whiteness

Whiteness, Christianity and capitalism: Troubling the concept of Western values

By Pia Mikander

In his traditional New Year’s speech on January 1st, 2019, the Finnish president referred to democracy, equality and freedom as European values. These are often regarded not only as European values, but also as encompassing the larger, more ideological unit of ‘the West’. (See Mikander 2015 for further discussion on how Europe is also an ideological unit, not just a geographical one, but the idea of the West is primarily ideological.)

Exporting European values has changed into defending them on home ground. And are we seeing attempts to import values alien to us? We know what the opposites of democracy, equality and freedom are.  (Niinistö, 2019.)

The concept of Western values is used extensively in texts ranging from news reporting to politicians’ speeches. Finnish school textbooks, which form the object of my PhD thesis (2016a), also refer to the concept. Here, my suggestion is to discuss the idea of Western values and Western identity not from the perspective of democracy, equality and freedom but through some very different lenses: whiteness, Christianity and capitalism. I think that a way to approach the idea of the West is through the following questions: Who can claim a Western identity? Who is considered as encompassing Western values? I will propose an example:

Suppose that a penniless woman, Rohingya Muslim, who was flown from a refugee camp to Helsinki as part of the quota refugee system, would show up in Finnish language class and talk endlessly about how she believes in democracy, equality and freedom. Would she be considered to be representing Western values and a Western identity to a larger extent than her fellow Helsinkian businessman with a Lutheran background who voted for parties with anti-democratic agendas, debated against same-sex marriage and thought that the recent Danish suggestion to imprison migrants on a deserted island was a good idea? Or would he, despite opposing these examples of democracy, equality and freedom, be considered as more naturally connected to Westernness, complete with a Western identity and Western values?

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Whiteness is not Westernness – but it can help us understand it

The concept of Western values can benefit from theoretical tools departing from critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness scholars analyze the hegemonic power structures that work to benefit people who are racialized as white (Ahmed, 2011; Mattson, 2004). Alastair Bonnett (2004), however, reminds us that West is not simply a euphemism for white. First of all, there is an inclusivity connected to Westernness that is not part of whiteness. The Finnish president could be said to refer to this inclusivity when mentioning the “Exporting European values”. More people can thereby come to be part of this European/Western community of values.

Perhaps it is theoretically possible for anyone to be a part of Westernness, while not anyone could identify as white. As according to Bonnett, the concept of the West includes a set of values that could theoretically be open for anyone to embrace; at the same time, however, it seems that the inclusiveness is not genuine: the whole world cannot become “Western.” The idea of Western values requires a counterpart, and without it, there would be no need for it as an identity category. The concepts of whiteness links to corporeality and embodied experiences, such as being able to pass through security gates and seeing representations of oneself in positions of power, while Westernness is considered an ideological identity. Still, they bear a certain resemblance.

Westerness and whiteness are often used in different contexts but are at least to some extent both socially constructed categories that work to include and exclude people. The distinction between the two is not a simple one. There has been and still is plenty of ideological meaning given to the embodied concept of whiteness. Mattson (2004, p. 124), for instance, considers there to be a “globally embedded imagination” including the idea that white people are connected through their ideological sameness. Whiteness would then be considered connected to more than corporeality.

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This suggests that whiteness connects to an ideology of being Western. The woman in my above-mentioned example might thus have to prove her values and identity as a Westerner in ways that the man in the same example would not. People could frown upon hearing about his fascination with anti-democratic parties, but they might be less likely to question his Westernness. This, to me, is one example of how the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness between the concepts of Western and white works. Studying the concept of Western values from the perspective of whiteness helps examine the concept of the West in a less neutral light. As I argue in my PhD thesis (p. 28), concerning the socially constructed categories of whiteness and Westernness:

One major difference between the categories “white” and “Western” is the extent to which they are politicized. The concepts are perceived and used very differently. This includes mainstream media and to a lesser degree some of the academic debate, where “West,” “Westerners” and “Western values” are used extensively (Bonnett, 2004). Whether these concepts are defined, for instance, as including democracy and human rights, or simply left without definition, they mostly pass without much notice, not raising much concern. If, let’s say, democracy or human rights were referred to as “white values,” or if the news media reported about threats to the “white world” in the same ways as “Western values” or the “Western world” are mentioned today, most people would probably react with dismay. Yet there are rarely any such reactions towards the frequent references to Western values and Westernness.

