White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa

Credit: Sputnik 58

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” (Mandela, 1996)

“You [South Africans] are the Rainbow People of G-d.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1991)

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the term rainbow to describe the project of building a unified South Africa, he began a discourse about the nature of racial reconciliation in the country. Given this grand vision of racial harmony, many ask how we achieve its realization. Some contend that what threads us together is a feeling of exclusion, that “regardless of who we are, we all feel outside the box of South Africanness.” (Mashile, 2013). They argue that the project of building a non-racist, a non-sexist and an inclusive society in the form of a ‘rainbow nation’ is only a pipe dream or a failed experiment. These notions are reinforced given massive inequalities along racial lines that stubbornly persist on a daily basis.

Another school of thought proposes that building a unified South Africa requires focusing not only on the vision, but also on the details. The project of threading together our racially divided society involves varying approaches for different groups. South Africans of color have for over three hundred years engaged in a struggle to overcome sustained political, social and economic disadvantage. White South Africans on the other hand, systemically protected, increased and entrenched their advantages through colonialism and apartheid. Ending apartheid in 1994, Nelson Mandela then president of the republic put racial reconciliation at the forefront of his government agenda and sought to restore justice by balancing advantage for all groups. However, despite large strides being made in this regard, white South Africans still embody unearned privileges which can be described as white privilege. One of the methods to uproot the systemic, structured racism and reach the ideals of a truly inclusive society is for white South Africans to understand what white privilege is and how it operates.

The experience of living through the transition, and living most of my life in post-apartheid South Africa provides a unique lens through which to view how the external reconstruction of our society has led to my internal transformation. Part of this shift has involved scrutinizing how gender, race, class, language, ethnicity and geography have combined to create my experience. While each of these aspects comprises who I am, race has played an integral role in shaping my life. Reflecting, it became clear that I was socialized to believe the end of apartheid concluded the issue of racism in our country; and, that any privileges I embodied were naturally mine to have and use, intentionally or unintentionally.

I came to see this situation as both unnatural and unjust. Digging deeper, and using the work of McIntosh (1989) as a model, I constructed a list of privileges drawing from my lived experiences. The list illuminated two overarching themes. First, white privilege is experienced differently according to class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and age. Second, even though white privilege looks different for each white person, there are still overlaps that cross all categories. Overlapping white privilege extends not only within South Africa, but internationally as well. I noticed differences and similarities between being white in South Africa and being a white student attending a predominantly white college town in Texas, United States. Confronting nuances of different and overlapping privileges it became obvious that although not all white people are racist, in racially constructed societies, they all shared a commonality of white privilege.

Background

I am third generation, white South African male of British descent in my late-twenties and brother to a mixed race sister who was born in 1994. Growing up, race was always at the forefront of my existence. Being in public spaces with my sister, I often noticed how her experience differed from mine and later understood these differences to be attributed to her race. This understanding also spilled over in school when, being the first generation to attend integrated schooling; it was natural for those that look like me to thrive, and for those that did not look like me to be attributed as an example to their race when they were successful. Through making friends of color, I became more aware of the subtle ways our experiences differed, especially when colleagues more talented and able than me found themselves having to work harder to gain the same recognition I naturally got from white teachers.

But, recognizing racism did not make me exempt from participating in its system. As a white male, I was told, and everything around me confirmed, that what I worked for I would achieve. I grew up watching Leon Schuster in blackface and later listened to and bought Darren Wackhead Simpson’s CD mocking black African accents. Never did any of this feel wrong. I saw myself as a good moral person who could not be racist because I had a sister of color. I rationalized that her presence in my life abdicated me from being experienced as anything other than a champion of human dignity through diversity. Later, I studied under the scholarship of an African American professor who illuminated a hard reality for me to face: a large part of my identity, success and position stems from various forms of privilege. She challenged me to scrutinize basic assumptions about power and unravel the role my various identities, including race and gender, have played and continue to play in my daily life. The scrutiny brought waves of strong emotions that varied from the extremes of denial, anger, and guilt to feeling responsible. Above all, our dialogue created a space for honesty.

What is privilege?

Privilege reveals itself in a variety of ways. When describing this concept to colleagues, I use the example of entering a building with two friends. My friends, one in a wheel chair, another a transgender identified person; each of us is likely to negotiate the same space in a different way. I walk up the stairs, open the door, rest my arms at the counter and use the male toilet on the way out. My other two friends have a different experience alongside me. My wheel chair bound friend is thinking about a wheel chair ramp; who will help open the door; if the counter will be a reasonable height or whether they will have space in the cubicle to use the toilet. My transgender friend may not worry about these things. But, they may worry about how people inside will respond to them, which bathroom they may be forced to use or whether their physical safety would be at risk if they used the bathroom in accordance with what they identify. That I don’t have the same experience as my friends, not because I am special, but because the building is designed for me is a form of privilege.

Similar to the way my two friends experienced the same place differently to me, in racially constructed societies people of color also experience the world in a different way. When being white intentionally or unintentionally advantages one, this privilege is called white privilege. Peggy Mcintosh (1989) describes white privilege as unearned advantages one gets because of the color of their skin (McIntosh, 1989, p. 10) . The term began describing overt discrimination in racially segregated societies and then moved to illuminate the subconscious forms of white advantage. In 1902, African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois published The Soul of Black Folks in which he examined what it meant to be white in the United States of America (USA) and the world. He was the first scholar to connect whiteness with privilege. Later, scholars before desegregation in the USA used the term white privilege to describe blatant acts of overt racist legislation that favored white people. It wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh’s 1987 lecture turned journal article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, did the unconscious forms of privilege emerge to the surface. Much like heterosexual or male privilege, white privilege operates in complex ways. Because we have a history in South Africa where not only the building but the entire system was designed for white people over three hundred years, even twenty years after apartheid many privileges stubbornly hold true.

