White Privilege is Not a Stick to Beat People With

I’d like to share with you the following Facebook screenshot:


I think that most people today would agree that institutional privilege is a thing – ask why Oxford and Cambridge are chronically lacking in BAME students year on year, or why police forces arrest a higher proportion of BAME people than white people, and unless you accept some kind of ‘racial superiority’ argument (which is, by definition, inherently racist), then it’s some kind of institutional pressure that is disadvantaging BAME people – whether the fault lies in Oxbridge/the police etc. as atomistic institutions, or in wider society as a whole, is up for debate, but nevertheless, I believe it is undeniable that there IS an institutional pressure there.

What many people (myself included) find offensive and incorrect is when the argument of ‘privilege’ is used as a stick to beat someone with, as in this comment.

I always find myself considering the British politician Fabian Hamilton MP when this topic arises – his dispute was about gender, not race, but I think there is a great degree of intersectionality with social issues. In 1995, his constituency ruled that they were to have an all-women shortlist for the 1997 election, despite his close-call loss in 1992, where he achieved the highest Labour swing in the North of England. In an interview with The Independent, he had this to say:

“For six years, I was chair of Leeds city council’s equal opportunities committee. Equal ops was my life. And to find that, as far as the Labour Party is concerned, equal opportunity now means positive discrimination, came as a real shock to me. I am told that my generation of men will just have to stand back and make way for women. And I understand why certain women in the Party have pushed that policy. But I think they’re wrong. What they don’t seem to take on board is that I’ve only got one life, too. I didn’t choose my time on earth any more than I chose my sex or my race. And I really mean it when I say that being kept out of a job just because I’m a man offends me as deeply as being kept out of a job just because I’m a Jew.”

He was later selected as the candidate for Leeds North-East, which he won by a margin of 7000 votes, and still holds today.

The person in the comment did not choose their race, in much the same way that they did not choose their country of birth, their gender, their sexuality, their dis/ability, or any other category of social or cultural division that may be wedged between people, and just as I find it morally abhorrent that BAME people are discriminated against and marginalised for nothing more than the colour of their skin, I find it morally abhorrent to ascribe guilt to the white people of today for the racist practices of their institutions and cultures (which were often established by their openly racist ancestors back in the enlightenment or the industrial revolution and transmitted, often forcibly, as the social norm through myriad cultural practices over hundreds of years).

Don’t misunderstand me here, the argument of white privilege should still be made, and made loudly – it was only through loud, often controversial protest that white women gained their (increasingly, if not yet absolutely) equal position in a white male society.

What I AM arguing is that, for the sake of the very principles that lead us to consider equality as a desirable outcome, we must endeavour to ensure that we practice what we preach for everyone, not just one group.

The very notion of white privilege was conceptualised to explain precisely why racial discrimination is not an individual problem linked solely to angry white supremacists, but an all-pervading problem unconsciously ingrained in the institutions of society. If we then turn around and use this notion of white privilege to attack individuals, we’re ignoring the reasoning behind the term AND devaluing the point it makes all in one fell swoop, thus undermining the whole equality movement for the sake of what amounts to little more than petty tribalism.

I say this also because people are not defined neatly by one social issue, as Fabian Hamilton’s case highlights. While he is a white man, he’s also a Jew. While the person in the Facebook comments is a white person, they’re also an abuse victim and care leaver. People who are advantaged in one social category may well also be disadvantaged in another. People are complicated like that.

Fight systems, not individuals.


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