Coming Out of School 1927 by L.S. Lowry 1887-1976

This essay, on the controversy over the funding of scholarship for white working class boys, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece onthe happiness industry.) It was published on 5 January 2020, under the headline‘Bursaries don’t help when it’s not their colour that thwarts these boys’.

There is a scene in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in which one of the central characters, Saladin, finds himself incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants.

Saladin discovers that his fellow inmates have been transformed into beasts – water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. How do they do it? Saladin asks a fellow prisoner. ‘They describe us,’ comes the reply, ‘that’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct.’

In the real world, people don’t simply ‘succumb’ to the pictures others construct of them. There is, however, an important truth expressed in that scene. Our descriptions of the world are also part of the world and help shape it.

We continually carve up the social world into myriad categories – women, blacks, graduates, the unemployed and so on. Without doing so, we would be unable to discern patterns, understand changes, anticipate developments. But social categories don’t just allow us to look at reality – they help constitute that reality, too.

To understand the power of social categories, and their power to distort, think about the controversy last week after two private schools – Dulwich College and Winchester College – refused a donation from Bryan Thwaites intended to provide scholarships for disadvantaged white, working-class boys. The refusal was condemned by figures such as Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who called it ‘the liberal guilt of a largely brahmin caste’ standing in the way of someone who ‘wanted to do the right thing by families who need support’.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with any policy that seeks to help any social group that is disadvantaged. It is immaterial whether that group be white or black, working class or not. Nor is there any question that the education system lets down white, working-class boys. GCSE results published in August showed that white boys receiving free school meals (a proxy for poverty) fared worst of all groups. More than half of England’s universities, according to one report, have fewer than 5% poor white students in their intakes.

Such data might suggest that a policy targeting white, working-class boys is a useful, and necessary measure. But the issue is not so straightforward. ‘White working class’ is a category whose very existence paradoxically helps mask the problems facing the ‘white working class’.

I have written before about the way that ethnic categories in education obscure the real reasons for the poor performance of certain minority groups. It is class, far more than ethnicity, which shapes educational attainment. This issue is greatly amplified in the debate about the ‘white working class’.

More than most categories, it has helped define reality as much as allowed us to understand it. We rarely talk of the ‘black working class’ or the ‘Muslim working class’. Instead, ‘working class’ and ‘white’ have become synonymous. Minorities are seen as belonging to classless ‘communities’, while ‘class’ has become a category applied primarily to the white population. This has distorted the ways in which we think of the white working class, racialising the very idea of class and leading many to suggest that being white plays as much a part in their disadvantages as being working class. Whiteness does play a role, though not in the way that most such commentators mean.

In the case of minorities, racial categories may obscure the real reasons for the poor educational performance of certain groups. But, from employment to accommodation, racism is real.

Whites don’t face this type of racial discrimination. (I’m not suggesting that whites can’t be victims of racism, just that they’re not in Britain today, with the exception of migrant groups such as Poles or Romanians.) What white, working -class people do face, however, is what we might call the racialisation of disadvantage.

It’s become common to view racism through the prism of ‘white privilege’ – the idea that all white people have social advantages over non-whites. In accepting that all whites, whether bankers or cleaners, carry with them a certain privilege by virtue of being white, the poverty and deprivation faced by sections of the white population becomes all too easy to ignore. This in turn breeds greater resentment within sections of the working class about their marginalisation and abandonment and entrenches the idea of a ‘white identity’, further racialising the notion of class.

Thwaites’s money is apparently now going to state schools with disadvantaged white pupils. That is certainly more useful than donating to private schools. But more useful still would be to rethink the very concept of the ‘white working class’ and to reflect on how we use categories and descriptions, especially in trying to understand the relationship between race and class.



The picture is LS Lowry’s ‘Coming out of school’.


  1. damon

    I agree that providing scholarships for disadvantaged white working-class boys is not the right way to go about things. I think that people who argued for them are wrong. We just can’t be doing that in modern Britain because our political culture can’t allow it.
    The LBC radio station had this on all day last week when it was in the news. Every presenter through the day and into the night was headlining it as their top story for discussion on their programme. I couldn’t listen to most of it because it was dull and boring. A very low level of debate and it gets nowhere.
    But it was typical of where we are as a country in our ability to publicly discuss such things.

