Black History Month

White Privilege in the UK: British History and the School Curriculum

In the UK, the majority will condemn explicit racism, but at the same time racism is taught and acted out in society from a young age. There is a system of racial (and male) dominance, which white privileges are a symptom of

✏️ Louis Strappazzon

In the UK, the majority will condemn explicit racism, but at the same time racism is taught and acted out in society from a young age. There is a system of racial (and male) dominance, which white privileges are a symptom of.

According to Reni-Eddo-Lodge, white privileges are unearned privileges based on the dominant narrative of race. They happen daily and go constantly unchallenged. Whilst white people benefit, non-white people are racially discriminated against. A good list of white privileges has been written by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 and is still very useful for understanding what white privilege is. As a white man, I benefitted my whole life and still do from white privilege without realising or acknowledging it for most of my life. 

White privilege means that your race is not a factor in how you are judged. This means white people like me do not suffer from marginalisation or discrimination based on skin colour. But white privilege is more than this, it is about gaining advantages to prosper because of your skin colour. I have grown up with people of my skin colour at school, on the TV and in my history books. I have felt comfortable about my identity to a large extent because of this. I had the privilege of growing up thinking that people of my skin colour are ‘good’.

White privilege is important for showing that racism is embedded in the structure of society. White privilege is evidence that white people benefit from racism.

This article will explore white privilege in the UK, focusing on two white privileges created through the education system. Firstly, feeling a connection to British history and therefore the country, is a white privilege. Secondly, the school curriculum teaches colour-blindness, a white privilege that protects white people from the horrors of seeing racism and to safeguard other racial privileges.

Feeling a connection to British history at school is a white privilege. This is because the history taught in British schools is mostly white British history from the perspective of the white British man. History is important because it tells us at a young age what a typical British person looks like and how they should behave. 

John Agard’s ‘Checking Out Me History’ is a must read for understanding how teaching one narrative of history silences non-white British history to sustain a dominant British national narrative. As Agard says, ‘Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul, but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole’. A narrow historical national narrative supresses non-white British identities.

The UK school curriculum, especially at key stage 2 and 3 picks out the bits that are important to white British national pride, that is the white British history that makes Britain look ‘good’. The narrative is of white British, elitist nationalism. 

The British Empire enslaved millions of black people across the globe and yet it is still glorified in the name of national unity. In key stages 2 and 3, empire topics are non-statutory and do not focus on oppression by whites but on British triumph. All this does is make pride in the nation a white privilege. Yes, the British Slave Trade is taught but the focus is mostly on the white abolitionists.

I remember in A-level that my coursework on the abolition of the British Slave Trade focused mostly on white politicians, like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson leading up to the Abolition Act in 1833. 

This creates a white saviour narrative where whites are given a redemption story and are depicted as ‘good’ in the face of black people despite oppressing and enslaving them. The story of the British racial oppression ends abruptly in 1833 in the school curriculum.

Non-white British children do not see themselves in history textbooks. A typical British person is pictured as white. European white history is told as at the forefront of history in a linear simple fashion. Whiteness is made to be the centre of the world. Therefore, non-Western and non-white British history is denied credibility.

Migration, UK Civil Rights Movement, how black people revolted against the British Slave Trade and the more than 600,000 non-white soldiers in the British Army for WW2 are not mentioned. This selection of white British history and exclusion of non-white British history shapes non-white British peoples’ identities and how they are treated by others in Britain. 

African history is greatly ignored in British schools. The curriculum seems to follow the words of Frederick Hegel that, ‘Africa has no history’ before Europeans entered Africa. This is obviously false. But I only learnt about some non-colonial African history in 2nd year at university, realising I knew almost nothing about Africa before colonialism.

Africa is talked about at school and in general as one ambiguous place. This denies the thousands of cultures and identities in Africa. In addition, Africa is put in a narrative that it was a savage land and is developing in a linear historical narrative behind the West. These lies affect identity and how we see not only the world but ourselves. The complications of history are not felt by white British people. 

The history of 20th and 21st century British racism is not taught. Students only learn about civil rights in the context of US history. This creates a sense that Britain is not as racist as the US. This also means not teaching race, allowing colour-blindness to take hold. Being colour-blind means not seeing the issues surrounding race, therefore not acknowledging racial oppression in the present day.

By teaching US civil rights history and not recent British civil rights and racial oppression, we get the sense that racism is far away, limited and mostly in the past. Colour-blindness means most white people do not see racism’s full picture, keeping the system of racial dominance intact.

White privileges are important to understand because they show how all white people are complicit in racism and that is why racism should be everybody’s problem. Reni Eddo-Lodge explains in ‘Why I No Longer Talk to White People about Race’ that racism has a purpose. That purpose is to keep a quiet racial dominance. To challenge this system of racial dominance better, white people must help by acknowledging and self-reflecting on how they benefit from racism instead of being passive about racism. It is this passive ‘not racist’ attitude that allows the system of racial dominance and racial inequality to continue.

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Resources about White Privilege:

https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017). 

https://theconversation.com/school-curriculum-continues-to-whitewash-britains-imperial-past-53577

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2004.00057.x?journalCode=rept20

https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mdesmond/files/what_is_racial_domination.pdf

Racism in the UK Curriculum:

https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/checking-out-me-history/

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/jan/20/secret-teacher-uk-history-of-race-bloody-racism

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/may/26/secret-teacher-history-bias-school-fear-student-future#maincontent

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239075/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_History.pdf

https://academicjournals.org/journal/IJEL/article-full-text-pdf/E48968159451

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uQDUHi4RQE4C&pg=PT285&lpg=PT285&dq=uk+curriculum+focuses+on+white+abolitionists&source=bl&ots=OI2YblHptr&sig=ACfU3U2YJWFmlfq28FFL1UHHB2s0qc-ZyA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi9u6-HwO_pAhURUBUIHf57BUcQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=uk%20curriculum%20focuses%20on%20white%20abolitionists&f=false

UK Civil Rights Movement:

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/black-british-social-and-political-history-in-the-20th-century/

https://blackculturalarchives.org/collections

‘The Black Curriculum’ Podcast, Teaching Black British History 365 on Spotify.

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