The privilege of being generic

Some White people don’t like being called “white“.

Why do we need labels? Why can’t we all just be people?

Those of us with post-colonial backgrounds might raise an eyebrow at this,

“Why indeed?”

Some people have always had labels affixed to them. If you’re not white in the U.K. you likely spend a lot of time negotiating various labels both those you affix yourself for others and those they place upon you. Where you’re from, where you’re really from.

But being white does not normally necessitate this. If you’re white you’re assumed to be from here. This is perhaps where the anger comes from. If you’re accustomed to being accepted wherever you go it can be difficult to feel that you suddenly require explanation.

There’s a historical irony to this. White as an ethnicity was a conscious creation of racial theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was shaped by the need to differentiate Europeans from inferior, colonised races; and by efforts to fashion and preserve hegemony by Protestant elites in America. Who got to be white has always been up for negotiation, but the principle of exclusion was vital.

Having moved from an identity based on reified differentiation, Whiteness became the default from which everything else is an exception. If you are the generic option then you must, by definition belong. However much space is allowed for people that differ from you (and that space can contract as much as it expands) it is clear that you are making space for others at your indulgence. They might be allowed to stay (or they might not), but that’s not the same as belonging.

The consequences of this trope become clear when a broadcaster comments on the number of white people that attend a Brexit rally and unleashes a torrent of white grievance. Grievance that would be called identity politics if the parties involved had more melanin.

But the consequences are bigger then just Jon Snow being made to give a public apology. The consequences of the White default are that members of the Windrush generation can face sudden deportation to countries they left as children. They are that MPs like Diane Abbott and David Lammy can face continual vicious racist abuse and death threats. Because some people think that just being born here and then getting elected does not give one carte blanch to criticise a state that fundamentally isn’t for you. They are that the Mail can decide a Black MC is being “ungrateful” when he castigates the failure to offer justice for the Grenfell disaster. The consequences are that Shamima Begum’s newborn baby can be left to die in a camp for the sin of having an abused teenager for a mother. Because the rule of law is only conditional for people who are exceptions to the rule.

It does not matter that the Home Secretary who revoked Shamima’s citizenship is not white. Not being white does not necessarily inoculate you from the overwhelming logic of the white default. Especially if your career ambitions rely on it not doing so.

White is not the only default. A recent book has pointed out how much of our lives takes men to be the basic unit of measurement, across culture, design, healthcare. And people who are LGBT have a lot they can tell you about the assumptions of heteronormativity that run though discussions of sexuality. These are just two examples. Each of these defaults have their own historical roots, and modes of expression. But all of them reinforce the idea that the generic is the common good. Everyone else has narrow sectional interests which are granted more or less tolerance depending on the times. To draw attention to this dynamic is to engage in divisive identity politics, and even the default are not free to do that.


The case against stop and search

Should we bring back stop and search?

In many ways, it never went away. But it was in significant abeyance for several years. The current wave of knife violence has amplified calls from police to ramp up the use of stop and search, in a return to policing tactics last seen at the start of the decade, before usage plummeted.

Stop and search rate, per 1000 people, by ethnicity over time

all stop and search


Source: Police powers and procedures England and Wales statistics

There were a number of years in the middle of the last decade, when Theresa May – she of the hostile environment and go home vans – positioned herself as the scourge of racist and counter-productive policing. The following is an excerpt from a debate on the use of stop and search from 2014, inspired, partly by an Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report on the usage of stop and search:

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The figures given by my right hon. Friend on stop-and-search are frankly a stain on British policing. The vast majority of stop-and-search powers are exercised under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and police officers are required to have reasonable suspicion before exercising those powers. Do not the figures indicate that, sadly, in a large number of cases it is nothing but the colour of the skin of the person being stopped that has caused the stop-and-search to happen?

Mrs May: I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend is right. It is clear that in a large number of cases, there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion. Given that a black person is six times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, one can only assume that it is the fact that the person is black that leads to the stop-and-search taking place.

Michael Ellis: Disgraceful.

Mrs May: It is absolutely disgraceful. Sadly, as I indicated in response to another hon. Friend, the feeling has been passed through to young people in black and minority ethnic communities that this is what happens and is, if you like, a fact of life. I want to change that and ensure that it is not a fact of life.

Source: Hansard 30 April 2014

I would encourage anyone to go back and read the whole debate, if for no other reason than to see Theresa May deplore the draconian usage of stop and search licenced by Labour Home Secretaries during their most recent term in office.

In the wake of the 2011 Riots, the HMIC report, and year after year of grossly disproportionate stop and search statistics; the political climate had shifted so far that two conservative politicians could stand up in parliament and brand the police’s actions “disgraceful”. A cynic might also point to the context of a running fight between the Home Office and the Police Federation regarding budget cuts. But still, how far we’ve come.

Subsequent reforms to the practice of authorising Section 60 orders (orders that permit stop and search to be carried out in a specific area without need for reasonable suspicion for a limited time) always the most grossly disproportionate power; brought usage to almost zero. The Home Office’s Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme (BUSS) outperformed the (admittedly rather pessimistic) expectations of civil society groups and did reign in excessive stops. But while stop and search declined, disproportionality remained:



(This chart and the one below are taken from The Colour of Injustice report by Release and the LSE, 2018)

Black people continue to be subjected to stop and search at a disproportionate rate.

That’s not fair. But surely, given the current knife crime epidemic, might we accept a little disproportionality if it will take knives off the street? If it did that, maybe we would and maybe not. The problem is that stop and search is overwhelmingly not deployed against, nor does do much to prevent knife crime.

It’s mainly used for drugs.


What this chart shows is that, as the use of stop and search has declined for other offences, drug stops have made up a bigger and bigger proportion of the total.

Self-reported drug use is very slightly lower among Black people than white. It is higher among Black men than white men, though not nearly at a level that justifies the disproportionate level of policing.

adult drug use

Source: Illicit Drug Use amongst Adults, NHS Digital

The evidence indicates that Black people are more likely to be stopped on suspicion of drug possession, and if found to be in possession of drugs are likely to receive a more punitive response. To pick just three indicative stats: Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences at 4.5 times the rate of whites, are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate, and are subject to immediate custody at 5 times the rate of white people.

Given the above, what are the chances that granting the police carte blanche to ramp up stop and search will result in proportionately more knives being recovered? As opposed to many more young Black people being arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis?

We don’t need to speculate. Studies on this topic go back decades. And they all indicate that stopping people on the street is not a very effective way of capturing knives. There is statistical evidence that shows that increase in stop and search do not correlate with decreases in knife crime, and there are studies showing that stop and search undermines community trust in policing. If people don’t trust the police, they will not tell them if they know someone who is carrying a knife. If young people do not trust the police, they will not rely on them for protection, instead they might carry a knife.

Stop and Search fulfils a psychological need to just do something. But that something is not keeping young people safe.