In the past 24 hours I have found myself asking the following four questions.
What is white privilege?
Why do black South Africans view this with such animosity?
Why do white South Africans become defensive when confronted with the concept of “white privilege”?
How do we as South Africans of all races move forward?
I am beginning to understand and learn that most people, although familiar with the term, do not fully understand the concept. I recently posted a video and a statement about privilege and not surprisingly, those who were most defensive were privileged white South Africans. The video, available on my timeline, depicts a situation in America and largely refers to “class” privilege, but the concept applies to South Africa with regards to “white privilege”.
I am a white South African and I am a product of white privilege. Does this mean everything was handed to me on a silver platter? No. Does this mean I didn’t work hard to get where I am? No. It does mean however, that, based on my race and living in South Africa, certain opportunities were afforded to me that were not necessarily available to non-whites. Hell yes!
Privilege, regardless of whether it is based on race, class or gender, exists and is the elephant in the room that generally, nobody wants to discuss.
Privilege, in whatever form, is bestowed upon or ‘inherited” by someone. Privilege is a result of circumstance. It is not a result of a privileged person’s decisions or behaviour.
Based on my observations over the past 24 hours, I have come to the following conclusions.
White South Africans find it very hard to admit that they have been a beneficiary of white privilege. They seem to feel that by admitting this, they are taking away from their own hard earned achievements. I am in no way saying you didn’t work hard or deserve your achievements. What I am saying however, is that due to “white privilege”, it may have been far easier for you to reach your goals and achievements.
Black South Africans feel unheard and angry when whites are perceived as being incapable of admitting they are products of “white privilege”.
I think that as white South Africans, if we were to acknowledge many of us are the result of ‘white privilege”, it would go a long way in the process of healing and reconciliation.
Some Black South Africans harbour feelings of resentment and hate towards complete strangers and have based their feelings on nothing more than the race of the person they despise. I have faced this many many times in various debates where I am judged purely on the colour of my skin.
White South Africans need to be mindful of their “white privilege” and understand and admit that they are beneficiaries of “white privilege”. In the same tone, black South Africans need to be mindful that beneficiaries of “white privilege” did not take or ask for “white privilege” and it is something bestowed upon or inherited. Beneficiaries of “white privilege” gained this privilege by nothing more than the circumstances surrounding them. No behaviour or decision by a white person resulted in being a beneficiary of “white privilege”. So to attack a person in a “privileged” position is not really valid as nothing that person has done has given them the status of “white privilege” but rather the circumstances surrounding them.
Research has shown that those in “white privilege” denial often exhibit similar statements and mind-sets such as :
- Believing in and cultivating sympathy from others for “reverse racism";
- Believing you worked hard for and earned everything you have without receiving any help or advantages;
- Believing that people of colour who have achieved success have been given racially motivated advantages;
- The ability to adopt a victim status rather than engaging in critical self-reflection when accused of racism;
- Believing that people need to “get over it” or “move on” when they point out racism; and,
I found the following explanation on “privilege” and I think when you are reading it, try and read in the South African context.
“You are tall. Do you have any advantages? Yes.
Does that mean you don’t deserve the can of tuna on the higher shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Eat away mighty giant.
Should you feel guilty about getting the tuna from the top shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Lighten your soul’s burden and let it fly free in the clouds beneath your knees.
Does that mean short people can’t get the tuna? No.
Does that mean there aren’t disadvantages of being tall? No.
Nobody is saying that.
What people are saying is:
1. Denying you are lucky is silly.
2. Stop looking bewildered every time a short person can’t reach something. We’re sick of explaining this incredibly simple concept.
3. We know there are things you do not have (i.e. even higher shelves).
4. We know there may be other things preventing you reaching the high shelves. Maybe you have bad elbows or arthritis. Short people with arthritis are still below you. You are still lucky you are tall.
5. It works out well for most people, for the grocery store to put most things on medium shelves.
6. If you can help shorter people with things on higher shelves, do so. Why would you not do that? Short people can help you with stuff on lower shelves.
7. We are annoyed that the people who run the grocery store put all the best stuff on the top shelves.
8. There are a lot of people who are putting things on higher shelves because they hate short people. Don’t associate with those people.
Same with white. Advantages. It doesn’t mean you’re rich. It doesn’t mean you’re luckier than a lucky black guy. Nobody wants you to be crippled with guilt. Nobody has ever wanted that, or means those things.
It means you have an advantage, and all anyone is asking is that you “get” that. Once you get that, it’s pretty straightforward to all the further implications.
Admitting you are a beneficiary of “white privilege” and being mindful that you have been afforded opportunities based on your race does not mean you are guilty of anything. All it is, is admitting that you had an advantage in the past over others because of your race.
I was attacked stating I must stop living in the past. I was asked what about affirmative action? I was told by someone that they are entitled to their ‘white privilege’ because their ancestors colonised and modernised an otherwise backwards land. The list goes on…..
Let me make this clear. Looking at ‘white privilege’ is not about living in the past. It is about, as white South Africans, being honest and open about the fact that for decades, we, because of the colour of our skin, received certain advantages not necessarily afforded to others of different races. I don’t expect you to feel guilty. I don’t expect you to justify it. I do not expect you to defend it. What I do expect however, is to be mindful of the fact, that for decades, white South Africans were afforded opportunities and advantages not necessarily afforded to others.