    “It is class, far more than ethnicity, which shapes educational attainment.”

    Yes and no is my opinion of that. Sure class is a real issue in education, but you have to define it more than that.
    It’s culture also. The culture of communities and families and also personal choice.
    Just because your father is a bus driver doesn’t mean you can’t do well at school.
    My comprehensive school in the 1970s, had both middle class and working class boys attending.
    But at school, we were all given the same opportunities to learn and get on.
    For many subjects we were split into three ability streams. And I have to say, in the bottom streams it was behaviour and attitudes of the boys themselves which determined how much they got out of the subject being taught. I was in the bottom stream for a few subjects and the classes were often unruly and with no will to pay attention and learn. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. It wasn’t class that was the determining factor about how hard the boys applied themselves, but personality and culture.
    But I’m sure that middle class boys did better and tended to be in the upper streams.
    The question is though, why was that?
    Any working class boy from a poor family could have excelled in my school if they had wanted to.
    It was there for the taking.

    “Racism is real” I certainly agree. But how could it not be? That’s humans. You will always have group preferences in a diverse society.
    Kenan highlights a link titled – “Flatshare bias: room-seekers with Muslim name get fewer replies”.
    And? And what? It’s a flatshare. People are discriminating about who they want to share a flat with.
    In a city where white people are nearly a minority, I’d guess that discrimination about potential flatmates went on across all cultural groups. So whites probably might not be the first choice of potential flatmates in a BAME household.
    It reminds me of visiting Dubai several years ago, where one of the things that I remember most was all the flatshare notices stuck to walls and lampposts. They were all done by immigrant workers and they ALL specified the nationality, religion and language of the person they were seeking to fill the “bed space” vacancy they had.
    Which is understandable. When life is grim, people fall back to the basics. These people wanted someone like themselves to share their living spaces with. Same language, food, culture.
    A few notices were by Filipino women, and they stated specifically that they only wanted other Filipino women to come and live in their house.
    Which I thought was totally fair enough, given how grim living in Dubai as an ex-pat worker could be.

  2. damon

    “Minority ethnic Britons face ‘shocking’ job discrimination”

    Yes, it’s sad that this is the case.
    But then we have this from the Guardian last year:

    Afua Hirsch
    “We have to avoid ‘integration’ becoming another form of racism
    Assimilation is an invidious concept. No one in Britain should have to give up their heritage to fit in”

    Which means things get a bit complicated. If you have got people with very different cultures and “heritages” then some sorts of discrimination are almost inevitable. Especially when they manifest themselves as quite stark cultural differences. Watching the pictures of the body of Qassem Soleimani being carried through the crowds of mourners in Iran, shows that those people are quite different “to us” in the U.K.
    That doesn’t mean that we can’t have Shia Muslims living with us as our friends, neighbours and work colleagues, but it sort of depends of how willing they are to integrate into our diverse but still British society.
    Some do, some don’t. Or maybe it’s “most do and only a small minority don’t”.

    But really, we are now at a stage in our diversity story that it’s a hugely mixed bag.
    In some (quite rare) areas, integration was better forty and fifty years ago.
    When some new immigrants came to the U.K. with the idea of joining in as much as possible with the British culture.

    As that is so obviously not always the case now, how could there not be “racism” and discrimination?
    The word “racism” needs to be redefined anyway. It’s pointless using it in circumstances like this as it is so widely misused. Particularly in places like the Guardian.

    “Whites don’t face this type of racial discrimination. (I’m not suggesting that whites can’t be victims of racism, just that they’re not in Britain today …”

    That’s quite a contentious point too. If I’m the “ethnic minority” in a given situation then maybe I could be subject to racial discrimination. I’ve certainly been an ethnic minority in a few work situations. Working for a Pakistani run Cash and Carry in South London in 2018 for example. Apart from a couple of drivers and one guy in the warehouse, everyone else was Pakistani or Indian. All the management was. I didn’t feel discriminated against, but I wasn’t working for them directly and was only there for a number of weeks. But maybe the white guy in the warehouse could be racially discriminated against. He was full time and had been there some years.
    When I first got there, I saw he was wearing our local football team’s club shirt and I felt like giving him a “secret sign of solidarity”. We were two local guys who had a cultural connection to the area that most of the other people there didn’t have. They were mostly first generation immigrants. If they liked football or supported a team, it was probably Liverpool or one of the other big successful Premiership teams, not our local one.

