Women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has said that schools cannot teach pupils that white privilege is an ‘uncontested fact’ – a comment which is a divisive red herring in any case. This comes just weeks after the Department for Education set out guidance which banned educators from using material produced by anti-capitalist organisations. Both of these moves serve to limit critical thought and discussion in schools, particularly on issues of race and racism. We must organise to resist the Tories’ ideological attacks.
In the wake of George Floyd’s racist murder by police the Black Lives Matter movement has fuelled young peoples’ discussion of racism and white privilege. October is Black History Month and many schools, including my own, have run lessons specifically about racism and some of these include reference to the idea of ‘white privilege’. Many teachers are already uncomfortable talking about these contentious and rarely discussed issues and that’s only made worse by the scant resources and extremely variable training provided. In explaining the idea behind white privilege, educators may have taught the idea that black and minority ethnic people tend to face extra obstacles in their lives. For example in 2017/18 Black Caribbean pupils on average achieved a lower ‘attainment 8’ score (a measure of GCSE success) compared to White British students. Black Caribbean pupils face twice the temporary exclusion rate and nearly three times the permanent exclusion of their white peers. Black people in England and Wales are over nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police compared to White people. Educators have also drawn on the lived experiences of students, educators and their families to explore institutionalised and systemic racism. Suggesting that schools must ‘offer balanced treatment of opposing views’ towards these statistical facts and personal experiences marginalises the existence and experience of racism.
The struggle for anti-racist education
Of course the existence of ‘white privilege’ and how it operates should be open to debate and well trained educators can facilitate this. But Kemi Badenoch’s comments imply that schools regularly teach white privilege as a fact, giving children ‘inherited white guilt’. This is not the case. However it is the case that anti-racist education is under-resourced and often pushed into occasional tokenistic sessions or the odd assembly during Black History Month. While Badenoch singles out white privilege as a topic to be wary of teaching, other contested and ideologically motivated ideas are routinely taught as fact. For example the idea of meritocracy – that if you work hard you will be rewarded with success – is repeated as fact in any number of classrooms and assemblies every week yet rarely given ‘balanced treatment of opposing views’, despite the clear evidence that working class black people in the UK have to show considerably more ‘merit’ than their middle class white counterparts to reap the same rewards. Similarly the idea that British society embodies ‘fundamental British values’ such as ‘individual liberty’ is regularly taught as an uncontested fact in schools despite all the evidence that BAME people’s ‘individual liberty’ is regularly limited by the criminal justice system, and Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia limit the liberty of so many muslim and LGBT people.
All this illustrates the ideological motivation of Tory education policy. Their ‘neutrality’ assumes that racism isn’t a big problem, ‘meritocracy’ exists and that free market capitalism is the ‘normal’ and best way of running society. Their ‘balance’ is based on questioning the existence of racism and the exploitation of the working class. This is illustrated in Badenoch’s comments that the history curriculum ‘is not colonised’ and that schools should not support ‘the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter group.’ The real impact of these policies will be to further limit anti-racism in schools and to discourage educators from talking about where racism comes from lest they be deemed to be ‘breaking the law’. It will even embolden those who respond to BLM with the slogan ‘all lives matter’ and who seek to ignore or discredit the historical and continuing importance of racism. However, as seen by the comments of educators and students on social media, the Tories’ moves have fanned the flames of anger against them. Students and educators must organise and fight together for an education system which encourages critical thought and gives meaningful time for discussion of emerging ideas including white privilege rather than our current exam-focussed increasingly ideologically prescriptive curriculum.
What is white privilege?
White privilege is a concept often used to describe how white people do not experience the racism that people of colour experience (for example in education or at the hands of the police, as shown above). However, it is the ruling class who ultimately benefit by stealing the overwhelming share of the wealth produced by all workers, no matter their race, and use racist ideas as a way of dividing the working class. For example elite private schools (which educate the children of the rich) consistently send a far greater proportion of their pupils to elite universities (and onto positions of power) compared to working class students, whether from largely white schools in seaside towns with high unemployment or multi-racial schools in the overcrowded neighbourhoods of large cities. What is often called white privilege really serves to make white people believe they have more in common with their white exploiters rather than the BAME workers with whom they share far more in common in terms of living and working conditions. Racism cannot be fought only by well meaning individuals attempting to use their limited ‘white privilege’ for the benefit of people of colour. This method fails to tackle the root cause of racism and will only lead to further division amongst workers and young people. Instead, united working class action across lines of race is needed to fight for the demands of BAME workers and the wider demands of all workers against the capitalist system which creates and perpetuates racial divisions. Despite Badenoch’s desire to shut down discussion of the real causes of inequality, progress is being made in anti-racist education in schools. Now we must fight for a truly anti-racist education system: one which is also anti-capitalist.