We need to talk about white identity, says Eric Kaufmann at the start of this prickly, panicky book about the anxieties felt by pale-faced conservatives fearful of being swamped by people who look different.
How is your typical liberal Canadian, immersed in the modern ideals of multiculturalism and unafraid of a beige-tinted future, supposed to reply? Are you sure this is such a good idea?
Any conversation centred on “white identity” and the goals of a so-called white majority threatened by the otherness of immigrants is bound to give offence, if not actually fuel a race war — because the vocal reclaiming of white rights, particularly when the core values of that loose-knit majority are being defined by populist troublemakers, can come only at the expense of vulnerable minorities. Sure, let’s have that conversation.
To do so in the style that Kaufmann has adopted — with disgruntled white-identity supporters getting to whinge about disrespectful immigrants and ungrateful refugees who refuse to assimilate, while stereotypical progressives stifle their knee-jerk, anti-racist taunts — would require us to ignore a relatively peaceful reality at odds with his apocalyptic scenario. Set aside the fact that this is a country deliberately designed to promote an image of harmonious diversity, where the largest city already lacks a white majority (such an anachronistic phrase) yet somehow prospers, our NBA championship team is applauded as much for being a microcosm of our immigrant-rich solidarity as for its winning ways, and race-baiting populists haven’t been able to gain the traction achieved by politicians in the United States and Europe (poor Quebec, as always, excepted). Immigration, far from being seen as an existential threat to some ancient sense of who we really are (Je me souviens and all that), is an essential part of our cultural identity and traditions, white and otherwise: Work hard, get ahead, and get along. As a statement of identity, it’s a bit bland, granted. But as a way of life, it’s not too bad — or so all those admiring world rankings keep telling us.
Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the University of London, is himself Canadian, so he’s familiar with all our smug assertions of superiority in such matters. But just because we’re nationally inclined to avoid arguments doesn’t mean he’s going to back away from one. It’s essential to his broader argument that he portray contented Canada, a high-immigration country that has not experienced a populist right-wing backlash, as an outlier. Even New Zealand’s left-liberal prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, proposed lower immigration levels as a means of luring populists into her governing coalition (a move that wasn’t sufficient to stave off the anti-Muslim attack in Christchurch). Canada’s difference is framed, as is typical for those sharing Kaufmann’s ideological approach, in terms of left-modernists and elites forcing through a policy of multiculturalism that didn’t just encourage tolerance but compelled the active promotion of diversity and criminalized dissent as “hate speech.”
So we’re not really a successful and hopeful model for the world, just backed into a corner of our own devising. A muzzled liberal media effectively marginalizes opposing views that would otherwise surface in a freer-speaking society, if we accept Kaufmann’s view that a growing number of Canadians resent visible-minority immigrants. But, darn it, mainstream conservative politicians honour anti-racist norms and refuse to leverage potential enthusiasm among “order-seeking voters” by spouting anti-immigrant diatribes like their counterparts in the rest of the Anglosphere. Even the populist Ford brothers refused to play the role Kaufmann imagines: he should be more confounded that their nostalgic, anti-elitist platform managed to be largely immigrant friendly and colour-blind.
Instead, he looks to the Britain of Brexit and the walled-off America of Trump, with forays into alt-right Europe both east and west, to confirm his belief that the alienation felt by conservative whites in an increasingly mixed-race milieu will guarantee even more ethnocultural turbulence — unless, of course, something is done to pacify them. The future in the West is bound to be racially mixed, demographics and procreation being what they are, but during the intervening period of instability that Kaufmann foresees, insecure whites who pine for old-school homogeneity must be placated and indeed privileged so that they can be sure their white-majority values will remain dominant when they’re gone. The result to be hoped for is that no matter where we came from or what our dusky parents looked like, in the end we will all pass for white — and be more than happy to do so.
This is the ideal that Kaufmann offers up to our troubled world, as if all the fears and tensions we feel about declining income, unaffordable housing, fractured politics, precarious working conditions, accelerated technological transformation, uncertain health care, and a loss of empathy in everyday life could be reduced to a single hot-button issue: too much immigration. Worried capitalists and 1‑percenters will at least breathe easier as they evade responsibility for global problems yet again. Economic anxiety is just a sideshow for Kaufmann, something we pretend to fret about because liberals won’t allow us to discuss the real problem of once-proud white majorities feeling marginalized by displaced newcomers.
