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What is the challenge to leadership in relation to White privilege?

On the 7th May 2020 I contributed a provocation to one of a series of discussions organised by scholar activist Dr Muna Abdi of MA Associates around the BAME Leadership Pipeline. This particular discussion focussed on ‘White Privilege – A challenge to Leaders’

The report of the discussion which included contributions from Dr J. Shah, Dr Alex Mason and Mr Lincoln Tapper can be found here at Dr Abdi’s blog An Educational Nomad . The post is here

The following is an extended version of the 5 minute provocation I offered to the group which responded to the question: What is the challenge to leadership in relation to White privilege?

White objectifying power

White privilege is a manifestation of possessive power. It is as an orientation to the world which manifests through having and owning; through possession. And, perhaps most importantly through imagining or assuming one has the right to own and possess in the first place. Following W E B Du Bois (1920: 18 The Souls of White Folk)

“But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!

(See also Aileen Moreton-Robinson The White Possessive, Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, for a similar take on Whiteness as Possession).

From this basic premise of whiteness and the enactment of white privilege as manifest through this objectifying, possessive owning impulse, we must understand the fundamental dynamic of power and ownership whiteness enacts as anti-relational.

Whiteness is power working as a form of domination which disallows relationally enacted agency and value. That is to say that white possessiveness frames the institutional situation in which value cannot be co-created outside of the basic frame set by the institution. Value is always defined by one party; the party who invites, the party who frames the terms of inclusion, of understandability and allowability in a space. In a white supremacist context this means that white values define institutional spaces. They define the appropriate norms and behaviour within a space.

This understanding of whiteness as a definitional frame is now well worn territory in a critique of institutional whiteness. In a research based article published in 2006 on the how this white defining works in the context of Adult and Community Learning (ACL) organisations I explain this phenomenon in this way:

The key issue is who has the power to exercise meaning and to create the community identifications that invite closures around this meaning. Within liberal benevolent multiculturalisms [that frame ACL] it is the White norm which occupies the central speaking position, but which has simultaneously been rendered invisible in this process of meaning construction. Black and minoritized leaders in ACL still struggle with the spectre of Whiteness. (Hunter, 2006:124)

What is less well worn in our understandings is what a different sort of leadership practice, a leadership practice ‘outside’ of whiteness means for our educational institutions. What sort of leadership do we need and how does the practice relate to these issues of definition?

This brings me to the second point I raised in my original provocation for the discussion hosted by Dr Abdi.

In order to challenge white privilege the practice of leadership needs to be completely flipped

1. It must have the practice of relationality at its core. That relationality needs to be understood as framed through an understanding and public identification of (at least) the following three dimensions which frame institutional relations:

⁃The context of global coloniality in our current present (Carceral and Necropolitical capitalism [see Jaqui Wang 2018 and Achille Mbembe 2019 )

⁃The specific dynamics of coloniality in the national context which flow from and produce this in England/Britain (Neoliberal whiteness, the mythology of white benevolence)

⁃The specific institutional dynamics at play in the specific organisational context (educated racism, liberal multiculturalism, neoliberal diversity and inclusion)

2. This essentially means leading against the established institution, its culture, its dynamics

3. This is as well as leading against the (leader) self – the ego; against the idea of the individual self as possessor of knowledge and the locus for action; i.e. leading against the idea of the leader as the locus for and architect of change.

This flipping is important precisely because institutions demand commitment to their values, which from the frame of institutionalised white supremacy are white values. These institutional frames measure worth and value in a particular way. These are white measures and white judgements rooted in auditing, defining, counting, fixing; measuring in order to create a hierarchy of institutional value. The Research Excellence Framework, and the Teaching Excellence Framework are both examples of this sort of HE institutional accounting practice. It is through these frameworks where techniques of audit and the range of common HR and management practices rooted in supposed merit become the means to achieve white institutional success. This is the point at which how we define the world and how the world is practiced comes together. Definition of value creates hierarchy of success, reward and debt in the institutional space. Who is successful, who is rewarded, and who owes an institutional debt which must be repaid, through harder, better or just more work, more demonstration of institutional commitment. (See Ahmed, 2007; Hunter 2008 for more on audit and institutional commitment).

This identification of the connection between institutional practices and manifestations of whiteness as a possessive credentialising logic also tells us something very important about how leadership against whiteness cannot use traditional and mainstream management, promotion and progression practices. This is because the only way to progress via these processes is to be measured meaningful within a hierarchy of value created by whiteness but never explicitly named as such. Instead this hierarchy is named via the languages of institutional success which reward certain cultural and bodily enactments of whiteness.

Therefore, as an educational leader, leading against the white supremacist educational grain you need to not be those white values.

