EGOS 2014: White Knights
My latest conference paper, ‘White Knights: Leadership as the heroicisation of whiteness’, is the result of much deliberation and confrontation since my first EGOS conference in Montréal last year.
I returned from Rotterdam on Monday night to a bitter and dark Melbourne winter. I served the first sentence of my jetlag by blacking out for 13 hours and am currently serving the second sentence with a dull migraine. I’m not sure my body knows night from day, but my spirits are soothed with a Melbournian cup of coffee at my local haunt.
I wanted to write about my recent trip to the European Group for Organization Studies colloquium, but I needed to set the scene first by speaking to my experiences last year at my first EGOS in Montréal. The fire kindled in me for critical theorising from the heated discussions shared in my stream on “embodying leadership with ethics in mind” was responsible for the paper I submitted this year, ‘White Knights: Leadership as the heroicisation of whiteness’. My paper interrogates race in media and academic discourses of leadership to show how whiteness and leadership mutually reinforce one another’s power.
I’m grateful to the participants of the embodying leadership sub-theme in Montréal who challenged my assumptions that white leaders have no race and that as an Asian woman, I had no claim to talk about whiteness. They directed me to the rich body of critical race theory literature, where books such as White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness by Ruth Frankenberg, Whiteness fractured by Cynthia Levine-Rasky, Revealing whiteness: The unconscious habits of racial privilege by Sharon Sullivan, and White by Richard Dyer, formed the backbone of my theoretical foundation. These books suggest that whiteness, like other racial categories, is a social construct reinforced through everyday practices of normalisation, solipsism, and expansiveness.
Normalisation is the idea that white people are unraced. We can see normalisation in the way we’d often point out if someone is black, Asian, South Asian, Hispanic, Aboriginal, in everyday conversation, but whiteness is assumed as the norm. Thus while people of colour can only speak for their race, white people are thought to occupy a ‘neutral’ standpoint that represents the commonality of humanity.
Solipsism is the notion that only white needs and interests matter. Critical race theorists use solipsism to explain why so many white people have difficulty forming meaningful relationships with people of colour and why white people often abdicate responsibility for the harm they cause to non-white groups.
Expansiveness is the tendency among white people “to act and think as if all spaces—whether geographical, psychical, linguistic, economic, spiritual, bodily, or otherwise—are or should be available for them to move in and out of as they wish” (Sullivan, 2006, p. 10). It enables white people to bear the belief that the environment should always be available for them to control.
In our paper, we show how practices of normalisation, solipsism, and expansiveness are entwined in the construction of white leaders as speaking for all humanity and mastering any and all environments. Through the visual and verbal analysis of media representations of 12 white business leaders engaged in philanthropy in Australia, we demonstrate how their race informed their portrayal as exemplary, moral leaders. Sadly, the heroic construction of white Australian leaders are achieved at the expense of non-white people, particularly indigenous Australians, who were victimised and objectified in the media discourse.
By ‘naming’ whiteness, my hope is to unhinge it from its transparent, ordinary, and dominant position. I wish to reveal how the doing of leadership is inevitably about doing race and doing power. The purpose of the paper is to inspire more critical dialogue among about how we may begin to move leadership studies towards an anti-racist politics of transformation.
 By Melbournian I mean the coffee beans are sourced fairtrade from Brazil, Colombia, and Guatemala, sweetened with unrefined whole cane sugar, topped with frothy Bonsoy milk, dusted with cocoa powder and cinnamon, served on a wooden board with a cheerful smile and a touching story about the farmers.