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.