Post written by: Erin Walcon
I was driving my 5-year-old son to his primary school yesterday morning (through my Paignton neighbourhood, which experiences substantial socio-economic deprivation and has a 96.2% white population), listening to the top BBC2 news story on the radio. A new report had been issued by predominantly Conservative MPs on the Commons education committee. The report was called “The Forgotten: How White Working-class Pupils Have Been Let Down, and How to Change It”. The title of this report made me lean forward to turn up the volume on my radio.
The news story included by some audio sound-bytes of young children growing up in poverty, talking about their experience. Driving along, I found myself welling up – tears rising in my eyes, as I heard the voices of actual young people directly speaking. This was the first time that I’d heard children & young people’s voices directly amplified in the national news since the start of the pandemic. Their voices have been particularly silenced and forgotten within the Covid 19 crisis.
Just as I was sat there in my car, feeling grateful that the voices of young people were getting some airplay and finally being heard, the radio report continued… apparently this same report contains assertions (and I reluctantly quote) about how ‘terms like white privilege may have contributed towards systemic neglect of white disadvantaged communities’. My tears in my eyes immediately halted in shock and I felt a rising surge of anger – everything about that sentence made me angry. It felt like a media moment which could have opened up a rich and useful conversation about the intersectional nature of poverty and deprivation and disparities in educational access was immediately turned in a profoundly unhelpful direction.
Of course, it all kicked off subsequently yesterday. Instagram and Twitter were lighting up yesterday afternoon with some very smart folks retorting to the Tory MP report. Here are some highlights of a few of my favourite responses:
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Working class children aren’t being held back by schools teaching them about racism.
They’re being held back by the Tories starving deprived schools of the funding they need to help working class children of all races.
Don’t let them play divide & rule. https://t.co/wGopVtOAH4
— Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP (@BellRibeiroAddy) June 22, 2021
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This morning, I turned my radio on, hoping for a next-day extension of the story – hoping for a more detailed nuanced rendering of the complexities of race/class/socio-economic status, eduction structures & funding, power, voice, advocacy, youth services, austerity, access. However, the top story on the news today was the football. So that’s where our priorities are.
I want us to keep talking about this. I’m concerned that if we reduce these conversations to one-day sound-bytes, we reduce the complexity to a single moment of reactiveness and polarised politics. We need to keep talking about this. And more than just a flash-in-the-pan reactive conversation. A deeper dialogue.
I’ve written before about the ethics of considering questions of social justice with children who are growing up in socio-economic disadvantage. Today, I want to talk about why we should be talking about white privilege with young white people who are growing up in poverty.
Here in Torbay, we live and work in an area of complex socio-economic deprivation. We currently work with 142 children and young people every week across 11 drama groups in Torbay. We also run extensive programmes of theatre outreach in our regional schools, some of which have an over 50% percentage of young people on free school meals. Our groups and outreach workshops include young people from more affluent families and young people who are growing up in poverty and young people whose families are just scraping by. Our drama groups are inclusive groups, open door to anyone.
We regularly talk about white privilege with the young people we work with – we think this is really important. It’s a part of our foundational principle of social justice. We make theatre work about it, we use drama as a tool to explore these themes. Of course we should do this. Of course we will keep doing it.
Because white privilege is real. It’s a pervasive, systemic, real issue, one that all white people need to encounter, read about, reflect about, own and then act on. Regardless of socio-economic status. And these children we work with? They are smart. They’re really smart – they’re able to grasp complexity (more so than some adults, it seems?).
Denying white supremacy culture and institutional racism, as our current government seems actively keen to do, is not a strategy which is going to last the long game. Things are changing (god, never quickly enough) but they are changing. People are waking up. The BLM movement, the Anti-Racism work that is ongoing – these changes and realisations are here to stay and the folks writing these reports need to go on a training course (or maybe 62 of them?) to start to unpack some of their own biases and assumptions that are leading to the issuing of reports so deeply steeped in white denial.
