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White Privilege – A Perspective

Black History Month

For Black History Month, our blog is written by Vivienne Connell-Hall (PhD) – one of our Senior Investigators.

There was an All-Staff Dial-in on 21 September during which a caller asked the panel (chaired by Lt Gen James Swift (CDP)), to comment on the term “White Privilege”. CDP’s response (and I am paraphrasing here) was that, up until about 18 months ago, he didn’t fully understand the meaning of the term and went on to share his views as to what his current understanding of it is. The Permanent Secretary, who was part of the panel, also commented and, unsurprisingly, his take was somewhat different from CDP’s. I would have liked to comment if I could, hence this Blog, as I see it as an opportunity to contribute to that debate.

It is useful to begin by stating what “White Privilege” is not because many white people living in poverty would bristle at the idea that they are “privileged”. It is not about money or wealth, being raised in a single-parent household, the recipient of free school meals, or the education of your parents. These are straw men, usually erected for diversionary purposes or just misunderstanding.

Compared to people of colour, broadly, it is about being given the benefit of the doubt, not having to work twice as hard to be seen as competent, where respect is not something that you have to actively work for, it is given even when it is not earned or warranted, having your views respected and heard even if those views are at times unhelpful, where hurdles are encountered they are fewer. In other words, white skin colour protects against many forms of discrimination and, according to the author Mikki Kendall, just being white means you are almost randomly assigned a head start.

So “White privilege” is the intangibles that white people don’t even know they have. They feel no need to “fit in” or prove themselves over and over again. As a result, they have an advantage. Their only job is to do their job. They aren’t burdened with the extra work of performing for the majority demographic. Privilege is about having advantages that others haven’t. It is also about some people not having suffered certain hardships or disadvantages. This is easier to accept when acknowledging that most people have at least one privilege identity. However, the concept of privilege doesn’t have to be offensive. The word “privilege” may appear antagonistic, but the dictionary definition is actually more subtle. It’s “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Having privilege doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It just means that the playing field is tilted in your favour in most Western societies.

On the other hand, Black people have had to earn respect, fight to be heard, conform to fit-in, or work twice as hard to be accepted. If not, you are automatically viewed as untrustworthy, suspicious, or a threat for just being who you are. For example, for being ‘big and Black’ – one reason for the treatment and eventual murder of George Floyd – or being an ‘angry black woman’ for stating an opinion, speaking up or disagreeing with the majority. In the past, I have been reliably informed that even my raucous laugh has “marked you down”. However, it is different for Black people when they entertain (but not always) – remember the consequences of those missed penalties by Black English players in the UEFA Euro 2020 final?

Privilege can be shared. But it can only be shared by someone who already has it. Privilege cannot be willed into existence by someone who lacks it. We have multiple identities and will have at least one privileged identity, no matter your ethnicity. Therefore, most of us have a privilege that can be used for the benefit of others. Within the context of “Allyship”, privilege can be used positively to drive inclusion but first it has to be acknowledged.