The notion of White Privilege is one that I have had some issues with since I first heard about it about 5 years ago. It’s a recent import into left wing, particularly liberal-left wing, political discourse from the USA into the UK. There are a number of reasons that I think that the notion is harmful to anti-racist work, and more broadly working class organisation, in the UK. I’ll come to those in a moment.
A good friend of mine shared the image above on Facebook today as a reaction to the disgusting goings on around the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in the USA. I understand what the person is saying here but I don’t think that it’s an appropriate response.
I, rather flippantly I must admit, commented that rather than being white privilege it’s also a case of ‘being black anywhere aside from the USA’ privilege. There is nowhere else in the world, that I can think of, where the racist murdering of young black people by the state is such an endemic problem. In the UK you are more likely to be murdered by the police for being, or sounding, Irish. And Irish people are, generally, white. Certainly all those murdered by the British police are anyway.
It most certainly is true that, in some areas, young black people are stopped and searched, assaulted, and generally fucked with by the police on a massive scale. However in areas that are less diverse we see young white working class people going through the same harassment and violence that black young people go through. Basically the police seem to hate working class youth and target them as automatic suspects. I know that when I was young we got an inordinate amount of hassle from the police. Stop and searches, getting roughed up and so on.
Racism in Britain seems to work differently to how it works in the USA. In the UK we didn’t have segregation, we don’t have the recent history of slavery (despite British capitalists getting fat and rich off the slave trade), and racism tends to be as directed to non-British Europeans as much as it is against non-white British people. We have disgusting levels of racism against Polish people and other Eastern European migrants, against Gypsies and travellers, against Irish people. Hell, I’ve even had someone in the South East of England try to assault me because I’m from Wales. I’ve also been denied medical care because of how and where I’ve lived (as a traveller).
So I don’t feel that the concept of white privilege can be transposed to this island as the context in which racism occurs is completely different to the USA. I can’t comment on how useful a conceptual tool it is in the USA as my knowledge of the States comes purely from the media/internet. It may well be that, due to the recent history of segregation, the concept has a value there that it does not here.
My other issue is wit the wider notion of privileges vs oppressions. The way that I understand the world is that we are the working class. Our class status is defined by our relationship to the means of production and so you’re either proletariat or bourgeoisie. We all also experiences our own oppression, both as individuals and communities, in particular ways. So a black person or a traveller or an Irish person is likely to experience the oppression of capitalism differently to a white English person, a woman to a man, a gay person to a straight person and so on. This is because the ruling class encourages the fracturing of the working class through the promotion of bigotry and hatred. Using them as weapons against us. Oppressing us with them. It isn’t a privilege to not be the subject of a given oppression.
Which bring me on to my next point. Class struggle should promote unity within the class by seeking to destroy the weapons with which the ruling class divides us. The politics of privilege turns the direction of the focus towards the individual rather than outwards towards society. It is concerned with the individual ‘checking’ their privilege rather than working to address issues in society. It is navel gazing and narcissistic. It doesn’t matter a jot if all the liberals and lefties of the world recognise their privilege as there is nothing that they can do to address it. How does one give up being white? Or male? Or straight? Or cis? It isn’t possible.
The divisions that permeate society, and which are used by the ruling class to divide us, need to be addressed and recognised for what they are. Are symptom of hierarchical class society. They can not be done away with without doing away with capital and the state and capital and the state can not be done away with without doing away with these oppressions.
The politics of privilege, however, has little to do with the creation of a fair and just world. It attempts to change the nature of these oppressions, warping them into a tool that reinforces and encourages these divisions. Which should be of little surprise as it is a politics born of academia.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, all these things need to be addressed head on. They need to be destroyed by working class organisation that ignores these divisions and treats us all as workers who all share the same interest.
We shouldn’t be worrying about whether X has Y privilege or how that makes their experience of capital worse than Z’s. It isn’t a competition. As workers we should focus on that which unites us because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way we’re going to be able to do away with the forces of oppression.
Oh, and one more thing. It also bugs the hell out of me that white privilege seems, from what I’ve seen online, to be a way for white people to turn the focus of the discussion of the experience of racism back onto themselves. Rather than actually engaging with people it seems that the modern white proponent of white privilege wants to make sure that it is acknowledged that they are acknowledging their whiteness and LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME! So, with the picture at the top, we see yet another white person who chooses to, rather than showing solidarity with the people of Ferguson, make it all about herself.
Gah. And so, that was reason 47645 that I decided to have naff all to do with the left…