The passport of white privilege

To be white in South Africa is akin to embodying an invisible, renewable, and powerful passport packed with rights, privileges, access and acceptance not granted to people of color. Even without asking, nor wanting; often unacknowledged, the passport works for the holder in various ways. In South Africa, the passport of whiteness grants the holder rights to resources, privileges of learned ignorance to sustained racial injustice, acceptance as informal authority, as well as access to the benefits of a racially determined economic, political and social system. The system of racial injustice includes both the interpersonal racism but of even greater scrutiny is the system of exclusion that operationalizes the passport of white privilege.

Each passport is unique, granting all white people privileges, but not all privileges applying equally. For example, white women possess white privilege but are not immune to gender, age, sexual orientation, class and ethnic discrimination in the same way white men are. The passport shapes the identity, interpersonal interactions and worldview of the holder so powerfully and overtly that it forms a part of the human functioning. Like eating, walking or breathing, it becomes a tool to use in navigating the world. Combined and institutionalized over time, white privilege is normalized.

Under apartheid and colonial rule, the passport of white privilege was juxtaposed to the dompas[1] carried by black South Africans. Regulating the movement, rights and privileges of South Africans of color through internal passports known as the dompas has a long history. Beginning in 1797 with the introduction of internal pass laws to limit the movement indigenous peoples in the Cape Colony by the British Governor Earl Macartney (Kahn, 1949); the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 and the subsequent Urban Areas Act 1945 controlled the movement of black South Africans under apartheid (Savage, 1986, p. 195). This document acted as an internal passport, containing finger prints, contact details, photograph, address, name of employer and often times the employer’s behavioral judgment on the conduct of the pass holder. Police could stop a black South African at any time and arrest the holder for not complying with the rules governing the pass. In addition, people of color wanting to travel internationally were unable to secure South African passports because they were not considered citizens. White South Africans recognized as citizens, could attain an international travel passport and were exempt from any internal pass laws. While post-apartheid legislation dismantled the internal pass system and opened citizenship for all; it did little to address the system which continues to empower the passport of white privilege allowing it to operate largely as it was designed.

Negotiating the list

After reading Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack; which presents a list of fifty examples of white privilege in the United States; I began to reflect on what this list would look like for a twenty six year old white South African male. Whereas white people are the majority in the USA, South Africa is unique in that although a minority, white people still have enormous privileges which open doors across the country. I felt compelled to examine how my life experiences in South Africa revealed, reproduced or redirected my white privilege. My list revealed items unique to me and overlap with the privileges described by McIntosh.

Because we have been socialized to ignore our dominance as a group, we often learn about ourselves as dominant groups from those in subdominant groups. When beginning to jot down privileges, I found the task extremely difficult. At one stage I almost stepped away from the process believing that McIntosh had exhausted all. Compiling the list required dialogue with close friends and colleagues of color about how they experience my privilege. Friends recounted events where I had knowingly or unknowingly operated from white privilege; describing how they felt when I reacted defensively or with confusion when they spoke about their experiences of racism. Finally, they helped me deconstruct what my privilege lives like for them as friends. Each time, as the list grew, so did my understanding of myself as a group member advantaged by the power structure of South African society. I realized not only how much social, political and economic power I embodied compared to my friends of color, but also how this power sometimes operated in a nuanced manner according to context.

My white South African privilege:

  1. I have been called Baas[2], Boss, and Master or heard my mother referred to as Madam or Missus by a person of color at some point in my life.
  2. My father and mother are unlikely to have ever been referred to as boy or girl when describing their job.
  3. I can blame apartheid on my parents, and acknowledge that it was bad; but claim that I reap no benefits in the new South Africa.
  4. Regardless of class, the terms underprivileged, disadvantaged or landless are not used as synonyms to describe my race.
  5. I can walk past a car without the occupant locking the door or winding up the window.
  6. I can live my whole life without interacting with a large number of people that don’t look like me, unless they are serving me, surviving, or I am engaged in charity work.
  7. I can shop without being asked by other customers if I am an employee of the store.
  8. I am unlikely to be told that I am oversensitive, “using the race card” or that I “should move on” when I talk about apartheid or how I feel about racial discrimination.
  9. I can agree in principle that diversity is important, but in practice, I can continue living without ever doing anything to realize it.
  10. I am unlikely to see a group of white protesters shot by police for demanding a living wage or better living conditions.
  11. I am automatically assumed to have money.
  12. I can claim my South Africanness when we succeed, but my Europeaness when we fail.
  13. There is likely to be a private or former model C school[3] close to where I live.
  14. At least two generations before me used flushing toilets, had electricity and saw the inside of a public hospital.
  15. If I enter an IEB [4]school, I am likely to see the majority of people looking like me.
  16. I am able to choose a school that will likely teach my home language as a first or at very least second language.
  17. Going to a cinema, almost all the options available are movies whose main characters look like me.
  18. When I am employed, I don’t have to worry about my position being attributed to my race.
  19. When I live in the city, I have never heard the places I live referred to as the “in the middle of nowhere.”
  20. I have never had to change, alter or use other names to be more pronounceable for people of color.
  21. If I speak with an English accent, I am not asked what school I went to or what my parents do for a living.
  22. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege*.
  23. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race*.
  24. If I was corrupt, it would be referred to as collusion.
  25. Every member of my race is not assumed to be a supporter of the government, related to government officials or happy with all decisions of government.
  26. I can be thought of as an expert without opening my mouth.
  27. At least one person in my family, including extended family, owns a car, owns a house and has a bank account.
  28. I can commit an overt act of racism at an institution of higher learning and be let off lightly or even protected by management.
  29. If I speak an African language aside from Afrikaans, I am considered an exception.
  30. If I commit an act of violence against someone of my own race, it is unlikely to be described as white on white violence.
  31. If am a victim of crime, and attribute it to my race; I am likely to be featured in the media based on my assertion.
  32. I can be employed by a person of color without being ostracized, called a stooge or sell out.
  33. I can do business with government without being referred to as a tenderpreneur[5].
  34. If I do own a business that does well, my success is not solely reduced to a BEE[6]
  35. When hired as a public servant, I am referred to as a government employee not a crony.
  36. I can live in a neighborhood that is not described as a ghetto, location, squatter camp[7], informal settlement, slum or shanty town.
  37. The shelter I live in is never referred to as a shack.
  38. If I relocate my residence within South Africa, I am unlikely to be termed a “refugee”.
  39. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race*.
  40. If I consume drugs, I am likely to be described as an addict or junkie and not a gangster.
  41. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color*.
  42. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race*.
  43. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion*.
  44. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race*.
  45. Although I am also a member of a minority group, my voice in the public space is heard more often than other minority groups.

