‘Strong Britain, great nation’
Growing up in a household in which Kurdish and Farsi were mixed in with English, I sometimes struggled to tell which words belonged to which language. When I was four or five, I was about to remark to classmates that the colour of a particular wax crayon was ‘gorgeous’. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware that I’d laid my own trap. ‘Gorgeous’? That seemed very obviously Kurdish. (Even now, the sibilant /dʒ/ in the middle sounds suspiciously flavourful.) It felt like something my father would say with a smile before taking a photo of us. I chose a plainer word. I was ashamed, and had already taken to hiding the ‘other’ part of me.
Shame sets in very early in children. In their landmark 1947 study, the Black psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark asked 253 Black children aged between three and seven to inspect two dolls. One had dark brown skin and eyes, the other white skin and blue eyes. The children were asked which doll they wanted to play with, which was nicer, which looked bad, and which had a nicer colour. They expressed an overwhelming preference for the white doll. The final question was ‘give me the doll that looks like you.’ Heartbreakingly, but predictably, most of the children handed over the doll they’d just rejected as ‘ugly’ and ‘bad’. These and similar findings have been replicated more recently. Children’s brains are awash with racism long before they are taught a vocabulary for it. An awareness of racism, and, by corollary, white privilege, precedes formal education.
This week, a report from the Education Select Committee made the baffling claim that the use of the term ‘white privilege’ is harming the educational outcomes of white, working-class children. The chair of the committee, the privately educated Tory MP Robert Halfon, said that 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’. That would be reasonable, if a tautology, were we to delete the word ‘white’. But doing so would defeat the object, because whiteness, not disadvantage, is the linchpin of the report. Halfon joins Kemi Badenoch, Liz Truss and Ben Bradley at the forefront of the government’s ideological assault on anti-racist work.
Halfon’s report centres on the claim that white schoolchildren are falling behind. Yet white children as a whole are about average in their GCSE grades, and outperform their Pakistani, Black Caribbean, and Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller counterparts. Differentiating the data by eligibility for free school meals – a proxy for poverty – knocks points off children’s grades across every ethnic group. That ought to suggest a more urgent explanandum: how does poverty affect educational outcomes? Better: what can we do about it? (Not voting down suggestions that children be fed properly seems a sensible first step.) The gap between poor white children and wealthier white children is especially wide; twice as big as that between poor white children and their poor minority ethnic peers. Instead of fixating on small differences between poor white children and poor children of colour to find a crack in which to drive a politically expedient wedge, we might instead ask why poor white children are sixteen points behind wealthier white children. The answer clearly cannot be their whiteness.
White children experience white privilege regardless of their household income. That doesn’t mean their lives are a piece of cake, it just means that race isn’t part of their burden. Whiteness inoculates them against certain forms of social marginalisation, but it provides little protection against poverty and its variegated effects. (By contrast, wealth fortified with whiteness is practically a superpower.) The problem is therefore not that poor white children are being taught that they’re privileged along the axis of race, it’s that they and others are not being told they’re oppressed along the axis of class. Rather than subtracting conversations about white privilege from our classrooms, we need to ensure that children also learn that the system is designed to keep them poor. They have a right to know what they’re up against. Such a move looks especially unlikely, given that last year the Department for Education outlawed teaching resources developed by organisations with ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow … capitalism’.
Historically, the underachievement of Black children has been attributed to innate differences in intelligence, based on spurious science, rather than the educational barriers effected by racism. When it was no longer politic to make such obviously racist statements, it was instead argued that there was something wrong with the ‘culture’ of Black communities (recall Tony Sewell’s claims that Black boys were too ‘feminised’). In evaluating the underachievement of white pupils, commentators have managed to avoid both of these mis-steps only to concoct a new one: white people are being neglected. In short: when children of colour underachieve, it has to do with their race or culture; when white children underperform, it has to do with children of colour hogging resources.
In a recent diary for the LRB, Lorna Finlayson wrote of being made to sing ‘One more step along the world I go’ with her classmates to mark the completion of a new driveway for their school. Compulsory singing is a strange and powerful vehicle for propaganda. Singing creates deeply hewn memories and projects cheerful endorsement. This Friday is ‘One Britain One Nation’ or ‘OBON’ day, a government-backed nationalist campaign. (Not to be confused with Obon, a Japanese Buddhist festival to celebrate one’s ancestors, which takes place in two weeks’ time.) Schools are being urged to get children to sing a horrisonant anthem that culminates in the sinister refrain ‘strong Britain, great nation’ repeated four times. Another of its lines is ‘we’ve opened our doors, and widened our island shores.’ The first clause is an audacious claim for a country that subjects thirty thousand migrants every year to indefinite detention; the second appears to be a celebration of colonialism.
Several commentators have compared the OBON song to something from North Korea: a state whose practices we’re supposed to find self-evidently ridiculous and indefensible. But that’s an unnecessarily far-flung analogy. It’s a quintessentially British move. It stems from the same panicked struggle against irrelevance that made the government try to print Union Jacks on vaccine doses. The homepage of ‘One Britain One Nation’ announces belligerently ‘ONE BRITAIN ONE NATION: IT’S THAT SIMPLE,’ as though saying it (or yelling it) could make it so. OBON’s nakedly propagandist ‘mission’ is to ‘enhance the image of our Nation’ and to ‘recognise, acknowledge and value our diverse communities and their cultural heritage while aiming to facilitate and harness their integration into mainstream Britain.’ Because nothing is as simple as the idea of ‘mainstream Britain’.
You can’t demand that children be proud any more than you can ask them not to be ashamed. Poverty and racism pose material barriers, but they also fill people with a shame that is antithetical to their thriving. As Hannah Gadsby put it in her 2018 show Nanette: ‘When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought.’ Learning is much harder when you’re hungry or humiliated. The government has no place asking children of colour to be proud of a country that fails to recognise racism, and it has no place asking poor children to sing for a country that sells their hunger to private companies which send them half a carrot.