my work reflects questions of race and racism. It is about skin encounters, the feeling of fear, its effect on the skin, about what it feels like either to be apprehended as a stranger who does not belong or for someone to be apprehending somebody else as a stranger who does not belong”.
– Sara Ahmed
White people get mad at me. They always have.
In and of itself, this is not a resounding statement; nor is it novel or new or unique or even all that interesting. White people are often, if not always, mad at BIPOC. White anger; white guilt; white fragility; gaslighting; white ignorance; white ascendancy; tone policing; white rage – these are all different phrases that we use to articulate and grapple with the depths, forms, and contours of white people’s rage towards us as non-white beings; to mutate the boundless depths of what it feels like to be hated by whiteness into something digestible and knowable; into a stand·ard·ize rhythm, so that we can name and articulate their rage as undeniable truths.
But, when you look white, but act not, there is a different kind of rage that awaits you.
Ahmed (2007) talks about the phenomenology of whiteness to denote how whiteness takes up an atmospheric, semiotic, tactile, sensual, and kinaesthetic character in space. Elsewhere I refer to this as “white affect” (Da Costa et al. 2021), using it to describe the reality of living in/against a history of anti-black racism, settler colonialism, and Orientalism, which makes BIPOC feel like we are “drowning in a sea of whiteness” (Ahmed 2007, 157). As observed by Ahmed, much of this feeling comes from how we are orientated: white affect works by joining whiteness and non-whiteness in dialogical juxtaposition, whereby “whiteness becomes a social and bodily orientation” that allows white bodies to feel at home in the world, or “sink in”, against the presumed homelessness of the BIPOC subject (160).
The phenomenology of whiteness is armor; it is language Ahmed uses to denote the practice of orientating the world around whiteness. In naming whiteness as orientation, we can understand how it works to similarly place non-whiteness, to structure the trauma of living against white rage – the sensation of being the abject subject against which whiteness becomes whole. From here, we note that, for whiteness to remain “stable,” it must exist contra to a disoriented racial Other, one who is negated, and thus bounded, in space. As phrased by Ahmed: “To feel negated is to feel pressure upon your bodily surface; your body feels the pressure point, as a restriction in what it can do” (Ahmed 2020, 161). In understanding that whiteness exerts this type of spatial pressure upon us as non-white people, we can better understand the core of whiteness, at least as we experience it within western society: by spatially negating the racial Other, whiteness can suture itself into place, fashioning itself into the norm. Put differently, white affect renders BIPOC immobile, giving whiteness absolute claim over the surrounding space; over the here-and-now.
The term “white affect” thingifies the sensation of walking into that sea of whiteness; it renders precise why tone policing and gaslighting happens and why white ignorance feels icky.
But what happens when non-whiteness can and does shift? Where does whiteness go when the negated racial matter through which it has always been secured, moves? Does it move too? Does it shift? Is it now unbounded, un-sutured? The short answer to this question is yes.
There is a reason my stories, the “ancillary” to my theory, all come down to white rage.
I feel Brown, and I have lived a Brown life, yet I am (often) registered as white by whiteness. But this was not always the case. I grew up in London, Ontario, a hyper-conservative, white working-class postfactory city best known for the Vice article “London, Ontario, was a Racist Asshole to Me” and the recent state-sanctioned Afzaal Family murders. I was usually the only non-white kid in every room, save for my brother and perhaps the two other racialized boys that I can recall from my childhood. One of them, Anthony, bullied me relentlessly for being fat and, as I later realized, masculine and Brown, dubbing me “Baluga whale” – a nickname which stuck. The other racialized boy, Justin, was nice to me, but in 2016, he and a white guy named Blair, who I also grew up with, attacked a student from Western University for being Muslim. This is the landscape in which I came to know and understand myself as Brown.
Brownness is an energy that pulsates through me, a feeling that conditions and animates me: it is something I know I belong to. I know because I was attacked for being Brown as a child, getting pushed down staircases and in front of cars. I know because I was almost arrested for being Brown as a teenager after I showed a police officer my ID, my real ID, and he spent three hours demanding I tell him my real name or else he would arrest me for lying. I know because I inherited a legacy of racism, displacement, and colonialism through my father’s abuse, I know because I learned to make myself small and invisible to appeal to my mother’s whiteness. I know because I feel Brown, and I feel Brown because I am Brown, even when I don’t look it (whatever “it” is).
Brownness is not an aesthetic, it is a history you carry with you and inside your body, deep in your bones, in your marrow. It has always been my foundation. But as I aged, and, eventually, moved from London to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the visibility of my Brownness wavered, wilting against a hidden sun, and multiethnic landscapes, thus diverging from the story inside my mind. My white mother became hyper-visible, as did my white friends, and that which didn’t match up, became just as expendable to my being as it was essential.