Overlapping privilege

The list demonstrates the unique, yet overlapping features of white privilege. Comparing my list to the work of McIntosh illuminated common features of white privilege across intersecting identities. Within South Africa, there are differences by class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and age. For example, a white, middle aged blue collar Afrikaner woman from a rural community may not experience white privilege in the same way I as a young, English South African who grew up in Johannesburg may. Her passport of white privilege operates in unique ways for her as it does for each holder.

While the passport of white privilege may operate in unique ways for each holder, it still provides some privileges to all holders. For example, although the white Afrikaner woman may not have ever been called Madam, she is likely to benefit from other forms of privilege such as being seen as an expert without earning it. International boundaries appear to have little effect in diminishing the power of the passport in racially constructed societies. Eight items on McIntosh’s list overlapped with my experience as a white South African and a student attending a predominantly white college in Texas United States; reinforcing the overlapping nature of white privilege. It appears that despite not being a citizen of the United States, my passport of white privilege embodies unique features advantaging me in both countries. Confronting nuances of different and overlapping privileges suggests that although not all white people ideologically promote racism, in racially constructed societies, all share the commonality of benefiting from white privilege.

Why it matters

Recognizing privilege can help our country move forward by providing frameworks to enhance intercultural dialogue, strengthen cross racial relationships and illuminate structural barriers requiring dismantlement. Unravelling my own privilege and how it operates has empowered me with greater sensitivity, cultural awareness and facilitated deeper dialogue around the realities faced by different people in our country. Although not perfect, I feel better equipped to collaborate, learn from and build alongside fellow South Africans of color.

Cross racial relationships are also enhanced. Understanding how my privilege operates transformed relationships with my sister, my friends, and South Africans of color. Although I describe myself as an African, I live in a world that sees what I look like and responds whether I like it or not. In the same way, no matter what my sister identifies, the South Africa she lives in will treat her as a Colored[8] woman. Deconstructing my privilege has made me more sensitive to how our lived experiences differ on a daily basis. This has also been true of friendships. Engaging with close friends of color about my racial privilege and how it operates has brought us closer. The honest discussions about privilege has also captured my experience as a white person in post-apartheid South Africa in a way I often could not see because I had been taught not to.

Honest dialogue among all South Africans using privilege as a framework can shape policy, institutions, symbols and language to dismantle the structural barriers blocking the realization of a truly non racist, nonsexist and inclusive society. Interpersonal racial phenomena are borne from formal and informal structures. In unpacking where various forms of privilege emerge, the role of structure is sometimes hidden from the discussion. Discussions about privilege illuminate structures of power from the perspective of lived experiences and help us reexamine the paradigm.

            The rainbow nation is meaningless without daily action from all towards the realization of a truly human approach to racial injustice in South Africa. There can be no doubt that racism is poisonous; its effects on our country have been devastating, and its impact on the social fabric of our society has left deep scars. Regardless of who we are, we have all been affected by the toxin of this phenomenon and are all responsible for its banishment. Yet, the only way to adequately address the effects of racism in South Africa and reach the ideals of a non-racist, non-sexist and inclusive society is through race: addressing in a real way the advantages and disadvantages bestowed by this social construct. As white South Africans, it requires understanding unchecked whiteness as a passport of privilege operating to inhibit meaningful dialogue, block nation building and strengthen racial injustice in our favor. Unmasking one’s own privilege through a process of honest and critical reflection can help form stronger relationships with those around us and expose systems that continue to operate with impunity in our country and around the world.
Creative Commons License
White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa by Warren Leslie Chalklen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

© Warren Chalklen and https://wchalklen.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Warren Chalklen and https://wchalklen.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reference List

Baines, G. (1998). The rainbow nation? Identity and nation building in post-apartheid South Africa. Mots Pluriels, 7.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Bantam Classic.

Kahn, E. (1949). The Pass Laws. In E. Hellman (Ed.), Handbook of Race Relations in South Africa (pp. 279-291). Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Mandela, N. (1996). Creating boundaries: The politics of race, class and nation. In K. Manzo (Ed.), Creating Boundaries: The Politics of Race and Nation. London: Boulder.

Mashile, L. (Writer). (2013). The Big Debate on Racism, The Big Debate. Johannesburg: SABC News Online.

McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace and Freedom(July/August), 10-12.

Savage, M. (1986). The imposition of the pass laws on the African population in South Africa 1916-1984. African Affairs, 85(339 (April)), 181-205.

[1] Translated as the “Dumb Pass”. The informal word for passport used to control the movement of Black African men under apartheid.

[2] The Afrikaans word for Boss.

[3] “Model C School” a term under apartheid used to describe a former White only government funded school.

[4] The Independent Examinations Board, or IEB, is a South African independent assessment agency which offers examinations for various client schools. These schools are privately funded.

[5] Term describing a person in government who abuses their political power and influence to secure government tenders and contracts. The word tenderpreneur is a portmanteau of “tendering” and “entrepreneur“.

[6] Black Economic Empowerment: A programme launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving certain previously disadvantaged groups of South African citizen’s economic privileges previously not available to them.

[7] Neighborhoods with houses made of wood, cardboard, tin and other scrap material. Whole families live in a single house, the size of a garden shed.

*Elements of McIntosh’s (1987) list that apply to my South African context.

[8] Coloured—ethnic label for South Africans of mixed race origin, reinforced by apartheid government.

