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Through White-Coloured Glasses

April 28, 2012

I am writing this as a person who has benefitted from white privilege all my life; I also have other intersecting privileged and non-privileged identities which naturally feed into the sum total of my experience.  However, I’m going to try and define, for me, what white privilege is, and it is important to mention I live in the south of England so my perspective is that of a white English person.  For this reason, I will avoid mentioning intersecting identities (I hope; I have a tendency to ramble so who knows what might come up…)

The reason why white privilege exists is the racism which created and now perpetuates inherent within the systems which guide our lives, such as the law, education and government.  White privilege is the condition benefitting white people within our society as a direct result of that racism.   One thing I am sure of is that my white privilege will blind me in writing this blog and this will not be, by any means, a comprehensive summary.

In our education system, every subject we study utilises text books written by white people.  The environment in which we learn is predominantly white.  The effect of this is the subliminal message that learning and understanding is something handed down by those who are white and therefore is belonging to white people, and this is a message received without thought by those whose identity is in line with those in authority.  It also teaches that education is in the gift of white people to pass down to others.  This simultaneously has the effect of creating an otherness to those who are not white in the ability to and the right to learn and to teach.  Even the subjects we are taught are ‘white’ – there have been non-white people in the UK for thousands of years, but we are presented only with white historical faces, white scientific faces, even white general populace faces.  Thus the privilege of presumed national identity being white, of belonging equating to personal skin colour, is perpetuated.

The ways in which we communicate are not universal.  The language that surrounds us is specific to our communities, and colloquialisms, accents, regional definitions, cultural understandings and semantics shape these.  The non-literal ways of communicating are just as diverse.  Body language has different meanings.  The tone of the voice as well as the decibel level varies as does the reasons behind those variations.  However, the perceived ‘correct’ way to communicate is that which is used by white people, and even when comparative (i.e. northern accent oppositionally set up against southern accent), the less favourable comparative white accent will be preferred to those of non-white people.  There is also a subtle presumption of intelligence  which correlates to accent and ‘correct’ English usage which perpetuates a white privilege and presumption of intelligence equating to skin colour – this is not born out statistically and takes no account of inherent discriminations affecting judgement of intelligence; thus white privilege is perpetuated.

As with education, the authority figures which most predominantly figure are white.  Education and communication bear direct relation to career and/or job.  Careers are usually defined as those paid works with vocation and/or advancement potential, whereas jobs are paid works which may remain static or advance within strictly limited parameters.  A career has a higher earning and social status potential.  Both are defined by those within them, those who create social understanding, those who are white and operate within the systems of white privilege.  Access to careers is defined by white privilege.

The economic system in which we live, capitalism, is inherited from our forebears and maintained by our governments and our financial institutions.  Within all of these is institutionalised systems of racism and white privilege.  Again, the visual representation of those institutions is of white elite, and those people carry with them the learned privileges which go along with that.

There is a black man who lives near me who can trace his family tree, in England, back over nearly 1000.  I don’t know ANYONE else who can do that.  Yet if you look at English history, you might not know that we have been a nation of immigration and emigration for thousands of years.  England is culturally diverse and always has been.  However, there is a presumption that to be English is to be white; immigration is a hot-topic issue at every election and it is always presumed that immigrants are (a) not white, and (b) going to be a drain on society.  Neither of these facts is born out by statistical or anecdotal evidence.  It is simply easier to point at a darker skin and claim they are ‘other’ and ‘foreign’.  The history we are taught at school and the stories we hear of our community history reflect that of white society.  This creates a belonging for those who reflect the image they are taught; this is fundamental to creating a society which maintains and perpetuates white privilege.

Those who create the legal system, our government, are almost exclusively white (and male, and middle-to-upper class).  All the white privilege they benefit from is necessary to maintaining their position, and it is not in the interests of those who benefit to question it.  Those who uphold the law are predominantly white, and at the moment there are at least 26 allegations of racism against the London Metropolitan Police being investigated.  The presumption is that criminals will disproportionately be black or either Middle-Eastern or appearing to be from the Asian subcontinent.  Factually, the majority of convicted criminals are white.  White privilege is blind to this however, and the drip-feeding of the biased information and reporting on crime creates a distrust which is illogical and unfounded.  Not only does this create a barrier between white and non-white, it benefits white privilege in other ways.  The presumption of distrust created affects all other areas of life for those who are discriminated against in this way; when going for job interviews, for instance, or to purchase something in a shop the white privileged person will not automatically be subject to caution, wariness and watchful eyes.  White privilege creates a lack of safety for the white person in their unfounded paranoia, and in the non-white person in the constant suspicion and well-founded feeling of persecution.  Is it any wonder that those who are mistrusted in this way mistrust white privileged society?

