Should we teach school students about white privilege?

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A few years back, I taught at a school in London. My senior physics students were highly able and so we organised for them to go on a trip to Cambridge University. When they came back, I had a chat with two of them about their experience.

At this point, it is necessary to note that one of these students was from a Somali background and the other was from a Nigerian background. They told me about their accommodation and the talks they had attended. Then they told me about going to a souvenir shop and being followed around by the shopkeeper.

I became angry. They laughed. I was horrified that they laughed.

White privilege‘ is the concept that there are certain privileges associated with being a white person in a society like Britain, the U.S. or Australia, privileges that white people are often unaware that they possess. Peggy McIntosh, an American academic, likened it to an invisible backpack of unearned assets. In this case, it was the privilege of being able to walk around a shop without being the subject of suspicion.

It is debatable whether such privileges are specifically white or whether they might better be described as majority group privilege. I taught in Uganda for a couple of months in the summer of 1997 and felt conspicuous the entire time. Some Ugandans would call ‘Muzungu!’ after me as I walked past and others would approach me and ask me for money. Clearly, this was a far different experience to that of my students in Cambridge, yet there may be some similarity in that I could never quite relax – I was always conscious of myself and the colour of my skin.

Proponents of the concept of white privilege would argue against the idea that it might apply to any majority group in a society by pointing to the history of European colonisation and oppression of other peoples. They would argue that white privilege is a facet of a wider system of structural racism. White privilege and colonialism are therefore interrelated.

So, should we bring this concept into the high school classroom? If we do, we need to be conscious of how it may backfire.

One effect of white privilege is that white people tend to think of themselves as just ‘people’. They are not particularly conscious of their own ethnicity. By emphasising concepts of white privilege we therefore raise that consciousness.

Perversely, this is exactly what far right extremists would like to see – a heightened sense of identity among white people.

Clearly, teachers are not going to suggest white privilege is a good thing, but students are not sponges. They exist in a milieu of voices and influences and our intentions in presenting such concepts are not always what matters most.

For example, Implicit Association Tests are a form of psychological test that are used to try to gauge a subject’s level of unconscious bias. Participants are typically asked to quickly associate genders or skin colours with different qualities such as ‘logical’. It is a matter of controversy as to what these tests actually measure, but there is some evidence that simply completing the test can increase participants levels of racial bias, presumably by highlighting the existence of different groupings.

Encountering a concept such as white privilege may bring to the surface an identity that has previously been latent in white students. It may also provoke a reaction.

Such a reaction is sometimes described as ‘white fragility’ and often involves people insisting they are not racist or claiming to be ‘colour blind’ i.e. that they do not take the perceived race of other people into account in any way. In one sense, we might consider this a good thing, but advocates suggest it is a barrier to white people confronting the reality of structural racism.

I wonder what would happen if we attempted to teach a high school class about these concepts. Should the teacher try to demonstrate the existence of systemic racism by talking about colonialism and repression? Systems are abstract concepts and, having highlighted our white student’s’ group identity, we risk talking about systems while they hear an argument about themselves and who they are.

And this could lead to as much resentment as it does introspection.

At the height of the British Empire, my great grandfather, aged ten, was harnessed to a trolley, hauling coal out of one the Earl of Dudley’s mines. I suspect many white people have origin stories similar to mine. Even if it were reasonable for the sins of the ancestors to be inherited by their descendants, my conscience is relatively clear on the British Empire.

I understand that we are not supposed to take these arguments personally, but when you impose a group identity upon students, you place them personally into the narrative in some way. This may make them feel guilt or regret, but it may also give them a sense of being unfairly treated; a sense of grievance. Again, white people with a heightened sense of white identity coupled with a sense of grievance are exactly what the far right needs.

There is an alternative way of addressing issues raised by white privilege and colonisation that perhaps avoids many of these risks. Rather than turning to sociology, we can focus more on history.

The school curriculum should, and often does, explore many aspects of history that includes themes of repression. Young Australians need to learn about the European colonisation of Australia, of the massacres of indigenous people and of the stolen generations, among other issues. By learning about the civil rights movement in the U.S., or apartheid South Africa, students can learn that freedoms and benefits are not always equally shared and that some groups try to dominate others and accrue benefits for themselves. Throughout such teaching, students can be asked to identify with a range of actors, regardless of perceived race, without being forcibly situated somewhere in the narrative. They can be asked to consider the actions and motivations of people as people.