Creative Commons License
White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa by Warren Leslie Chalklen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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About WarrenPhaahlaChalklen

Passionate servant of South Africa. Bush School of Government graduate and former intern in the National Planning Commission within the Ministry of The Presidency. Currently completing PhD in education at Texas A&M University in the United States. Learning, Building, Growing
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50 Responses to White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa

  1. mbekijr says:

    I have been waiting for an article like this written by a white person. Your article Warren is well written.

    Understanding white privilege is fundamental if we are to construct an inclusive South Africa. You have also made it clear that majority of white people do not understand white privilege and how it unveils itself in the deeds they perform daily.

    Well done.

  2. Thabo says:

    Can i get an ” Amen” !?.

    Bravo Warren … Bravo .

  3. thobani says:

    i love your article

  4. Willem Fritz says:

    Well done Warren, you are completely right.

  5. Larsen Bjorn says:

    Hi Warren, you may also find Sampie Terreblanche’s “A History of Inequality in South Africa a helpful and relevant reference.

  6. Joe says:

    Well written! I just have a question, kind of leading from what mbekijr says… What practical outcomes would there be if every white person acknowleged white privilege? Would whites suddenly become more sensitive to, say, the 50 items listed above? Is that enough or what else is involved?

  7. James Crowe says:

    Excellent. Sounds like you’d get on very well with Dave Child from the Bay Community Church in CT and Sindiso Mnisi Weeks who currently lectures in Boston. Keep up the good work.

  8. Staal Burger says:

    One way to shed your “white privilege” is to let go of it. I’m tired of hearing very privileged whites like yourself grovelling on about their privilege and somehow thinking anybody cares about your guilt complexes. The right thing to do is to resign from your privileged white job and make space for a black African woman (even when she lives in Sandton and you live in Danville), sell your house and your car or donate it to Cyril Ramapahosa and then go clean some toilets in Alexandra.

    • Staal, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, every contribution is valuable.

      Unearthing white privilege is useful as a framework to understand micro interactions (being thought of as an expert without opening one’s mouth for example) and see structural racism with a clearer lens.

      It does not, as I reiterated fully address these. That is the next step in the conversation.

      The point of this piece is to focus on the details of how we build a united country from multiple suggestions and discussions.

      You provided what would be in your opinion a just way forward.

      Embedded in the suggestion was overcoming white advantage (jobs, places to live etc). Intuitive to the suggestion was recognition that white privilege exists and because the position of people of color was painted as less than ideal, it is obviously unjust. Because white South Africans have been socialized to see this injustice as just, understanding white privilege becomes that much more important in being part of addressing these injustices.

      I hope I addressed your comment fully. I am learning much from the input, feel free to post more. Thanks again

      • Staal Burger says:

        But it never starts with you? How about charity begins at home, practice hwat you preach and all of that.

        As in USA it is the “white trash” – they are the ones paying the price and making the sacrifices. Same in South Africa – look at EE and AA stats the top 1% of the economy remains the most un-“transformed”. After 50/60 years of the same racial politics of AA/BEE in USA blacks are still poor, still no progress in addressing class privilege because the rich and the privileged hide behind “race” and “identity politics” knowing very well it is in the best interest of the capitalist elite who are in fact of all races now – because the ownership of capital – big multinational knows no nationality and no race. They are white, Chinese, Black, Indian, etc, etc. Much like the Marikana effect in South Africa, black government, BEE company and black police. The Guptas very much the same. Yet – disparaties keeps on getting bigger and it is the poor of all races who suffer the consequences. not only here in South Africa, or in USA but accross the globe the 1% are the ones who try and conceal their CLASS privilege with this reactionary “race”/”identity” politics developed and perfected in USA.

  9. The Muse says:

    Thanks for this – it is quiet reflective and courageous of you to put yourself on the spot in this way. I wish many South Africans would read it. The challenge though with issues of white privilige, as with any other form of privilige, is that they act themselves out and feed on to themselves. So this article might get published purely because it is written by a white South African, which is kind of the point you are also making. This then makes it a complex piece of work to unfold, as can be evidenced by some of the comments here. Self-awareness is a pre-requisite for the work that you are suggesting, and many people are afraid of SEEING themselves, lest they don’t like what they see, so they spend a lot of time pointing fingers and looking for someone to blame. So even as people will read this piece, it is also important to acknoweldge that many will be defensive and persecute you and everyone else that has the privilige of seeing the truth for what it is.
    I do a lot of work on Diversity and Leadership development and I see these patterns all the time. If you haven’t already you might also want to look at the work of Milton Bennett for a model on HOW to bridge the gap. Also useful reference is Paul Gorski’s Complicating White Privilige. Elsewhere on my blog I also wrote something about micro-aggressions, which I see as important work to surface as you work with this interesting work. Good luck – and thank you again for putting yourself out there.

    • Thank you for the encouragement and reading recommendations. I cannot agree more, writing about privilege from privilege brings with it a whole range of complex ironies. Considering people of color have been saying the same things forever without the batting of an eyelid is not lost on me.
      I am convinced that unpacking privilege is just part of a broader structural struggle against racial, gender and other forms of oppresssion. If left alone, talking about white privilege can become a another currency used by White South Africans such as myself to talk about injustice without doing anything to change it in reality. My hope was to begin with this piece so as to strengthen dialogue among all South Africans towards the structural changes needed moving forward.

      I am very thankful to be learning from all this discussion, please feel free to continue this dialogue with me. Best,

  10. The Muse says:

    Reblogged this on The Museletter and commented:
    Here’s an interesting piece on white privilige – how would this fit in your leadership journey as you reflect on enhancing your leadership signature?

  11. Xolisa says:

    A very nice read, thank you. There is still hope for South Africa, we need more of you. Enkosi!

