Opening Pandora’s Box

I drew a lot of criticism last year when I questioned the idea of teaching young people about ‘white privilege’. Much of this criticism assumed bad faith on my part and did not engage with the argument I made. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to return to that argument now.

The things described by the term, ‘white privilege’ undoubtedly exist. White people in places like the UK or Australia can go into a shop and not expect to be followed around. They are not constantly on alert for racist interactions. They can largely forget about their race.

However, these things used to be framed differently. Instead of suggesting white people have a privilege, we used to talk of non-white people being discriminated against. To my liberal, Generation X mind, being able to go about your business unmolested is a right and framing it as a privilege makes me worry about whether people may one day think it reasonable to take such rights away.

However, there is a more powerful force at play than semantics and that is the force of identity. I think pretty much everyone on all sides of this discussion agrees that white people are not particularly conscious of their race. They just see themselves as people. Whereas I may suggest this is a good thing, culture warriors think it is a bad thing. To them, the first step is for white people to acknowledge their whiteness and the benefits it affords them before embarking upon the long journey of doing work on themselves. Highlighting white privilege is intended to facilitate this process.

No doubt, many educated, left-leaning people will go along with this. They will buy the books, attend the conferences and do the work. However, there is a larger constituency on which this framing is likely to have an unintended effect. Working class people who do not particularly define themselves by the fact that they are white will have their consciousness raised. Moreover, they will learn that being white has, in the jargon, become ‘problematised’ and that they are meant to feel uncomfortable or even repentant about it. They will reason that their race is not a choice but an accident of birth and will feel this problematisation as an injustice.

This plays into the hands of the far right. In such a context, it is entirely predictable that we would see the incident last week where somebody paid for an aeroplane to fly a ‘white lives matter’ banner over a football match in England. The harder we clamp down on such expressions and the greater the disapproval we voice, the more we will fuel this sense of injustice.

And such an atmosphere is not in the interests of the culture warriors. As far as I can tell, they don’t believe in essentialist concepts of race, they believe it is a social construct. However, to them, whiteness is a particularly powerful and malevolent social construct they choose to highlight so that, as a society, we may move through it to something new and better.

It is in this context that I read Priyamvada Gopal’s tweet that, “White lives don’t matter. As white lives.” In other words, it’s not because people are white that their lives matter. I may be wrong, but that’s how I read it.

If my reading is correct then I am inclined to agree. Race is a social construct with little basis in genetics. We should be valuing human beings as the wonderful and complex creatures they are, not because they belong to an arbitrary classification. Where people are not valued in this way and are discriminated against for their membership of such an arbitrary class, we should do all in our power to end this injustice.

However, once you have opened up Pandora’s Box, you cannot put the bad things back. In a context of heightened awareness of race, a context partly created by people such as Gopal and their problematising of whiteness, many people took a more straightforward reading of her tweet – that white people’s lives don’t matter. The abuse she then received was intense and repugnant.

If you have changed or added to your curriculum as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests, then I urge you to think about the unintended consequences. The young people I have taught have two things in common – a burning sense of justice and the quest for a purpose in life. The choices you make in the coming months could have profound consequences. I strongly advise against giving young people the message that a characteristic they cannot control should be a source of shame.

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5 thoughts on “Opening Pandora’s Box

  1. Chester Draws says:

    The intense focus on White Privilege wouldn’t be half so bad if the solutions proffered were going to actually fix the problem.

    Getting Blacks (because let’s face it, most Asian groups tend to outperform Whites despite their lack of this life-defining privilege) a decent education would be a solution. Yet when Michaela School does that, they are the target of vitriol from the Left. We’re meant to fix black education, but not like *that*.

    So we see lots of concerns from comfortable Whites about a few police deaths, but no concern about how school zoning forces vastly bigger numbers of poor minorities into worse schools. Because getting rid of school zoning would be 1) against the Left’s desire for centralisation and state control, and 2) actually hurt those comfortable Whites in their real lives.

    (Priyamvada Gopal was born to wealthy and connected parents, attended an international school in Vienna, followed by the University of Delhi and Cornell. Quite how she has not lived an extremely privileged life is beyond me, to be honest.)

  2. Mike says:

    I think your interpretation of Dr. Gopal’s statement is probably correct. However, if it is, then of course the obverse is also true (i.e. “Black lives don’t matter as black lives“). But of course no-one in their right mind would dare to voice such a sentiment at the present time, which tells you all you need to know about the current absurd situation in which the whole (western) world is desperately paying fealty to a trivially true statement which is being used primarily as a front for power-hungry ideologues.

  3. As a cultural conservative, I will offer you a conservative take on this issue. Conservatives do not want to send their children to school to be on the receiving end of your political beliefs and opinions on social justice. Not about identity politics, morality, God, any of it. They certainly do not want you grading their children on some subjective scale that includes how thoroughly they have absorbed your values, as if these are not complicated matters that capture a spectrum of belief and matters of narrative. That kind of content is now so pervasive in schools that it is competing for classroom time for teaching kids actual skills. It’s not an accident that the schools that devote time to identity politics are also producing kids who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Teachers should be partners with parents, not perceive themselves as “correcting” the moral teachings kids receive at home, at church, etc. That’s simply not your job. This is why millions of families have pulled their kids out of school, and that number is only growing.

    • I would also add that it is not only white conservatives who feel this way. I know several black families (conservative and liberal) who wish white liberals would stop trying to hijack what they are trying to teach their kids about race just because it gives them all the right feelings.

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