I have argued previously that the school curriculum should consist of that which has endured. I don’t think white privilege is a concept that can yet claim to have stood the test of time. It is contestable and may have unpredictable effects when we try to incorporate it into our teaching. For now, we would do better to focus on history.


33 thoughts on “Should we teach school students about white privilege?

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    In England, relatively few people are obsessed with race. When I arrived here in the early 1970s, I lived in Birmingham, where I worked for a housing association which ran a hostel for kids on care or probation orders. All but one were from poor white families, yet they loved Reggae, used Rasta slang, and were experts on the best curry houses in Ladypool road. The one black West Indian in the hostel was the leader–he was in the TA, which–along with his race– gave him real cred. The builders’ merchants we used (we were training them in basic building skills) was run by Sikhs who’d recently immigrated from Uganda–they became close friends, and they were popular with every race and culture. In the ten years I lived in Brum, I only witnessed one incident that could remotely be described as ‘racial’.

    Perhaps things aren’t quite so happy now, especially in respect to Muslims. Yet even then, a few years ago social services in Cromer (North Norfolk) denied a mixed-race couple permission to adopt a black baby because the wife–who was black–said she’d never experienced any racism. They justified their decision on the grounds that the couple wouldn’t be able to teach the child how to cope with ‘living in a racist society’.

    Likewise, the only newspaper that bangs on endlessly about race is the Guardian. By contrast, Daily Mail reports seldom mention people’s race unless it is in some way relevant to the story. This, I am sure is far wiser: left to their own devices, most people’s curiousity about the other will inevitably break down barriers as they discover that our common humanity is far more important than historical grievances. After all, you are hardly going to promote racial harmony by telling people that they are responsible for things their ancestors did several generations ago.

    • John Pierry says:

      the only newspaper that bangs on endlessly about race is the Guardian

      Could you please provide examples as to what you mean by “banging on about”?

  2. Michael says:

    Tom people you know are not obsessed with race (whatever that means). I think you have a bit of a false consensus effect. Cherry picking anecdotes also doesn’t help as there are lots of famous stories about adoption services’s decisions (a friend was told she was to fat and had to lose weight). To be clear I agree with Greg but this kind of response will just alienate people who disagree.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Michael–I’m far less worried about people who disagree–who won’t change their minds in any case– than I am about the obvious fact that guilt and resentment are the inevitable outcomes of basing policy on the premise that England is a racist country.

      I recently spent a weekend in Poland visiting a friend who was born in Pakistan and raised in Manchester. I read a book he had about Pakistan that was written by an journalist who has spent most of his working life covering the subcontinent. It made for very depressing reading, and my friend–who is a devout Mulsim–agreed with the conclusion that partition was a disaster for Muslims. He also volunteered that we’ve come to a sad pass when Britain is one of the few places where Muslims can worship as they choose without being at risk from other Mulsims.

      Please stop disparaging anecdotal evidence. You will only alienate those who disagree with you.

      • John Pierry says:

        Britain is one of the few places where Muslims can worship as they choose without being at risk from other Muslims

        Britain is safer than Pakistan? Who would have thought?

  3. David F says:

    I’d suggest that this is a much bigger deal in the US–if you’ve seen the news out of Virginia politics, then you’ll see it is a pervasive thing…and, after all, much of the US was founded on slavery and what some historians are describing as a genocide of the Native Americans. That was followed by decades of segregation and openly racist policies. This was to such a degree that even the Nazis decided that the US miscegenation laws were too harsh for their own uses when crafting the Nuremberg Laws (see James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model). Yes, we had the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, which led to legislation, but that does not wipe away the systemic racism that still exists in the US. So, discussing white privilege is definitely something needed in the US–I can’t speak to the UK or Australia.

      • David F says:

        Actually, no, I don’t think it is. Much of the stuff in US politics is generational–the older generations are the ones most likely to believe in “reverse racism” and other such stuff. As much as I find the Millennials and iGen to be riddled with insufferable habits, they’re actually getting much better in their attitudes towards race, in large part because we’ve started having these sorts of conversations in classrooms since the 1990s.