  12. Sam van Coller says:

    A very sincere piece by a white post apartheid South African. I understand your struggle – I have seen my own children going through the same struggle. In a way it was easier for whites during apartheid. You were either in favour of or against apartheid. Now it is more difficult dealing with the consequences of the past. I think your choice of the words ‘white privilege’ will make it more difficult for you to find your road. Not all whites are or were privileged. But more importantly the word privilege in the main describes a circumstance over which you had no control. Look at two children, the one brought up by graduate professional parents and the other by a single parent farmworker. I am aware of two such children that have just written matric. The privileged child cannot change his or her circumstance. What is important is how that child views their position in this society. I find words such as prejudice, racism, discrimination, oppression, inequality, poverty and disadvantage much more helpful. An awareness of these vicious negatives and how they deprive millions of South Africans of the opportunity to realise their true potential seems to me to be critical. It starts with one’s value system, how that value system views the above negative behaviours and the determination to live by that set of values. In the end we all have a choice; to work for ourselves or to work for a better society. Because it is largely circumstantial, I don’t believe using ‘privilege’ as the overriding concept will make a major contribution to making South Africa a better place for all who live here.

    • Sam, thank you for the insight. Each of us, no matter where we stand exist in societies that work position us in certain ways. We are simultaneously constructed and constructing so to speak. The term privilege stems from literature in this area. I would be interested to hear what alternative term could be used that describes this phenomenon better, and make a larger contribution?

      • Sam van Coller says:

        Thanks for your response. Privilege is a perfectly good word and warrants unpacking as a sociological phenomenon. It merits intellectual analysis though my impression is that this is not what you are trying to do. I believe it is far too wide a concept to address what is your focus. There are so many factors that give rise to privilege that the individual will find it very difficult to get to grips with how to respond to it. If I look at your paper, it is all about disadvantage that arises because of skin colour – and you have, because of your personal circumstances, the ‘advantage’ of being able to make a special contribution in this area. I think you need to look for words that narrow the focus. Prejudice as a possible word starts to narrow it down and is a concept that desperately needs focus in a diverse society such as ours. But even prejudice is too wide for your purposes. The reality is that it is racism that is the problem. Many whites (plus a fair amount of blacks) do not understand what racism embraces and the extent to which their behaviour is hurtful and divisive. They see racism only in extreme terms that manifests itself in hatred and fear. They need help in a helpful way and not through endless castigation. Most South Africans want a reconciled South Africa but don’t realise the extent to which they in their daily behaviour obstuct any process in that direction. I believe you are in a position to promote such a positive dialogue and wish you well in your desire to break down barriers between human beings.

  13. Not good enough says:

    I certainly felt privileged when 70% of my job applications came back “Only black males may apply”

    I am not racist, had nothing to do with apartheid and am just as African as any black male.
    I don’t feel that dismantling the already “privileged” class is the answer, we should be dropping all thought of “white” and “black” and focus on educating and empowering the less privileged without hindering the progress of the nation by giving a second rate employee a job, when there is someone better suited to the job… regardless of colour.

    The gap between rich and poor is far wider now than it was 20 years ago. All that BEE has done is put a very small minority of blacks in the upper wealthy class, while keeping the majority poor.

    I am sick and tired of people trying to tear down the “whites” and pin the blame on us for the countries problems, when most of our current problems stem from corruption and lack of ability to provide the correct service delivery and education systems that will actually bring about a change in the class shift and improve quality of life for all…regardless of colour.

  14. Lebogang says:

    Warren, thank you. I wish more of white South Africans understood that when pointing out the ways in which they have historically and now, in many latent ways, continue to benefit from the fact of their whiteness.

    If I could add a few more features of privilege:
    1. When you get your first job, neither you nor anyone in your family expects you to extend the house in which your grandparents / parents / siblings live because it has never been adequate in size or function for all of you.
    2. When you get your first job, neither you nor anyone in your family expects you to pay for the education of your siblings / cousins.
    3. You can walk into the township, not speak a single word of the language that is widely spoken in that area, and nonetheless encounter everyone in that community who has knowledge of one (usually more) of the language that you speak, your minority status notwithstanding.
    4. In your family and extended family, you sleep on the floor when camping, not as the daily feature of your life.

    20 years after democracy, the black middle class and emerging black capital must itself start to ask questions about the extent and nature of its allegiance with the poor and working class in our country. About the ways in which class privilege introduces new forms of injustice that challenge the quest for social cohesion and equitable development and the extent to which its conspicuous consumption undermines creative and socially relevant financial and time investments. But, as you rightly point out, that does not absolve white South Africans of the responsibility to introspect and confront the latent and historically contingent privileges they enjoy.

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  16. Cara Meintjes Hartley says:

    Hello Warren! I saw your post after a comment by someone named Gail on Brett Fish Anderson’s blog. I’m glad someone has use the McIntosh article to write this! And @Lebogang you add some very valid additional points which definitely resonate with my experience and that of the black professionals with whom I’ve had the chance to discuss this kind of thing.

    How about, here’s another white privilege from me: If I tresspass on private property, get drunk or do something similar, it is likely to be interpreted as “young and fun-loving” behaviour, I am unlikely to be treated as a criminal and more likely to be politely asked to stop or leave. The #Crimingwhilewhite hashtag brought up a number of these things from white South Africans on twitter.

    If you wonder if you’re alone in exploring these things, you’re not. You’re also right that seeing white privilege is step one, and when it comes to what should be done to address it there will be hugely divergent views.

  17. Pingback: The Fall of Cecil Rhodes and the Rise of Black Power in Africa » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

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  19. Carl says:

    Sorry, but i do not fully agree with the article. Is it then also my “white privelege” to see fellow white south africans butchered? And don’t bring apartheid into this question, because if you know your history the surely you would have seen that more than 90% of black people killed in apartheid was by black people themselves… Sorry, but the so called priveleges i have is due to me working hard to achieve something, paying my own studies from money that i make by working in a position beneath what i am capable of because i have to train my black boss that just wants everything for free? Can we call that black privelege then? Then surely it is black privelege to murder, rape and steal? And yes i will wind up my window if it means protecting my own life. Do not get me wrong. I do not mind sharing. But i will not stand being called a priveleged white man just because i am not lazy.