The absurd suggestion that terms like ‘white privilege’ somehow could serve to disadvantage young white students is preposterous and intentionally reductive. What serves to disadvantage young white children is the systemic slashing of support structures (i.e. youth centres/workers), standardized testing culture in our education system which unfairly assesses them against middle-class normative verbal-linguistic outcomes, under-funded schools, overworked and underpaid and under-respected teachers who are not listened to when it comes to education policy.
What disadvantages these children is the failure of us as adults to keep this conversation in the news for more than a single day – to move beyond reductive sound bytes and into a place where we might consider, seriously, how we tackle the barriers that young children growing up in poverty encounter. ALL children growing up in poverty.
What disadvantages these children is white supremacy culture and a greedy capitalist system which doesn’t consider their mental, social and emotional wellbeing as a priority. An economic system which values humans only for their earning potential will never value its children. This truth sits rotting at the core of capitalism. This truth explains how the ‘business model’ of education is in a downward spiral, moving away from progressive student-centred pedagogy.
Austerity cuts over the last decade have decimated opportunities and access routes for young people of all backgrounds. I want us to talk about how we might work to actively nurture a sense of empathy and compassion for the very real challenges that our children are navigating and will continue to navigate in the coming decades – environmental crises, polarised debate, post-truth media, epidemics of mental health & self harm, and shrinking employment prospects. Sorry – that is a bit dire when all lumped together in one paragraph.
Okay, here’s the hopeful bit.
In having conversations with young people about social justice & racial justice, we open the door to new possibilities. In respecting the intelligence of a 7-year old or 13-year old who is growing up in white poverty, and asking them to engage with us to talk about white privilege AND class disadvantage AND feminism AND LGBTQ+/Trans rights…. we open the door to all of our communities having the awareness, tools and codes and languages to change things for the better. In listening to the stories and experiences of young children from these communities, our understanding of how to help make positive change is stronger, more informed, clarified. We need to trust people’s intelligence – their capacity to encounter injustice, get angry, to see it as their job to help work on it. It’s all of our jobs to work on it.
This work and these brave conversations need to happen on the ground, daily. Tirelessly. It needs to be funded, supported, talked about. It needs to be celebrated and we need to share best practice with each other and get better at doing it.
We need to talk about white privilege more, not less.
When in history has shutting down a critical conversation been a positive thing?
Yesterday, while the news story was bubbling and live, Doorstep Teaching Artists were busy working in two regional schools across Torbay. We were delivering our Theatre of the Mind programme at St Cuthbert Mayne school in Torquay, a programme which uses drama as ‘rehearsal for life’, to cultivate coping tools for dealing with mental health & wellbeing. We were also providing our usual weekly drama residency for young people at Brunel Academy, a specialist provision for learners aged 11 to 16-years-old whose needs cannot be met within a mainstream environment. All students at Brunel have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in relation to their Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. This work, on the ground, is everything. Our schools need these artists in every day – the teachers need more support – the headteachers need more funding and more freedom to lead their schools as they know how (and a few days off to rest, after the insane year they’ve just had). Our Torbay Youth Services have been decimated by Austerity cuts – and a very small team of committed local people have worked hard to ensure that any kind of support has been sustained for local young people, largely drawing on voluntary effort and the necessary privitization of youth services.
I want to end this rant by saying that we, as white people, have a lot of work to do. Clearly, white denial is strong and sustained – particularly in the top tier of power in our current government. We need to call this out, loudly. We need to own our own racism, name it where we see it, and say that its not okay and find direct actions we can take to improve the situation and dismantle the injustice. We need to begin by seeing the systemic advantages for white people and honestly accepting that it’s there. We are smart – we can see this, and also see socio-economic and class disadvantage too. We can see more than one thing at once.
We are smart. We can sustain a conversation for more than one day.
We can imagine things differently. We can act on that imagination.
Here at Doorstep we are actively working on how we can embed Anti-Racism into our hiring, our artistic practice, our participatory work the stories that we platform – we have a lot of work still to do… we’re nowhere near where we want to be on this yet, but we’re working hard to get better. We know it’s urgent. We will keep doing this work. We will listen when our friends tell us how we can do it better, even if those truths are uncomfortable. We will own it when we get it wrong (which we sometimes do).
We will continue to have conversations with young people about racial justice, about white privilege, and about hope.