In white-man shoes

2009-11-24 00:00

STATISTICALLY, being a white man in South Africa is the worst position to be in, said a frustrated white friend years ago, and I have thought about this statement as many times as I have changed my mind about its validity. You see, while the policies of affirmative action and employment equity certainly, in theory, favour the previously disadvantaged, which is everybody but the Caucasian male, there are various reasons I cannot come to a conclusion.

Firstly, the tools one has are vast if one has spent a significant amount of time in the former (but still labelled as such) model C schools. This gives one an advantage in numerous ways, as these schools are not compromised by a lack of resources and equipment. Granted, many previously disadvantaged graduates and other candidates for employment never make it to interviews, but you have to use your intelligence to get ahead in life. Your attitude is created by the environment you’re reared in. The discipline instilled in “white” schools is unparalleled, as demonstrated by various typical standards thereof, like mandatory participation in extramural activities after school. At the school I attended, if you were unable to engage in physical activity, you could choose debating, chess, social activism or other activities.

These activities develop you as a person, and the various courses government employees attend teach things I was taught at Carter High School. You have a clear advantage and this inspires feelings of insecurity and professional jealousy among those colleagues who do not get or take these opportunities. The feeling of being in white-man shoes starts with the way one is treated by the odd black colleague — that resentment for having something they do not have. Previously disadvantaged no longer really applies to you, and you’re almost like a beneficiary of privilege. The knowledge you seem to have is a threat and you are not particularly supported in developing yourself within the organisation.

Impressing the superiors can be to your own detriment. Suddenly, there is so much negative energy aimed towards you. Before long someone tries to frustrate you so that you will quit your job, and surprisingly your superiors expect you to take the bullying. Your lack of subservience is called insubordination. Your confidence and all the good qualities you picked up in the expensive schools your parents could barely afford, now intimidate. This is the way of life it seems; blacks are not supposed to observe their rights like whites do. Black managers are generally the worst, perhaps because the other demographic has all eyes on them. Either that, or maybe because your work ethic wins you favour with the real boss.

That accent your parents told you to perfect is the problem. The interview panel views you as previously advantaged, despite the tens of thousands of rands you still owe for your studies. So, forget your rights in this country where political connections qualify individuals to oppress others worse than the apartheid system did. Worse, I say, because our parents were made to believe life would be different, and now feel betrayed. Ignore your rights for your survival or prepare for a difficult life. You get the sense that you’re not expected to know that much, so that when you mention a violation, it is as if your boss has seen a ghost. Rights only exist on paper, really.

How much negative energy are you willing to create to get ahead? If your answer is not much, then do like most white men I know. Just take it. Work with every tool you were ever given, perfect every single craft you learn and live off very little. Grow the soft skills, which include your people skills and ability to deal with conflict. Be organised and resourceful so that if you’re not lucky enough to be of the right demographic, in spite of your race, you can always find a way to survive. But never give up hope that someday someone will recognise and respect your abilities and be willing to compensate you appropriately for them.

If the many white people whose only guilt is being descendants and by default beneficiaries of oppressors, can find a way to make it, we, the beneficiaries of our parents’ bravery, certainly can.

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