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Title Myth of Equality
Author Jason Wood
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism, Sociology, Psychology, Capitalism, Activism


"Faced with the choice...what would you say? The path of least resistance; it seems the only way."

(The Human League)

A Note on Terminology : Within this essay, the terms ‘Black’ and ‘White’ are used throughout to describe different groups of people characterised by ‘race’. These terms are not used to signal or concrete pseudo-scientific notions of biological differences between the two groups. They are purely used as political terminology in order to signal the social and psychological differences between oppressors and oppressed. Particular note should be paid to attention of the term ‘Black’ in that it is applied to people of Asian, African, Caribbean heritage.

Introduction: The Need for Struggle

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who favour freedom yet deprecate agitation, are (people) who want crops without ploughing up the ground; they want the rain without thunder or lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of the storms.”  (Frederick Douglas)

If youth and community workers about to embark on their progression from the halls of academia in pursuit of employment were to be given one thing, may it be Douglas’ quotation. Will it remind them of the consistent dilemma that faces them and the choices that they must make? Will the quotation serve to echo the voices of those figures that are explored within this paper? Will they remain committed to challenging oppression and what will they do in order to achieve this?

To the true change agent, struggle will be a defining feature of their practice.

It is hoped that this paper will serve as a tool of analysis for myself and others who claim to subscribe to anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice – those who are about to make or break a difference in other people’s lives.

The essay will be composed of two parts, examining the case for struggle, both in the psychological sense and in the sociological sense. It will present this analysis within the context of two discussions – two frames of references. However, as the reader will discover, these frames are not mutually exclusive – rather they interlock, determine each other and set the agenda for the future anti-oppressive practice of youth workers.

White: A Myth of Normality

From Enoch Powel’s rivers of blood, through to William Hague’s fears of a foreign land, immigration legislation has defined black people’s presence in Britain with a constant condition:

“If you are here, be like us, if you cannot, go home.”  (Sivanandan 1982:136)

But the critical question that we should all be asking ourselves and others is surely what we mean by ‘us’ and how do we set an absolute for people to aspire to? The statement, together with the terms and conditions we place upon the Black population commands us to examine some concepts and notions before engaging in any discussion about struggle.

Practitioners are too often quick to label racism as a condition amongst a minority of ill-informed violent “thugs” and institutional racism has only become a discussion outside of academic discourse in recent times. The ‘educated’ practitioner may understand concepts of the social construction of ‘race’ and all that pertains to it, however, there is much more that needs to be done and the responsibility rests with the practitioner engaging in intervention. Specifically, the practitioner needs to address the white perspective in order to fully comprehend a need for a black perspective. This is the first key to unlocking our roles within the struggle.

However, before continuing with this discussion I wish to clarify a point. In his forward to a study of the white norms and values that dominate America, Apple states concern at the growing belief that:

“Whites are the “new losers” in a playing field that they believe has been levelled now that the United States is a supposedly basically egalitarian, colour blind society…whites, hence, have no privilege.” (1998:ix)

This discussion is not to serve as a tool for developing a white perspective to support foolish notions of a white struggle for equality – there is not such a thing. When you can claim to have the dominant cultural pack of cards, together with the support of legislation, systems, structures and religion as well as being virtually free of harassment (Dyer 1997), any struggle is purely the hand of superiority reaching tiredly for its weapon. Further more, this is the very basis of the white perspective – understanding the dominance of a luck of the draw – the colour which grants us the privilege and acceptance that pushes us above others, whether we subscribe to it or otherwise.

There is a modest aim herein, in keeping with practitioners required duty to challenge inequality.  Informal Educators lay claim to enabling people to understand situations as opposed to simply knowing about them:

“When we say we ‘understand’ something we are saying that we can place various parts of the problem in relation to one another.”  (Jeffs & Smith 1999:11)

The duty to inform, to provide education and to redress inequality are the key formulae to effective youth and community worker, and:

“These values should inform both the content of conversations and encounters, as well as our behaviour and relationships as educators.”  (Ibid.:14)

To adopt at face value, anti-racism, without taking into consideration the balance of power and privilege that whiteness carries with it, is passage for failed interventions and potential re-enforcement of status quo normality. Whiteness plays a fundamental part in all of what we do, all of what is done to us and in order to revisit racism, we must first understand whiteness.

