An English question of white privilege


We are learning a new language, the language of “wokeism”. The grammar is distinctly tricky, because its rules are set by the listener, not by the speaker. Things said are to be perceived and interpreted according to the sensitivities of the hearer. There are traps for the unwary, which could cost you your job. Even if it were said or written years ago, it can come back to haunt you. Even the dead are not immune; their memory, their lifetime achievements can be trashed in the twinkling of an eye.

So what is the message? That the wealth and culture of Western civilisation is built upon slavery, upon the colonial exploitation of poor nations, and the commercial greed of capitalism. Not only wealth, but privilege per se is the product of this historical abuse of power, for which all the white races should be held accountable.

Let me say here that much criticism of the past is justified, and that historical deeds and attitudes struck then would strike us today with utter repugnance and repudiation. Let me further acknowledge that some of those attitudes persist today and are a stain on our liberal democracy. There is a compelling need for change, for the embracing of equality and social justice. This is not only a black on white issue; the whole of our society is permeated by barriers to self-improvement and welfare. If being “woke” encourages us to afford respect to the least well-off, to treat everyone as our equal without discrimination and to be colour-blind in our dealings and relationships, then being “woke” is an essential part of our domestic commonwealth, a 16th century concept close to home that merits a more central place in our social awareness.

However, we cannot undo our privilege, nor should we wish to. Our very being alive and in England is a privilege. We happen to live in a beautiful country and we have inherited a belongingness that is rooted deep in our nation’s psyche. We ascribe to common values even if we do not live up to them. We have still a Christian legacy that continues to mould our ethical beliefs, our sense of right and wrong. We have over centuries developed a legal constitution which seeks to govern the relationship between individual citizens and them and the State. Here in Britain, we have developed a tolerance for diversity and a willingness to embrace the stranger, even whilst not quite admitting them to full membership. After more than 30 years living in Rye, Sussex, I am not quite a Ryer, nor ever shall be! We have our English sense of humour, that imbues so much of our responses to adversity.

Not all is well in our corner of the world, all is not well and fair. We are facing a conjunction of historical processes which threaten our whole existence. Primarily, there is global warming which is driving a mass movement of people northwards in desperation for their lives. This is a mere trickle as yet, but by 2050 it will be a flood, such as has never been seen before. The outlook for the whole world and not just Europe is bleak indeed and it is none the brighter for the globalisation of business and the growth of the totalitarian state. These are both destructive of democracy, which depends upon individual freedoms.

In times of economic depression or rapid technological change such as we have today, the underlying causes for discontent come frothing to the surface. Then our sense of injustice becomes fuelled by what we have been told are our rights. The fracture lines appear and unlikely combinations of interests coagulate about a suddenly popular slogan. The blame game gets underway and the sins of the past are fixed onto the children of the present. This becomes an industry for academics, a focus for social campaigners, who take fierce pleasure in scratching at sores, and nurturing a sense of communal middle class anxiety and induced guilt, no less debilitating than the hellfire sermons of the ardent preacher on the subject of sin.

Our national institutions fall victim to apostles of intolerance and our university academics are made to walk in fear of losing their jobs if they do not conform to the latest diktat for right thinking. What starts as a reasonable and necessary movement for social reform develops as a hydra of insidious insinuation into the fabric of society which impoverishes far more than it liberates. Not many people will have heard for example of the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, based at Tavistock Square in London. Its self assessment in a morning paper (The Daily Telegraph July 25) states that its own “white supremacist structure must be dismantled.” Referencing the mostly white teaching staff and the mostly white faces in the classrooms, it notes that “white people have privileges that their whiteness has imbued.” So round and round goes the circle, with “white complicity” nudging shoulders with the doctrine of “white fragility.” We shall hear more of this self-confidence destroying doublespeak in future no doubt.

What does the history of civilisation teach us? That living standards are raised by purposeful economic activity, that surpluses of productivity properly gathered can be and are utilised for social gain. This is the essence of capitalism, just as it is the fruit of education. Today, we live in a harsh economic climate. Our aspiration for a One Nation Society (if we share it) depends upon our raising national levels of productivity, however that may be measured – and we must accept that the current vogue for reducing all measurement to monetary gross national product is far from satisfactory. And increasing productivity requires investment, investment in education and in technology.

Education, like good health, cannot be funded by governments throwing money at it. Both need the active commitment from people to acquire learning, to acquire and retain fitness. Education needs to be redefined not in terms of accumulating facts, but as training of the critical faculties and for personal development in a framework of social inter-relationships from an early age upwards.

These are the issues that will further social cohesion and well-being, not the febrile gestures of dissent and discord. It is not navel-gazing that is required, nor any conversion to “wokeism”, whatever that may be manipulated to mean. Sure, we must be willing to examine and adapt our structures and institutions to meet changing expectations, but we should do so creatively and confidently, aware of self-worth and willing to share fully the fruits of privilege. Democracy is not just about seeking legitimacy through the ballot-box. It is about how we agree to conduct ourselves as a society. We should welcome debate and differences of opinion, and keep interested even when we cannot influence the argument. We are not absolved from responsibility for the outcome.

Image Credits: Tumisu / Pixabay Pixabay

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  1. I support The Black Curriculum. In my lifetime, education omitted so much black British history. I’m not afraid to be called ‘woke’. As an older white woman who has enjoyed the privileges of life in the UK – but also understands what it is to be unheard – my learning continues. Happy to listen and do the work. It’s not comfortable for some to confront racism, and soundbite/name-calling in the media is rife. ‘Tolerance’ is not enough. Anti-racism is the right side of history. Black lives matter.

  2. Kenneth there are many thought provoking ideologies, suggestions how society and gov in my mind, is failing to create a more stable equal society and opportunities and stop prejudices towards ‘other’ . But also positive s to appreciate in this country. To eradicate privilege will sadly never happen.To respond I need to think about the article and some things I dont agree with but my mantra has been since in England, education is the key to growing up with respect for each other, ie boys towards girls. The sexual harassment and bullying girls described , from Junior school onwards is not acceptable.
    And yes Martina, black lives matter,teaching black history and culture matters for white privilege to understand their need to raise the issue.
    So much to say…if I disagree with politics often I am the ‘other’, German , and am reminded to feel guilt. If I agree to all English values I am accepted. Again maybe history of another country needs to be more embracing of good and bad to remain neutral.

  3. Martina says that tolerance is not enough for the Woke.
    How true. What they seem to want is compulsory enthusiasm while being conspicuously intolerant towards anyone that they disagree with.
    I would say, with John Locke in 1689, that toleration is the basis of a good society in which lives and beliefs are inevitably diverse and often conflicting.


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