Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

A comprehensive guide to white privilege in South Africa

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, borrowing from this anonymous Thought Catalog document, which extrapolates from Richard Dyer’s work on white privilege, and reworking it into the South African context.

[Note: This blog has been updated. Although there were links to the original work posted by “Anonymous” on the Thought Catalog website, the original version failed to explicitly reference the original work and, where direct quotes were used, did not make adequate reference to the source material. This was pointed out by Jacques Rousseau on his blog.

However, I believe his suggestion that I have quoted from Richard Dyer’s work is erroneous as I borrowed only from the Thought Catalog text, openly and with three linked references.

While the links provided have been deemed inadequate referencing in this case, it is my understanding that “embedding material by reference (sometimes called an embedding form of hypertext link) causes the embedded material to become a part of the embedding document” as stated by Tim Berners-Lee in his commentary on links and the law.

No attempt was made to hide the fact that this piece was intended to be an extrapolation of the Thought Catalog post, adapted for the South African context. Direct quotes from the Thought Catalog post have now either been placed in block quotes or referred to explicitly in the revised post below.]

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.

They will make blanket statements like “we don’t have slavery anymore” or “there’s a black president now” or, even worse, “all of that stuff happened so long ago.” But that’s just it – it didn’t happen all that long ago, actually, and it is still happening. Cultural amnesia.

3. These white folk will make statements such as “we don’t have apartheid anymore” or “there’s a black president now” and “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 BEE comes up as a way to create opportunities for the previously disadvantaged, a 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. As per Thought Catalog, “It is true race isn’t theoretically about skin colour,” race is “a systemic, governmental, juridical set of processes” rooted firmly in an exploitative history that have embedded “racial inequalities”. 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. As the poster on Thought Catalog points out, race is the hysterical “stereotype that if a black family moves into a neighbourhood”, property values plummet and noise levels go up, as we often see locally, 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, angry and often hyper-aggressive if another person calls out and probes their white privilege. As pointed out on Thought Catalog,they assert vociferously that questioning their 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. 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 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 while 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 entitlement because it is the authority to continuously demand presence of whiteness in all 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 groundless fear that affirmative action programs are going to open the way for “the blacks to take over”, or more specifically to take “my position” at university or in the workplace. As the poster on Thought Catalog points out, white privilege is the assumption that the position is yours by default of being white.

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 not constantly having your intelligence or integrity questioned just because you are black. 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 comments 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. Whiteness is invisible to white people.

A white person doesn’t think of themselves as white. We are just people.

White people very quickly revert to being white when they need to differentiate themselves from perceived “bad behaviours” of “these people” though.

32. As the Thought Catalog poster points out, when we talk about white privilege, we’re not only talking about being wealthy. Wealth is about class 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). What we are talking about a set of automatic but invisible advantages, like never being told that we speak well.

No one has ever told me that I have good diction or 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 pantomime or as some kind of fun celebration but then 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.

Not all white people are racist, but all white people have white privilege.

This is so 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.

I know I have white privilege, and that definitely impacts how I relate to the world and it shapes the kinds of relationships I cultivate … When you understand your own white privilege, you’ll be better equipped to see and understand systemic discrimination and inequality.

39. The first step to overcoming racism is recognising you have white privilege. You cannot deconstruct a social construct if you do not recognise how you have benefitted from it 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 effects how I relate to society and shapes how I choose to live in the world.

When you are cognisant of 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.

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    • Graham

      @Eurasian, very good point regarding white privilege vs black disadvantage.

      In other countries for example, all citizens have free access to healthcare and education (Grade 1 to tertiary), all paid from taxes.

      If I moved to Australia, I would be better off not having to fund these expenses. I therefore do not think I have undue privilege because I am white and living in SA. White people I do not think come to SA because “life is just better here”.

      I understand our situation is very different, but then I would expect the taxes I pay to help level the playing field (offer free services to people who cannot afford it).

      However I do not see much return on my tax payments, either to benefit myself or others.

    • Kiki

      I have a little problem with point 31.
      I am white. I should identify myself as white. As should any person identify him or herself according to their race. I don’t think that is the problem. The problem comes in allowing that definition of yourself to mean more than just a categorization.
      I’ve been thinking about contemporary racial issues a lot recently and I agree that most white South Africans (especially in Cape Town) are happily unaware privileged whites. The guilt should come from the actions you take today, not the actions taken by your predecessors. I can’t help that I’m white, but I can strive to erase social injustice for every human through my everyday actions.

    • dan

      I feel the same way about tall people. I have to use a little step ladder when reaching for things stacked away in the very top most parts of my cupboards. They are so privileged! Shame on you tall people! Shame on you!