Post imperial thinking, ideology and the power that Britain once was, is woven into the fabric of whiteness, such that “we cannot will our racist logics away” (McLaren 1998:63). Rather it is a case of having to tackle this logic head on, and this requires struggle – internally as well as externally. Grappling with the concepts of whiteness can be tough, and we should just be realistic from the outset about our own informed perceptions, values and notions about ‘race’ even if they are unconscious (Dyer 1997). Many commentators have searched for the meaning and interpretation of whiteness, but we need look no further then dominant cultural forces within our society – mainly the media, education, science and religion. This cultural grain runs throughout all other forms of public influence and public life. Specifically, whiteness is not framed as an ethnic identity. Rather, it is taken for granted as the norm. The potential error with labelling anything as a ‘norm’ means that consequently everything else is not normal. Whiteness is ideological, commanding both the concepts of striving for oneself, together with the social control traditionalism.

The only time that whiteness ‘racialises’ itself comes at time of defense. The emergence of identity politics, whereby Black British people and other marginalized groups claim a voice or a sense of political unity, has led to a ‘fear’ amongst white people- a disruption to normality if you will. I like to refer to this fear as, what Faludi coined when discussing sexism, the backlash – the oppressor attempting to silence the oppressed as they begin to maintain some control (Faludi 1999). A practical example of this common condition could not be more accurate in the Mail on Sunday’s reaction to debates in race and politics. The paper mocked Robin Cook’s speech condemning the notion of a singular British race (22.04.01) and has a consistent reputation for defending the Anglo-Saxon heritage of Englishness. Ashrif (2001) comments quite astutely on this mode of identity politics, where attempts to challenge racism are often used to picture the white as a victim.

The denial of racism as anything other than the violent incidents that occur throughout Britain everyday is down to throwing the responsibility of whiteness away. Do we question our whiteness; examine how it has served as a privilege and a token to our fortune? Or do we continue to abstract racism from ourselves, mildly engaging in fruitless ‘issue based’ work? Enjoy the ocean without the awful roar of the storms.

One could argue that the former would evoke damage, but I argue that the latter will have more disastrous consequences for both oppressor and oppressed.

“The real powerhouse of empowerment lies…in each individual’s ability to transcend the internalised lies, myths and misinformation which keep us corralled in our own sense of powerlessness.” (Young 1999:89)

This statement is as true to myself, a White man, as it is to a member of an oppressed group on two accounts.

Firstly, fruitless attempts to develop a power-sharing relationship with oppressed groups without recognising that discrimination and oppression is ‘sewn in’ to the fabric of society and is glued through structural system and socio-political forces (Thompson 1997) is prone to failure. Part of this recognition process must be the ability to identify cultural norms and values that shape and influence our socialisation process:

“We must recognise the powerful role of culture in forming our opinions, guiding our actions and so on.” (Thompson 1997:20)

Recognition, understanding and critical thinking enable us to adopt a thorough conceptual picture of oppression. This, however, is not enough without translation to practice. Workers in the field need to recognise that challenging oppression is not simply the ‘issue-based’ occasional work that they may undertake. Actions are merely the behaviour of values and the norms that we subscribe to. Anti-racist, as with every other anti-oppressive strategy work, must flow through our practice from the start to the very end.

The second reason for applying the Young statement to the oppressor is something more psychological. Citing a student’s contribution as a motive for challenging oppression, one can relate to the process known as ‘healing’. To be more precise in the positioning of this statement within the context of youth and community work, we can refer to the development of self-actualisation:

“The esteem and respect of others and self-esteem and self-respect.” (Gross 1996:98)

Humanistic psychology, through the educational philosophies of Carl Rogers places this statement in respect of the unconditional worth of self and others – a process that must rid itself of oppression in order to be exacted in behaviour.

Further psychological analysis shows the condition of white racism to be separated in three layers. Most applicable to this discussion would be the type of practitioner who:

“Impelled by a strong social conscience, consider themselves liberals and, despite their sense of aversion (which may not even be admitted inwardly), do their best within the given structure of society seek to ameliorate the conditions of the Negro.” (Kovel 1988:55)

Aversion and detachment of the racism condition is psychologically (in Freud speak) easier for the Ego to manifest itself. However, the nagging doubt will remain unconsciously – the fears and logic will continue to weave themselves through the character of the practitioner. It is this ‘liberal’ approach that has for so long defined the map of multi-culturalist education in this country; it is far easier to celebrate the exotic than struggle with the problematic.