      • If it is the fault of old people then why does it appear to be getting worse over time? I’m sure many young people have become anti racist due to teaching, but I’m not sure the concept of white privilege has helped or been necessary and I am concerned that it has backfired for a number of folks.

      • Tim says:

        “why does it appear to be getting worse over time?”

        Is it though?

        We have lived through a time when the definition of what it is to be racist has broadened significantly, a time where terms like “white privilege” teach us that we are racist (because of our skin colour) even when we try not to be. A time when outrage can be confected at discrete interaction between a red hat wearing white boy and an indigenous adult all around the world at the speed of light, all because it fits the narrative.

        I grew up coming home from school to turn on the TV and watch Kingswood Country. My prime minister would make comments about the yellow commies and no one would bat an eyelid, my teacher would tell a daily joke which was often based on an amusing racial trait. It was funny when my mate slipped over, because he was a “greasy wog” – and then there was the more sinister and horrific racism towards the aboriginal kids – which even I (and many of my fellow students) felt was wrong at the time, but felt powerless to confront it.

        It is not getting worse over time. It has improved greatly.

        The use of the term “white privilege” will backfire, because it is in itself built upon a generalisation against a race because of the colour of their skin.

        If you want to fight racism, then call out actual racist behaviour – you don’t combat racism by inventing stupid terms that only apply to certain groups because of their race.

      • David F says:

        Responding to your ” why does it appear to be getting worse over time?” I don’t think it is–I think, though that our 24 hour news cycle seems to make things appear worse than they actually are due to racist events being more widely publicized. I think the data we have supports this. Also, the systemic problems are more widely known too.

        It’s complicated, and the US dynamic is loaded with the crazy political climate we are currently living in over here, but I’m hopeful that over time, with us teachers having the courage to discuss this with students in the classroom, that it will get better.

      • I hope you are right and I am sure that you deal with these matters sensitively. However, when I see images of the people who marched at Charlottesville, they don’t look like old men to me, they look pretty young. I think there is a danger in highlighting group identity and I am concerned that this is helpful to the far right. I’m not sure anyone who has criticised this post has really addressed that issue.

      • David F says:

        Hi Greg–I don’t see this as a criticism, but as a necessary conversation. I think we can’t let Charlottesville skew the reality–just as you spend so much time and effort getting beyond anecdotal evidence in pedagogy, we can’t let what the media reports to be what is actually out there. I personally rely heavily on the Pew Research Center, as they conduct very rigorous polling and are usually spot-on with their results—their info on Millennials and GenZ/iGen kids is pretty hopeful.

        If you want an interesting trend, Nov 22, 1968 marked the first interracial kiss on TV (on Star Trek of all shows)…nowadays, my white male students have a plethora of minority women then see as sex symbols (and I think the same is true for white female students)…how long can racial inequalities last when those individuals denied equality are seen as desirable partners in relationships?

      • I, too, am optimistic. Yes, in many ways the world is getting better. However, the U.S. currently has a divisive president who couldn’t bring himself to condemn the Charlottesville marchers. This is, I would claim, a backward step, even when measured against former presidents such as Bush Jr.

        Perhaps we are responding to different points. You are emphasising overall trends whereas I am concerned more with fringe radicalisation and the polarisation of politics – a process that involves a minority of people. The main point of this post is that by using terms that highlight a perceived racial difference, we might aid the extremists. Maybe I am wrong, but I do think it is worth considering how our actions might backfire, because backfire effects are a consistent feature of social policies.

  4. Janita Cunnington says:

    An excellent article. Despite their protestations to the contrary, I have noticed that educationists positively discourage critical thinking by focusing on the conclusions at the end of a line of thought (“white privilege” being an example) rather than teaching students to examine the evidence and letting them come to their own conclusions. Indoctrination rather than education, in other words.

    • This is, of course, the crucial point. And in my experience, classroom teachers have an infinitely better grasp of this fundamental distinction than Ed academics.

  5. John Pierry says:

    I’m sure Everett Ross felt just as uncomfortable when that Wakandan princess teasingly called him “coloniser”. Poor thing.

  6. John Pierry says:

    Black Panther. Great movie – look it up. I – another white man – also have been called all sorts of names while travelling, “gringo” being a great example. It didn’t phase me. I don’t see it as being anywhere comparable to the phenomenon you seem to want to describe, “white privilege” being just another name for it. Look to the work of Jane Elliott if you want to understand this latter situation better – because to be honest, I really feel that you have to understand it better. Your opinion may differ.

