During our time in South Africa, Stellenbosch University came under criticism due to allegations of racism. At one point, students at the university were invited to be photographed with written statements about themselves which challenged the stereotype of a typical Stellenbosch student and highlighted the differences and individualities of each student, with the tag #IAmStellenbosch. This at first appeared like a positive step, a ‘nice thing to do’, however we soon became aware of the reactions of others, who saw it as tokenistic and a denial of deep-rooted issues (Brett Fish discusses the matter here). This was one of many incidents waking us up to our white privilege and the many layers that we haven’t had to consider.
I have read books about Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. I have watched movies about race inequality that had heart warming conclusions. Through these I gained a bit of understanding of the struggles that many people in the world have faced because of the colour of their skin. This insight, however, didn’t automatically lead to me recognising the privilege that I have as a white person. I empathised with the oppression but didn’t see how I also benefitted on the other side.
Writing this post is difficult as I’m very aware that I’m not an expert, I haven’t personally experienced being on the wrong end of this issue and that my white privilege is ingrained. I’m sharing thoughts from my story and my stuttering learning of this important subject.
My time in South Africa really opened my eyes to the division that some countries have suffered, and are suffering, due to race. The stories of injustice, the unequal distribution of wealth, the imbalance of education and job opportunities, the distrust. South Africa is still recovering from the trauma of apartheid and the policies are still having a systemic impact. Young leaders are rising up in the nation such as my friend Thabo, who shared some courageous thoughts in the previous post. Thabo expected backlash from his writing and that is due to discussing an issue that some won’t accept. He has suffered first hand injustice because of the colour of his skin but he won’t let it stop him moving forward. I know many young people like Thabo who want to see change in their country and work towards the hope of equality. They don’t hate white people, rather they are aware of the divisive attitudes that workplaces, communities and families have, and instead, want to be seen for who they are – their full self.
While living in South Africa we heard about how the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum in the United States due to the police brutality and unjust shootings. As I reflected on what was going on I realised the privilege I had of being able to walk down the street, pop into shops, go about my everyday life and not fear being treated suspiciously or judged as a criminal. I expected the police to help me out if I needed them. I began to see that life isn’t like that for everyone.
Today in the UK we are living in a fragile situation. We have asylum seekers who have fled their homes in search of safety, and they are being used as fear inducing pawns in political battles. Peace-loving Muslims are being judged as the same as extreme terrorists because they look similar. People are confused and worried. I initially thought that in the UK we are a very inclusive society and that discussions around white privilege are not as relevant – some of you may argue that point. Our issues and situation are different from countries like South Africa or the United States but the concept of white privilege is still relevant (this helpful article argues this point).
The terms black, white and coloured are freely used to describe ethnicities in South Africa. Upon returning to the UK I was reminded how awkward it can be to use the word black to describe a person. Is there a danger in the UK that we try to be colour-blind rather than appreciative of the diverse cultures that our society encompasses?
In the churches our theology often comes from white European men. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an interview comments that the Bible was “dynamite” and it gave black people hope as the stories are about a oppressed nation being liberated. Listening to and reading thoughts from individuals of different ethnicities can bring more fullness and power to the scriptures, and many other parts of life.
“…when you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our physical circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
As I’m learning to notice my white privilege I’m beginning to ask what needs to be done. We are all significant and worthy but our societies and systems often don’t show that. We may try to fix it by, for example, ensuring Black or Minority Ethnic representation on a Committee, but this doesn’t fix the intrinsic problem. As Anthony Reddie says, when you forget to put sugar in a cake you can’t just sprinkle it on the top after, you have to start again.
“If we don’t fully understand our individual and collective roles in maintaining a system of white superiority, our relationships with people of colour remain superficial, our ability to work in diverse workplaces is greatly diminished, and we fail to create a just world in which everyone has an equitable opportunity to contribute and thrive.” – F. E. Kendall, Understanding White Privilege.
I’m aware that I need to read more books that are written from the perspectives of different ethnicities. I need to be attentive to my thoughts and expectations towards other races in my workplace, church, and local community. I want to listen and learn from those who look different to me. I’m hoping that taking these steps will continue to open my eyes to inequality and broaden my view of my white privilege. This is a hard topic with no easy answers but the place to start is with myself.
The Hate U Give – a novel by Angie Thomas. This book immerses the reader in the life of Starr, giving us an opportunity to ‘experience’ her perspective and the prejudices she faces.
“Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.” (From the blurb)
Why is it Difficult to Talk About Race? – From a London-based writer, and includes a list of 10 examples of ‘white privilege’.
This post is part of our series ‘Unpacking Privilege’, click on the links below to read more.