The ease with which Western values are referred to, and the absolute unease the idea of white values would awake, suggests that the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness has not been completely dealt with. Few people would consider the concept of Western values problematic at all. My argument is that they perhaps should. One reason why whiteness as a concept is so much more uncomfortable than the concept of Westernness is, obviously, to be found in Europe’s long history of race theories and racism. The concept of whiteness brings this history to mind perhaps more easily than the concept of Westernness does.

Christianity as an ambiguous basis for Western values

Before European, let alone Western, was an identity, there was a notion of Christianity as an ideological unity. According to Bonnett (1998), modernity brought along the idea that there was a linkage between whiteness, Europeanness and Christianity. Christianity is an identity connected to values in a direct way, even if there is no absolute agreement over what these values stand for. Valuing democracy, equality and freedom has not always been the first priority of the church – still, politicians in Finland, like in the rest of Europe, might suggest that Finnish migrant policy should favor Christian refugees since they could easier integrate into Finnish society. This is to suggest that one key to being part of what is Western is to be a Christian.

Many have considered there to be a link between Christianity and Westernness as entities of value and identity. Others, however, would argue that Christianity is not at the heart of what is commonly understood as Western values. In fact, people who oppose furthering equality in concrete political measures, such as the freedom and rights for sexual minorities, often refer to Christianity for arguments. To this debate, it is worth considering that Bonnett (2004) sees the historical relationship between the concept of Western values and Christianity as shifting dramatically in the last century.

During the early 20th century, with rising socialist parties that denounced religion, atheism was discursively constructed as the height of Westernness. When the Soviet Union later became the antipode of the West, a Western identity went back to including religiosity in the name of Christianity. After the fall of the communist anti-West, when the religiously coded Arab or Islamic world came to be what a Western identity distanced itself mostly from, a skeptical attitude to religion became a more integral part of the discursive constructions of what it means to be Western and adhere to Western values.

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There are many potential ways of approaching the relationship between Christianity and a Western identity. One is to look at the differences between the countries considered as Western and the role Christianity plays in their societal contexts, such as on different sides of the North Atlantic. Europeans might consider US political references to God as confusing. However, within Europe, too, Christianity is displayed very differently in different countries and regions. Speaking of Christianity as a fountain of European values often ignores Europe’s violent history of war between different Christian denominations and how differently Catholic and Protestant cultures have been constructed.

The significance of Christianity in society varies greatly between countries considered Western. There are several examples of this, on a structural level as well as on a more discursive level. An example of structural differences is how differently religious education is taught in schools between and even within countries. From the French policy of laïcite to Irish schools with Christianity as an integral part of primary education, and Finland where students are taught their own religions within public schools – the only pattern to be found is that of a diversity of ways of connecting the teaching of religions values within nations. Germany, and the USA, serve as examples to show that there can be plenty of variations also within nations regarding how religion is taught in schools. On a structural level, it is hard to find consistent patterns of what Christianity means to Westernness.

On a discursive level, I would suggest that there are similar distinctions between how the concept of Western values connects to values regarded as Christian. Christianity is referred to in order to make value judgments of a wide range. Consider the differences between statements such as “Being a Christian, I oppose gay marriage” and “Being a Christian, I oppose deportations”. Christian activists in Europe and the USA might base their actions on their religion whether they target abortion clinics or help undocumented migrants hide from authorities. Although Christianity is often constructed as an integral part of Westernness, it is hard to single out what it means in concrete terms today.  

Capitalism, wealth and Western values

The connection between capitalism and the concept of the West is not self-evident. The Cold War is over, many countries far away from the “West” are based on market economy, and several countries considered Western have social democratic solutions that constrain capitalist economy. One reason why the woman in my initial example might not be seen as representing Westernness to the same degree as the businessman is not simply that she would not be considered white, or having a Christian background, but also because she is completely broke.

In my analyzed Finnish school textbooks I found descriptions of Western values and what is typical for the West. In addition to the often cited democracy, equality and freedom, there were some interesting views related to wealth. A geography book suggested that part of Western culture is that people have the right to a high standard of living. Another geography book suggested that a high standard of living is typical for the European continent. (see Mikander, 2015).

