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.