    • Hi Carl,
      Thank you for the reply. Crime is a national cross cutting issue across gender, race, class, ability, and sexual orientation.
      Fundamental to white privilege is understanding the structural nature of privilege–South African society benefits us as white South Africans for no other reason other than we are white.
      On an individual level it is easy to point out individuals who may or may not have overt privilege, but pointing these out does not negate your own privilege.
      The person of color you work with may have privilege as you describe it, but that was not the point of the piece. The point was to demonstrate privilege all white people possess. Because you are white you embody white privilege, lazy or not.

    • Dear Carl, Your privilege was originally derived from (POC’s) people of colour being forcefully removed from their properties without any compensation or their permission and thrown into what is today know as townships, squatter camps etc; your great grand, grand parents and parents receiving preferential treatment when it came to employment (for life) at state institutions under the Nationalist Government, fast tracked promotional opportunity (regardless whether they had the skills or not) and I can go on forever. You have no idea of how many people of colour was killed by the previous regime’s armed forces or white folk in general, so you are only expressing your ill informed opinion. On the point of your Black boss wanting everything for free – how is it different to you and your ancestors getting land, patronage, boy’s club privileges etc. for free? Your underlying assumption is that all black people are lazy, murderous thieving and raping people; your surely have a warped sense of reality.

    • Piet Vorster says:

      Exactly, our Forefathers worked hard for this white “privilege”, in fact it is not a privilege but a right, the same right that Blacks have to land that they were dispossessed of.

      • Hi Piet, Thank you for reading the blog and commenting. Rights and privileges overlap in a legal sense–the right to food, the privilege of actually eating. It can also overlap in a non legal manner–the right to life, the privilege to be alive. If I understand your post correctly, you are arguing that it is the right for one race to have inherent privileges over another–that white privilege is an earned right.

        I fundamentally disagree. White privilege is a result not of working hard but of dispossession, violence, and oppression of people because of the color of their skin over centuries. If we can agree that all people are worthy of human dignity as equal beings, then we cannot agree that white privilege, the inherent system of placing White people above all others, is somehow a just and right way of looking at the world.

  20. Michael B says:

    Good article. Reinforces the notion than whities’ problems aren’t just about race, but mostly about economy, colonialism and the reality of a global village, and the culture that (westernised) global village carries. But the article omits BEE as a tool that works to directly counter this social structure – it’s a shame this is left out, because it should be clearly factored in as part of the authors’ argument. (In that BEE already is creating new peaks in the topography that is ‘inherited privelge’). Ultimately, people of colour will inherit the same priveleges that predominantly white people have had – yet the problematic paradigm will still persist, regardless of the colour of people that comprise it. However, the percevied benefit is that there will be MORE people of colour sharing it than there are currently. Is that really the ideal end goal? I’m not convinced. I’d rather aim higher.

  21. Genevieve says:

    Hi Warren,

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. White privilege and privilege in general are buzzwords that are becoming more and more prevalent in public discourses and an informed, well researched and most of all personal take on it has never been more pertinent. I have just a few questions and comments that I’d appreciate your input on…
    1) You mention in your list about white people no matter what age being referred to by black people as either madam or boss/sir. This is something that i struggle with especially when the black person saying it is much older than me. I often find myself wanting to call the person out on it and say something like ‘I’m young enough to be your granddaughter or daughter please don’t call me ma’am/ madam.’ However i feel that this might embarrass the person or they may think I’m being disrespectful or insolent by calling them out on something where the intention was to be polite in the way that they know how despite it being a loaded expression that I would imagine is quite unconscious? Thoughts?
    2) Am i correct in saying that there is no such thing as ‘reverse racism’? i.e. black people expressing either hateful remarks or ones in jest that refer to stereotypes associated with white people and specifically white South Africans. Reason I ask, and forgive the ignorance, is that often in conversations with black friends or colleagues a comment is made, usually in jest, like, ‘ag, but you white people,’ or stop ‘being so white’ etc. How does one deal with this constructively as it is based on stereotypes and if the situation was in fact the other way round it would be considered a racist comment?
    3) I’d like to add another one to your list, which is quite painful as I am, for lack of finding a better word, guilty of it (but owning it and grappling it!). White privilege, no matter what your nationality, is being allowed to appropriate symbols of African American culture, specifically hip hop music, styling, political icons (Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) into one’s identity construction (like me for example, soul, R&B and hip hop are my music preferences) without it being seen as weird or being a sell out, rather it being seen as cool.

    Anyways, would appreciate your thoughts…

    Yours in paler privelege deconstruction!

  22. Pingback: People, Policy, and Power: Reflecting How My White Privilege Impacted Community Engagement and Policy-Making in Post-Apartheid South Africa | Warren Chalklen

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  24. Adrien McGuire says:

    I think that this is a thought provoking article and I will be politically incorrect and disagree with the content.

    History is full of injustice and the stronger have , time immemorial, dominated the less fortunate. One needs to understand that fact and get over it, because it is the way the world was and is and always will be . It happens on a country basis , nationality basis, a race basis and on an individual basis ( and on many other bases). These statuses are fluid by nature and change over time .

    Strength comes as a result of hard work , innovation, sacrifice and most of all not having a sense of entitlement. Rather, having the desire to change ones circumstances through the qualities and actions mentioned earlier.

    Slavery happened in all parts of the world and both blacks and whites were subjected to this abuse. However, these days it is only politically correct to remember that blacks were enslaved by whites. One forgets the raids on Britain and other European countries by Arab slave traders etc etc. Right now it is not convenient to remember the Barbary slave trade.

    It is strange that we have an international airport in Durban named after a mass murderer . His life and actions have been romanticised because it suits the current status quo in South Africa. We had a TRC that wiped the slate clean on ANC atrocities in their camps and the executing of MK cadres that dared question the privilege of the elite ANC leaders.

    History has a way of happening and the world will always have left wing treehuggers and right wing bigots. Just get over it , because you ain’t going to change that. These extremes are replaced by different races , nationalities etc over time but the treehuggers and bigots will always be there in different guises.

