A parliamentary report has blamed the use of the term “white privilege” for contributing to the “neglect” of white working-class children in the education system. Some MPs on the Education Select Committee have branded the term “politically divisive”, suggesting it may undermine school commitments to equality if they use it.
There is, it appears, an attempt to erase the phrase – to portray it as harmful, to claim (as the committee’s six Conservative members who voted the majority report through have claimed) that it is “alienating” to disadvantaged white communities.
But surely this is a straw man argument. Call it something (anything) else if you like; brand it “skin colour-based preferential treatment” if you want to define it further: it doesn’t take away from the fact that white privilege clearly exists – and if you want to see evidence of it, go to any public park or playground.
There, you’ll notice seemingly slight but insidious examples of the counterpoint to privilege – racism – all the time, all around you. I can think of multiple instances (yes, even in gloriously multi-cultural London, where I live), including the time my kids were playing with their friends after school on “the climbing tree” – a vast expanse of natural woodland with one central cluster of bushes, perfect for building imaginative forts – and a white grandmother singled out the only Black kid in their small group. “I can tell you’re the trouble maker,” she said, her lips pursed and disapproving. “Can tell you’re the one who’s not being nice to my grandson.”
It’s so achingly simple when put in the mouths of children: I had to explain to my four-year-old about why his “brown” friend was called a nasty name in the playground by some older kids. When I said that the word was something horrible and designed to wound, he looked at me grief-stricken, his eyes like saucers. “But why?” my son asked me. “Why don’t they like his skin?”
As a white mother it’s my duty to recognise my children’s automatic privilege – and the unfairness of it, and to teach them about it, too. They may not really know what racism is, because they’ve never experienced it – but it’s up to us as parents to help them not to be colour-blind.
At first I found it refreshing how little my kids appeared to notice race or skin colour; I even boasted about it. My daughter once described her best friend at nursery down to the detail on her yellow flower sandals without once mentioning the fact that she was Black. I celebrated that, until I realised how damaging that could be; because if you can’t “see” the problem – that your peers will experience prejudice or hatred simply because of their skin colour – then you can’t fight it.
Instead, we need to open our eyes to the disaparity caused by the simple fact that some children walk around in a world that treats them differently – even at preschool – because they have light eyes and fair skin; and we all need to accept that that privilege begins at presentation alone.
Because the advantages that will follow children like mine throughout their lives, simply because they have white parents, are stark and brutal: from their names – research shows that British jobseekers from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send 60 per cent more applications to get a positive response from employers compared to white applicants – to the way they are treated in shops (without suspicion), to being stopped-and-searched far less often by police, to finding themselves in less danger of hate-related crime on the streets.
My kids are far, far less likely to ever experience a racial attack or be abused by strangers on the Tube, to be called names or spat on; and they were also born in Britain, rather than America, which means they have the added privilege of not having to grow up in fear of guns or the police. As one mother put it on Twitter: “I will probably never have to sit my young son down to explain where/how he should place his hands and speak to a police officer, for his own safety. I did not do anything to earn this luxury, it is simply bestowed upon me by the color of my skin. That is #WhitePrivilege.”
Recognising the existence of white privilege isn’t a zero-sum game – there are vast swathes of the country who live in poverty; who have been further disenfranchised because of the pandemic; who continue to be let down by a pernicious lack of government funding, recognition and support, both within the education system and within local communities. Many of those affected are white working-class children. That’s got absolutely nothing to do with the term “white privilege” – the two issues can, and do, co-exist.
Pretending otherwise only stands to increase the division the committee who drew up this report purport to want to put an end to. It also bastardises what we mean when we say “white privilege” – because white privilege isn’t as simple as assuming that white people don’t experience adversity; but recognising that the adversity they experience isn’t connected to the colour of their skin. White privilege isn’t assuming that white people automatically have more money or better jobs, or a greater educational outcome: it’s noting that white people have easier access to those things, and that’s both true and deeply unfair, however you try to spin it.
Branding the term as “woke”, or using it intentionally to stoke the current so-called “culture wars”, risks reducing it to the point of making it seem like it doesn’t exist at all – and that only divides us further. At best, it’s unhelpful; at worst, it could be downright dangerous.