Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
There’s nothing more tedious than scrolling through Instagram when it gets political. The usual selfies, photos of dodgy culinary creations and snaps of friends and family are replaced overnight with social justice infographics, anti-Tory soundbites and demands to check one’s privilege.
Last summer, Instagram became the platform for discussions about racism and how to tackle it. What began as legitimate outrage over what appeared to be the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis soon morphed into a toxic – and largely one-sided – debate around ill-defined concepts such as “white privilege” and “white fragility”.
For days, scrolling the platform meant sifting through a barrage of statements on how “white silence is violence”, recommended reading lists for white people to re-educate themselves (all of them including Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, of course), and influencers issuing public apologies for failing to adequately display support for the Black Lives Matter movement (it’s not enough to be non-racist, you must be “anti-racist”, so the saying goes). Anything short of total self-flagellation appeared unacceptable to the vocal Insta-mob.
It was against this febrile atmosphere that an interaction with an acquaintance turned sour. The man in question had reached out to his followers for advice on how to teach his young child about her “white privilege”. Perhaps foolishly, I responded that he could instead teach his child not to judge people based on their skin colour. Radical, I know. However, as I half-expected, this was akin to blasphemy and was met with an instant “how dare you”, “embarrassing response” and “easy for you to say in your privileged white position”. When I didn’t bite back, I was blocked. Slightly bruised by the reaction, I decided to delete the app – albeit temporarily.
Given the contempt with which reasonable suggestions can be met, it’s not surprising that many people simply choose to remove themselves from these discussions. There are many who believe as a white person, I shouldn’t express an opinion on such matters. But when so many of our institutions have fallen hook, line, and sinker for identity politics, indulging in and perpetuating pseudo-scientific theories of “white privilege”, critical race theory and unconscious bias training, it is critical that people put their head above the parapet, however uncomfortable it may be.
Dubious literature furthering ideas of this sort has already been widely shared and used as teaching material in our primary and secondary schools, shedding plenty of heat but not much light on what are undoubtedly important issues. Now, we have got to the stage where even nursery teachers may soon be trained in “understanding white privilege”. As reported in The Times, The Early Years Coalition, which represents tens of thousands of nurseries and other providers, is now advocating a shift away from a “colour-blind approach to race”, so children “recognise racist behaviours and develop anti-racist views”.
But how exactly, one might ask, will encouraging toddlers to “see race” achieve anything but division? And were the Conservative MPs who criticised the advice not right to warn that it risks early years learning “becoming some kind of political Soviet indoctrination session”? Perhaps my aforementioned Insta-pal can enlighten me as to where I’m going wrong.
While some of the immediate indignation has subsided from the conversation around Black Lives Matter on Instagram, the ugliness in the debate around race in this country persists, with the release of last week’s race report revealing once again some of the tensions at play. Among many sensible recommendations, the report rejects critical race theory and terms such as “white privilege”.
The report’s authors, the majority of whom come from an ethnic minority background, were consequently bullied, racially abused and told they were “part of the problem” by those who disagreed with their conclusions. The report did conclude that there is still racism in Britain and it must be taken seriously but, crucially, that there is not enough evidence to conclude that the country as a whole is “institutionally racist” and that other factors, such as social class and family structure, also play as much, if not more, of a part in how people’s lives turn out.
To many, of all ethnicities, this report was a welcome intervention. It sought to take a nuanced look at ethnic disparities in this country in order to come up with evidence-based solutions to some of the challenges facing different minority groups. The report was not a “whitewash”, as some critics have said, but a challenge to the widely-held mistruth that any difference in outcome across ethnic groups is purely down to discrimination. This was met by accusations of “gaslighting” minorities from some of the most vocal people in the media, politics and academia, including a number of prominent Labour MPs who sought to undermine the entire 260-page report – not least, Clive Lewis who compared the report’s authors to the Ku Klux Klan in what was a rather ill-judged tweet, to put it mildly.
There is a vocal minority of people in Britain who dominate discussions in the media, and seem determined to import the racially-charged culture we see in the US. However, the picture in this country is complex and the parallels we can draw are limited, not least because of our dramatically different histories. It is working-class white boys who are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to educational outcomes. And while black Caribbean children are also underachieving at school, the data shows pupils of black African heritage are doing better (though, of course, there are huge discrepancies within these categories too). It reinforces why there is more to racial disparities than simply shouting “racism” – however unfashionable in our current climate it may be to say so.
It is likely that the Government suspected the report would be met by a level of outrage and, in the coming weeks and months, it will consider the recommendations in detail in order to inform policy. But, however much Conservatives may wish to write off the influence of social media and the contributions of the usual suspects as transient, unfortunately the belief that the UK is a racist country has taken a grip of many of our young people, including the highly educated. We must encourage critical thinking, especially when the conclusions we find don’t fit the current liberal woke orthodoxies. There is too little critical thinking in schools and far too much critical race theory and we will all suffer in the end, for it can only lead to division.