Unfortunately much that is written and discussed about the ideas of white privilege and privilege in general is often confined to either 140 characters or the comments sections of social media platforms. As a result, nuance, patience, compassion and manners are often in short supply. Unsurprisingly then, little progress is usually made, with “white people” (more about this imagined community later) often feeling picked on or confused – oh the irony – and people of colour left shaking their heads at the seemingly blissful ignorance of those they’re in discussion with. Yet, if real progress is to be made in the UK and elsewhere, and by progress, read efforts to improve the quality of life for everyone, then getting past this first stumbling block is essential. Whilst the vast majority of people continue to bicker amongst themselves, despite their relatively similar social, political and economic standing, no real changes will be made to a structure in which almost everyone is exploited.
Firstly, it should be stressed that under the current economic system, there are very few “winners”. This reality can sometimes be difficult to truly appreciate as almost every society spends a disproportionate amount of time watching, idolising and listening to the financially successful, giving the impression that there are millions of millionaires and billionaires in every nation, and that this tiny minority’s success is a possibility for all. However, for the most part, the vast majority of people, even on a relatively prosperous continent like Europe, are faced with a fairly monotonous and grinding existence. You can’t have a few people bathing in opulence without many millions more to prop them up. Thus, despite childhood misconceptions of becoming a movie star or simply being a baller, most people are faced with fifty years or more of selling their time to others in the hope of making ends meet.
As a result of this reality, it is often next to impossible for white people to believe that they have any sort of privilege or that their skin colour, rightly or wrongly, affords them certain benefits; ranging from being the global cultural norm and never being described as a monolithic block, instead afforded individual status, to white, Western culture being held up as superior to all else. This is not to deny that most of the people in the UK, including whites, are far from minted and are certainly worse off than a decade ago, but when the statistics are analysed and the stories told, it becomes pretty self-evident that being white in the UK, and in almost any other country in the world, is easier than being anything else. That’s not to suggest that all those of European descent drive around in Bentleys, own their homes outright and simply pass the time with their friends over cocktails whilst people of colour toil the land, far from it. Obviously, some people of Indian, African and Asian descent (as broad brushed as those terms are), on an individual basis, have had more financial success than most whites, but these people represent a tiny minority, and despite their money, even they still have to deal with the reality of not being white, just like the rest of their less fortunate brethren.
And the reality of not being white is one in which people’s right to be in their country of residence is under near constant questioning, where their religion and culture is perceived as foreign, inherently inferior, intrusive and dangerous, where their children are more likely to monitored and reported at school, where the police are rightfully perceived as unjust and dangerous, where their names will limit their job prospects, where they’ll face less opportunities to enter higher education and even less if they wish to work there. In short, the problems of this reality are systemic, everyday and racist, yet to anyone who does not have to experience them first hand, they can also be easy to ignore.
It is possible to ignore or be unaware of this reality because despite newspaper headlines to the contrary, the UK and the rest of Europe, is overwhelmingly white. The British Isles have some of the highest rates of immigration on the continent, yet, in the 2011 census, 87 per cent of UK residents still described themselves as belonging to a white ethnic group. The cold and bureaucratic language aside, what these figures reveal is that most people in the UK have next to no contact with people of colour. There are large swathes of the country where little or no immigration has taken place for generations. As a result, there’s no real mixing at school, token individuals aside, there’s no real interaction at work, there’s no real bonding over a movie or some food; there’s just what gets spouted by a multitude of media outlets. And what gets spouted, more often than not, is the idea of a clash of civilisations, in various different forms: whether it be natives versus foreigners, Christians versus Muslims, goodies versus baddies, whites versus blacks. However, the overarching theme is always that some belong, and others don’t, and in the Western world, white people always make those decisions and always get to belong.
