Thurs 26 October, I took part in a discussion event organised by the Student Union at Bournemouth University (SUBU) on race and White privilege. I had originally turned down the invitation, because I felt that the questions (Is benefitting from White privilege racist? Is there mixed race privilege? Can Black people be racist? What can we do to end systematic racism?) were not the ones that should be asked and would invite conflict rather than a nuanced debate.
My other real concern was – how can you have a meaningful debate about White privilege amongst an audience that lacks basic understanding of ‘racisms’ and that has no intellectual understanding of White privilege?
I eventually agreed to take part, since efforts were made to revise the programme and because I believe it is vitally important to support SUBU in trying to address racial inequality within the institution, since – like all forms of inequality, it undermines student experiences, outcomes and attainment.
Despite going into the discussion with these concerns, I was unprepared for the shocking levels of ignorance and complacency among some students – which highlighted the extent of White privilege within the institution that is always bubbling under the surface. At Thursday’s event it was up close and personnel – much like it has been during some of my painful classroom experiences this semester.
The event played out like a dramatisation of recent classroom scenarios, except that at the event, students of colour were in the majority – turning out to engage, participate in and support Black History Month – and White students were very much in the minority.
Like my classroom experiences, it was painful – because, while many of the Black students have not been exposed to critical theories around race in their studies since these are largely absent from the curriculum – they had real, lived experiences of White privilege, which they sought to share with the audience and panel.
They spoke of the disparities in criminal justice in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement; Black men in the UK being stopped and searched, arrested and convicted and being killed – to a far greater extent than Whites. They spoke of the lack of diversity in the curriculum, they spoke of European standards of beauty, and more.
However, nothing they said appeared to convince many of the White students and one or two students of colour, that White privilege was real. “White privilege is a myth” said one; “Black people should work harder and stop blaming race” said another. All very painful for me to hear, both as a Black female and as a senior academic within the institution. But the most telling response that came from a White male was: “White privilege doesn’t exist, I have not seen any evidence here, any facts to prove it exists.”
The reason this statement is so significant – is because it highlights what many White students (and some academic and professional staff) are thinking. These are the same students, that the students of colour at the university must interact with inside and outside the classrooms every day of their university lives. These are the academics that teach them, or professional staff that provide services to them – every day they are at Bournemouth University.
Yet, they think that the reason inequalities exist, is not because the system is broken but because ‘we’ (people of colour) are somehow flawed – don’t work hard enough etc. It is the very thing – whiteness and privilege – that lies at the heart of racial inequality – which they cannot see because it is so deeply entrenched within the institution. I really felt sad for the students of colour at that event – that their real, lived experiences of discrimination and disadvantage through whiteness and privilege were discounted and mocked. What a kick in the teeth to work hard to get to university, pay £9k a year and to be treated like an underclass.
I also felt sadness for myself – because of the similar reactions that I am met with when I use critical theories as part of my pedagogical repertoire, to address the toxic Eurocentricity entrenched in every nook, cranny and crease within the institution. The curriculum perpetuates Whiteness and privilege; it distorts reality; it doesn’t present a true picture of the world – but it is the world most students recognise and accept. Those racialised as White experience a privilege within that view and when I present a culturally democratic view of the world – I am met with the same disbelief White students expressed at the event. However, Black students also suffer, because that disbelief in the classroom invalidates their experiences and lived realities.
It should be added that some of the students of colour at the debate also questioned the existence of White privilege, despite the examples shared during the debate. That some people of colour hold that view does not mean that White privilege does not exist. If anything, it affirms the power of hegemony – the process by which subordinated groups come to accept the dominant group’s view of the world – even if it perpetuates whiteness and reinforces inequalities. This is why critical scholars like Freire argued that education should promote social justice by helping the oppressed develop critical consciousness to understand the structures of domination in order to imagine alternative possibilities.
As the event painfully highlighted, there is a huge mountain to climb, to make Bournemouth University more equitable for students and staff of colour. Equality and justice is a different mission to ‘increasing diversity’. This is concerned with gathering data and ticking boxes to signify some measure of ‘diversity’ has been added: a staff member here, a student there, a lecture here, a seminar there – which is doomed to failure.
Working towards equality and justice means focusing on interrogating whiteness, which means examining through real, lived experiences both how inequality and privilege are experienced. Then one can develop appropriate strategies to create inclusive, intersectional and culturally democratic policies and practices that deliver equality and justice.
Aldridge, D. P. (2000). On race and culture: Beyond Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism to cultural democracy. Sociological Focus, 33 (1): 95-107.