[Update: Following claims that this blog post lifts certain content verbatim from its source on the Thought Catalog website and may constitute plagiarism, Thought Leader requested that the blogger revise the post to more adequately reflect the source material and to make clear where the source has been quoted. You can read the revised version here.]
After spending two hours on Aubrey Masango’s Radio 702 show Talk@9 this week, fielding questions and accusations around my views on racism and attempting to explain white privilege to white callers, I decided to write an extensive guide to recognising white privilege in the South African context.
1. White privilege, like whiteness itself, is almost indefinable to white people. There are few words to describe the invisible. However, white privilege is only invisible to white people and to those people of colour/black people who benefit and buy into white privilege.
2. Many whites in South Africa are generally unwilling to engage in the topic of racism – most crying out that we “must move beyond race’ and that they “do not see colour”. This is the new phenomenon of “colourblind racism” that denies and ignores the fact that for people of colour/black people, race still matters because they still experience it. This is because colourblind white people still practice racism.
3. These white folk will make blanket statements like “we don’t have apartheid anymore” or “there’s a black president now” or, even worse, “all of that stuff happened so long ago and now there is BEE which has made us the victims of black racism or black supremacy”. But 20 years is not that long ago and it will take decades for the pain and destruction of our history to subside.
4. Because of the transitional system of reconciliation, which seemed only to benefit white folk – coupled with the implementation of a business-biased macroeconomic policy – whites have continued to benefit hugely from the system. Economic studies have shown that many whites have in fact grown richer in the past 20 years – while the majority of blacks and smaller pockets of whites and minority groups have just grown poorer.
5. Yes, there is a burgeoning black middle class and many white people will often use this to point out that blacks are taking over and “stealing” their opportunities. This sense of ownership over opportunities is a sure sign of white privilege.
6. White privilege means not recognising that there is no such thing as Black Supremacy as black folk have not occupied and oppressed the world under a dominant ideology of Blackness.
7. There were also no “benefits” to black people under the colonial and apartheid rule, though some whites will argue that whites “brought civilisation to Africa for the blacks”. They did not. They built “civilisation” on the backs of black slavery, for themselves, and were just recently forced to share the spoils of their exploitative history with the indigenous people of this land.
8. This is because black people fought a long and hard struggle to overturn a system from which they received no benefits. White privilege means you do not make the connection between the struggle and a system of historically racialised oppression.
9. Whenever “diversity” or “race” comes up as a way to create opportunities for the previously disadvantaged, some indignant white person is sure to say, “Race shouldn’t matter as much as merit. I don’t think people should be judged on the colour of their skin. Everyone should be judged regardless of their colour.” So why then do white people continue to judge black people according to their skin colour? Why does critique of blackness by the white regime always centre on their morphology, their blackness, ‘their culture‘, ‘their penis‘, ‘their bad use of English‘ among other things? This message is implicit and sometimes explicit in white critique of blackness, whether in news reportage, art, satire, cartoons or columns.
10. The default here is that white people have more merit and capability and are therefore more deserving of opportunities.
11. White privilege is accusing people of drawing the race card when whites are critiqued for being racist and then saying skin colour has got nothing to do with it.
12. It is true race isn’t theoretically about skin color. Race is a systemic, governmental, juridical set of processes rooted firmly in an exploitative history that have entrenched racial inequalities. So, for instance, race isn’t that I’m white and you’re black. Race is a set of laws that are entrenched to favour whiteness and that most often vicitimise black folk.
13. Race is the law that becomes apartheid and is then replaced by neo-colonialism. Race is the common stereotype that if a black family moves into a neighborhood, property values go down and noise levels go up, or when too many black kids move into a private or public school it soon sees whites leaving the school. Race is shooting 44 striking black men dead because black working class bodies still have very little value in a white dominated system and many white people will think and say that they deserved it. Race is the common white assumption that all black people are lazy even though between 4am and 7am, the streets are filled with black folk making their way to badly paid jobs in white areas because they work hard to survive and feed and clothe their families.
14. White privilege is reflected the second a person asks why we are still talking about race.
15. These people act offended, angered and annoyed if another person calls out and interrogates their whiteness/white privilege. They feel that talking about whiteness is reverse discrimination. They accuse white people who interrogate whiteness of being mad and ‘other’ them in dehumanising terms.
16. White privilege is accusing a black person who critiques whiteness of being racist.
17. White privilege is asking your badly paid maid to unpack your daily clothes-buying splurges in which you spend more in one day than you pay her for the month.
18. White privilege is asserting on a public platform that a white woman learning to Twerk is some sort of nation building exercise.
19. There are 56 million people in South Africa. 50% of those people live below the breadline – the majority of poor people are black. This means they are trapped in a system that favours whiteness 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.
20. White privilege is investing in red rhino horns and demonising impoverished black poachers whilst never once considering marching against hunger or pointing their fingers at those at the top of the value chain in poaching, which is, sometimes, a white game farm owner.
