If there is such a thing as a “white neighbourhood”, those guys have got the organic food shop thing nailed to the fucking floor. With tongue lodged firmly in cheek, copywriter Christian Lander created a blog back in 2008 called stuffwhitepeoplelike, an inventory of everything left-wing, upper-middle-class and appealing to a certain “kind” of Caucasian that stretched our satirical sensibilities all the way from “going camping” to “Barack Obama” (not on the list – going camping with Barack Obama). This pop-psychology highway rest-stop of ridiculousness led to 20 million page visits and a Random House dotted line. It generated belly laughter and hyperventilating accusations of racism in equal measure, though none of the stereotypes are particularly demeaning. Lander’s “white” people, those of a designation that once wasn’t a designation at all, a default while everything else was some kind of “ethnic”, always had the luxury of not having to grapple with the significance of their own ethnic background.
But if you have “Arabic” and “Black” and “Asian” communities, which are (rightly or wrongly) used as common classifications, what about “white” ones?
In Brussels, we are a mix of multi-ethnic Arabic, Black, and Asian communities, along with a squillion others that nobody’s bothered to categorise. All shades of miserable faces greet you as you slide around your dirty burnt orange plastic metro seat. But if you have “Arabic” and “Black” and “Asian” communities, which are (rightly or wrongly) used as common classifications, what about “white” ones? Not everyone is sure that it’s okay to say that. Is it fair to say that there are areas of Brussels with more organic food shops, or yoga workshops? Or bikes with baby seats, manned by women with cloth shoulder bags full of expensive free-trade, sugar-free, bio, organic, meat-free, free-range sandwiches wrapped in recycled whatever? What about antique shops, where Brussels’ paler denizens buy moldy coats from the 40s? More bars and emptier streets? Halal butchers, wig shops and five euro hair- cuts are not a feature of Uccle’s dog poo littered streets (’whites’ like dogs – their piles of poo create more work for Belgians than the warring governments combined). So is Uccle white? That’s either racist or exactly the opposite. Is Harlem white? Is it fuck.
In America, which is a really racially divided country, being middle class and being white are becoming the same thing
Alastair Bonnett, Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University isn’t buying it. “In Europe, people are increasingly using these labels, but they don’t have the same historical meaning they have in the US. Organic food shops, antiques… everybody is interested in those things, but it depends on wealth. We tie them to class, and in America, which is a really racially divided country, being middle class and being white are becoming the same thing. The idea that we live in racially identifiable places may work there, sort of, but in Europe, with all its ethnicities, conflicts and relatively small non-white population, it really doesn’t. We need to have confidence in our own history.” While we might laugh at the suggestion that there are neighbourhoods with more Pilates classes or adults on skateboards, conversations about what is “white” tend to spiral speedily into heated discussions about unpopular dead Belgian monarchs. A touchy subject, dotted with disclaimers, like “I’m not racist, but…” Oh fuck it, there’s a Pilates class somewhere that needs me.