The Next Chapter for White Privilege
By Laura Bradnam
Many people are familiar with the concept ‘White Privilege’, and EqualiTeach have previously published a blog examining its relevance to working with young people. Understanding the unearned benefits of having a White identity is key in challenging inequality, enabling us to recognise the issues and be part of the required change. Analogies range from of an ‘invisible rucksack’ filled with a list of unearned privileges (Peggy McIntosh, 1992) to someone walking down the street and unknowingly having money put in their pocket (Applebaum, 2012). Some examples of White Privilege from McIntosh’s article include:
- Never being asked to speak on behalf of all White people
- Being able to drive a nice car without worrying about being stopped by the police
- Ability to criticise the government without being seen as an outsider
- When moving to a new area expecting that new neighbours will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- Shopping alone without being followed or harassed
- Turning on the television or opening the front page of a newspaper and seeing people of my race widely represented
- Not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection
We all experience the world in different ways, and we will all have different experiences and levels of privilege depending on what area of equality we are looking at. Recognising privilege is an excellent first step on the journey for equality.
The blog also noted the important concept of intersectionality developed by Dr Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. This focuses on the oppression that different characteristics may create. For example, someone who is Black will experience racism, and a woman will experience sexism, but to understand the particular experience of Black womanhood one must consider the two as they intersect and exacerbate the negative impacts of the other characteristic. This includes any number of relevant attributes, from class, age, nationality, sexual orientation, religion etc.
However, it is arguably time to evolve the concept of White privilege, to focus on power and oppression, and ensure the words used in our bid for equality are the best tools for the job. Zeus Leonardo (2004) has suggested that although a White person may recognise their privilege and attempt to disavow it in daily interactions and individual choices, this does not address the structural and institutional issues which the person will continue to enjoy. Furthermore, that White privilege is only enabled through active ‘white dominance’ of the oppressed. Now we are familiar with the concept of privilege, we must become equally familiar with the process that creates and maintains it, in order to address equality issues in schools.
Arguably, focusing on White privilege takes the emphasis away from the people who are being harmed by the structural inequalities; centring on what the White person is doing and the positives they enjoy, rather than how these advantages are created at the expense of others. We can explore this thinking by applying this logic to the explanation of intersectionality. Instead of a Black woman ‘experiencing’ racism and sexism, the emphasis would be placed on the fact that other people are actively making decisions and committing acts which negatively impact her – rather than it being something that ‘just happens’.
One of the ways this is embedded is the “hidden curriculum of whiteness saturat[ing] everyday school life”, a form of “racial amnesia” which means not only is Whiteness the norm and celebrated, but that schools actively normalise unearned privileges and a colour-blind agenda through curriculum content and omission. For example, when teaching history, only focusing on topics such as the Tudors, Vikings and WW2 and not the atrocities committed during the Empire and the continuing systemic effects of this legacy. The agenda of the curriculum can be seen when Churchill is celebrated for his leadership during WW2, but no mention of his belief in ”racial hierarchies and eugenics… that white protestant Christians were at the top, above white Catholics, while Indians were higher than Africans… Churchill saw himself and Britain as being the winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy” (BBC, accessed 2019). Or his part in the Bengal famine in 1943 where 3 million people died. Still in British possession, Churchill ordered for rice to be continued to be exported to Europe, despite the famine. “[The War Cabinet] ordered the build-up of a stockpile of wheat for feeding European civilians after they had been liberated. So 170,000 tons of Australian wheat bypassed starving India – destined not for consumption but for storage” (BBC, accessed 2019). Churchill even appeared to blame the Indians for the famine, claiming they “breed like rabbits”(BBC, accessed 2019).
Guilt is a common reaction to White privilege and can be a big barrier to shifting the culture within a school. White people may concentrate on whether their own acts or speech are racist due to the emphasis on individual privilege (Martin, 2011). This can result in individuals acknowledging privilege and stopping there. Although White privilege should take account of structural issues, discussions tend to lapse into ‘white confessionals’ (Bonnett, 2010), focusing on what White people think about their privilege or their recognition of it. The throwaway line of “I know I’m privileged, but…” has also become common in discussions of equality. Those who are affected by the issues at hand already know the content generated from ‘confessionals’ due to their lived experience – it is more useful to listen to those who are marginalised in your school community and take action. Whilst it is important that White people go on a journey of discovery about their privilege, the journey shouldn’t end there – it is just as useful, (if not more so for change), to listen to those who are marginalised in the school community. This could vary from ensuring young people are educated about equality, to ensuring school policies protect and empower students with minoritised identities, to including representative books and elements in the curriculum. Other successful actions have included educating young people and staff on the systemic issues which influence our society to implementing a responsive, democratic and representative team to receive feedback and respond to incidents to shift the culture of the school.
Arguably, to shift from the critiques discussed above, the term ‘White supremacy’ is more effective as it shifts focus from the individual onto the dominating and systemic acts which historically and continually oppress minoritised communities and recognises the power dynamics at play. It is not to be confused with White supremacist groups; it is an acknowledgement of White privileges, but only in relation to who their systemic supremacy affects. Armed with this knowledge and language, anyone who works with young people are more able to fight for the equality the next generation deserves.
Finally, it is key to be a productive and accountable ally. Here are some examples from a previous blog that give practical ways to improve:
- Take time to learn about unconscious bias and reflect on your own views. We all have our own preconceived ideas, prejudices and assumptions, and it is our responsibility to take note of these, question and challenge them
- Be open to conversations around privilege. It can feel uncomfortable to recognise how society implicitly benefits you over others, but remember it is possible to be privileged in one area of life and not in another, and that in recognising your own privilege you can then use it positively to be an ally and help remove barriers for others
- Be honest about mistakes. We will all make mistakes, and the natural response is to be defensive. Be honest with yourself and apologise when you need to
- Sit with your discomfort. Any discomfort you feel about your own prejudice, privilege, or the mistakes you’ve made will not be close to the discomfort experienced by targets of discrimination. Sit with it, acknowledge it, and then work out how you can turn your discomfort into positive action.
Applebaum, B. (2012). “Reframing responsibility in the social justice classroom”. Race Ethnicity and Education. 15(5): 615-631.
Bonnett, A. 2010. “Anti‐racism and the critique of ‘white’ identities”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 22: 97-110.
Leonardo, Z. (2004). “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’”. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 36(2): 137-152.