W is for Whiteness in higher education

As controversy builds around the use of the term, Rachel Vandana Stone unmasks “white privilege” in higher education - and finds shades of grey.

Rachel Vandana Stone is Senior Lecturer in education at Sheffield Hallam University.


Racism is a problem in UK universities. For academics, this is not something we can simply put aside for another time.

Racism involves putting people into categories based on their appearance (such as “white” and “black”) and then assigning these categories a hierarchy.

This is a highly partisan act that has nothing at all to do with genetic difference and everything to do with politics and power. Everyone has a responsibility to address it.

But is placing people as one side of the divide or the other as simple as it seems?


It has been argued that we cannot understand racism, that is, the constructed hierarchy of these racial categories, without first understanding whiteness, where whiteness is defined as white privilege.

This is about the privileges that many people in predominantly “white”, so-called “westernised” countries take for granted, such as being prioritised for job interviews over those with “foreign-sounding” names, never being harassed due to the colour of their skin, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that all “white” people are automatically privileged, however. What it does mean is that if a white person experiences a lack of privilege, it is not likely to be due to the colour of their skin.

It has been argued, for example, that discourses about “white, working-class boys” being excluded from university be adjusted to discourses about, simply, “working-class boys”, since the “white” aspect is not relevant here in the way that gender and social class are.

Whiteness in higher education

The manifestations of whiteness in the academy are many and varied. These include:

In the revised edition of our A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education book and elsewhere, we consider in particular, the impact of whiteness on the taught curriculum. Thinking of our own subject specialist disciplines, for example, to what extent is it assumed that the “western” way of doing things is “natural”, while other ways are “exotic”? Whose knowledge and value systems are being left out of your curriculum? In many cases, has the eurocentric curriculum has become the “norm” or the default, presented as if this is just the way that the world “is”?

This raises the question of who stands to benefit from this “hegemonic canon” or “white ideology”, and who feels threatened by the idea of deconstructing and reinventing it. To answer the question of who is threatened, one need only look at who protests the loudest when such a curriculum is under attack. The authors of the recent Sewell report are one such example.

In their account of racism in the UK, for instance, they deny the existence of the structures of oppression that enable “white privilege” to exist, and instead, blame minority groups – such as our aunties of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin – for failing to assimilate, all the while peddling their own imagined curriculum full of bigotry and misplaced national pride.

Other examples might include those who oppose the removal of statues celebrating the lives of slave traders and colonialists, or those who refuse to interrogate the traditional curriculum that they teach as they simply do not see the relevance.

It’s all about power

The Sewell report creators – who wish to deny the existence of institutional racism – are all themselves people of colour. Individuals such as these, who appear to deny anti-racist counternarratives in order to aspire to whiteness themselves, have been assigned labels such as “token” or “honorary whites”, “native informants“, “coconuts” and other terms.

But perhaps equating whiteness with being “white”- and to label those non-white people who aspire to whiteness as anomalies – is a mistake.

Whiteness is ideological in nature, a social construct with boundaries that change over time. As Arwa Mahdawi puts it, ultimately, what really defines whiteness is not melanin or nationality – it’s power. And this makes the debate in higher education about whiteness much more nuanced than we think.

Rather than restricting whiteness to those who “look” white, it is worth examining, as an alternative, how and why different groups have aspired to whiteness over time and space.

We must also stop demanding that “white” people account for their whiteness, and instead focus on who pays the cost of white privilege and the mechanisms that enable this to happen. An example of this is the relatively high percentage of black african and black caribbean students attending low-tariff universities, and the increased likelihood of students from this group dropping out.

Addressing assumptions

In higher education, this work involves unpicking and interrogating many assumptions that we take for granted about students. To what extent do our students feel they can claim their rightful “entitlements” at university, for example? In our book we talk about making university processes and rituals more transparent to students, asking them where (or to whom) they would go first for specific information about an assignment, for instance, and thus uncovering differences in student approaches and expectations which can then be addressed.

We also push past eurocentric notions of knowledge to reveal a wealth of content relating to diversity in the curriculum, and we present case studies of what this might look like across a range of subject disciplines. These range from exploring how ethnicity might relate to expressions of nationality in sporting events on a sports course to interrogating the imperialist culture behind the western on a film and media programme.

The work of dismantling notions of identity, privilege and power in higher education applies to us all, regardless of how light-skinned or dark-skinned we may be or which “category” we most identify with. As academics, we need to lead by example. Rather than pointing the finger at those who might benefit from – or aspire to – white privilege, and demanding that they account for their advantage, let’s work with our students to reveal what they themselves feel it is that they are entitled to (or not entitled to) at university.

