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Let’s talk about white privilege in development

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

I’ve wanted to write this post for a while but couldn’t seem to find the best way of expressing myself. When I read the recent opinion piece What Role Can Privileged White People Play In International Development? by Mary Ann Clements, I decided it was time to jump in, however inarticulate I might turn out to be. I also want to make clear that the intended audience of this post is other white people – people of colour have been making these points for a long time, and it’s time that we actually listen (I highly recommend the recent Tiny Spark podcast What Can We Do About the White Savior Complex as a starting point).

This is the specific part of Clements’s piece that moved me to write this post: “We are so steeped in the unspoken assumptions that white people know better, are more trustworthy, and have altruistic motivations, that many of our systems and processes are built around them. And we do far too little to question these biases.” This of course applies not only to international development.

In a podcast interview I gave a few months ago, I spoke about my privilege working in this field as a white woman, but also as one who can ‘pass’ as someone from the Global North. What do I mean by this? Although I was born and raised in South Africa and Brazil, I’ve studied and worked in the North and my accent has become very internationalised (many say North American). This, combined with my white privilege, has bought me seats at tables where no one from the Global South is represented, and that is deeply unfair.

Power imbalances are inextricably linked with racism and sexism, and the international development system will never change unless we address these issues in a serious way. Rashida Petersen and Jennifer Lentfer have advice on how to get started within organisations, including recognising and questioning how dominant white culture shows up. But needless to say, conversations about race and racism don’t only apply to work done directly in the Global South. A senior DFID official recently wrote about the importance of having “uncomfortable” conversations about race (especially since he notes there are roughly 6 non-white senior civil servants in DFID out of 90 in total). I’m not singling DFID out here, as the picture likely looks very similar across most donor agencies.

Earlier this year I read Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. The book does touch on international development work, but the most illuminating sections for me were the multiple examples of prominent white (and predominantly male) Northern philosophers, politicians, etc. with openly racist views. I was ashamed of my ignorance about their views (part of my white privilege) – and angered by the fact that none of this was taught in school when we read about said philosophers and politicians. Why is this relevant to development? Because I think it is indicative of a much wider issue of consistently venerating the ‘knowledge’ of white Northerners, even when they espouse problematic views about race (and other areas as well). I’ve included an Annex below of just a few of the most egregious examples – listing them in this post would make it far, far too long, but do have a read if you’re at all sceptical about how forgiving we are as a society about the racist views of prominent individuals.

Near the end of the book, Afua Hirsch writes that we cannot achieve a post-racial future “until we confront the fact that this is a racial present.” The same sentiment can be applied to international development: until we confront the racist and discriminatory elements of development, and learn from the elements that are not, power imbalances will remain unaddressed. I have work to do, we have work to do.  Let’s make conversations about race and racism as common and normalised as those about logframes and adaptive programming.


Forewarning: the examples range from the 1700s up until virtually the present day, so the excuse that ‘these figures were a product of their time’ simply doesn’t cut it. All quotes are from the book, and the examples are not exhaustive.

  • John Locke and David Hume were important proponents of racism, crafting a theory of African inferiority. “Locke argued that both Native Americans and African ‘negros’ were subhuman.” He was also personally involved in running a plantation, and his “theories found their way first into the constitution of the Carolinas in the US, which he drafted, and later into court cases that affirmed segregation, including the famous Supreme Court precedent Plessy v Ferguson – a milestone in judicially sanctioned Jim Crow practices.” Hume wrote, ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites.’

  • Nietzsche wrote the following about ‘crossed races’: ‘together with a disharmony of physical features, there must also go a disharmony of habits and value concepts.’Kant divided the world into the ‘good’ races (white) and the ‘bad’ races (non-white), and thought mixing would degrade the good.

  • Marie Stopes, who is celebrated for her work on contraception, was “in fact motivated by eugenicist beliefs, [and] advocated that ‘half castes’ be ‘sterilised at birth.”

  • “Home Office guidance issued in 1925 openly sought to deter white women from relationships with non-white men, warning them of a litany of other, dire consequences.”

  • “In 1964 the Conservative Smethwick candidate Peter Griffiths’ slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’ won him the seat.”

  • Margaret Thatcher’s Master of the Rolls Lord Denning, a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, published a book in 1982 called What Next in the Law – he “argued that the fact that ‘the English are no longer a homogenous race’ was a threat to the system of trial by jury. These dark-skinned people could not be trusted with the responsibility of determining guilt or innocence, Denning wrote. ‘They are white and black, coloured and brown… Some of them come from countries where bribery and graft are accepted and where stealing is a virtue so long as you are not found out. They no longer share the same code of morals or religious beliefs.’”

  • British actor David Harewood played Othello in 1997. “At the time, even the liberal press was scathing. ‘One of the most famous works in the English language has become a victim of political correctness,’ complained the director of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute, cited in the Independent. ‘It’s a great shame to deprive white actors of one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire.’”

Please note: Of course there are a plethora of contemporary examples; these are simply a selection of what was in the book.

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