Theo Hobson

Does ‘white privilege’ exist?

Does ‘white privilege’ exist?
(Photo: Getty)
Text settings

On Wednesday Radio 4 aired a programme called White Mischief, which promised to trace ‘where whiteness came from and how its power has remained elusive.’ It asked whether white privilege existed. Or rather it pretended to ask. It assumed that it does. Instead of directly admitting that it was putting forward one point of view, it was one of those annoying programmes that affects a sort of light-hearted neutrality, and vaguely claims to be moving away from the unhelpfully limited conversations we have been having so far.

So instead of soberly setting out the issue, it began with a jokey clip of Grayson Perry hooting with laughter at some wise brave insight he had just had, and then darting off sidewise into some sociology. It seemed to want to provoke the listener into complaining that it was muddled – and then maybe to wonder whether his complaint was rooted in a discredited rationalism. In short, I disliked its tone.

Robert Halfon MP was allowed to question the idea of white privilege, and he pointed out that working-class white kids faced serious obstacles and that calling them privileged on account of their race was counter-productive. On the other hand he was very clear that racism exists and can be a severe form of disadvantage. The presenter did not seriously comment on this point of view; he moved on to something else. This felt evasive and lazy. If there is a serious objection to the concept of white privilege it should be squarely considered. Instead it was quickly acknowledged for the sake of balance, and then ignored.

The programme annoyed me. But maybe fruitfully. For it spurred me into trying to express my objection to the idea of white privilege, and then, when I got thinking (dangerous, thinking) I admitted that the concept might have some validity. But this must be articulated with great care.

Isn’t it enough to say that everyone should be treated equally, and that discrimination against ethnic minorities is a bad thing? On one level, no. This standard liberal narrative subtly associates normality with the absence of racial discrimination, and so confers ‘normal’ status on the white majority as long as they are not overtly racist. It subtly affirms the white majority as already in tune with the ideal state of enlightened harmony. But if we see racial discord as an issue affecting society as a whole, then we have to think about the racial identity of the majority, even though we are accustomed to seeing it as merely normal and neutral.

So there is some validity in antiracists wanting to turn the tables on the white majority, and make them awkwardly racially self-conscious. I’m not quite saying that we whites should feel guilty for our whiteness. But we should feel involved in the problem of racial discord, and question the liberal assumption that as long as we are decent enough, then we are blamelessly waiting for racial harmony to unfold.

Our core secular liberal assumptions are too weak to express the fierce power of the issue. Maybe, as I’ve argued here before, we need a more religious language, capable of voicing notions of sin and hope. The new assertive antiracism should be seen in this light. It insists that the white majority is not morally neutral, but is involved in the fraught story of racism. It says that unless it repents of historic sin, and yearns for a truly harmonious society, it is complicit in a deep evil, and has the privilege of being able to ignore the fact.