At the chalkface: White Privilege

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London

“White privilege” seems to go ever more unexamined and denied. Racism and Islamophobia bloom. But in our classrooms, literature works, writes Ian Whitwham. Never more so than on 9/11...

The Education Committee has been much exercised lately with “White Privilege”. They suggest there’s no such thing. It’s a dodgy and divisive concept. We shouldn’t be addressing it. If we do we must be “impartial” and “balanced”.

Their default position can be a little unhinged. They are replete with bad faith, evasion and denial.

Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, warns that teaching “white privilege as an uncontested fact is breaking the law” (Murray, 2020). Hmmm. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities blurs issues and laments the “unhelpful terminology” as “counterproductive and divisive” (2021).

Another is called The Forgotten: How white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it (Education Committee, 2021). That old chestnut. It goes nowhere.

And Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, has told a lunatic fringe of Conservatives that teachers who dare to suggest that “white privilege” exists – or that Tories tend to fib a lot – should be reported as potential terrorists, put on a Prevent programme, be sacked or incarcerated (Taylor, 2021).

Marvellous.

These reports are disingenuous, pernicious, offensive – and as thick as mince. They insult the living and complex experience of teachers and pupils. The classroom has always been a contested space and can reflect fierce and dark subconscious energies.

Never more so than on 9/11...

I’m with my re-sit GCSE class in Holland Park School. It’s very various. We are suddenly summoned to watch a television. A plane crosses an azure sky and explodes into a second tower.
We are near traumatised. Things slip.

The centre cannot hold.

The classroom cannot hold, cannot contain it.

Two Muslim boys, Samir and Mifta, leave their seats. They pace towards me. I’ve driven them nuts with my liberal guff. I don’t make any sense any more. I’m a white, middle class, condescending, male irrelevance.

I tell the class that all fundamentalisms are ruinous. All.

“Shut up teacher! Just shut up!”

The boys are beside themselves – and now beside me.

“Shut up teacher!”

They shake the Koran at me.

“You know nothing about my country!”

“Your people kill my people!”

“You bomb us!” “You kill our children!”

“My brother was killed by you! They dragged his body through the streets in my eyes!”

“You know nothing about our religion!”

“You got no faith!” “You bomb weddings, man.”

“You and America!”

“You know what? They had it coming!”

“Payback time.” “Allah will punish you!”

Samir and Mifta are breathless, choking. Other pupils are silent.

The classroom is not theirs.
Or mine.
The boys turn to the class: “Maybe you’ve all got it coming too!” “You deserve it!”
Some pupils, English white working class, have had more than enough. They too choke with rage.
“No we fuckin’ don’t! You think just ‘cos you’re in this school with all its free speech and stuff we gonna put up with this religious shit? Well, bro, I’m sick of your fuckin’ beliefs!”
“Your mad mullahs, man – we’ve had it with that crap you keep chirping.”
Silence.
“Your religion’s Medieval, man!” “With its fuckin’ virgins.” “That’s some weird shit, man!”
Samir and Mifta threaten me with hell. Real literal hell. I urge a gentler, more metaphorical take on things.
“Shut up, sir! Just shut up! You talk too much! You’re part of it!”
“Blaspheming!”
“Allah will find you out – you’ll get it!”
Raw. Visceral. Extreme. Sad. Mad.

What should I do? Address the class with a few abstractions? Lecture them on a little geopolitics? Explore “white privilege”? Lament it? Correct it? Deny it? Be impartial? Balanced? Expel them? Expel the whole class? Give up all hope? Quit? Report Samir and Mifta for incipient radicalisation? Red card the whole lot for bad language?

Nope. You listen.

I take the class next day. I seek the calm and coherence of my subject English literature. We read a Hanif Kureishi short story, My Son the Fanatic (1994). It’s about a radicalised Muslim boy and his louche, bewildered, “Western” father. The story is empathetic to both.

Will there be more bedlam? No. There’s a real hush and tension as I read. The story tolerates ambiguity, draws no easy conclusions and is even funny. It promotes quiet discussion. Contemplation.

Literature works.

Holland Park School was properly multi-cultural. It made serious attempts to address these things through the syllabus – history, art, dance, whatever.

Pupils expressed themselves. We read books – by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, and Hanif Kureishi. Of course we failed.

Maybe we failed better than today.

“White privilege” seems to go ever more unexamined and denied outside our classrooms. Racism and Islamophobia bloom like tumours.

I’d like to think our pupils are immune to all this, that these creepy reports are the last bleatings of a threatened species.

Maybe their authors could try reading a book – by, say, Akala or Reni Eddo-Lodge or Natasha Brown.

There’s no easy fix but literature works. It’s essential, however contested things may be.

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/seced-whitwham


Further reading

  • Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, March 2021: https://bit.ly/3oEQW52
  • Education Select Committee: The forgotten: How White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3p3SHcn
  • Kureishi: My Son the Fanatic, The New Yorker, March 1994: https://bit.ly/30KG8d6
  • Murray: Teaching white privilege as uncontested fact is illegal, minister says, The Guardian, October 2020:
  • https://bit.ly/3qVJJjB
  • Taylor: Tory MP says using term ‘white privilege’ should be reported as extremism, The Guardian, October 2021:
  • https://bit.ly/3kTBoJM


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