I became something whiteness could absorb and forget about whenever it felt like it.
What is the concept for that, again?
When whiteness encounters you in this way, it becomes almost exclusively sensational; it, like my Brownness, is an affect more than a resounding visual presence. White rage is something that I feel on my skin and in my gut, not something I clearly see in my immediate world or hear in the subtext of angry nice words. My face, my skin, my nose, these features don’t upset white people, so they meet me with a type of atmospheric racism, a racism felt in the body and on the skin: a racism that demands I stay in place and never ruffle the whiteness around me.
This is why I like the term white affect to describe the presence, the force, of white rage: I live against white affect just as all BIPOC do and know the sensation of it on my skin, even as my skin shifts and contorts in ways that the flesh of my peers does not. I know that, because of white affect, I cannot move without being attacked (racialized); I can’t standstill without suffocating (being rendered white, unreal). I cannot be Brown and safe at the same time; I can’t be white and remain whole. White affect captures this, it captures the white rage I know.
Academia exposed me to white affect, both the term and the sensation.
I moved to the GTA in 2016 to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology at York University. In my first year there, a white man colleague of mine, a “critical” academic and self-purported anti-racist, yelled at me during one of our classes because I disagreed with him on a topic of race. He was the kind of person who used words to conquer and constrain. Over the years, the man came to sincerely hate me, like, on a deep, visceral level. I never quite understood why he so deeply hated me. Yes, I had challenged his racism and sexism, but the level of rage that these challenges had incited, was historically unprecedented. He did not tone police; he did not gaslight; he was not fragile. He was just angry. He was ascendant.
Obviously, white men hating me, or other women of colour, is not new. Like all the white men before and after him, this man hated me for being loud, opinionated, and present. That such hatred extends into, if not defines, academia is a lesson I learned a long time ago, back when I lived in London and attended Western University, and I watched as the white working-class racisms of my hometown contorted into the liberal racisms of wealth and expertise. The white men who taught me during my undergraduate degree or talked too much during my Master’s degree, made it clear that the white boys I grew up with were not the only ones who wanted me to be quiet, small, and still. However, contra to the white men of my past, my colleague from York, a place with the same racist ethos as Western but with a non-white student body, did not extend the full depth of their rage to my darker BIPOC peers. In fact, he was friends with some of them, even, if not especially, the ones who had challenged him with me.
One would assume that he would have liked me the most, as I was the lightest – I was the most like white. But he did not. In fact, I often felt that he reserved the true boundaries of his hatred just for me. Even will all my language and armor, I was unable to make sense of this. A mutual friend, a darker skinned peer, as well as an academic better trained in wielding concepts to survive, had to make sense of it for me. She told me (and I am paraphrasing): when [retracted] sees me, he clearly sees Blackness, so he feels like he “knows” me and so he knows how to orient himself toward me. But when he sees you, he sees whiteness, but then you say and do things that remind him that you’re Brown, and it destabilizes him. He doesn’t know how to act anymore.
This was the moment I began to develop an understanding of white affect. My friend’s words were the first incantation of white rage that I can remember; of my many intellectual attempts to move through and exist amongst the sea of whiteness as a white-biracial person. In turn, these words brought into focus something I had been struggling to identify my entire life, something I always felt, but could not bring order too: in the spectra of white affect, my body ejects white people after they have already sunk in. It tricks them into thinking that I am one of them, and then reveals itself to be other/wise, therefore disrupting how they’ve oriented themselves towards me and, by extension, the world around me.
This really pisses white people off, and they’re not afraid to let me know it – even, if not especially, within academia, amongst the critical academics who have weaponized social justice language to promote white supremacy while simultaneously hiding and guising their own; amongst the white saviours masquerading as white “allies”; amongst all the Andrea Smith’s.
Three of the above stories of whiteness, of white rage, feature academics; academics who were angry and annoyed and outraged I denied them the ability to sink into the ivory tower.
Most white people get mad at me because I call attention to the phenomenology of whiteness. White academics specifically get mad at me for doing this somatically, not theoretically, using my energy, not my posed counterpoints. My white man colleague hated me for how I made him feel, not for what I thought and spoke. I forced him, like I force all white people, to think about how their whiteness holds them into place: I highlight their need to orient their existence against a racial Other by disorientating them, by negating their negation, and revealing myself as Brown. I affect them: I affect their whiteness by refuting my own.
This act is sensational: it is a way of forcing whiteness to reckon with the same feeling of negation that constrains BIPOC. The only response that white people have to this sensation, is rage: they are angry that they must occupy the realm of discomfort intended for us, and us alone.