In short, whiteness operates in modern day Britain as a ‘mythical’ collective superiority complex, but without the harshness or brutality of direct racist attack, we cannot easily recognise it because it has so easily polluted both our minds and sensibilities. It has become, what Marx referred to as, the ‘essence of man’:

“(The) Sum of productive forces, a historically created relation to nature and of individuals to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor.”    (Marx in Smart 1991:57)

This imaginary essence can be counteracted and challenged, but to examine whiteness alone is only the first stage. As with everything, learning about oneself, and the actuality of the world is only as good as the action that is borne of this understanding.  The condition of whiteness has allowed us to be logical about the politics and economics of racism and inequality for too long. It is time to cast our sights towards the writings of those directly involved in struggle – those who appreciated that you cannot have freedom without agitation.

Black: A Myth of Equality

What is it that embraces such emotive commitment and inspiration within the writings of those who present a black perspective? It’s all about experience:

“We Africans occupy a different – indeed a unique position among the nations of this century. Having for so long known oppression, tyranny and subjugation, who, with better right, can claim for all opportunity and the right to live and grow as free men…whose voices can be better raised in demand and right for all?” (Hail Selassie)

Conversely, what it is that drives black British people to avoid the struggle, or worse decide that one is not needed? What is it that allows them to accept a white token of validation, or in the case of my analysis – a myth of equality? Frank Bruno serves as a particular example to call to question on this point when he states that:

“As far as Laura and I are concerned…(racism) has never mattered. If there is a problem, it is in the minds of other people. The world’s problems would be settled if we could all be mixed together in a great big melting pot.”   (Bruno 1992:95)

What is Frank’s position? Why is it connected to the concepts that I discussed in the latter part of this essay? Franz Fanon could be discussing Bruno as he talks about the black man who:

“Becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle…” (Fanon 1986:18)

And further:

 "The most eloquent form of ambivalence is adopted toward them by the native, the one-who-never-crawled-out-of-his-hole…” (Ibid.:19)

The black man has joined the chain of token hierarchal power. He has risen to a perceived new height and lost his mind along the way. Frank Bruno typifies this syndrome of self-depreciation and inferiority. He portrays the ideal for the British palette (‘our Frank’) but at the same time denies the explosiveness and blatancy of racism that surrounds him. This leads to a two-pronged attack upon himself and other Black people. On the one hand, he develops the inferiority complex through the death and burial of his own culture whilst perceiving his journey advanced in becoming a real human being through the mastery of white norms and language (Fanon 1986). Secondly, he sets up the Black communities around him. As such a high profile figure, he inevitably presents a Black image to the masses, white and black alike, to measure others by. This false representation serves as a tool for whiteness to command what they expect of the Black British:

“By adopting conservative ideologies and the assimilationist model of ‘race relations’, which in the current climate amounts to little more than disavowal of Black cultural identity and any notion of Black empowerment.” (Carrington 2000:151)

In other words, if it is white man determines inequality – the same is true of equality. The ideological cement that binds capitalism, which in itself is the political frame for whiteness, is wealth, competition, domination and inequality – standards by which individuals can progress in measurable terms. Frank is only doing what the White perspective of black expects.

Rather than this assimilation requirement, early on into the British immigration situation, it was noted by authors that cultural diversity and interchange were noted as the only viable way forward for Britain (see, for example, Brown 1970). Some thirty years later, pluralist theories about multi-culturalism are still offered as the only viable means of securing lasting relationships (Parekh 2000). This pluralist approach has arguably been most successful not in the multi-cultural arena, but in those who have channelled Black perspectives into policy development, the political landscape and into everyday practice (Shukra 1998).

Key Black intellectuals and prominent ‘movers and shakers’ have offered alternative perspectives at many different levels. For example, a step further from pluralist methods of cultural interchange is the notion of separation. Malcolm X presented separation as a goal for black people when:

“Instead of begging the white man for what he has, we should get together and start doing something for ourselves” (1971:85)

Malcolm X’s powerful speeches, interviews and declarations of commitment to the cause of Black emancipation teach us a valuable lesson that equate both the mythology of white supremacy with the false equality of Black British people. X’s quote highlights his ideological stance precisely when he refers to ‘begging’.

