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