So for all those people who “desire roots, value tradition and wish to maintain continuity with ancestors who have occupied a historic territory,” his solution is not a quick cheek swab and a DNA test, which provide instant ancestral gratification to many roots-seekers these days, but the more substantial and interventionist policy he labels “Whiteshift”: “a process by which white majorities absorb an admixture of different peoples through intermarriage, but remain oriented around existing myths of descent, symbols and traditions.”
It’s an odd, narrow version of paradise, and sometimes you wonder whether Kaufmann projects this unlikely compromise just to calm people down and let them visualize acceptable continuations of themselves in the future: don’t worry, just think of your mixed-race descendants as foamed-latte rather than black. And those WASPs in the making will be happier as well, knowing that their mongrel identity has been granted access to generations of great white traditions despite their misfit appearance. In Kaufmann’s Whiteshift future, a better class of immigrants (reduced in number to avoid sudden disruption, more European by background or inclination, secular rather than aggressively religious, pre-selected to conform) will voluntarily assimilate to the existing standards, and their children will come to adore NASCAR, bow to the Queen, attend non-threatening places of worship, and light candles at the altar of Don Cherry. As a psychological placebo in troubled times, this may prove marginally useful. As a policy for making peace with overbearing liberals while advancing the uncertain cause of whiteness, it sounds a lot trickier.
The conflict-averse, disturbance-quelling strategies of the liberal elites whom Kaufmann constantly derides (there is a considerable amount of suppressed rage in Whiteshift, despite its rational academic veneer) do indeed make it harder for people like him to advance reasoned arguments against increased immigration and diversity-affirming multiculturalism within a university setting or before a parliamentary committee. But the people most likely to talk, or shout, about the threatened future of the white majority aren’t looking for a polite exchange of ideas (complete with calming charts and non-emotive surveys). The main problem for anyone wanting to reshape the conversation about ethnicity and race is that the extreme positions in the argument are already staked out. When the no-platformers meet the alt-right provocateurs, it’s more likely to be angry denunciations of white privilege and oppression on one side, and free-speech tiki torches and taunting white-pride demonstrations on the other.
Is such divisive “talk” really preferable to polite silence, fixed smiles, and status-quo continuity? Kaufmann himself acknowledges the overriding problem that comes with encouraging conversational confrontation, though he doesn’t seem to apply it to himself. One of the most important points he makes in his wide-ranging survey of the discomforts felt by white majorities in eras of rapid ethnic change is this: the more noise generated to acknowledge their dissatisfaction, the angrier people feel and the more likely they are to act on their hostile feelings. The technical word for this reaction is “salience,” and it’s essentially what Donald Trump achieves with his followers every day by heightening their state of antipathetic arousal.
At the Canadian default setting — why can’t we all just get along — keeping your mouth shut can be highly advantageous: first, do no harm. Populist politicians and their media enablers thrive by subverting this reticence, validating dark thoughts, liberating repressed prejudices, and turning negative impulses into populist road rage, so that what seemed unthinkable a few decades ago becomes the angry everyday response. And then you get Brexit as the logical consequence of the amplified community wish to reclaim your mythical green and pleasant land from all those nasty foreigners.
Kaufmann doesn’t see his inveigling invitation to open discussion as nearly so inflammatory. In his mind, he’s merely using academic tools to tease out truths that have been suppressed by a conspiracy of liberal-modernist cosmopolitans who have sold out their ethnocultural identity and refuse to allow anti-immigrant views to be voiced. No one will speak their mind, even in a democracy, if they know they will be shouted down and singled out as racist. But that doesn’t mean they stop thinking their subversive thoughts or sharing them among like-minded dissenters.
Which means, Kaufmann insists, that top-down policies of multiculturalism, intolerant of open opposition, will lead to mass resentment if not actual violence. The only alternative is for liberals to stop reciting their anti-racism mantras and start listening to the abiding complaints of the suppressed conservative majority in formerly tight-knit communities that are being transformed by newcomers who don’t fit in. (He cites the East End of London as a classic case; small towns and picket-fenced post-war suburbs engulfed by sprawling super-diverse megacities might be the closest Canadian equivalent.)
