When BBC Bitesize does white privilege

BBC Bitesize is a set of online resources produced by the BBC and provided free of charge* for use by school-aged children. On Wednesday, its Twitter account posted a video by John Amaechi, explaining what ‘white privilege’ is:

Amaechi’s explanation is reasonable and he takes pains to ensure that the concept is presented with nuance. However, it is still presented uncritically. It is as if Amaechi is a geographer explaining the formation of oxbow lakes . However, it is not quite as simple as this.

The concept of white privilege originates in academia. Although not the first person to use the term, Peggy McIntosh’s essay on the topic is often referred to as a kind of foundational text. McIntosh uses the metaphor of an invisible weightless knapsack of advantages that white people carry around with them. She lists some of these advantages and they include, “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live,” and, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” (Perhaps the first of those is no longer a privilege afforded to young white people, but McIntosh was writing in 1989)

This approach is consistent with Amaechi’s description of white privilege as the absence of inconvenience and the absence of impediment.

However, is this not a little odd? A dictionary definition of privilege is, “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” I consider the ability to go shopping without harassment a basic right, not a special one and, rather worryingly, if we see it as a privilege, will someone someday decide to take it away?

It is certainly true that the issues described by white privilege are real. Non-white people suffer discrimination on the basis of their skin colour and this can include harassment while shopping, difficulty in finding housing and even represent a threat to life. So, although I view these as basic rights, I acknowledge that these rights are not afforded to everybody, all of the time, in the way they should be. Ensuring basic rights of this kind has been a longstanding objective of progressive politics. Yet why did we decide to reverse the framing from one that saw the absence of such rights as discrimination, to one that sees the possession of them as a privilege? The former is how most people would have seen it, at least until about 2014 when the concept of white privilege escaped universities and out into the wider culture. What is the purpose of this frame? Who benefits?

It also seems like quite a US-centric term. It makes some sense in a country with a history of redlining and Jim Crow. It also makes sense, for slightly different reasons, in Australia. However, I’m not sure the concept, even in its own terms, neatly maps on to the UK. The uncritical Wikipedia entry on white privilege inadvertently makes the point that universally applying the concept of white privilege is a little strange. It gives a list of examples of white privilege from around the world and notes that, “Academic Scott Kiesling’s co-edited The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication suggested that white English speakers are privileged in their ability to gain employment teaching English at Eikaiwa schools in Japan, regardless of Japanese language skills or professional qualifications.” That’s the sole entry on Japan.

So, we have a term that oddly reverses the way we used to think about discrimination and that, unlike the concept of discrimination, does not function equally well across cultures and national boundaries. If that were the sum of it, it would perhaps eventually fall out of use without having much of an impact. Yet, with white privilege, we have the potential of causing real harm.

White people, in general, are not particularly conscious of their race. Yes, there are overt white-supremacists, but they are generally considered eccentric, morally flawed and are therefore marginalised.

To proponents of the concept of white privilege, the lack of race consciousness among white people is part of the problem. To them, white people are socialised into whiteness without being conscious of it – unconscious attitudes, beliefs and biases are a motif of critical theory ideologies that strip humans of their agency. So, the first step in addressing white privilege is therefore to make white people conscious of their whiteness. Then, the thinking goes, they can work to dismantle it.

That’s what all this ineffective diversity training is about where people have to sit flawed Implicit Association Tests, take steps backward and forward to demonstrate their privilege and all that sort of thing.

But what if we managed to conjure the demon of white identity only to find that it will not do our bidding? What if white people start seeing themselves as white people but reject the negative connotations and reject the need to do work on themselves? There is, after all, a very good reason why majority white liberal societies have evolved to a point where the majority identity has forgotten itself.

Adults can, perhaps, approach such issues with an appropriate amount of scepticism, but I think we should just pause for a moment before we casually introduce them in to study materials for school-aged children.

*The BBC is funded by a license fee, a tax on television ownership in the UK, so it’s services are not exactly free


22 thoughts on “When BBC Bitesize does white privilege

  1. The term ‘white privilege’ prompted me to explore the topic of discrimination as a white person. Yes, I am aware that is selfish. But it put me on the defensive and made me think ‘I’m dismissing this concept before I’ve even explored it, and I never normally do that, so it must be important’.
    If it were framed as ‘non-white discrimination’ then would I have done the same? I’d like to think so, but I hadn’t previously picked up a book on that specific topic in my 20 years as an adult reader. Maybe I felt it was a given that discrimination exists, but didn’t want to accept that I (or the policies that favour me) might play some part in that.
    So when you say ‘who benefits?’ from that framing, I guess I did in a way. The term helped me address my ignorance of the issue. Thanks for making me consider that.

