So let’s say you acknowledge white privilege exists. (If you don’t, you should back up and maybe read something like So You Want to Talk about Race.) But maybe now you’re wondering how much white privilege actually affects people, particularly when it comes to issues of education and the workplace. That’s what White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society tackles. Kalwant Bhopal carefully and in great detail pieces together a picture of how American and British schools, universities, and places of business continue to discriminate in favour of white people. Thanks, NetGalley and Policy Press, for letting me read this eARC.
White Privilege is very much an academic research book, so know that going in. Unlike Ijeoma Oluo’s aforementioned book, this is not really a mainstream publication. That doesn’t mean I think only academics should read it—there’s a lot of interest in here for people outside the academy, particularly teachers and those interested in public policy. However, it is definitely very dry in tone, and Bhopal writes with the considered cadence of someone who really wants to define every term clearly and leave little to doubt. Each chapter is meticulously cited and has extensive endnote references (a good thing, of course). But an evocative read this is not.
Bhopal splits each chapter down the middle and addresses data from both the UK and the US. This is an interesting, informative approach. As a Canadian who has taught in the UK, I found the chapters focusing on UK secondary school education the most interesting. Much of what Bhopal describes dovetails and resonates with my own experience, which I’ll discuss presently. Other facets illuminate parts of my time there or only occurred after I left. In any event, it is clear that both the US and the UK (and Canada, but that’s outside of the scope of this book) have a long way to go in addressing racial inequity in education.
After graduating from my education degree in Canada, I taught in the UK for two years at an academy that primarily served students from a working class socioeconomic background. There was a mixture of white families and families predominantly of an Eastern European background, though there were definitely some Black families as well. While class was a large factor, I think, in the students’ attitudes towards school and their success, racial and ethnic background definitely contributed too. In particular, Bhopal hits the nail on the head when she examines the call to teach “British values” and other, similar movements, and how these replicate patterns of (white) cultural supremacy within the education system.
She’s also accurate when she points out that so many teachers in these systems are white and themselves under-prepared to teach racialized pupils. That was definitely me (I’m white, btw, if my avatar’s terrible fashion sense didn’t give that away). This is an oversight in our teacher education programs, but it’s also an artifact of my white privilege within a larger, white supremacist society. I’m aware of my privilege on an intellectual level, yet I’m also painfully aware I lack tools necessarily to relate to and understand the needs of some of my racialized students. This was the case when I was in the UK, and it is still sometimes the case now that I’m back in Canada and teaching adults, many of whom are First Nations. My toolkit has gotten better (thanks, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Indigenous Writes). Still, thinking bigger picture, we need a seismic shift in the ways we prepare and train teachers at a system level.
White Privilege occasionally hints at or navigates around the periphery of the wider issue that the US and UK are still, in many ways, white-supremacist states. It would have been nice to see the book engage with this issue more directly—but perhaps that would verge too far into the polemical; Bhopal appears more interested in making concrete arguments backed up by data. As such, there is little I can disagree with in this book, but there are times when I feel it doesn’t quite go far enough—but maybe that’s just my revolutionary idealism speaking.
I can’t fault this book’s information, organization, or content. This is a strong work of academic writing with excellent details and an ironclad, logical presentation. I wish the writing were less dry. If you can handle this style, you’ll find lots in here about the topic of privilege and its practical consequences for education, among other things. However, this is also a good example of how it takes more than a solid understanding of data and a good thesis to write a great book. White Privilege is illuminating, but it lacks that final touch to really make a book shine.