Immigration and diversity above a certain level, Kaufmann says, upset traditional (i.e., white) communities, breeding anger, distrust, and depression. Difference is not a virtue, as we’ve been taught, but a disruption. He goes to great lengths to show that trust disappears as neighbourhoods become mixed, which has a kind of logic to it: it’s hard to perceive a long-term virtue like trustworthiness in a newcomer you don’t yet know, who doesn’t speak your language (or vice versa), whose family may attend different schools and places of worship, whose shops and foods (which have suddenly displaced your own) seem strange and inaccessible. And if you compare this growing sense of unattachment with the relationships you once had with former neighbours who were much more like you, you will invariably feel a loss.
But surely immigration in itself is not to blame. When I moved into an old Italian neighbourhood in Toronto, I could have seen myself as part of the Anglo-Canadian disruption tearing apart a long-established immigrant community. Where are the noisy fish stores and fabric merchants, the baskets of canning tomatoes and live snails scattered along the crowded sidewalk, that used to supply the hard-working, stay-at-home Calabrian housewives? Gone, replaced by croissant shops and takeout salad bars for rootless dual-income gentrifiers — the horror!
Yet somehow we continue to get along in that messy, make-do, good-enough Canadian way. To his credit, Kaufmann notes that liberals don’t feel the same uneasy response to diversity felt by conservatives. Even when they perceive a decline in local solidarity, they more than compensate with their broader social networks to re-establish the sense of trust, familiarity, and social intimacy that may be fleeting at the door-to-door level. Of course, the Muslims that a well-off professor confers with in his workplace may be completely different from the refugee family that moves into the neighbouring flat in an East End London council estate where unemployment levels are high and social services are degraded. Perceptions and responses will vary accordingly. But to blame the immigrants for the reactions they generate hardly seems fair — and Kaufmann notes that even anxious working-class whites with chips on their shoulders soften their hostile responses once they actually get to know the newcomers. Which of course should make you wonder why their precious white-identity worries need be validated in the first place.
Whiteshift too easily incorporates such inconsistencies, which are to be expected in a book that trades heavily on feelings and beliefs expressed through polls. But Kaufmann is less concerned about the validity of white fears than about the reality of the way they are exploited by rabble-rousing tabloids and noisy politicians. Liberals should cede ground to unhappy conservatives, he insists, in order to defuse the mounting racial tension. By refusing to acknowledge this latent unease in local communities, and by creating a national image of harmony that is at odds with people’s confused feelings of disorientation, the politically correct leadership class, in his view, is simply enabling the rise of alt-right populists — who, as we’ve seen in Austria or Hungary or the United States, can quickly and successfully move from the margins into government by exploiting fears, saying the unsayable, and turning immigration from a rational long-term policy into a constant crisis fixated on “us” and “them.”
Kaufmann isn’t a politician, though he clearly aims to shape policy. A demographer specializing in ethnic studies, he got his start researching the once powerful Orange Order, a conservative British-Canadian fraternal organization that lobbied for the perpetuation of Anglo-Protestant imperialist values as the true expression of Canadian character before post-war immigrations patterns shifted, colonial British loyalty dissipated rapidly, and a unifying form of multiculturalism was devised to fill the gaping void at the heart of an elusive national identity that might otherwise rapidly Americanize. His notion of whiteness is collective, conservative, and far too easily generalized as a result, because it is rooted in this monolithic past of British power and glory to which alien interlopers had to submit if they wanted to feel accepted. He himself is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic amalgam of Asian, Costa Rican, and Jewish, yet he is able to pass (as he notes) for white. Small wonder, then, that Whiteshift comes across as a glorified theoretical version of his own progress and pilgrimage toward a plum post at the traditional heart of the Anglosphere.
