Peggy McIntosh, who wrote of white privilege from the perspective of a white individual. states in her writing that, “as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. To back this assertion, McIntosh notes a myriad of conditions in her article in which racial inequalities occur to favor whites, from renting or buying a home in a given area without suspicion of one’s financial standing, to purchasing bandages in “flesh” color that closely matches a white person’s skin tone. She further asserts that she sees “a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
With the conclusion of the General elections of 27 April 1994 South Africa was to commence a monumental journey to purge itself off a 342-year history of oppression. Our Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the intention to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations then named us the “rainbow nation”. This became the gospel of the South African government’s nation building efforts. With absolutely zero offence to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his genuine efforts, it has become quite evident that this rainbow is not broken … it just never was. Very few of us are ignorant to the fact that our democracy is that of an existence negotiated in bad faith. From the minute the ink dried on the documents that negotiated our democracy we had traded justice for a false, if not socially flawed, peaceful coexistence.
In an overtly vulgar and unremorseful manner, ‘whiteness’ still corresponds to a set of social advantages in South Africa. The system of white privilege applies both to the way a person is treated by others and to a set of behaviors, affects, and thoughts, which can be learned and reinforced. These elements of “whiteness” establish social status and guarantee advantages for some people. White privilege in South Africa has small-scale effects, such as preferential treatment for people who appear white in public, and large-scale effects, such as the over five-fold difference in average per-capita income for people identified as white.
White privilege can be thought of as an unstable racial equilibrium. When this equilibrium is challenged, the resulting racial stress can become intolerable and trigger a range of defensive moves. White people commonly tell us that they brought us civilization to Africa. But conveniently omit that they built “civilization” on the backs of black slaves/labourers, for themselves, and were just recently forced to share the spoils of their exploitative history with the indigenous people of this land. Whenever the topic of BEE comes up, white people are often of the opinion that, “Race shouldn’t matter as much as merit and that people shouldn’t be judged on the colour of their skin (The default here is that white people have more merit and capability and are therefore more deserving of opportunities)…. But then they gone on and critique blacks on their appearance, ‘their culture’, ‘their bad use of english’, etc. We see this often in the news reports, art, satire, cartoons or columns.
Many whites in South Africa are unwilling to engage in the topic of racism often saying that they “do not see colour”. This phenomenon of “colourblind racism” that denies and ignores the fact that for people of colour (black people), race still matters because they still experience racism. They will almost instinctively deny their privilege and often readily mention that we don’t live in an apartheid state anymore; insisting that black people should get over the injustices created by apartheid. And when black organisations assemble to take charge of their own representation and transformation; white people will use sympathetic media to make allegations about the exclusion of whites and label it racism instead of seeing it as self-determination.
There are 56-million people in South Africa. Half of those people live below the breadline – the majority of poor people are black. This means they are trapped in a system that favours whites and white business at the expense of the poor. Many white people will blame this entirely on the government and while government must be critiqued for failing to adequately change the system and deliver to the poor, white people refuse to see the role of white greed and corporate power in this systemically skewed and racialised economy.
Let me correct a common misconception that a lot of our fellow white South Africans have regarding South Africa’s preservation of white privilege vs. their misguided perception that it is a preservation of their constitutional minority rights. In practice, democracy is governed by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. Having said that, majority rule cannot be the only expression of “supreme power” in a democracy. For the majority, ensuring the minority’s rights becomes a matter of self-interest, since it must utilize the same rights when it is in minority to seek to become a majority again. The notion of white privilege raises the question of the difference between rights and privileges. Lawrence Blum address this difference when he writes, “privileges are generally counter posed to ‘rights’. They are not things people should expect to have, but rather things that people count themselves fortunate if they do have them.” Blum tends to find somewhat of a grey area between these two ideals, however, when he states that, “many of the things that are called ‘privileges’ in [White Privilege Analysis] do have the character of either rights or things, it is appropriate for someone to expect to have…being able to buy a home of one’s choice, having one’s voice heard in various settings, and the like. These are referred to as ‘privileges’, of course, because of the comparison to non-Whites who do not have them.”
The “single greatest source of wealth” for white South Africans is the growth in value in their owner-occupied homes…. Black South Africans were prohibited from owning property until very recently; credit to the The Natives Land Act (No: 27 of 1913). Whites have historically had more opportunities to accumulate wealth. Some of the institutions of wealth creation amongst South African citizens were open exclusively to whites. Similar differentials applied to rewards to military officers returning soldiers after World War II. The wealth gap in South Africa is not just a story of merit and achievement; it’s also a story of the historical legacy of race in South Africa. Because wealthy whites were able to pass along their wealth in the form of inheritances and transformative assets, white South Africans on average continually acquire advantages.
It is fact that even with governments efforts for redress white graduates were more often employed in skilled trades, earned more, held higher status positions, received more promotions and experienced shorter periods of unemployment. The concept of “who you know” seemed just as important to these graduates as “what you know.” Since older white males predominantly control blue-collar trades, they are more likely to offer varying forms of assistance to those in their social network, often other whites. Assistance can be anything from job vacancy information, referrals, direct job recruitment, formal and informal training, and vouching behavior and leniency in supervision.
White students have consistently privileged interactions with the special education system, which provides ‘non-normal’ whites with the resources they need to benefit from the mainline white educational structure. Educational inequality is also a consequence of housing. Inequalities in wealth and housing allow a higher proportion of white parents the option to move to better school districts or afford to put their children in private schools if they do not approve of the neighborhood’s schools.
With the rise of consciousness within our campuses and social media, the hope for social justice is reborn and the momentum of activism is rising. The patience of the masses has been tested and the compromises that were made at the birth of our democracy will no longer be tolerated. As Malcolm X once said“ I just don’t believe that when people are being unjustly oppressed that they should let someone else set rules for them by which they can come out from under that oppression.”. Just like the generation before us who picked up rocks and fought without fear against the tyranny of an unjust state for the very liberty we now enjoy we owe the next generation a life free of these injustices. White privilege must fall.
By: Azania Rising