  7. John Pierry says:

    I think this article provides much greater nuance. Particularly this quote:

    Others can play the race card, play the gender card. So they’re like, I want a card. I want to be part of this as well. I want to be a protected class as well.

    And if you want to investigate the work of the amazing Jane Elliott, who has addressed all of your concerns thoroughly over several decades:

    • I think the article in the daily beast broadly supports my argument e.g.

      “I learned that for one thing many white people are tired of feeling like they’re racist—they talk about being blamed for crimes they didn’t commit—and that sense of being unjustly blamed for racism is part of why they feel discriminated against. Like, they’re discriminated against because they’re wrongly assumed to be discriminators.”

  8. Tim says:

    “White Privilege” is a recently manufactured construct that in some way denies the impact of individual life experience of ALL people regardless of their race.

    It is a weird concept that implies that it is somehow problematic that some people are not victims of racism because they are white.

    A long time ago I taught a child who was a refugee. Forced out of his own country because of civil strife that his family was on the wrong side of. His family saw violence, his uncle was killed and he suffered PTSD – the little snippets of his past that occasionally came out in his outbursts were horrific – he had white skin, blond hair and spoke very good English. Last I heard he is doing OK working at an electrical wholesaler.

    To introduce the idea that to him, in a classroom setting, that he is somehow the beneficiary of privilege purely on the basis of his skin colour is patently absurd and offensive.

    Chances are that some of the kids in your classes that you could categorise as being the beneficiaries of “white privilege” are victims of abuse, come from broken homes, live below the poverty line, suffer from anxiety and/or depression, are teased because they are too skinny, too fat or have bad acne – what the hell are you doing telling them that they have “privilege” because you have assessed their skin colour to be white enough.

    One of the reasons why racism is so abhorrent is that it denies the victim their individuality because of the category they are deemed to belong to. It denies the content of their character and places judgment onto the colour of their skin. The construct of “white privilege” is nothing more than acceptable racism.

  9. Mick says:

    The problem with the “white privilege” construct is that, in practice, it is rarely used to indict people with actual privilege, i.e. upper-middle class, tertiary educated liberals. Instead, it is almost entirely deployed against poorly educated white working class people -> don’t complain about your position in life, because you are privileged by your racial heritage. It is actually a quite toxic and pernicious classist attack on the working class, which is perversely used by upper-middle class whites to signal their moral superiority to the plebs.

  10. chrismwparsons says:

    Some thoughts…

    An excellent concept to directly teach students about would be ‘BIRTH Privilege’, as something which – though unearned – can give advantage in the right context. It would then be important to open their eyes to the large range of things which can count as this:
    – economic status
    – skin colour
    – good looks
    – gender
    – height
    – 1st language
    – regional accent
    etc, etc….

    Historical, geographical and social studies of various kinds can help to demonstrate how this plays out in practice, and how advantages/disadvantages are maintained by apparently benign social structures.

    It would also be useful to help individuals focus-on and recognise with humble gratitude the advantages that they’ve been born with.

    However, communicating the idea of some kind of quasi-religious ‘original sin’ guilt stain on people who have birth advantages is retrograde, as is the idea of associating this with the current occupants of a ‘nation’. The persistence of inherited systems and attitudes should be the very clear focus.

    Additionally however, what could be helpful would be pointing-out to people that – in as much as they shouldn’t be considered guilty for the sins of their forefathers – they also shouldn’t assume some weird god-given virtue by dint of historical association either (such as you seem to hear with certain cheerleaders for Brexit).

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  12. This is a lot to dissect — including the comments, there are a lot of voices in here. It’s good to see the conversation because talking about it is the only way to make progress. I feel like your argument is that the concept of white privilege hasn’t endured in the public eye long enough to be school curriculum material. However, if you spoke with people of color, I believe you’d find the *practice* of white privilege has been going on for generations. Why would we want to wait instead of starting these conversations with our youth? Several of your readers seem troubled by personal history, poverty, abuse, and other painful disadvantages but the MAIN POINT of white privilege is that their appearance will never work against them in the system. That doesn’t discount their personal pain.

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