Living amongst the organized chaos of academia, of the stylized trauma and polished oppression, I have the potential to piss off even the white people who ought to know better than to reveal their anger. That is how disorienting exposing white affect can be.
Naming this power of white affect did not make academia less white, but it did make me feel better; it did help me survive; I did find reprieve in that, even as the white academics around me to continued to fill my atmosphere with their rage, with their white hot anger.
And that is the tension of being a BIPOC writer, one who uses the colonial words and forms of whiteness to tackle and name its very affect on us and our lives; academia taught me how to describe white rage, while also repeatedly putting me in situations in which I denied whiteness the ability to sink in; in situations in which I kept making white people angry.
Again, what is the concept for that?
Me as an Academic [idea]
- I will never stop inciting anger in white people because I will never stop moving.
I should not have to.
I can’t standstill and remain whole at the same time.
White rage is better than the nothingness that it cuts through.
Ahmed, Sara. 2007. The Phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory 8(2):149–168.
Ali, Nadiya N. 2018. Emancipation in an Islamophobic age: Finding agency in ‘nonrecognition,’ ‘refusal,’ and ‘self-recognition’. Journal of Critical Race Inquiry 5(2): 1 – 26.
Brand, Dionne. 2018. Theory: A novel. Toronto: Alfred A. Knoff Canada.
Da Costa, Jade Crimson Rose, Skylar Sookpaiboon, and Fitsum Areguy. 2021. (Un)Learning Whiteness in Academia: Resistance Strategies among Racialized Graduate Students. Manuscript in preparation for submission.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson, 271–313. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Schmitz, Sigrid, and Sara Ahmed. 2014. Affect/Emotion: Orientation Matters. A Conversation between Sigrid Schmitz and Sara Ahmed. FZG 2-1014: 97-108.
Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa is a gender nonbinary queer woman of colour PhD Sociology candidate at York University. Their dissertation explores how to vision a collective memory of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) HIV/AIDS activism in Toronto using a queer-feminist of colour approach. An advocate of embodied knowledge, Jade considers her research to be shaped by her community organizing. Guided by her desire to make academia a little less white, they founded New Sociology: Journal of Critical Praxis, a social justice graduate journal aimed at uplifting queer, trans, women, and BIPOC graduate students. Outside academia, they cofounded The People’s Pantry, a free grassroots meal program for food insecure families living in or near the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area. She is also a published poet and award-winning teacher’s assistant. For more information, please check out their website at: jadecrimson.com.
Brand 2018, 48.
BIPOC is a shorthand for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour”. See endnote.
 Google, “Define Ancillary”, accessed September 10, 2020. https://www.google.com/search?q=define+ancillary.
Schmitz and Ahmed 2014, 100.
 Check out the full article by Western University Graduate Eternity Martis here: https://www.vice.com/en/article/xd7z5a/london-ontario-was-a-racist-asshole-to-me-152.
 See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/11/world/canada/muslims-afzaal-islamophobic-killing.html.
 See: https://lfpress.com/2016/06/02/attack-on-western-university-student-from-iran-is-a-wake-up-call-for-city-mayor-says.
[i] I should note, in a typical academic fashion, that the term “BIPOC” has been increasingly critiqued for being homogenizing or Westcentric. Putting these identities together is thought to conflate the particular racisms that non-white people face, based on geography, ethnicity, race, and culture, while also adopting racial markers specific to the western world. I do not disagree with these critiques – particularly the former (and I think non-Black POC need to be a lot more intentional and thoughtful in how we use BIPOC so as to not erase anti-blackness and settler colonialism); however, the term is commonly used in the landscapes of organizing, and even scholarship, in which I operate (Toronto/the Greater Toronto Area), whereby it has an important practical function. Knowing a space or author is BIPOC signals something of safety and familiarity for a lot of us: BIPOC = not white, as well as probably not (overtly) conservative or liberal. Yes, it is important to keep in mind the differences between these groups, and even within them, but that commitment does not get erased with the use of an acronym – the acronym merely allows us to speak without spending a paragraph (or an endnote) clarifying and caveating what we mean by BIPOC, when we all know, it means non-white. Further, and relatedly, I have yet to find a better alternative. Non-white may be what we mean, yes, but it centers whiteness, and I do not want to do that. “Racialized” assumes that non-white people are not racialized (and they are). People of Colour conflates us more than BIPOC and Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous is cumbersome, not to mention that it poses the same issue of conflation (these titles themselves span different communities). Even more specific phrases like South Asian or Latine (or Latinx, there is disagreement here too) homogenize and re-colonialize. All our racial markers have been designed according to whiteness. We can’t win – white people, as I mentioned (or implied) weaponize language against us. So, for now, I would rather spend my time uplifting BIPOC rather than writing about the semantics behind the term…while, mostly, anyways.