Above, “culture” and “typical” have important meaning. It is not simply to state that much of the wealth of the world today is gathered in pockets of people who represent countries considered Western (most of the richest 1%, who own half of the world’s wealth still live on either side of the North Atlantic, even though the percentage of Asians in the group is growing). No, the textbooks could be considered to reflect the idea that being wealthy and having a high standard of living is more than a coincidence, it is part of what is constructed as Westernness.

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Sometimes capitalism is used as an argument regarding conflicts of values. When I studied the textbook descriptions of 9/11 in New York and the following Afghanistan and Iraq wars (Mikander, 2012), I found a history textbook with the following description:

The attacks led to the death of 3,000 innocent people, people from many different countries belonging to several religions and language groups. But the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world. Within the economy, “business as usual” still rules. Even though the aerial industry suffered hard losses, stricter control made it safer to fly. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 267.)

In this history textbook for grade 8, it is suggested that the attacks might have caused the aerial industry hard losses, however, the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world, since the economy was not destroyed and business as usual could go on. Crushing the Western world would thereby first of all have meant to destroy the economy, not the idea of democracy, equality or freedom. This can be seen as a response to how the same book describes the connection between capitalism and Westernness at an earlier stage:

It was not with the help of weapons that the Western world became the winners of the Cold War. It was the Western economic system, capitalism, or the market economy, that turned out to be stronger than the communist planned economy system. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 161.)

When describing Westernness and capitalism or the accumulation of wealth, it is worth noting that social studies textbooks arbitrarily or even seldom make connections to colonialism and its ongoing legacy, even though colonialist ventures have had such a fundamental impact on the economies in Europe and the USA.

Where to look for Western values?

Nowadays, there is a simultaneous worry about population growth far away and fewer babies in many European countries, for instance. The idea often cited in nationalist discourse is that Western populations need to be stimulated by Western women having more children, not by increasing immigration. In this sense,  Western values and Westernness are seen as inherent, not acquirable. If the woman of my example above chooses to have babies in her new homeland, it is not necessarily considered a gain for Westernness, no matter how much she teaches them about freedom, equality and democracy.

Recently, I compiled a list of leaders and their political profiles in the world’s thirteen most populated countries. I realized that the majority of the leaders on the list were right-wing populist, and thereby not particularly famous for being spokespeople for freedom, democracy or equality – in the sense that all human beings are entitled to the same rights. The clearest exception on my list was the Ethiopian president who through his belief in religious dialogue had helped end the decade-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

And it struck me: during times when European and US border politics might not be characterized by democracy, freedom and equality – maybe we should lift our gaze and look for these values on a larger scale? Maybe we will keep looking for the values that the Finnish president refers to, and end up realizing they were never merely Western?

The author is a senior lecturer in history and social studies didactics at the University of Helsinki. Follow Pia on Twitter here.

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2011). Vithetens hegemoni. Hägersten: Tankekraft förlag.
  • Bonnett, A. (1998). Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (6), 1029—1055.
  • Bonnett, A. (2004). The Idea of the West. Culture, Politics and History. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mattson, K. (2004). Vit rasism. In K. Mattson & I. Lindberg (Eds.) Rasismer i Europa – kontinuitet och förändring. Rapport från forskarseminariet 5 november 2003. Stockholm: Agora, 108—141.
  • Mikander, P. (2012). Othering and the construction of West: The descriptions of two historical events in Finnish school textbooks. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices 6(1), 31—45.
  • Mikander, P. (2015). Democracy and Human Rights: A Critical Look at the Concept of Western Values in Finnish School Textbooks. In K. Hahl, P-M. Niemi, R. Johnson Longfor & F. Dervin (Eds.). Diversities and interculturality in Textbooks. Finland as an Example. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 107—124.
  • Mikander, P., (2015) Colonialist ‘discoveries’ in Finnish school textbooks, Nordidactica – Journal of humanities and social science education, (4): 48–65.
  • Mikander, P., (2016a) Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks, Thesis (PhD), University of Helsinki.
  • Mikander, P. (2016b). Globalization as Continuing Colonialism: Critical Global Citizenship Education in an Unequal World. Journal of Social Science Education 15(2), 70—79.
  • Niinistö, S. (2019). President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2019.