'It’s OK to admit your privilege. I have'

2016-05-20 09:31

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Lauren Hess

I am always fascinated by the reaction of white people to claims that they are privileged. I’m fascinated despite the responses always being the same.

“I worked hard to be here.” “But what about BEE? I can’t get a job because some black person who’s less qualified will get it! (it’s funny how this is complained about so much yet it’s forgotten that the entirety of colonialism was basically about reserving work opportunities for white people)” “Blame your corrupt government (it’s automatically assumed that all black people vote for the ANC)!”

I don’t often see someone respond with: “I don’t feel comfortable with what you’re saying but I will look into what you mean.”

It came up again with Faatimah Hendricks’s column “Your white privilege is not a myth”.

The vast majority of the moderated responses (there were many extremely racist ones that didn’t get published) were from people calling Faatimah racist, saying that she was generalising and that they or their parents worked hard to get where they are.

I posted a link to the article on Twitter and ended up having a long discussion with, I presume, a white man who ended up saying that he will be moving overseas to get work due to affirmative action and who claimed that black privilege is bigger than white privilege due to, I guess, affirmative action or something.

This is privilege

I stated to this person that, although I believe, white privilege to be an irrefutable fact, I know that I, as coloured person am also *privileged.

I have a job that pays me well enough to have a car (that I’m still paying off), rent a flat with my partner in Cape Town and have more than the occasional glass of moderately priced wine with friends.

I have this job because I studied at a formerly black technical university. The course I was enrolled in wasn’t the best but it had an internship programme that saw me end up with a job at 24.com where I still work.

I was able to enrol in that university because my parents were able to send me to schools where the classes were massive and textbooks were often shared but the teachers were highly dedicated.

I was also extremely lucky to have parents - who grew up poor during apartheid but as coloureds still had more opportunities open to them than black South Africans - who both worked and were able to help me with homework and assignments. There is literally one day in my childhood that I remember my parents having to scrounge for money for food.

My point with all this is that that is privilege. The parents who can somewhat comfortably provide and are able to sit down with you at night helping with homework because they’re not out working a second job just to make the next meal a possibility. The teachers who put in those extra hours to help their students reach their academic best.

I think people often believe that privilege means money. While that’s definitely a part of it, it’s not entirely it. When we’re talking about privilege in a socio-economic sense, it means access to opportunities.

Explaining privilege

Though you might have been a mere thought during apartheid, if you’re white you have benefitted from it. You are privileged. Your parents had access to a great deal more than black parents. That means you had more access. Yes, opportunities are increasing every single day for black South Africans like myself, but for white people, those opportunities are already there. You work hard to make it through school, university, your career, but the tragic reality for a significant number of black South Africans is that they work hard to simply survive.

Gina Crosley-Corcoran, an American white woman who grew up extremely poor, writes in her piece Explaining white privilege to a broke white person: "There are many different types of privilege, not just skin-colour privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities that others may not have."

But after all this, you must remember that when the white privilege term comes at you, the intention is not to make you feel guilty. You’re not guilty of simply being born into the life you have. The point is to recognise it because you will hopefully have more understanding for those who have less. Then as a nation we will make greater strides in reconciling.  

*Bear in mind that I am very lucky, as a coloured person, to be so privileged. Significant numbers of coloured South Africans are still trapped in cycles of poverty.

- Lauren Hess works at News24. Follow Lauren on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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