White Privilege

Following the recent spate of protests, statue topplings, and painting burnings, you have probably heard the terms “privilege”, “white privilege”, and “whiteness”. (Most commonly in the nauseating rejoinder “Check your privilege”.)

The words in everybody’s mouths has unfortunately not quite penetrated to everybody’s mind. One gets the feeling that many of the protesters do not fully understand what they are campaigning against, and the people on the sidelines understand it even less. (This is what is leading to the confusion between anti-whiteness being against white people.)

So let’s start by clearing it up.

What is this privilege? Privilege is the sum of inherited benefits bestowed on an individual, whether financial, social, academic, or other. Privilege is inherited through your family, friends, race, and religion. To be more specific, privilege is the opportunities which are available to you before you start. Privilege is not inherently something stolen from someone else (although privilege is often grounded in previously stolen land or goods). Privilege is also not inherently “evil” or “wrong”; there is nothing wrong with working hard to provide your children with a good education and, eventually, inheritance.  Privilege defines your starting point in your endeavours. Example: when I climbed Kilimanjaro, I was funded by my parents. Warm clothes, comfortable shoes, and competent guides. Together with our guides, I made the summit. Now, these (black) guides almost made it to the top. But while I was doing it in full kit and hiking boots, they were climbing in running shoes and old jackets. Same goal, same result, but different starting positions. Besides being a humbling experience (if I barely made it without losing my fingers I don’t even want to know how difficult it was for them), this illustrates privilege very well. Is it wrong that my parents supported me? Of course not. Is it wrong that our guides were not as well equipped? Of course not, no one forced them to climb. Is it wrong that there is such a great inherited difference between us? Perhaps.

Privilege is so named because that is what it is: an unearned privilege. I have no say where, when, and into which family I will be born. And yes, privilege is built off of hard work, whether my parents or their parent’s parents. And yes, just because I am privileged doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to earn anything myself. Let’s say two children of different families decide to earn some pocket money by mowing lawns. They are both hard working and decide to work for 8 hours a day. You will find that the child with the high-powered lawn mower is able to cut a lot more grass than the child without. Privilege influences not only your starting conditions, but also the paths you can take to become successful.

I have illustrated privilege with financial means, but privilege extends much deeper. Privilege can be found in every aspect of our society, from legal and political powers such as fair voting, to better treatment by the police as a white person, to better job opportunities by familial connections.

Let’s move on to white privilege and whiteness. White privilege describes all the benefits one receives just by virtue of being white in a white dominated society. To be more specific, white generally means European, and mostly Anglo-Saxon, culture, technology, and education. In a society and culture that has been built up by white people, there are certain assumptions about white people and racial roles. Now, while almost all democratic countries bestow the same rights to all races, these legal and political rights don’t automatically translate to equal treatment. (Much like how gay marriage in South Africa doesn’t help the lesbian women being raped and stoned.) The effects of years of oppression and injustice cannot be wiped out in an instant. The previous inequalities still make themselves felt: there is no point in having voting rights if I have no transport to the voting station. There are two ways of seeing the whites’ influence in the modern world: either you se them as having built up their culture, technology and society or you see them as having exploited other cultures to do so. Regardless, the fact remains that the West and much of the world has been built up by white Europeans and as such the social and legal systems cater particularly to them. This was occassionally done by malicious racism, but more often than not by simple oversight, by being blind to the needs of others.

This blindness is the basis of whiteness. In a land and society predominated by white culture, being white is normal. Whiteness is what allows me to zip through airline security while my darker-skinned friends are being checked. Whiteness is what allows me to pass unnoticed while ladies roll up their windows when a black man walks past. Whiteness is why the shopkeeper smiles to see me walk in while he watches my black friend carefully. Whiteness is, in short, the underlying feeling of belonging that I don’t even know I have.

Now, white privilege and whiteness are not a South African invention. In fact, it is not even an African invention. These come from America (continental but also the Caribbean) and Europe, from non-white academics who live as minorities.

So it is rather confusing to me that “Whiteness” has become such an issue in a country where less than 11% of the population is white.

Obviously, South Africa is still quite “white” owing to Apartheid and its lovely after-effects, but blaming “whiteness” for the current issues is not nearly as meaningful. Relatively speaking, the political situation has not been particularly white since the 1994 elections. This being said, the previous inequalities mean that whites still exert a disproportionate amount of power, as employers, investors, and land-owners. The average white person is richer than the average non-white, meaning that education and job openings still favour him. Universities were mainly built in “white” areas and white students are more likely to go to university because they can afford it. So a certain “whiteness” is still to be expected.

But blaming whiteness for bureaucratic and administrative problems resulting primarily from poor funding from a struggling (black) government? Not only is this foolish and obscuring the real issues, but it is causing division, hate, and fear where universities should be paragons of equality and forward thinking.

And I am NOT saying that the university situation is equal for whites and non-whites. But very few, if any, of the problems caused are by some underlying whiteness. The students who arrive only to find nowhere to sleep? They wouldn’t have even been accepted by a “white” university who knew they had no room. The problems facing the universities are the same facing all of South Africa: financial shortages caused by endemic poverty and capital mismanagement, unsympathetic or incompetent bureaucracies, shifting of blame.

How do we move forward?

First of all, give history a break. Was Rhodes a racist? Indeed. But so were almost all people of that time. But like all people he had good mixed with the bad. But the colonialists were imperial in first line, not racist. The English oppressed the Scots like they did the Blacks for hundreds of years. The Irish were thought of as “white chimpanzees”. The Europeans were not primarily racist they were ruthless, they saw lands and people weaker than them and exploited them. Just like Genghis Khan. Just like Shaka Zulu. “The weak are meat; the strong do eat.” Exploitation, oppression, and injustice run throughout history and NO country or people are innocent. The Europeans were just better equipped.(See Jared Diamond’s excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel for a detailed explanation of Europe’s historical preeminence.)

Second, the talk of “our land” and “oppressors” has to stop. Ignoring the fact that many of the Black tribes came to South Africa at the same time as the Europeans (also forcefully dislocating the previous inhabitants by the way), the fact is that we are all South Africans now. My father came from Austria and my mother from Rhodesia, but I and the majority of other whites are now South African through and through. And regardless of our heritage, all South Africans of all races want to see the country prosper. These historical divisions serve only to prevent us from uniting and moving forward.

Third, acknowledge the privilege. Whites, yes I know that BEE and quotas seem unfair. They are. But they exist because we cannot see the massive benefits that we received at birth.

Fourth, let’s stop generalizing. A few lecturers who insist on Afrikaans classes does not mean the entire university administration is racist. Likewise, while I find it excellent that students are protesting against established inequality, do not forget that almost 80% of the country is non-white. It is impossible to think that such a small proportion of the country can be expected to magically make reparations for or solve the problems of the past.

Fifth, we need discourse not argument. Is it more important to make a spectactle or do you want real change? Because screaming your opinions on the streets doesn’t help if you entrench the others in their own views. So yes, Black students feel marginalized, and this is a very valid concern and serious issue. But focussing all this discontent on a Rhodes statue in England appears petty and entitled. The problem with the Luister video is not that people are ignoring the students, the problem is that the examples brought were mostly either irrelevant to the university or appeared petty from a white perspective. (Justified or not, a white Afrikaans student only hears someone respectlessly whining about the quality of the free translation provided, or worse, someone attacking their mother tongue.)

Finally, let’s stop with the anti-white/anti-black speeches and protests, ok? Assigning blame to an entire race doesn’t help anyone. And yes, even though the protests might feel entitled or needlessly violent, just remember: something has happened to these people to make them so angry. Maybe we should be looking into that instead.



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