White, privileged and ignorant

2018-04-10 15:34
(File, iStock)

(File, iStock)

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I am the beneficiary of white inherited privilege. I was born to two white people in South Africa during the apartheid years, which was the equivalent of winning the lottery in terms of privilege, and certainly against all odds.

I was the beneficiary of an excellent education. However, due to the ups and downs of life, I have not amassed huge wealth and do not own a single property or piece of land. Pretty much all I have is my voice and my opinions. And in South Africa, I am allowed to voice my opinions. That is one of the things I love about South Africa, currently. It wasn’t always that way. Not for any of us.

So, every day I get to read people’s opinions about me. Well, about white people - because we aren’t apparently allowed to think or feel for ourselves anymore. We are one amorphous, racist blob in the minds of the angry people who write about us. It upsets me, to be honest. I get really emotional when I read about the awful person I am, because I am white. You can see how I’m reacting and writing emotionally right now.

But, I got to thinking about why it is that writers like Charlene Naidoo respond to writers like Adriaan Basson with such emotion and end up lashing out at all white people; making claims about the "majority of whites in South Africa" hiding their racism better than before and finding places to hide and ways to validate their racism. The us and them reductionist thinking aside, there is a valid reason, I realised, for this response. It is because we are all racist. All of us.

Apartheid has left its ugly stain on the psyche of all South Africans. Apartheid made sure that we will always see each other in terms of skin colour. And skin colour implies either privilege or poverty. For the vast majority, skin colour reflects a history of oppression and injustice, where the perpetrators got off scot-free.

I’m guessing, because I don’t know, that the real emotion I keep reading is an angry demand for white people to acknowledge, in a significant way, that devastating harm was done. Harm that cannot be undone with a vote and an education and a job. Injustice cannot be papered over by "living comfortably" alongside all races and just getting on with living in a non-racist society. Because we are not a non-racist society. We never will be.

The things that hurt us the most as human beings are watching our loved ones being hurt or humiliated; subjected to injustice and feeling disempowered to help. Rage is the emotion that will follow.

I think of a small example of my own recent hurt: watching my 78-year-old mother crying when she had to fly home alone without me, because my driver’s licence had expired the month before and Mango Airlines would not let me board with her. They saw her distress and fear. They didn’t care.

I will never, ever fly Mango again. I felt hurt, disempowered and rage. And that was nothing – a miniscule example of hurt – the most disregarded and helpless my white privileged self will experience. It’s almost laughable. But my angry emotions remain.

How much accumulated collective anger must remain in black families who experienced hurt, humiliation and disempowerment at the hands of white people during apartheid on for decades?

Hurt. Rage. Unquantifiable, I should imagine. I’m trying to understand, but the truth is I never will. I have never experienced what black people experienced under apartheid, and so I will never fully understand.

As I write this, I’m aware that every other word may be the hurtful, thoughtless word that sparks angry emotion in the reader whose world I couldn’t possibly understand. But I don’t want to censor every word and every opinion in case I offend.

I’m not a racist but perhaps I have been in hiding for too long to realise that I am. The only way for me to know is to speak my words and consider the reaction. Angry words may be exactly what I need. 

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