    • I think there’s something in this. The term centres white people rather than the victims of racism. This is helpful when selling diversity training to large corporations.

  2. “Non-white people suffer discrimination on the basis of their skin colour and this can include harassment while shopping, difficulty in finding housing and even represent a threat to life.”

    I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, Greg. This is very much an attitude that applies to technologically advanced cultures which have their roots in northern Europe. Countries which – due to their history and climate – are predominantly populated by “white” people.

    The concept of “white privilege” as you say has it’s roots in academia. Clearly, however, it is a crude approximation to the truth. Victimhood is seductive and pointing fingers at “white” people is a great way to avoid responsibility for ones own life.

    One can only presume that the concept’s roots in academia has afforded it an exalted status – a privilege – which it may well not have received had it been derived from a source outside of the institutional frame.

    Casting individuals as either “black” or “white” identities and simultaneously (and almost unconsciously) attaching to these the identity labels “victim” and “abuser” is also an extremely crude way of characterising people.

    I am, for example on the face of it “white”, but am also partly of Irish descent. So that maybe gives me some sort of status in the UK, though exactly what that might mean, or why it might be considered relevant, has in my mind never been very clear.

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg, I live in a majority-minority city in the US and yes, it’s a real thing here. I’m not sure that the term should apply elsewhere. It is provocative, but then maybe that’s the point as a starter to get people to reflect on their lives versus those of minority citizens, especially given the history of racism and discrimination in the US.

  4. Gareth says:

    Thanks Greg, I enjoyed the framing of this. It is a concept that is a popular part of the rhetoric in the post-apartheid government in South Africa. That said, as a white South African, who carries a great amount of guilt about my country’s racist past, I have always felt that is simply used to score political points, rather than discussed and unpacked at an intellectual level.

    • Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow era in the Southern US are examples that I think could accurately be described as systems of white privilege. The extent to which it applies to South Africa or the US today is unclear, particularly if it requires us to accept Amaechi’s stretching of the concept of privilege to include an absence of impediment. It is also unclear how well this translates to the UK which is the audience for BBC Bitesize. One thing it does do is take the focus off things we may have traditionally thought of as privilege, such as inherited wealth. You have to wonder whether, in this respect, it serves a purpose.

  5. Stan Blakey says:

    Isn’t this a problem of where you sit?
    You see your basic right to go about your lawful business as just that a basic right.
    But for groups in society that have to explain to their children that they will be stopped by authorities and that they better be very careful to show, perhaps undeserved, respect it is not going to look like that.
    It is going to look like what you call basic rights are not actually basic rights in the society you live in. They are only rights for one group. Even if the group that gets to have those rights says they are basic rights doesn’t make it so. Using the language to call this group privileged is going to look pretty clear and good English usage from the position of those who find they don’t have them, their fathers didn’t have them and they better warn their sons they don’t have them.

    Complaining that some will abuse a term for their own self interest is just a slippery slope argument. We can hear anytime someone claiming quite extraordinary rights to free speech or freedom from being offended.

    We need simple handles for complex topics. That is normal everywhere. It is why good expositions are worth sharing.

    • Amaechi acknowledges in the video that the absence of an impediment is not normally something that people consider to be a privilege. And he’s right on that. So it is a stretching of the definition. If we are going to stretch a definition then there must be a reason for this. What is it?

      • Think of how one of their slaves felt about the rights the authors of the us bill of rights were talking about.
        Or how we think of the right to vote and how people thought about it when women or other groups didn’t have it.
        In each case what one group thought were obvious basic rights looked a lot like privilege to others.
        That one group were so oblivious writing about universal and inalienable rights didn’t make its perspective the correct one even if it was the normal view.
        We don’t have to go back far to find the then normal view quite wrong today.

        So this is the point of stretching it. To make people realize that what they take for granted can be seen as their privilege by those denied it.

        You can argue it is not 100% effective but it seems wrong to say people shouldn’t try to make their point this way.

      • I know given the choices we find in front of us it feels more like an unpleasant duty.
        But if you look at the history of obtaining the vote it looks like at each widening was not obvious to all at the time as a basic right might be.
        Those with the vote perhaps always saw it as a right and those without it may have seen it as a privilege allowed only to some.