At this point many of us attempting to do educational leadership differently turn to Audre Lorde’s famous (and so often now coopted) adage ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

It is worth quoting at length what this divestment from the master’s frames of reference means for Lorde in the context of her 1979 comments to the feminists assembled for the Second Sex Conference “The Personal and the Political Panel” (The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 111-112 in Sister Outsider(2007[1984]).


Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.


Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forced in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.


There is something very important about Lorde’s worldview here which helps us to understanding that not being those values means resisting anti-relationality. It means nurturing and acting through what I think about as ‘radical relationality’; resisting ideas of individual ownership of self, action and change. Standing alone inside the institutional space is made possible for Lorde through the recognition of a broader relationality of being which to reiterate Lorde directly is described in this way: ‘Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.’ ‘Interdependency is the way to freedom’ … ‘This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.

This brings me to the final key point of my provocation. My counter suggestion, my recommendation for educational leadership against white supremacy as a form of radical relationality which requires a disinvestment in whiteness via resistance to institutional commitment, a disinvestment in whiteness that might be able to enable divestment (see The Brown Hijabi for a brilliant recent piece on disinvestment from whiteness which chimes with my own view, but from a different point of positioning).

So what is it that I mean by practicing radical relational as leadership in the educational institutional space?

Radical Relationality can be the basis for being in institutional space, as a leader, where the point of leadership practice is not to own, frame and offer the space as though it is there to be entered into already made. Instead the role is to enable the creation and perhaps hold open a space for value and practice to come to be differently through what Helen Gunter (2001) calls ‘contextualised struggle’.

Learning empirically from what I saw in community educational contexts across a range of formal and informal settings (in Further Education Colleges, Universities, Local Authorities and third sector community provision) this ‘contextualised struggle’ is the common factor in educational leadership against whiteness.

At the time, nearly 14 years ago now, I framed what I learned from these leaders practices in this way:

What I have explored in this article is the way in which the historical and social construction of ACL, which posits the interrelationship between politics and pedagogy via notions of community provides a context in which leadership for equality as well as numeric diversity can be fostered, I have not suggested that ACL is exempt from racism or sexism, or other multicultural vagaries. Indeed, it perpetuates essentials links between community and ethnicity. The link between learning and politics maintained by participants constitutes one of the necessary conditions for the process of modest witnessing of history and community which, in turn, facilitates leading for equality and diversity. It forms the coordinates for the contextualised struggle involved in such leadership. Because ‘the success of the term [diversity] is that it can be “detached” from histories of struggle for equality, its success is also paradoxically dependent on being “re-attached” to those very same histories’ (Ahmed, 2005:13). Commitment to understanding and remembering and reconstructing pasts in some form is necessary for leaders to struggle for the space to imagine different educational communities and organisational futures. Belonging – support and space provided through imagined communities of suffering or (political) association against racism – also provides the means by which participants could become more critical of their working contexts and begin to lead against the grain of common sense for equality and diversity.

I would express some of this differently now and my starting point is different for this analysis than it was for that project.

But the central point about leading against the institutional value through keeping open the space to recognise and let a history of struggle frame what the institutional space can be in the now; and doing this whilst still being in the institutional space, is the one I am interested in emphasising here. This means creating, nurturing and protecting a spaces for the collective relational enactment of practices which are not framed through the possessive logic which produces the practice of whiteness.

I think it is interesting that I am returning here and reminded that this really is not an institutional practice of the now. We continue to have a long way to go in struggle. And yet my point relates to a hopeful analysis of the always present of the institutional undercommons


‘The coalition unites us in the recognition that we must change things or die. All of us. We must all change the things that are fucked up and change cannot come in the form that we think of as “revolutionary” – not as a masculinist surge or an armed confrontation. Revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine. Moten and Harney propose that we prepare now for what will come by entering into study. Study, a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you, prepares us to be embedded in what Harney calls “the with and for” and allows you to spend less time antagonized and antagonizing.’ (Jack Halberstam in Moten and Harney, 2013:11).

The commitment needs to be demanded from institutions. Not from those ‘in’ them, making them-up. Whilst this commitment is not displayed leadership behaviour needs to be fugitive, in the sense of anti-institutional interest and in the interest of the common. Not the same, as Lorde reminds us but the in common.

Following Moten and Harney (2013:17) directly:

‘Politics is an ongoing attack on the common – the general and generative antagonism – from within the surround’.

Because what anti-institutional whiteness demands is precisely about shifting a way of passive being; a process which frames a logic of possession, and because this is so counter intuitive from a white institutional frame enacted through possession I will spend some time in a separate post considering its manifestation through practice.

In the mean time I want to thank Muna again for inviting me to offer the provocation and to enter such an important set of discussions she is leading in her home town and more broadly.

Please do check out the range of Dr Abdi’s work here.

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