The vast majority of people form their opinions of others without ever meeting them. One of the main premises of the modern nation state is the imagining of a shared history, culture and reality with millions of complete strangers. After all, what really ties someone in Plymouth to a person in, say, Newcastle or Aberdeen, other than a shared process of indoctrination? Not even whiteness if the success of the Scottish National Party and the independence movement are anything to go by. Through that indoctrination comes the understanding of who is a part of the community and who is not. It sounds crass and unhinged to even suggest brainwashing in some form is behind the construction of entire countries but nation states only came into play over the last few centuries. The example of the continent of Africa being arbitrarily carved up into a mish mash of four sided shapes by European dignitaries over lunch is well known, but a similar process happened to Europe itself after the first and second world wars, and continues to this day. As such, what needs to be asked is, who is defining the arguments and constructing the narratives that have helped develop the notions many now perceive to be ahistorical and mere common sense and why? If many in Britain have little or no interaction with The Other, who is informing them on the subject?
In modern times, the role played by the state and the mass media in the formation of opinions and beliefs cannot be overstated and this should be worrying. After all, it was only last year that a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) accused British politicians, including, unsurprisingly David Cameron and Nigel Farage, as well as many British media outlets, of having fostered an environment which resulted in the dramatic rise in hate crimes across the nation. ECRI chair Christian Ahlund said “It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians”. And similar processes are underway across the Western world, as shown by the electoral success of Donald Trump in the USA, and the gains made by the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany, despite many of their findings and declarations having been easily debunked.
In the end, what the most recent cycle of this age old phenomenon reflects is that perception is reality. Something does not have to be true for it to be believed and the proving of its fictitious nature will not necessarily force its advocates to change their stance on the matter. It took a long time to convince people that the earth was round and not flat and people had to lose their lives before the general consensus shifted on the matter. Likewise, the formation of nation states has been incredibly damaging in terms of lives lost and cultures quashed, and it is only after a certain number of generations that such ideas can be romanticised in the way they now are. In fact, thanks to the arrival of more recent migratory groups, the notions of Britishness and other such national identities are being challenged, hence the reactionary push back from many on the right. Thus, if the current idea of Britain hasn’t always existed, what weight do ideas around British values truly have and for how long will such notions continue to hold sway?
Right now in Britain there is a widely held belief that certain sections of society rightfully belong in the country for they are indigenous to these lands and thus their rightful occupiers. It hopefully goes without saying that these people are always white. Built within this notion is the idea that just as some belong, others do not, and as such these “unbelongers” should go back to wherever their actual home is. This “common sense” idea is pretty much mainstream in the UK and the only part of it that seems up for debate is who belongs and who doesn’t and who gets to decide who stays and who goes as well as who’s allowed in in the future. In this sense, the notion of white privilege is at once pretty clear but incredibly murky. On the whole, most people with white skin do not feel afraid when the English Defence League or the National Front come into town, or at least they can afford to be less afraid than people of colour, but there are exceptions. Last year the murder of Jo Cox at the hands of a white Briton showed just how tumultuous things had become and perhaps even more telling was the arrest in February of a white British teenager the BBC described as a “Neo-Nazi pipe bomber”. The 17 year-old who can’t be named, as he is still a minor, praised the man who murdered Jo Cox and called the fallen MP a “race traitor”. If so called native white Britons can come under attack in their own land, how exactly are people of colour meant to feel when their very bodies are indicators to some of their lack of belonging?
If any one situation can sum up the most coherent arguments of the white privilege mantra, it is the lack of danger brought about by having white skin. As the realities of Brexit Britain become clearer and every political party falls over itself in an attempt to be seen as the toughest on immigration and border control, the question of who does and doesn’t belong will only continue; as will the very real prospect of increased violence towards people of colour. Sadly, what is often lost in amongst all the dog-whistle racism and overt xenophobia is the simple fact that identity has always been plural and in process, despite often being presented as fixed. There are no true Britons, at least not in any sort of genetic or biological sense. The trouble is that many people believe they are “indigenous”, despite nationality, like race, being a human construct, built up over generations and reinforced by war and myth. In short, race isn’t real, but racism kills people everyday, and as long as that continues to be the case, calls of white privilege will continue to ring out, however difficult it may be to decipher from 140 characters or the ramblings of the comments section.
This article first appeared in the spring ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.