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Power and Privilege. A Personal View

25 March 2021

4 mins

I am male, I am white and by any reasonable definition, I am middle class. My father was an academic, as was my grandfather. I am acutely conscious, therefore, that when the phrase white privilege is used in the context of academia, I am the archetypal beneficiary of the structural advantages that exist within Higher Education.

When I reflect on this, two things come immediately to mind.

The first is that I don’t think the characteristics outlined above define me. While they are accurate, there is more to me than that – it is the truth, but not the whole truth. The reality of my life is in many ways atypical (though I’m not sure I know what a typical life is) largely due to the fact that my parents lived and worked overseas during my childhood and early adulthood. Growing up alongside people whose skin was a different colour to mine, not something I had much experience of in the north east of England in the early 1970s, opened my eyes to a world that was both richer than I had ever imagined existed and also beset with difficulties that your average white, British teenager had no concept of.

The second is that while I might prefer not to associate myself with the stereotype that I portrayed in my opening sentence, my position of power and authority within the University means that I have to accept that others will do precisely that. I embody something that is not just about me as a person, but about what I represent. And while that is uncomfortable at times, it is also true.

Let’s be clear, white privilege is real. Sexism in the workplace is real. Some barriers that get in the way of other people simply do not exist for affluent white men. It doesn’t matter whether in a particular circumstance I have personally benefited from my skin colour or my gender, they afford advantages that even a casual glance around the University demonstrates are very powerful indeed. There is no doubt that taken as a whole I have benefitted from systemic biases in society in general and in Higher Education in particular.

So here is the main message of this blog. In order for us to make progress to a more equitable society, to a work environment where white privilege is acknowledged, addressed and dismantled, to a place where barriers that impact negatively on the careers of women are eliminated, people like me need to give up some of our privilege and power. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot – there are a great many of us – and it might just be an acceptance that as a white man you won’t progress in the way or at the rate that might have happened in the past.  

An example that is directly relevant to me concerns opportunities for senior roles outside the University. Organisations are quite rightly insistent that their advisory and governance structures are created in a way that allows diverse views to be heard. It is imperative, for example, that our own University Council reflects views of a very mixed set of people.

When it comes to those who are currently in senior roles that might make them eligible for an external opportunity, there is an over-representation of white men and yet organisations want diversity. It follows that as a white man it is harder to get such a position. This is absolutely as it should be. On a personal level it might feel unfair, but people like me need to accept it. You cannot remove the structural problems by simply levelling the playing field. It is not enough.

Professor Chris Linton
Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Loughborough University

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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