In the ideal future, as far as he’s concerned, some enhanced version of this white traditionalism will remain the benchmark of our changing Western societies, with the expectation that carefully selected immigrants will assimilate their values to these prevailing norms and standards. It’s in essence a unifying British royal family approach to a far more complex world: the Queen may well be a Church of England Christian with an outmoded accent and bizarre fashion sense who’s tied to centuries of unearned conservative, aristocratic, racial, religious, and cultural superiority, and yet she somehow manages to represent each and every one of us. The genius of such traditional and long-lasting WASP institutions, white-identity supporters say, is their combination of entrenched solidity, which maintains social cohesion and a fixed identity over time, and broad flexibility, which allows a wide range of citizens to project their own personal values onto a shared symbol of community. (Sadly for this argument, white-pride advocates find it too easy to appropriate these supposedly universal white symbols: consider how the English flag of St. George is aggressively wielded by militant racists.)
You may have heard echoes of this primal Anglo-Saxon attitude in the Harper government’s faltering attempts to make Canadians feel more connected to a fixed definition of common heritage by touting the bicentennial of the War of 1812 as a cause for grand national celebrations. No surprise, it didn’t catch on as a modern nation-building exercise. If your parents came to Canada from southern Italy in the 1950s, what does Sir Isaac Brock really mean to you? The centennial of the First World War likewise failed to capture the broader public imagination, which was surely a matter of regret to historians eager to revisit the charged relationship between an emerging pan-Canadian identity, independent of Old World alliances, and the narrower, more belligerent assertions of patriotic British imperialism — these quarrels about who gets to claim ownership of cultural identity do indeed go back a long way and aren’t the product of some modern multicultural conspiracy, despite Kaufmann’s frequent assertions. But to judge from recent evidence, an NBA title has far greater resonance for most Canadians than the nation-building carnage of the far-off Great War. In contrast to a grievance-ridden, nostalgia-driven, tradition-minded nation like Hungary, where anti-outsider movements gain strength from appeals to a shared history, any arguments for white ethnic priority in English-speaking Canada based on the pull of the past will struggle to generate widespread support.
Now even some cosmopolitan white liberals might be able to sympathize with the residual sadness that comes from suddenly realizing that an ingrained sense of who you are no longer counts for much in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Kaufmann places this despair and dislocation at the heart of modern conservative discontent. When you feel like you have been shunted to the margins of a society by newcomers claiming centrality (or, more often, having centrality claimed for them by others), it’s not just dominance that’s been lost but the touchstones of identity itself. Mock me as an old, white, irrelevant male, and I will immediately find fault with whatever arguments you’re advancing, whatever cause you’re espousing, no matter how enlightened. Alienation of the majority is deliberately built into the activist model, and Kaufmann is correct that liberals should be more sensitive to the corrosive long-term effects of anti-racism campaigns that automatically divide us into hostile parties. The flawed result, he contends, is asymmetric multiculturalism: an angry minority gets to shout and scream and shut down all debate, cowardly liberals play along, while the embattled conservative white majority has to shut up and take it. Cue the populist opportunists.
For everyone who gains as an immigrant in this us-and-them model, someone has to lose. But the more unified historical narrative Kaufmann pines for doesn’t really improve things: it simply reimposes an older conflict between an entrenched majority who define local culture and new arrivals who don’t yet fit in. Allegiance to the royal family, that once definitive marker of Canadianness and a powerful symbol of national pride, doesn’t have a lot to contribute to this collective sense of who we are — unless it is directed at Harry and Meghan, a biracial, binational royal coupling built on the newer Canadian model of rejecting past certainties.
As a nation of immigrants — the de facto definition of modern English Canada — we may well lack the reassuring solace of a core identity and depend a little too strongly on the fleeting pleasures of a sports victory parade for our optimistic sense of self. This country could feel a little more like a real country and a little less like a constant work in progress if we cherished a Nobel Prize–winning author like Alice Munro as much as we do the Raptors, and if we read her and understood her and figured out where her small-town white people from another time fit into the greater scheme of things.
But the more unmoored we are from the known quantities of a dependable past, whatever the losses, the better prepared we surely must be to incorporate the endless possibilities of who we are and who we might become. And if that sounds too vague and shallow to constitute a collective identity, it’s still a lot better for a future-facing country than an image based on cultivating someone else’s inherited antique collection.