    Remember, privilege didn’t just suddenly appear, it was the result of people getting off their butts and doing things to change their circumstances, to improve their lives and to invest in future generations. It’s a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill and gathering more mass and momentum. Those that sit around and wait for things to be delivered on a silver platter will be left in the dust , wondering what on earth happened. One can bitch and moan as much as one likes but unless one is willing to work on changing ones personal circumstances , it is never going to happen. Legislation is not the answer as it just creates different problems. It is not like instant mash potato from a packet, where you can just add a little hot water and you have something different. It is a process that takes time, One needs to plant the potatoes , nurture them and reap the benefits, always remembering to replant for the next generation. Just don’t sit and watch others plant potatoes and wonder why they are the fat cats and you are hungry.

    So, is there white privilege in South Africa ? Absolutely ! But judging by the way the current political scene is going, people are going to be complaining about Zulu privilege in the not too distant future. English as a world language may well be replaced by Mandarin.

    I can’t really debate the 45 points in the list , because they are true but what I can debate is how they came about . I can, also, debate about who the next “privileged” people will be .

    The sad thing that we learn from history is that no-one learns from history . There are always going to be potato planters and there will always be those that are hungry. There are always going to be givers and takers . There are always going to be investors and poor people. Equality is a fairy tale and a figment of one’s imagination. You can’t legislate for inequality , it requires personal effort , sacrifice and investment.

    So just get over history, you can’t change it . You can however change the future , but it will never be fair. That is reality !

    • Hi Adrien, central to your argument is that we should just get over history. Your argument is problematic for two reasons a) because it is rooted in white privilege and b) because it assumes history is not the present. Telling people to get over historical injustice when those same injustices exist now in the present (especially when we as white people still benefit from the unjust status quo) is a form of racism–before telling people to get over history, it is important to acknowledge how the way you currently respond to racism reinforces it. Especially your insistence on meritocracy and so called “working hard” and “sacrifice”. These are myths.

      History only changed in time but not material, social, political, and economic change is still history even if the date is 2015 not 1915. It is easy to call something history when one can see change. But the truth is anti-black racism is rooted in past and present. Assuming that time is somehow a magical cure is naive. For history to truly change through the present we need to address how racism manifests–for their to be no arguments against the list of white privilege suggests that something more needs to be done.

      • Adrien McGuire says:

        Thanks for the interesting reply. I think, however, we are in the realm of apples and oranges. Your response seems to come from the basis that I accept racism . Nothing could be further from the truth.

        The point I was making ( or trying to) was that entitlement was a dangerous space to be in. Whether it is a black person in Africa or white person living on the dole in the UK , the concept of accountability for ones personal status needs to be accepted. and acted upon. Every family must sacrifice for the next generation in order to move forward and progress. It is this process that creates wealth and lasting value.

        It is this process that fueled colonisation , because the colonialists had strength and power and those colonised did not, at the time. it would be naive to judge what happened in the 17th century by modern day standards. The world was a different place then.

        So , back to the point , The majority of white people in South Africa voted for change in the referendum realising that the system was unjust and untenable. Everybody had a feeling of euphoria that the new Rainbow Nation would be better for all South Africans. However they did not count on the one system being replaced by one being as bad if not worse. And therein lies the problem because it was expected that there would be a system that encouraged the development of the country and every person that lived here. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. In 20 odd years we have a system of self enrichment for the politically connected. corruption, nepotism , ineptitude, inefficiency, a lack of accountability, a lack of leadership and so on. We have a system that seeks to destroy what is good in South Africa and replace it with mediocrity. I was one that argued that the new Rainbow Nation would be different from the rest of Africa.

        Everyday I see examples of improvements in interracial harmony and yet the whites are bashed over the head for historical injustices instead of being encouraged to go further. The reason being that it is not politically expedient for the ruling ( how I hate that description) party to acknowledge the positive changes. It is this situation that is fueling the old racist sentiments . Worse still , blacks that mix with whites are called “coconuts” by other black people. Politically incorrect racism is slowly being replaced by a politically correct version.

        Your insistence that meritocracy , hard work and sacrifice is a myth is a statement of opinion not an argument. At least make an effort to justify your opinion. I expected better from a PhD student.

  25. We can both agree that entitlement is corrosive in any society. However, Black African families have violently been made to sacrifice wealth, land, income so that generations of White families can move forward. This “moving forward” over time has created entitlement among White South Africans to unearned social, economic, and cultural capital that is fundamentally based on Black exploitation in the present. Black South Africans are therefore entitled to a different set of entitlements: redress for land stolen, violence perpetrated, and access to resources that affirm human dignity previously denied. These two sets of entitlements are different and should not be treated as simply the “dole” or “family sacrifice”. Black Families have sacrificed enough frankly.

    I fail to see how government failure is somehow a function of the Black race. Rather, by you pointing to cronyism, nepotism, and corruption as a result of a Black led government reveals a) your racist attitude (Russia, India, Brazil face similar levels of corruption and have different socially constructed racial categories) b) your belief that somehow only Whites are affected by government inefficiency and corruption when in fact the poorest (mostly Black) are worse affected and c) the deep assumption that the Rainbow Nation rhetoric meant a continuation of the unjust status quo. The Rainbow Nation is in fact, a call to address racism through addressing, dismantling white supremacy and white privilege.

    Finally, to believe that meritocracy in a racist country like South Africa is real is an unreflective understanding of our racial legacy. What we in South Africa enjoy as White people is a result of only a fraction of our hardwork. White privilege has enabled us with a plethora of unearned advantages that cumulatively result in our economic and social success. If you can rationally argue from a space other than White privilege I would love to hear your argument that justifies meritocracy in our country.

  26. Adrien McGuire says:

    Warren, I enjoy a good debate but I can’t debate with someone who makes assumptions about my views on racism.

