Making sense of white privilege

I’m a white South African, born and raised. However, currently I’m looking into the current situation in South Africa from the outside. This, I think helps a lot, it helps me to be more objective. Like many of my white counterparts, I have been grappling with the notion of white privilege for some time, trying to make sense of it in the best way possible. Bear with me as I think I have an explanation. ‘

First of all, let’s start by unpacking privilege. Privilege is defined as a special right, an advantage or immunity granted or only available to a particular person or group of people. I know both sides of racial spectrum often fail to fathom or to correctly express what this commonly used “privilege” is. Many of us relate it to financial leverage or to the fact that some of us get things easier than other without working as hard, which is definitely not true.

So what is privilege, but more importantly what is the best way for a white person to come to terms with and even begin to understand and respect the often used term “white privilege”? This, I feel, is imperative because many South Africans do not seem to understand it. And the lack of understanding has turned into a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, frustration, anger and despise.

The best way of understanding what privilege is by thinking about chances, more particularly second chances. Your privilege is directly correlated to how many chances you get to succeed. Us, on the lighter racial spectrum, whether you want to acknowledge it or not have many more chances than our fellow African counterparts.

Think about it for a second, how many chances have you had? How many times have you failed and have still been ok? To put this into perspective, I’ll provide some personal examples. Many of my friends, family, and myself included have had numerous chances. We have been caught driving under the influence, or in possession of an illegal substance, we have failed a year in high school or several subjects in university, we have had time to take time off to travel, figure things out and gain perspective. If we fail, there is always another chance or a way to get out of it. And that is where privilege rears its ugly head. The majority of South Africans, have one shot at success, and that is if they are lucky. Many don’t even get a chance or they spend their entire lives fighting, looking and waiting for that one opportunity that never comes. Others get their chance but because of reasons and circumstances completely out of their control, they fail.

Why do they fail? Why do they only have one chance and why does the minority have so many more chances? It is not because of internalized racism, but rather structural racism. What is structural racism? Let me explain…

Structural racism is referred to as structural because society is structured in a way that excludes substantial numbers of people in taking part in social institutions. Structural racism essentially prohibits social mobility and annihilates social capitalization. Of course, this is attributed to the apartheid government, but in my opinion, the post-apartheid government is equally to blame for doing absolutely nothing to rectify the single biggest issue standing in the way of social and economic growth and prosperity.

So, having come to this realization and heading back to my motherland soon, I will say this. Stop arguing about definitions and income brackets and how hard you have to work. Acknowledge that you like all of us, have chances, some of us have more than others. Those fortunate to have more chances than others should just start using them better, use them for good, to benefit your fellow South African and not just yourself.

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