Tokenism is a word I hear often applied to the inclusion of non-white characters in entertainment media.  Midsomer Murders (a UK ‘gentle’ police detective series) was caught up in this row when its producer stated to introduce ethnic minorities would take away its “bastion of Englishness” characterisations.  Eastenders, one of the most popular TV programmes in the UK watched by, on average, 15% of the population, represents an East End of London which has not existed since the 1950s in its unrepresentative population.  Non-white characters are included in part because of the colour of their skin, and often are required to be representative of their entire identity group in a way that simply does not apply to white characters.  This is white privilege; it confers a responsibility on those who are not white to be and to be taken as representative, and this may often involve stereotyping or if not, is defined as opposite to stereotyping (thereby reinforcing the stereotype in any event).  White characters are complex subjects, non-white characters become representative objects.

When it comes to casting, the default position presumes a white person; very often to cast a person who is not white there must be some justification for the choice – something that means the actor being of colour is relevant to the role.  This is white privilege, this presumes that white is normative, and colour is ‘other’.

When describing someone’s appearance, in social situations or in official descriptions, so often the non-white person will be described by the colour of their skin first, whereas a white person will be given a more general description and may not even have the colour of their skin used in the description.  The identity of a non-white person is defined by their colour first; this is not the case for white people.

How is every news story presented?  It is presented in a white privileged manner.  The majority of crime reports feature, statistically disproportionately, criminals who are not white.  Domestic news predominantly covers achievements by those who are white.  Those it represents in a positive light are predominantly white.  International news features wars against those who are not white.  Charitable campaigns feature international beneficiaries who are not white (indeed mostly of African countries) and domestic beneficiaries who are white, simultaneously skewing to a perspective that non-white people are both needy internationally and either not worthy of aid or invisible if in need of aid domestically.  The ‘celebrities’ we are supposed to emulate are predominantly white, unless they feature in what are deemed ‘non-white’ pursuits such as music and sport.  Even within those, the culture of non-white origin is adopted and sold back to the consumer, and the white privilege asserts itself over the product so the non-white culture is subsumed.

What is considered ‘high art’ (that which is deemed culturally superior such as paintings hung in art galleries or works of literature by critics who are almost without exception white) is produced by white artists.  Until mid to late 20th century, art originating from non-white cultures has been referred to as primitive art, the assumption being that the western, white cultures were more advanced and superior even in the art world; art is subjective in both interpretation and execution so this is asserting white privilege in assessing and attributing value (by all definitions) to artistry.  Characters in literature are predominantly white, and those that feature non-white characters tend to have the heroes as white, or the non-white characters being saved by those who are white; the perspective is skewed towards the white characters.  The universally available literature is white, access to more representative equitable literature is presented in ‘other’ categories such as ‘world literature’ or ‘specialist interest genres’.  White privilege is normal, anything else is ‘other’ 

I had to research for this blog, and found it surprisingly difficult.  There are lot of resources devoted to how to deal with white privilege and how to behave when one’s privileged behaviour is pointed out, but very few on how to actually recognise white privilege.

Privilege, all privilege, is invisible to those who benefit from it, because privilege is by definition the dominant and normalised standards in which we all live.  Those who benefit from privilege are included.  Those who do not, excluded.  Privilege is most notable from those who are outside, looking in, not those who are inside, looking in.  It is in the interests of those in privileged positions that their privilege is perpetuated; even those who do not want to benefit will do so.  Privilege is hidden, those who benefit can’t see it, because it is that blindness which perpetuates it.

It is important to remember that whilst white privilege exists and all white people benefit from it, having white privilege pointed out is not an exercise in blaming white people for creating or perpetuating that privilege.  I feel blame can only been assigned when one does not address and question that privilege, and does not actively try to remove that privilege where one can when one is aware of it.  It is so, so easy to be upset and offended when someone tells us that we are acting in some way which asserts our privilege.  Don’t be.  Those feelings are natural emotional responses, but in order to address the privilege we need to be able to put our hurt aside, and reflect on what we have said.  This is a learned skill, but after all, the person who is oppressed by the privilege is hurt every day by that privilege by which we benefit.  There is also sometimes a desire, an expectation, that a successful insight or act which does something to defy and deconstruct white privilege should receive congratulations and acknowledgement.  Yes, it is a great step, but it is a great personal step and the white privilege edifice remains and perpetuates.  Expecting or hoping for recognition and gratitude in itself is an act of white privilege.  It requires a universal thanks from non-white people, and again reduces the non-white population to be representative objects of the entirety as if a homogenous group.

I want to live in an equal society.  That means I need to address my privileges and stop perpetuating the hurt, pain and inequality that privilege causes.  I really want to do that.  This blog is a step in that process, flawed and incomplete and ongoing.  As am I!

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