Marcus Garvey carried a similar philosophy some years earlier, pronouncing a ‘race first’ ideology, recognising that racial separation may be the only means to Black people taking a lead in the economics of the day. The ideology would attempt to create a:

“Nucleus of a self-sustaining (and therefore self-employing) black race in America.” (Martin 1976:24)

But Garvey’s vision of liberation and emancipation did not stop at this level:

“His gaze looked longingly toward Africa, as the salvation of the African abroad.” (Ibid.: 24)

Two important points within Garvey’s analysis and protest have developed into my own thinking about anti-oppressive practice. One; that culture is a powerful tool in fostering liberation and two; that oppression is significantly based on power relationships in society – a variation of Marx thinking for the Black oppressed.

Garvey’s disgust at the fellow Black man who does not engage in recognising race, or put in another way – those who, like Frank Bruno, adopt and accept their position (whether unconsciously or consciously) fuelled his ‘race first’ ideals. Whether or not this is an ideal stance, it was echoed in both the work of Malcolm X where he spoke of the new Negro versus the old Negro scenario (X 1971) and in Franz Fanon’s mass psychological audit of he who seeks to be the whiter Human Being (Fanon 1986).

Separation is just one of many solutions posed by Black activists, philosophers and academics over the years. One recognises the need to push for self-interest, or collective worth. However, it relieves us of our duties and our roles in the establishment of a plural community. Do we, as Garvey visualised, turn our sites towards the promise of Africa? Perhaps. But, there is more on our parts to be done.

The essential steps towards understanding the myth of equality that we set for Black people in modern day Britain can be understood by phrasing some radical thought:

“The boys were reared to be Negroes not men. A Negro might survive a while, but a black “man” didn’t live very long…A black boy aiming to reach ‘manhood’ rarely lasted that long”

(Moreau quote in Brown 1969:12)

This notion of ‘survival’ should not be taken in the literal sense, but framed within the present day context of anti-racist struggle in Britain. It correctly sums up the Black condition whereby those who assimilate and obey will inevitably get through life. They display their horror at activism on the part of Black people, stating that “it hurts the cause and all sorts of bull like that” (Brown 1969:15) and try with all their might and will to live by the contradiction of never being white and not fully returning to being black.

Those who are Black, politically motivated for change and angry at their recognition of the system for what it truly is, are forced outside of the social consensus. They are punished, driven to prison or mental hospitals to contain their aggression within the frame of non-co-operation. As Fanon reminds us:

“When a Negro talks of Marx, the white man reacts; ‘we have brought you up to our level and now you turn against your benefactors…” (1986:35)

This statement can be applied to those who speak against racism such as sports-star Linford Christie (see, for example, Carrington 2000) or more recently Lord Taylor who faced a ‘shut up or leave’ ultimatum by his party for exposing racism (Wood 2001).

And so we return not only to the notion of struggle, but also to Young’s deliberations of empowerment – the real powerhouse. We have the duty as practitioners, white and black, to identity the steps towards Black emancipation in this country. To simply state that a dose of multi-culturalism will solve the issues is as prone to failure, citing the reasons already explored. Equally, I do not concern myself with racial separation, because even Garvey’s sternest supporters will acknowledge that a ‘race-first’ ideology will suit the hard right identity in equal measure to those who are oppressed. Cultural interchange is the way forward, but it won’t be an easy choice to take and will involve a lot of work.

Conclusion: Youth Work & Political Consciousness

Whiteness is as mythical as the concept of the inferiority of blacks – we know this much. But what interplay does politics have in this discussion? It is assumed that there is no need to enter a lengthy analysis of capitalism at this point - however, for the purposes of including youth worker’s roles within this argument, it is worth examining the relevance of politics. For it is new right policy that will always inform inequality – it is new right thinking that will always strengthen the pseudo-science theories of race; the dispersion of resources; the enemies amongst our peoples. Without them, capitalism as a system would fail – inequality is a fundamental component (George & Wilding 1985).