    Lastly: always remember the really rather good John McWhorter when talking about this subject.

    “The Origins of the ‘Acting White’ Charge
    School integration yielded a disturbing by-product: a psychological association between scholastic achievement and whiteness.”

    • What the hell is “whiteness?” As as person of predominately Celtic and Native American heritage, this I simply must know.

      Does it mean skin color? Does it mean “anglo?” (‘Cause, I mean…there’s some French and German in there, too, you know.)

      What?! What does “whiteness” mean? And what does it have to do with acculturation (as opposed to assimilation)? Anything? Nothing?

      • Andrew

        If you read and take seriously the academic theories behind ‘whiteness’, once you strip them of the pseudo profound jargon you have to conclude it means everything and nothing.

        It sort means skin colour, but doesn’t really so there’s no point analysing whether you or anyone else is actually ‘white’, or any relation or the actual lived experience of anyone non white, you’ll be told it’s ‘structural’.

        If you question the fact whilst obviously discrimination exists, it’s not the 1970’s and it’s not Jim Crow, you’ll be told when they mean ‘structural’ they don’t mean formal laws and policies and only kind of mean how institutions operate.

        It’s a kind of amorphous thing floating in the culture, that’s completely unfalsifiable

    • damon

      “What?! What does “whiteness” mean?”

      It’s not exactly defined. Everyone can have their own idea about what it means.
      I’m pretty white though. With freckles.

      The way that guy I linked to describes it is in the historical context of America. Where people were seen as white, or not. And who got included as white (I’ve read) changed over time. To eventually include Italians for example.
      And Irish. Jews too mostly.

      And this shows just how common racial discrimination is:
      “ ‘No Indians No PRCs’: Singapore’s rental discrimination problem”

      We’ve also had some of it it the U.K. too. It’s only kept in check by our British anti-discrimination laws.
      If it wasn’t for them, we’d be as bad as Singapore and Dubai.

      “ “To let” advertisements that specify a particular race or religion are visible in newsagents windows in many areas of London.”

      • Andrew

        Whilst that kind of discrimination obviously exists, it’s not what academics and activists mean by ‘whiteness’. They mean something far more abstract (but which they claim has real world impact despite the lack of meaningful definition). Non white people will often be told they’re suppprting ‘structural whiteness’ if they look to champion universal/western values or espouse what most people will would call ordinary humanism.

        The key fact is that no how much societal racism decreases or anti discrimination policies are put in place, this won’t have any impact on these people’s ability to claim society is dominated by ‘structural whiteness’.

        Of course most people using white as pejorative or going on about ‘privilege’ on Facebook has never really thought of it in these terms, they’re simply repeating what have become acceptable dogmas for progressives.

      • “What?! What does “whiteness” mean?”

        It’s not exactly defined. Everyone can have their own idea about what it means.

        In that event, I declare both “white” and “whiteness” utterly meaningless. (Does that count? Why do I doubt that it does?)

  3. damon

    Whiteness – what is it? Is it something I’m feeling as I read through Ufua Hirsch’s Twitter postings this morning?
    I feel like I’m being accused of something. Like someone is standing in the street shouting at me.
    Because I’m a white person.

    I saw she has written an article in the New York Times today, which I can’t read because of the paywall.
    But I think I can get the gist of it.

    “Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out
    It’s the racism.”

    Then looking through the rest of her Twitter, there’s just lots of more stuff like that.

    She highlights stories of black Britons saying they might leave the country if the Tories won the election, and how a black poet turned down an MBE because of the “pure evil of the British Empire”.

    There’s definitely some major “block narratives” building up amongst politically minded BAME people.
    And there’s no reasoning with them or conversation worth having I think.
    It’s moving to sectarian-like positions. Like Northern Ireland today.

  4. Just a note on your last paragraph:
    I think there’s a difference between certain types of in-group preference which encompasses community, religion, nationality, sex, sexuality and many other intersecting identities; and ‘racism’ which is a type of discrimination based on ‘race’ and built upon notions of superiority. This is not imo. the same as a group of gay guys wanting to live with another gay man or a household of Filipino women electing to live with other Filipino speaking women.

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