Let’s also mine the subjects we teach to reveal the rich diversity contained within, and let’s reinvent the traditions and trappings of higher education so that privilege of any kind becomes, simply, redundant.

This does not mean ignoring the existence of racism in universities – far from it. It means acknowledging that the work of addressing such institutional oppression is a collective endeavour for us all, regardless of which “colour” we are identified as.

On 30 June 2021, join us for a free event that asks: Do black lives still matter in higher education?

5 responses to “W is for Whiteness in higher education

  1. There certainly seems to be an intersection of comparative wealth with the extent to which issues of colonialism and white privilege are stated within a university context. My previous university was a post-92 with strong representation from ‘minority ethnic’ students within the overall student population. Concepts of de-colonisation, culture war and the like were not live issues; the students were too busy trying to get on with their lives and stay on their courses. The simply didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it, if it featured in their lives at all (and I’m not sure from the conversations I had with student at that institution, that it did).

    My current institution sits comfortably within the Russell Group. The students are predominantly white and many will be comfortably off. Questions of de-colonisation and race are a major pre-occupation of some sections of the student population. Whilst it’s good that the students care, surely, if we are talking privilege, having the capacity to care about and do something about these issues is surely itself a side effect of privilege? The poor kids at the post-92 have neither the time nor money to do something about it. I am putting this very crudely, I realise.

    1. Hi Crysanthemum,

      Thanks for your comments. I wonder how long ago you were at your post-92 university. As you point out, not so long ago phrases such as ‘white privilege’ were not in common use.
      However, just because these things were not spoken about in the same way doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.

      The students that you knew who were from minority ethnic groups may not have had the time or energy to analyse their situations, but it is likely that assumptions were being made by the university that were based on white normative experiences.

      How many different global perspectives were included on these students’ courses, for example, or was everything taught from a Eurocentric viewpoint? Who was getting the most attention in lectures – the ‘privileged’ students with their senses of entitlement, or the ones who sat at the back and felt like imposters? When experiences like this are not named, they can go unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen or that they didn’t have an impact on those involved.

      The idea of those with privilege having more ‘bandwidth’ or ‘headspace’ to discuss issues of race or whiteness is interesting. This is a discussion that everyone should have access to, and of course there are plenty of writers and academics of colour who are or have been leaders in the debate.

      One solution to opening up the debate beyond academia is to teach about white privilege in schools, to empower young people with the vocabulary and concepts to challenge the status quo. But this, of course, is what the Government is kicking back against with the recent Education Committee report on white working-class pupils, and the Sewell report on racism in Britain. (My own argument would be to say ‘Don’t just teach children about white privilege! Teach them about all kinds of privilege, including middle-class privilege and male privilege!).

      As for students from post-92 universities not having the resources to protest, you raise a pertinent question. What proportion of UK-based BLM activist students come from post-92 universities, I wonder? I think that there is a research project in the making here!

      Rachel Vandana Stone

  2. I think you are right that those with privilege have more ‘bandwidth’ to be able to discuss the subject and that’s maybe what they should be using their privilege for. I did read in the a report a couple of years ago that it should not be the responsibility of racialised groups to have to fight for equality alone and that it is the responsibility of those who witness racism and inequality to do something about it.

  3. Agreed. I suppose what I’m trying to say in the article is that it’s everyone’s responsibility, although I acknowledge that the fatigue of those from racialised minority groups in tackling this is well-documented.

    Rachel Vandana Stone

  4. Rachel, I actually agree with you. I suppose what I am getting at is that ‘privilege’ may not always be bad thing if it leads to people championing the rights of others (although the flipside is that it can be extraordinarily patronising).

    You asked how long ago I was at a post-92 – it was a couple of years ago, so pre-George Floyd, so it would be interesting to see if things have changed at all. In terms of eurocentric, the institution had quite a few international partnerships and, partly to save staff time, developed the modules to be delivered in multiple countries. The result was that a number of the modules were perhaps rather less euro-centric than you might expect. Those subjects which didn’t have such partnerships in place tended to be quite technical in nature, so whilst there might have potentially been that kind of bias it may not have always been so apparent, plus the staffing base was quite diverse.

    In terms of ‘bandwidth’, part of what I did was to deal with student cases. Many of them had complex family lives, and/or were trying to hold down full-time jobs whilst studying full-time. There might have been space in there to care about these issues, but not to the same extent as day-to-day survival. They probably were aware of the effect of all that you describe, because they lived it, but I am not sure they would have had the energy to try and change it or to believe it could be changed.

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