I grew up in something approximating a ‘white working class’ home. Not that we ever thought of ourselves that way. We just saw ourselves as ‘normal’, though we were keenly aware of the financial distinctions which placed some of our middle class neighbours slightly above us.
We never thought of ourselves as white either. In Somerset in the 1990s, white was by and large the default. We never even entertained the notion that the colour of our skins might hold us back in life. But we did understand, at least in a vague sense, that Britain’s class structure would.
Paradoxically, I feel even more confident in retrospectively making that observation today. I no longer live in the run-down seaside town where I grew up – and even if I haven’t quite joined the middle class (freelance journalism is precarious work these days) I’ve done better than would normally be expected of someone from my background. Yet in order to get here I had to first penetrate a thousand subtle and not so subtle class barriers. In contrast, the colour of my skin has never stood in my way.
I offer this brief biographical digression because I feel it’s relevant to the ongoing discussion around the underachievement of white working class boys. Yesterday, a report by the Conservative-dominated Commons Education Select Committee said that children from white working class backgrounds have been “let down for decades” by the education system and “muddled” policy thinking.
According to the report, 47% of white British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) failed to meet the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage in 2018/19. In 2019 just 17.7% of FSM-eligible white British pupils achieved at least a strong pass (grade 5 or above) in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils.
What grabbed the headlines, however, was the claim in the report that the voguish term ‘white privilege’ is partly to blame for white working class children falling behind. “We… desperately need to move away from dealing with racial disparity by using divisive concepts like white privilege that pits one group against another. Disadvantaged white children feel anything but privileged when it comes to education,” said Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the committee.
The report says that “an industry” has emerged to support disadvantaged non-white pupils whereas no comparable institutions exist to help white pupils on free school meals. Instead, fashionable social justice campaigners say that they enjoy “white privilege”. Yet as Halfon puts it: “Privilege is the very opposite to what disadvantaged white children enjoy or benefit from in an education system which is now leaving far too many behind.”
While I agree that the term ‘white privilege’ is unhelpful – I don’t see much utility in describing poor white people as automatically privileged when privilege encompasses many factors beyond the colour of one’s skin – I think it’s perverse to claim that ‘white privilege’ discourse is holding back working class boys. For one thing, it is a term that people in Britain have only been using for around about a year. And by ‘people in Britain’ what I really mean is a small section of academia and the social media chatterati. We might come back in a decade and assess the impact the term has had on public consciousness. However it is implausible to suggest that it is already having a deleterious impact on the life chances of working class kids.
Not least because white working class children have been falling behind for years. A 2015 report found that white students were less likely to take AS or A-levels than students from other ethnic groups. This can hardly be blamed on ‘privilege’ discourse or the Black Lives Matter movement.
But while white working class kids may not have fallen behind as a direct results of white privilege discourse, they are frequently ignored by a mainstream liberal identity politics which no longer sees the issue of social class as particularly important. Among the progressives, class simply isn’t given the same weight as ethnicity and gender in conversations about the material disadvantages that people come up against.
Those of us who grew up in modest circumstances ourselves notice this discrepancy. And it burns: we feel it even if others don’t. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve seen organisations talk proudly of ‘diversity’ – before reeling off a list of every possible disadvantage under the sun while omitting any mention of social class. This is particularly galling in a historically class-bound society like Britain, where transposing the American racial experience onto our island obscures as much as it reveals.
It is insulting to bracket the term ‘white privilege’ alongside poverty as if the two things were equal contributors to the challenges working class children face, not least by members of a political party that has presided over nearly a decade of cuts to public services.
Moreover, pitting white working class children against a homogenous bloc of ethnic minority pupils is grossly misleading. For example, Black Caribbean boys on free school meals have educational outcomes that are closer to those of white working class pupils than to their peers from Asian or Chinese backgrounds.
Ironically, there are issues – such as family breakdown – which progressives are reluctant to talk about when it comes to white working class kids falling behind. Poor white kids are more likely to come from broken homes than their counterparts from, say, Indian backgrounds. This arguably plays a much bigger role in holding white working class kids back than trendy liberal identity politics. The evidence is overwhelming that children from stable, two-parent families are more likely to do well in the education system than children from broken homes, even when income differentials are taken into account.
By contrast, attempts to blame ‘white privilege’ discourse for the struggles of working class kids are a flagrant attempt to stoke the flames of the culture war. It may generate headlines, but it will do little to help kids who grew up like I did.
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