    I have never once mentioned the “colour” of the government.. and anyway replacing one bad system with another does not help anyone. The worst affected, as you mentioned, are the poor. Their burden has increased , not improved. A failure in government is a disservice to everyone in in the country but more so to the lower societal structures as they do not have the means to protect themselves from being ravaged.

    My views on government failure relate to individuals and not their race , so please don’t keep making comments about my views on racism which are unfounded. I have the right to criticize the government and the individuals . The fact that they are black is purely incidental. Failure is the issue at hand !

    I am all for redressing the past , but I am not for destroying the country in the process. At the same time there has to be accountability for the handouts that are given. You cannot give , for example, a productive farm to someone and then not expect some sort of production from that valuable land. It is even worse that the beneficiary is a politically connected cadre.

    One “little” incident in government a few days ago , wiped out R200+ billion from the economy . Where is the accountability for this. One idiot is protected and 50 million South Africans pay. Add to this SAA , Eskom, Denel, PRASA etc etc I agree that white privilege needs to be addressed , however there there are many pressing needs that need addressing , including the failure and accountability of government. The government is doing more damage than white privilege right now.

    So , yes , white privilege needs to be addressed but it is only one of the issues facing this country and right now it would be more productive to tackle the government and the individuals that are failing and those that are raping the system.

    Lets call it quits and let your readers make up their own minds on this discourse.

    Have a good evening !

    • Adrien, Have reflected not only on your position but my response to it. Regardless of the extent of agreement or disagreement we have, we are at the end of the day human beings and fellow South Africans. As such, we have the inalienable responsibility to treat each other with dignity. For this reason, it is unjust of me to describe you as a racist or make generalities about you solely based on one comment in a blog designed to be an educational, open, and dignity affirming space. For my accusation, and manner in which I engaged with you, I unreservedly apologize.

      • Adrien McGuire says:

        Thanks pal !! Accepted with appreciation and without any held grudges !

        I think Xavier has given you some amazing pointers on how to continue with your goal but at the same time there is absolutely nothing wrong with being passionate about improving the world. Just keep your feet on the ground because reality is what you have to deal with and theories are difficult to implement,

        Good luck, wishing you all the best !

  27. Xavier Balayer says:

    Warren, we need articles and public outcries to injustices in order to show people in positions on leadership they cannot get away with anything. Your article is a good start but I hold some reservations in both the content and the approach.

    One aspect of science I like is proof by contradiction. Ignoring the mathematical part of this, the essence of it is that you have to look at all parts of the puzzle to solve your issue. In order to be true to the theorem you are trying to demonstrate to the public you have to remain unbiased towards the result you want.

    The beauty of this is that while trying to prove something you may end up either proving the opposite or, even better, demonstrating something that nobody, even yourself, expected.

    I am glad to see articles trying to provoke thought. However, I am tired of seeing articles that are biased to the opinion of the writer. How I wish to see an article that is completely unbiased and finally tells the truth as it is and not as it was experienced by the writer!

    Your article is on “White Privileges” and highlights a lot of truth. Unfortunately some of your points are obscured by external factors, cultural differences and intrinsic human psychological behaviours. Adrien McGuire, Lebogang and others have highlighted some valid points. The article is a start, but it only reveals the surface of an issue. What lies beneath? Have you ever thought about an article simply called “Privileges” and applied it to every race and culture in a South African context?

    Have you tried interviewing different groups of people around the country, from the small villages in the Northern Cape to the high rollers of Santon to the Kings and their followers? How do they use their privileges and how do they view the privileges of others?

    Have you talked to those who worked hard to achieve their “privileges” and also help out their countrymen?

    Have you spoken to those who work hard only to see their boss claim privileges while doing nothing to justify them?

    Ask the above to people from all backgrounds and you’ll quickly see pattern that might surprise you and your future readers.

    Also, be careful in articles and your answers to your critiques by stating opinions as fact. If you don’t separate the two (sometimes requires a very honest “am I sure this is true?”) then your arguments will lose their weight.

    Lastly, learn to be humble. You will be wrong at times and your critiques will point it out. If you are right and can justify it then do it. If you are wrong then let them know and amend your article. If you need time to think about a reply then let them know and take your time. Cultivate your listeners and create dialogue – ask questions to their opinion instead of trying to prove them wrong with no valid counter-argument at hand.

    I look forward to seeing some further articles as you mature into your PhD.

  28. sam van Coller says:

    Xavier, I wish you had been my postgraduate supervisor fifty years ago!

  29. uhleka says:

    Hi Warren,

    Thanks for the article. I’m on my own journey of personal transformation and understanding and this is a great place to start. I’ve found it helpful talking to friends of different backgrounds and races and meaningful dialogue does a lot for sure. However, I always feel we never come to solid conclusions or a way forward. Sometimes I wonder if South Africa will ever be able to progress until it deals with these issues (and others). Having had the privilege (a colourless privilege) to travel overseas I can tell you that the grass isn’t greener (sorry for all these references to colour) – the most hatred and racism I have actually seen has been in the USA and Korea, the latter being as starkly different to RSA in terms of diversity as possible (it practically containing only one race).

    Moving on – and we can talk until we get red in the face (oops, another colour reference!) and get nowhere – my short, limited experience has taught me that the answers are always there and often very simple; so simple we often pass them by as being too simple. I dare every human to try this: ‘To forgive everyone, of everything, for all time.’ And forgiveness means forgetting as well. Forgiveness is unjust, forgiveness means pretending, forgiveness hopes in the future, and forgiveness lives in the present and for the future, not the past. I have found such freedom forgiving those that have hurt me yet still struggle to forgive others.

    I don’t blame anyone for disagreeing or not being able to do this; each act of forgiveness is an absolute miracle. But… until we start talking in absolutes, this country and its people will never get anywhere.

    Only the truth will set you free.

  30. Pingback: What I Learned About White Privilege and Racism From Buying Bread | Warren Chalklen

  31. WOW! I’m an American who will soon travel to SA for the second time. Your article was very candid! Now I’ll go through and read all the comments.

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