For the second time in a year, we are seeing headlines claiming that English schools must not teach white privilege as fact. The first time was by the then minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, who decided to bring this up in a House of Commons debate on Black History Month. As if by magic, during Black History Month this year, the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has again repeated this warning, following a report by the Commons education committee.
What is white privilege?
To be clear, white privilege is a term used to mean the multiple social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. It is not rocket science.
Looking at the historical and contemporary ways that white people can be privileged above people of colour is actually a tool for understanding the persistence of racial inequality in the UK and elsewhere. White privilege draws attention to the fact that we don’t live in a post-racial society, we live in a world where huge, tangible inequalities between white and Black and other ethnically/racially minoritised communities exist.
Let’s think about it in a different way – it is a fact that men have privileges which are not afforded to women, because our society does not yet treat men and women equally. Take a simple thing like walking home at night. Most men feel able to do this without thinking twice. My daughter’s male friends, in acknowledgement of their male privilege, walk her and their other female friends home after a night out. Until we end the structural and systemic inequalities that lead to violence against women being an every-day occurrence, we can say uncontested that men have privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of men and women.
If it’s easier to conceptualise, think about a different marginalised group, disabled people. Most public and domestic spaces are structured in such a way that it makes it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people with disabilities to access them. This is called being ableist. Can you acknowledge that it would be a good thing if we make the world more accessible for all? Does it hurt you to acknowledge that as an able-bodied person, you have privilege when going about your daily business? You don’t have to think about how you will do things differently. You won’t have to build in more time (going the long way around because there aren’t lifts in the station near your workplace), spend more money (taking a taxi because there are no accessible stations near your workplace), and so on. Acknowledging your advantage as a person who is not disabled is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of disabled and non disabled people.
In a similar way, our society is set up for, and operates to the advantage of white people as the dominant group. The evidence for systemic inequality is undeniable – look at educational outcomes, employment, health, pay gaps and there it is. Clear as day. Whether you think it is because people of colour are treated as somehow inherently less intelligent, less employable, genetically prone to ill-health, deserve to be paid less, or if it is due to inequities baked in at every level of society creating the equivalent of ‘having to go the long way round’, both are clear evidence that white people in England have a level of privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of people of colour and white people in our country.
Acknowledging your white privilege doesn’t make you racist, and neither does denying it exists or trying to be colour-blind make you not racist. White privilege is not a political standpoint. Acknowledging white privilege doesn’t make people of colour feel inferior. It doesn’t even have to be a sensitive and complex issue, just as wanting greater equity for women, and for people with a disability doesn’t need to be politically, personally or legally contentious. It is not divisive and nor does it undermine the cohesion of a school or a country to educate other people on these as facts.
How is learning about white privilege harmful to white working class children?
The Commons education committee report, The Forgotten: How White Working-class Pupils Have Been Let Down, and How to Change It, argued that terms such as white privilege, may have contributed towards systemic neglect of white disadvantaged communities.
It is important also to understand that privilege is always relative. Rather than suggesting that white people face no challenges, white privilege highlights how a group of people are (and can be) affected by discrimination and disadvantage. Disadvantage and discrimination can be intersectional – which takes account of people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. In other words, your disadvantage as a disabled woman will be experienced differently than if you were an able-bodied woman. Disadvantaged white children have white privilege in that their race will not be a factor that contributes to their life challenges in addition to other challenges they face around a lack of economic wealth. They will not face racism as part of their disadvantage. Recognising that some communities can be disadvantaged due to their racially/ethnically minoritised backgrounds doesn’t deny the economic and social inequalities faced by communities from all racial backgrounds. Children who are on Free School Meals have lower attainment levels compared to those from wealthier families, whatever their heritage. To say that white children on free school meals have white privilege shouldn’t be conflated with saying that they don’t feel the impact of their disadvantaged economic situation.
Narrowing the focus on the disadvantages white people face versus all other racial groups reverses decades-long efforts to close the attainment gap. But it also is a symptom of the coalition, and subsequent Conservative, governments’ lack of attention to race as an indicator for mobility in education and the labour market. In fact, this current government seems to be doubling down on its efforts to take race off the table as a contributory factor in education or society. The widely condemned Sewell Report went so far as to claim not to be able to find any evidence of structural racism in Britain today.
How might teachers be breaking the law?
Both announcements by the DfE regarding white privilege stated that schools teaching the concept as uncontested fact could be breaking the law, and this might also be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. The government’s report looked at the poor educational outcomes for white British pupils eligible for free school meals. It saw the reason for this as due to ‘persistent multigenerational disadvantage, regional underinvestment and disengagement from the curriculum’. One has to ask oneself how schools will have created the former two reasons without the decades-long government policy which has impacted directly on families, pushing them further into poverty – a staggering one third of children live in poverty in the UK. These same policies have loaded more of the responsibilities of social care onto schools by cutting social services, mental health support, early years provision and youth services while also squeezing school budgets. Let’s not forget that government also mandated a national curriculum to schools, which now seems to have led to disengagement by some pupils. Pointing the finger at teachers for these issues, and their supposed indoctrination of children with concepts such as white privilege is at best misguided, and at worst, it is divisive and undermines the cohesion of a school and our country.
White privilege, with knowledge, white resistance
There is a strong community of white people within the education sector and beyond, who make it their business to not only acknowledge their white privilege, but to ensure that they are equipping themselves with the knowledge to resist attempts to undermine efforts to build a more equitable education system and society for all.
If you want to learn more about any of the concepts mentioned here, here’s some good places you can go:
The BAMEed Network has local area groups which you can join for more discussion and support.
There are also many useful resources including:
The Anti-Racist Educator White Privilege Test
My white friend asked me to explain white privilege
Recognise your white privilege
Deconstructing white privilege with Dr. Robin Di Angelo
Understanding white privilege, with Reni Eddo-Lodge
Experts answer your kids’ tough questions about race and racism
If you want to read more about being a reliable white ally see here