    • Amanda

      Liewe Gillian, jammer dat ek in afrikaans skryf maar ek kan myself buite”uitdruk” in my moedertaal maar ek dink darem jy kan afrikaans lees. Jy het baie moeite gedoen met hierdie artikel, en aan die einde van die artikel vra jy jou lesers vir nog voorbeelde. Met van jou punte kan ek saamstem maar met ander nie. Jy maak of al wat n wit mens (behalwe jy natuurlik) is soos wat jy hierbo verduidelik het. Die wit mens is die tiran en die swart mens is die slagoffer. Daar is slegs n baie klein persentasie van witmense wat jy hierbo beskryf in SA. Die meeste witmense is gematigde afrikaners en engelse. Ek hoor en lees gereeld van wit mense wat ongelooflike opvoedingswerk en bydraes tot die arm mense (swart of wit) maak en maar dis of dit net niks vir jou beteken nie, jy kyk verby dit. Jy vertel net die slegte maar die ander kant van die muntstuk raak jy nie eens aan nie. Sulke eensydige joernalistiek laat my twyfel aan jou moetiewe vir n beter SA. Jy moedig mense aan om te gaan sit en dink hoe die witmens hulself verheerlik bo the swart mense. Al wat jy eindelik reg kry is swart mense om wit mense te haat en dat hulle dink alle witmense is soos wat jy beskryf. Gaan delf maar lekker diep Jullian en vra jouself af wat jou motiewe nou eindelik is met die skryf van die artikel. Ek daag jou uit om te gaan ondersoek instel na wat die witmense al vir die land en sy mense gedoen het. Jy sal dalk net ander insigte kry.

    • Samantha

      I agree with you wholeheartedly, but this is a gross generalization of white people and I think that’s something you should point out. I think any white person with that mentality needs a serious wake-up call, and I say this as a white person. As a white person who wrote this article, I’m sure you also don’t subscribe to the belief systems you have described here. We must not forget that there are white people who truly are not racist and who truly wish for harmony in this country. Just my two cents worth

    • Rhuan

      Wow, i am kind of disgusted with this article. I am white but i don’t see color, i grew up in a house of racism and was born in in the apartheid era, but severed myself from it because of my love for humanity. White, black, indian colored, we are all humans and tolerance of one another can go a long way. At current i am studying and putting myself through university by working every day as a contractor, and i’m not eligible to be hired by my current employer because of BEE, which looks solely at your skin and not your achievements. So the government is still promoting racism, although i choose to ignore it.

    • Dimitri

      To the author of this so called article, I have a few questions for you .1. have you ever lived in South Africa as of Late, not back then, NOW, and secondly, every word in this article makes me believe you’ve never EVER even been to South Africa, now how is that ? i Mean HONESTLY, You must not have heard of Plaasmoorde or farm Murder. I mean this article is a joke, and to any person who reads this article and Agrees with this, i feel sorry for you as you will have the absolute Wrong and downright BIASED opinion of every white human Being in SA. racism exists, it will always exist in South Africa, and every race has a right to be racist.
      White people are facing an absolute Dead end of inequality in South Africa today. I am speaking of the Whites of my generation, the youth, who had NOTHING to do with Apartheid, and mostly nothing to benefit from it. The South African Government and Police Service is Horrifically racist towards white people. crime statistics are forged and hidden from the international public, Racist Police officers hijacking, Raping and murdering innocent white families on roads for being “white” . and now you’re thinking “what ? this guy is a liar!” and that scares me, as i Live here and i witness this HERE, IN THE STREETS. AND YOU DO NOT,so Go back to your cozy…

    • Max

      White South Africans are Racists? some are.Not that long ago Australians labelled all Aboriginal people as plants /flora and fauna in order to take their Land. As flora and fauna had no right to land. If all South Africans whites were Racists than why there is so many Black people. Maybe you people should check how many millions native Americans vanished,how other populations of colored people vanished around this globe. The Black people are not racists ? Surely they are, some definitely are, take Burundi and Rwanda what was it ?a happy wedding party which just turned up bad? closer look at Europe-clandestine racism and discrimination and the tribe behind the mountain is an enemy.How many whites vanished because some decided that they will be superior from now.The EU established non-discriminatory non-racist laws.What the hell you need any laws for, if you can hardly get through the lawyers in front of the Judge, as lawyers swiping everything under the carpet .Surely not all the countries are like that. Some countries claiming high Human Factor Development and yet there is racism all over. Hardly to call it an animal development factor as animals do not kill and torture their own species like humans do. EU two tier development-what a hell is it-a new word for apartheid. Stop being an hypocrite if you want to be a human, be a real one.
      White South African
      And all the best for my white and black brothers and sisters.Deranged will stay deranged.Doesn’t matter where.

    • Carlos Fox
    • Daan Van Wyk

      Zepiel, That’s the spirit! No blaming of circumstances or of people – rather taking on the challenge of creating excellence in what you do, and therefore opening up the world for yourself and your compatriots. You can and will do better, I believe!
      I’m a white privileged male and you are a black privileged male. For both of us its not a curse, but it’s a huge responsibility. Now the challenge is to use our opportunities to leverage opportunities for those who has the potential to succeed in even greater excellence than we’ve achieved, but needs an open door/ opportunity.
      I try to do it by teaching some kids in a township nearby to read and trying to motivate them to start dreaming and working towards their goal.
      Wanna join me? I am dreaming of a bursary fund for “my” kids to open up a world of opportunities for those who dare to dream….