A view from Oxford
A reflection on white privilege, and the need for affirmative action, by Rob Ellis
It is a privilege to live and work in Oxford, and to be a very small part of one of the world’s great universities. Of course, it would be disingenuous to pretend that ‘privilege’ wasn’t a term with layers of meaning in Oxford. An Oxford education is, and confers, privilege. And an Oxford education is more accessible to those who already have certain privileges.
Denominationally, I am also conscious that I occupy a privileged place in several spaces. I lead a College; I am a minister. Both of these spaces are overwhelmingly white. It is only recently that I have begun to see this. White privilege is invisible. We (there it is again) assume it’s normal. Complacently assuring myself that I was not racist, I failed to notice the absence of black faces and voices around me. In consequence I also failed to ask myself why this should be so, what barriers prevented people of colour from sharing ‘my’ space.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the wave of disgust and protest that followed, Oxford has been facing up again to some uncomfortable reports about the experience of students of colour here. Mostly taught by white tutors, with white bibliographies, in institutions governed by white people, confidence and self-esteem is eroded by a thousand casual and often unconscious put-downs. So when one College head reported on an initiative to change the way we think about these things from the top, and to do it now by appointing at least two people of colour to every senior board and committee, it seemed like a genuine krisis moment.
I have become convinced that some form of affirmative action is required if we are to address these things. Waiting for some ‘trickle down’ or ‘percolating up’ process to take place prolongs injustice, though it conveniently preserves existing privilege too. Quotas for university places; a curriculum that does not simply justify and entrench whiteness; reserved seats on trustee bodies and the main committees and boards of Baptist Union of Great Britain and College life. And if we are to tackle the problem of a curriculum that entrenches a view of the world through the eyes of white privilege as normative, then we have to make sure that every reading list has a similar provision.
This sense that whiteness is the norm, when combined with the exploitative attitude of colonialism to the world and its people, and the historic wealth that has flowed to Europe and North America - all this entrenches what some now call ‘white privilege.’ It is a slippery term, and when we try to define it we it we find that it’s fuzzy around its edges. But it captures something of the taken-for-granted confidence (even, entitlement) which is the natural outlook of those who do not find themselves in a minority group which suffers structural racism and those casual slights, who find their voices not heard in spaces where decisions about them are taken. It means I can drive a nice car through a city centre without being stopped on suspicion of theft. It means I expect my children to thrive and flourish rather than have to prove themselves of equal worth at every step.
Yes, I know that there are many white people for whom these are problems too. James Cone was right: they are ‘ontologically black,’ and the designation jolts and jars us because it challenges our ‘normal’ calibrations, sending us back with Cone to Exodus, the prophets and Jesus. Or so it should.
I also know that there is a danger that we will deploy the term ‘black’ in a totalising way, somehow seeming to suggest that all black experience is the same. But while we must be alert to that, it seems to me that the greater danger is to hide behind this observation and use it to shore up that white privilege for a little longer. All this, everything said and touched on so far, has a peculiar capacity to produce defensive reactions. Our privilege is fragile, and we hang on tight, playing dirty.
There has been much talk of a ‘new normal’ as we endure this pandemic. But there is another new normal which we need to begin to create. One where white spaces become rainbowed spaces, and where by listening in patience and humility we begin to learn to see and experience the world in new ways.
Rob Ellis is Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford
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