In contrast, Social Democracy, a term used in sociological analysis of Tony Blair’s “third way” points to a renewal of the socialist principles that seem to have been so openly sidestepped since the Labour government returned to power. Amongst these principles is an argument for equality citing the benefits for the economy and society as a whole (Giddens 1998). The approach based on this seemingly convoluted and loose ideology is to develop social exclusion strategies that seek to:

“Set in place reforms that will deliver basic minimum standards in key services that have been under performing for many people and places…” (Social Exclusion Unit 2000)

The two dominant elements of political ideology in this country, new right and social democracy lean towards suiting a majority consensus and fail to address the complexities of power relationships within oppression.

This is where youth work has consistency failed to raise political consciousness in young people and the communities that it works with. If this were not the case, then this discussion would have a more rounded conclusion. The national political landscape is fast approaching populism likened with America, and leaders talk about their conquest for the ‘mainstream majority’, which according to William Hague excludes discussions around abolishing oppressive legislation (1). The assumption is that as the vote slides away from those who most need to have a voice, the less their needs will be represented. What forms from this pattern is a loss of representation from the classes of the oppressed, to the classes of the power holders.

As Youth and Community Workers, the seriousness of this situation should be where we find our roles within the struggle. Political education, employing a Black perspective, must flow through our work – drawing on the experiences, knowledge and understanding of those have faced defiance and commanded respect for the colour Black. We must do everything in our limited range of powers to influence local services, education providers and communities to adopt pluralist strategies to their work. We must ask ourselves, when was the last time that we really, genuinely took action to oppose oppression? When did we actively use our own votes to shape political thought?

With Black power leaving the streets and becoming part of Partisan mechanisms, we need to return political awareness to those who need it most. We can do this through fostering democracy at local levels, daring to be radical in our work and, as this essay has tried to frame, questioning what we are, and how this determines our positions within society.

Those who choose to continue the abstraction of racism from ‘being white’ are those most likely to continue to replicate its very existence.

Please always reference the author of this page. How to reference us.
Copyright © 1999-2002 Student Youth Work Online. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 14, 2002 .

Contact the author for further discussion about this paper

References & Recommended Reading

Apple, M.W. (1998) Forward in Kincheloe et. al. (Eds.) White Reign – Deploying Whiteness in America, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Ashrif, S. (2001) If the Shoe Fits, Student Youth Work Online Comment:

Blauner, R. (1982) Colonised and Immigrant Minorities, in Giddens & Held (Eds.) Classes, Power & Conflict – Contemporary Debates, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Brown, H.P. (1969) Die Nigger Die!, London: Allison & Bushby

Bruno, F. (1992) The Eye of the Tiger: My Life, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Carrington, B. (2000) Double Consciousness and the Black British Athlete, in Owusu, K. (Ed.) Black British Culture and Society, London: Routledge

Dyer, R. (1997) White, London: Routledge

Faludi, S. (1999) Stiffed – The Betrayal of Modern Man, London: Vintage

Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press

George, V. & Wilding, P. (1985) Ideology and Social Welfare, London: Routledge

Giddens, A. (1998) The Third Way – The Renewal of Social Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press

Gross, R. (1996) Psychology – The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London: Hodder & Stoughton

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M.K. (1999) Informal Education: Conversation, Democracy and Learning, London: Education Now

Kovel, J. (1988) White Racism – A Psychohistory, London: Free Association Books

Mail on Sunday (22.04.2001) Headlines and leader articles, London:

Martin, T. (1976) Race First: The Ideological and Organisational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Massachusetts: Majority Press

McLaren, P. (1998) Whiteness is…The Struggle for Post-Colonial Hybridity, in Kincheloe et. al. (Eds.) White Reign – Deploying Whiteness in America, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Parekh et al (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, London: Profile Books

Saggar, S. (1992) Race and Politics in Britain, Hertfordshire: Campus 400

Shukra, K. (1988) The Changing Pattern of Black Politics in Britain, London: Pluto Press

Social Exclusion Unit (2000) Preventing Social Exclusion at

Sivanandan, A. (1982) A Different Hunger – Writings on Black Resistance, London: Pluto Press

Smart, P. (1991) Mill and Marx: Individual liberty and the Roads to Freedom, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Thompson, N. (1997) Anti-Discriminatory Practice, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Wood, J.J. (2001) Sorry for Expressing Our Racism, Student Youth Work Online Comment:

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