The exhausting privilege of being middle class

2014-03-09 10:00

I’m exhausted – by my privilege, with restaurants filled with primarily white patrons and that those serving these white consumers are mainly black. I’m exhausted by the ignorance of those in the vicinity to see the difference.

I’m exhausted when I climb off a Gautrain bus only to see a man scrounging through the dustbin, furiously trying to open a carton filled with old grapes. I’m exhausted by the men I see doing a city’s recycling and receiving minuscule compensation and recognition.

I’m exhausted by the lack of tolerance informed by racialised politics and by leaders acting without tact. I’m exhausted by the denial that our system still privileges male voices and pockets, and by all the bare feet and hungry eyes I encounter every day.

I’m exhausted by the fact that I’m not doing enough and I’m exhausted that all of this runs through my mind on a simple walk to work. I’m exhausted.

But I’d rather be exhausted than ignorant. I’d rather have a pinch of discomfort every time I sit in a restaurant filled with only white patrons than be ignorant to the fact that 20 years after democracy, wealth and space are still racially defined.

I’d rather let a man searching for food get my thoughts rambling than turn a blind eye and refuse to see him for what he is – proof that our society remains grossly unequal.

I’d rather be cognisant of the people recycling in our cities than curse them for dirtying up the lawn in front of a posh suburb.

I’d rather be angry at our grossly gendered division of labour and differing gendered pay scales than view it as normal and natural.

I’d rather be ashamed at the behaviour of our political leaders and party politicians than shrug it off as just another day in South Africa.

I’d rather be exhausted by the bare feet and hungry eyes so that I make a call to friends for shoes they no longer use.

I know it’s not enough, but it is something – something I would have failed to do had I not been exhausted by the racial, gendered and class politics of our everyday lives.

I would rather be exhausted than ignorant. Ignorance is what makes us trepid about our politics. Ignorance is what makes us make statements like “I worked for my wealth” without recognising the structural advantages that paved the way.

Ignorance is not lack of education. It is a lack of desire to open your eyes and see our world. Further, it is a lack of willingness to think about it, contemplate it and wonder why and how it has come to be viewed as normal.

Yes, I am privileged and my awareness of my privileges in certain situations (not all) makes me tired, but I’d rather be exhausted and contemplative than ignorant and unwilling to change. I also realise that my talk about tiredness may seem insensitive because those without my privileges are far wearier.

My point is, I agree. I see their weariness in the face of my privilege and I think about it. I don’t repress it and refuse to acknowledge such divides exist. Indeed, I’d rather have bags under my eyes than cover my face and reality with a make-up that masks the world we truly live in.

Forster-Towne is a research specialist in the sustainable development programme of the Africa Institute of SA

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