White Privilege in South Africa

We are grateful to Thabo for sharing his perspective on white privilege in South Africa. Thabo is a thoughtful and committed friend, to us and InnerCHANGE SA. He has a gift with words and previously shared a poem with us here.

One day in the winter of 2015, I was listening to the radio. A young black woman, a mother of a 6 year old girl called in…she had a shaky voice, as if she was scared or had been crying. The trembling in her voice was heart-wrenching and was a consequence of crying as I had initially suspected. She had been crying because she asked her daughter what she would love to be when she grew up and her response was;“When I grow up I want to be a white person”.

That is a very bold and deep statement to be made, more-so from a 6 year old. What does a 6 year old know about being white? Why does she see it as something desirable to be achieved or something to be held in high esteem? It’s startling to even begin to think about the fact that a 6 year old black girl already has some sort of comprehension about the advantages that come with being white, and the disadvantages that come with being shades darker.

The sad truth is that, in many ways, her thinking was justified because it was made from her observations…being white automatically puts one at an advantage. An advantage which is mostly unfair and unmerited, in all aspects be it economically or socially, an unfair advantage coined “white privilege”. It is indefinable to many white people, at least in South Africa. For this reason, white South Africans often don’t want to hear anything about it…it stirs them up the wrong way because to them it is just a “myth”, an excuse that black people make to try to diminish their (white) successes whilst justifying their (black) failures and shortcomings. White privilege is something that they are not willing to acknowledge.

White privilege is prevalent when statements are made such as “get over yourself, we don’t have apartheid anymore” when black people try to shed some light on how the effects of apartheid are still intact in the present day. It is true that apartheid is no more, but only in policy and legislature. It is very easy for the beneficiaries of laws that infringed on the very humanity of other racial groups to say something like that when they don’t have to live in dire poverty as a result of being on the other end of the same laws.

There are sadly many who have this view in South Africa-people who do not recognise the role their privilege played in their successes, financially and otherwise. They attribute their success to their education, wisdom, hard work and a little bit of luck while failing to recognise the structural and racial inequalities that stack everything in their favor. They fail to see that their success has been and continues to be sustained and promoted through oppression, brutality and violence. They believe that everyone is now equal as all people got the vote in 1994, our constitution speaks of equality and white people were extended an olive branch of forgiveness by Nelson Mandela. They believe that the systems of apartheid were dealt a fatal blow, failing to recognise that part of the agreement was to leave economic principles and systems of exclusion intact. What is particularly outrageous is that the failure of black people to attain the same level of success is often attributed to laziness or stupidity…it seems some people believe that they are “more worthy” of success.

In addition, the current system of capitalism is sometimes placed on a pedestal believing that because it continues to deliver the goods for certain groups, it is good. There is a failure to recognise that the economic growth which is seen as a solution to poverty has not provided any hope to the poor in the past 100 years, as the vast majority of the wealth flowed and continues to flow to the already wealthy. The increasing poverty in the country is often seen as the fault of a badly managed government and corruption, however we have to also recognise the corruption in the rules of the game which are stacked in the favour of some.

For me as a young black male, it is emotionally taxing to try to open my white friends’ eyes to their privilege when they won’t even acknowledge it. Beyond this lies the overwhelming effects of having my skills and abilities negated no matter how capable I am. Opportunities to thrive are few and far for the likes of me, so much so that when they do appear, it’s hard to make anything out of them. It is hard to succeed when you are meritoriously deserving, but end up being sidelined because of the colour of your skin.

For us, there is none of that “light at the end of the tunnel” scenario at first glance, and it is really easy to give up and just “live” through life. We often suppress the painful and uncomfortable zeal to challenge the structures and systems in place because most who have attempted to do so were told to “get over it’, to “suck it up”. This is not us lashing out or bashing white success, what we’re saying is that in order to be progressive and move past the racial injustices that continue to clog up our livelihoods, white people in particular need to begin first by acknowledging the level of privilege they enjoy…and this is not particularly a bad thing. It is not us trying to make them feel guilty about their successes and achievements attained throughout history as some believe. We hope that if there is acknowledgement of privilege, it will become easier for others to use that privilege, influence and wealth to talk about the racial injustices that exist and hopefully lend a hand in tackling them.

What we seek is a world that offers equal opportunities for everyone… a world in peace and harmony with itself and its surroundings…a world where the colour of your skin matters no more than merits, because what is skin colour anyway. This dynamic, a dynamic where skin color does not matter reminds of Eileen Foley’s piece;

‘True colors’

Blindness creates the decent mind.

Vision holds the prejudice kind.

If all could close their eyes they’d see

That true colors come internally.

The outer layer is just to hold the living

Feelings within the soul

Judge from the inside, not from the skin.

If all close their eyes, true love will begin

This is just a reiteration of the kind of world we dream of. It is possible if all acknowledge that they are in some ways part of the problem, and seek ways to be a part of the solution thereafter.

Further Reading:

brettFISH is a blogger in Cape Town SA, who frequently discusses his journey to understanding his own white privilege and encourages others to do the same.

This post is part of our series ‘Unpacking Privilege’, click on the links below to read more.

Introduction: Unpacking Privilege

Thoughts on Privilege, Gender & Weddings (Guest Post)

Unpacking Privilege: Gender

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