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Tamsyn Claire Woolley
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Why white people struggle to grasp the effects of white privilege

07 January 2016, 10:40

Following in the wake of the terrible and racist actions of Penny Sparrow and Co, today it was pointed out to me (and other White people) that despite many actively opposed White people, we don’t fully grasp the effects of White Privilege and Apartheid on Black people. That we can be one of the “good ones” (sic) and be active in the fight against racism, but we are still, basically, clueless.

Sindile writes the following:

(Full Post Here:

This cannot be truer. I will never be able to wrap my head around how I benefitted from White privilege because a) I have obliviously lived it all my life, for no other reason than that I am White and b) I have never been Black.

Let me illustrate with a simile, comparing racism to sexism.

Sexism has been alive in the world since the dawn of time, or at the very least since women were written as lesser beings in the Bible, effectively making sexism part of life. Sexism is still very much alive and still very much in practice. Racism can be like sexism in that the perpetrators, both knowing and unknowing, will never fully understand the effect on the recipient no matter how hard they try and, due to this, we have a terribly long way to go before either will be fully eradicated from society.

As a woman, I am subjected to sexism on a daily basis, both overt and subtle. I have tried to explain certain sexist behaviour to my husband, who has been baffled by what I consider to be sexist. For example, the less subtle occasions when a person tells a little boy to “man up and stop crying like a girl.” My husband didn’t get why that was sexist until I explained to him that it conveyed the message to little boys to associate girls with the negative activity of crying and therefore, deem them as weaker than boys. He now understands to a degree, but has to be reminded every so often as picking up on the signs is not ingrained in him as it is in me.

I would ever expect a man to fully understand the oppression and marginalisation that women still face in today’s society, although I will persist in trying. When I do try to explain to a man exactly what it was about a specific action or phrase that was sexist, I am often met with blank looks and opposing arguments that “it was not meant to be sexist”. Sometimes my explanations erase the blank looks, but often they just don’t get it. Sexism is so entrenched in society that even women don’t always understand why something can be sexist as we are raised to think in a specific manner. Sexism may not always be intentional, but society is built on traditions rooted in sexism, and we raise our children in such a way that sexism is ingrained in who they are and who they become.

Sure, a man may understand sexism to a degree and will be sympathetic or one of the “good ones”, but as he has never walked in a woman’s shoes (metaphorically speaking, for those cross dressers and transgenders out there), he cannot know the true extent of our suppression. I hope this changes one day, but this post is not about sexism and how to effect change. It’s about explaining how this is how it is with the effect of any discriminating action on a race or culture, religion or sexual inclination.

So is it with white privilege and the effects of it on the Black populace. White people may grasp some of it and may be horrified by Black racism and, indeed, all racism. We may actively act on our feelings and join the movement to eradicate racism, as with the recent #RacismMustFall campaign. We may try our damnedest to see the effects of Black racism from a Black person’s point of view, and we may even try to make up for the sins of our forefathers in an attempt to even the playing field for a better and brighter future. But as we have never lived in a Black skin, we simply cannot gain the very important perspective required to fully understand what it means to be Black, and how racism affects Black people.

Personally speaking, White privilege is not something I was taught at school, or that I picked up along the way in my privileged life. By all accounts, for me it simply is. I was never told that what I have was built on the broken backs of a Black people, no matter how far back. I was taught to work hard for the life I want to live and so I did. So when I was first told that I am a beneficiary of White privilege, I was confounded. It took a lot of research and conversations with my Black friends and colleagues in order to grasp even a fraction of how this truth came to be. And it is a truth.

I now have a shaky grasp of what it means to be a recipient of the benefits of White privilege. It took some time to “get” because I didn’t understand how it was seen as being a beneficiary of this privilege rather than hard work that built my life when I have a far richer Black neighbour with a huge house and several cars. How come mine was seen as “gifted” to me by virtue of my race, but his was seen as “earned”?  I know now that White privilege does not mean that I haven’t worked hard to earn my life, but that I was afforded the opportunity to do so because of this privilege. I now know that this is a privilege denied to most, if not all, Black people. Yet, I don’t believe I will ever fully understand it because I haven’t grown up with the skills to pinpoint what it is that makes a person one of the White privileged; that is something that can only be learned through experiencing life from the other perspective. My White privilege effectively blinds me to seeing what White privilege really is.

We White people have a long way to go before we can fully understand the impact on Black people of Apartheid and the rest of the historical atrocities committed against them. Whether we manage to grasp it or not (and I hope that we do), I know we will still be trying to make up for historical injustices for decades – if not centuries – to come, and that there will sadly always be people for whom this is not good enough. I do know that, idealistically, I want my children to play alongside Black children without seeing colour and race as an obstacle to friendship. I want my son to grow up knowing he is privileged, but that he has the power to extend this privilege to others. I want him to experience and appreciate different cultures without losing his own in the process. I want him to one day have a place in this world that he can say with conviction that he has earned and that is his by right. I know this last wish is probably futile. I can only hope that, in time, Black (and all people of colour) and White people can finally see eye to eye with mutual respect and love, and with an understanding and appreciation of each other’s journeys.

So, Sindile, you are quite right. But give us time, will you? And help us to open our eyes so that we can move towards that goal of unity that much sooner.

*Please note that this is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this post are my own. 

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.


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