21. “I don’t see race” or “We should all just look past race” are two general statements that can only be said by a person for whom race is not a daily struggle.
22. White privilege is entrenched narcissism because it is the ability to continuously demand images of whiteness in all representational media and transformation processes and using black representation to further their ’causes’ only when it suits them. If white people are not in charge of transformation processes, which has become a white industry, they cry racism.
23. If black organisations spring up to take charge of their own representation and transformation white people will use sympathetic media to make a huge hullaballoo about the exclusion of whiteness and label it racism instead of seeing it as self-determination. This has ensured that the means-of-production has mostly remained in the hands of white business and has created another industry from which whites can benefit – the constant training of black people.
24. White privilege is being able to endlessly exploit black body for financial gains and pat themselves on their backs for doing “good and beneficial” work.
25. White privilege is the irrational fear that affirmative action programs are going to open the way for blacks to take over, or more specifically to take “my position” at university or in the workplace. White privilege is the assumption that the “position” is yours to begin with.
26. In South Africa black people have also often been overlooked for ‘coloured or Indian’ people for leadership positions in institutions of learning. This is because white people perceive minorities as less threatening and have more inherent trust in those who are not ‘fully black’. It is a deeply entrenched prejudice towards blackness that has been cultivated and passed down from generation to generation over the past four centuries.
27. White privilege is not noticing that in a country that is majority black and has a black government, the amount of black teachers and lecturers in schools, colleges and universities is not representative of the country’s demographics. Neither is the number of black Directors of NGOs in civil society, or owners of film companies and media outlets. The corporate world remains largely untransformed too.
28. White privilege is blaming this on perceived black incompetence rather that seeing how the system is designed to provide opportunities for white people, then Indian and coloured people, and lastly black people, excluding the small black elite and elements of burgeoning black middle class. This is the racialised hierarchy of privilege entrenched in the apartheid system and still in place today. White privilege is accepting this status quo to preserve white benefit and ignoring the negative impact it has on the next generation.
29. White privilege is also blaming the poor for their poverty instead of looking at systemic issues that create poverty.
30. White privilege means never having your intelligence or integrity questioned. It means not having to work that much harder just to safeguard yourself from deleterious critique when you achieve prominence. It means never having to second-guess yourself about your competence or being sideswiped by disparaging comment by white people who are shaken by your success. It means not automatically being suspected of being open to corruption. It means not being racially profiled as the rapist, the tsotsi, the hijacker and the monster in the shadows, simply because you are black and male. It means that if you are raped you are more likely to see justice.
31. A white person doesn’t think of himself or herself as white. “We are just people” is the common mantra. White people very quickly revert to being white when they need to differentiate themselves from perceived “bad behaviours” of “these people” though.
32. When we talk about white privilege, we’re not only talking about healthy bank accounts and elite status. That’s where class comes in and we all know there is a small elite class of black and minority groups in South Africa (onto whom many whites project all elements of corruption and unfair power acquisition as they somehow think blacks do not deserve to be rich). But we are talking about a set of non-tangible advantages, like never being told that we speak well. No one has ever told me that I speak well because I’m white. It means never having someone walk towards you with a face-cracking smile that seeks to prove that this white person is okay with black folk and is inwardly congratulating herself for her magnanimous and non-racial attitudes. It means never being spoken to in broken stilted English in a fake African accent.
33. White privilege is knowing that the stuff you are taught at schools and universities is largely centred on your culture and value system.
34. White privilege is appropriating aspects of black culture in carnivalesque situations such as Rag or Halloween or as some kind of fun but at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, returning to whiteness with no inkling of the experience of living black.
35. White privilege is claiming you are “African” and into “Ubuntu” but doing and saying nothing about the inequalities you see around you, thus maintaining your white privilege while assuming commonality and brotherhood with those exploited by the system of which you are a beneficiary.
36. It means co-opting and appropriating black words to push your own business while not fully understanding or practicing the meaning of the indigenous knowledge that you colonise with little reflection on the privileged act of stealing from black awareness.
37. White privilege is thinking it is normal to say you are not racist because you have no problem with “these people”.
38. White privilege is not knowing that while not all white people are racist, all white people have white privilege – even in a country that is African – because we belong to and are privileged by a ‘white regime’ that is global and not just a local neo-colonial phenomenon.
39. Recognising you have white privilege is part of the fight against racism. You cannot fight a system if you do not recognise how it has benefitted you as a white person. While I have never really been economically privileged, with a single-mother household for most of my childhood, I know I have white privilege and that definitely impacts how I relate to the world and shapes how I choose to live in the world. When you understand your own white privilege, you are better equipped to see and understand systemic discrimination and inequality and begin to deconstruct it from within. It is hard to imagine being anti-racist without being anti-imperialst and anti-neoliberal as these are the very systems that perpetuate inequality and racism globally.
40. I am sure there are many more examples of white privilege and I invite readers to please add to this list by sending me your examples of white privilege.
M&G editor-in-chief Chris Roper weighs in on the plagiarism debate. You can read his comment here.