        When it was just a handful of church and aristocracy figures was the ability to vote a right or privilege or both?

      • I asked the question ‘is voting a privilege?’ because I don’t think it is now in places like the UK and Australia. However, in times and places where some people can vote and some cannot, then I think it would meet the definition of a privilege as a special right or advantage. Amaechi is not talking about the right to vote in the UK, he is talking about the absence of impediments to going about your everyday business. That’s not privilege.

        This is a good thread. https://twitter.com/kenanmalik/status/1292071391244754944?s=21

      • My point is at the time the people who could vote thought the situation was normal. They wrote about their universal rights completely oblivious to what others and you call their privilege.

        While you going about your normal business without impediment is nothing special to you for groups for whom for generations impediments have been the norm your situation looks privileged.

      • This is not the same, is it? If some people can vote and some people cannot then the people who can vote really do have a special, positive right that other people do not have. It is not the same as the absence of an impediment. I think you are trying to make them equivalent by hanging too much on the idea of ‘going about your normal business’ and then putting voting under that umbrella term.

    • Stan Blakey says:

      Clearly I am not being clear.
      I am trying to make the point that “going about your normal business” is very subjective.
      Voting is an example where what is normal has been very different in the past and while we can see now what looks like a privilege for some at the time it looked like the civic business norm to the people that could vote.
      Let me try another tack. In some countries police can stop anyone and ask for their papers and question them and search them without limit. But if someone is being driven in the right sort of car this is very unlikely. These people are clearly privileged to my thinking. Aside from strictly random impaired driving checks we don’t have that in Australia or Canada. We expect to go about our normal business without being stopped without cause. If some groups in Australia or Canada don’t have that luxury then they are going to see those of us that do as privileged. Their normal doesn’t look like ours at all it looks like a country we would see as hugely intrusive.
      Take getting a job. In some places it is very useful to be in the right family or be a party member to have an easier time getting a job. Such nepotism to me clearly involves a privilege. If having the correct skin colour makes a difference you want to say that is just an impediment for those without it and not a privilege for those with it.
      I say it is two sides of the exact same coin. The only difference between being the son of the CEO and having the same skin colour as the unimpeded group is you are part of the unimpeded group here.

      • If people are being stopped disproportionately simply because of their race then that’s racism. You already said that people getting jobs because of family connections is nepotism. These words seem to accurately describe the phenomenon. Why do we need to use the word ‘privilege’ to denote the reverse of these things in these contexts? What does it achieve? Specifically, why do we want to make white people more conscious of their racial identity by using a confected term like ‘white privilege’? What does that achieve in the population at large (not just university educated liberals)?

      • Stan Blakey says:

        Why do we need a more general term when we have specific ones? For the same reason you think privilege might be used to describe a case of inherited wealth even though we are clear what inherited wealth is and using it to describe a situation is more precise. Generalizations are useful. To argue against a particular one on the basis that anything it applies to has a more precise description seems to argue against any generalization.

        The more I think about this the more I find “privilege” a charming word in its versatility. We can be under or over supplied with it, we can be privileged to be here or live in a privileged society, we can earn the privilege, rank can have its privileges and so can age and youth.

  6. Chester Draws says:

    What is never discussed is the of the privilege.

    Some things are smoothed for me by being white and male.

    But at least in NZ, it is better on average to be born wealthy and brown than poor and white. It is better in general to be born to two loving parents and brown than be raised by a stressed out white parent. It is better to be born brown in a good school area than white in an area with a failing school.

    My white privilege is dwarfed by the privilege of the Maori king’s children — wealthy and connected, even if not white.

    That privilege exists is not, of itself, enough to justify radically changing society on that basis. There are other areas much more deserving of our focus. Equally good schools being one.

      • Chester Draws says:

        Harry, as with almost all these cases we are never given firm examples. We have to take it on trust that the difference is major.

        I can treat two students identically, and yet one will claim I am picking on him and the other will think I am treating him well. A lot of prejudice is largely in the eye of the beholder.

        I know that in many countries that the colour of your skin will make a major difference in whether you get to rent a property. I don’t doubt it does in NZ too. But if Maori turn up looking tidy and with plenty of money, do they get overlooked for poor, scruffy white folk?

        (There are loads of Maori that look Pakeha. Blond haired even. So his claim to uniqueness strikes me as over-wrought.)

  7. Pingback: Critical Theory escapes from the laboratory | Filling the pail

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