White South African Privilege: Between Shame and Responsibility

Not my picture. Image rights the property of www.indexoncensorship.org

Not my picture. Image rights the property of http://www.indexoncensorship.org

A few weeks ago, I responded to the incident of blackface by two white female students at University of Pretoria by writing an article highlighting how this incident exemplifies a phenomenon called white privilege. Reflecting, I noticed a huge hole in the piece that demonstrates the irony of writing about privilege– that you often speak from privilege when talking about privilege. Littered throughout the article was the separation of white South Africans, including these white women from myself. It is as though I would rather talk about them, those other white people who perpetuate oppression. By pointing to them, I could feel good in my blanket of privilege and roll over with the feeling that somehow, I am exceptional; exceptional because they cannot see their own privilege while I can. Digging deeper into this, it became apparent that I was walking a continual line between shame and responsibility– shame at receiving the unearned privileges my skin and gender bestow upon me, responsibility as an advantaged person to participate in the dismantling of privilege systems.

When another incident of blackface occurred, this time at University of Stellenbosch where two white male students painted their faces black to portray Venus and Serena Williams, it became evident that a deep rationale was taking place that required examination. The thought process that caused these students to not only dress as blackface as opposed to any other character (say, Star Wars), but then defend their decision with rationality, reveals the systemic racial frame operating in South Africa. I kept asking the question: why did these individuals choose this form of racism and, why, when confronted with the deep racial history of blackface do they still defend this? Can we just label these white people racist and move on?

To answer this question, I need to begin with myself. I became aware to the fact that my writing about race in South Africa often masks my own presence in the piece. I am a white South African of British descent. I grew up as the first generation to experience integrated schooling, but before that, I am a proud brother to a Coloured(1) sister. Born on 21 March 1994, my sister brought with her the joy only sisters can bring, but also, the awareness of race. As children, we often had to navigate situations that placed us inside the white circle without my sister, or outside the circle with her but without access. Growing up, when we would stay at the homes of white hosts, we were given tin cups and plates with marks underneath so that the hosts would not eat off the same dishes as us. Or, we were told to sleep outside because the beds were reserved for people of colour, and the hosts decided that rather than separate siblings, they would rather separate us altogether from everyone else. Because of these experiences, I began to see both the subtle and the overt racism surrounding me.

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. My norm was based on a narrative that people of colour were deficient in some way for not achieving the same levels as me. They never existed in the mainstream media as anything other than stereotypes, they never achieved high paying jobs because, I was convinced, they were lazy, and if any of them complained about racism, they were just being too damn sensitive and “should get over it”. 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 colour. I rationalized that her presence in my life abdicated me from being experienced as anything other than a champion of human dignity through diversity. In fact, while producing a play with an all-white cast, I was desperate for diversity and cast a white child as a black character and painted the child with black paint. If anyone argued, I conceded they should at least be grateful we had some degree of 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?

Teaching this concept to my undergraduate class in the state of Texas in the United States of America, I begin by describing my morning walks with my girlfriend down the street. We walk, hand in hand, and are sometimes asked by complete strangers when we plan to tie the knot. Should we decide to, our process of marriage, insurance, and house hunting is unlikely to experience insurmountable obstacles. Besides, it is normal for heterosexual couples to exist in this way, to not be challenged by systems and institutions. But, consider my lesbian roommate. Not only is she discouraged overtly and covertly from public displays of affection, she has to deal with assumptions about her sexuality, navigate a state that does not recognize her marriage, and exist in constant insecurity regarding health insurance and other social safety nets. That she may be denied a home loan or face discrimination when buying a house, because of her sexual orientation, is an experience outside my reality. She is unable to form the same set of expectations as me because she does not have the same privilege I, as a heterosexual male, have. Whether I asked for it or not, it is an unearned privilege that separates our normality. Although we live under the same roof, my normal and hers are worlds apart.

I then ask my class, comprised mostly of female pre-service American and international teachers, to play a game called “Name Five”. In this game, students are asked to list the races they know and separate them into columns of men and women. Then, they are given twenty seconds to fill in each category with five famous names (i.e. how many white men, white women, black men, etc. can they list). Upon completion, we reflect about who was mentioned, who was not mentioned, and why. Almost every time, listing the names of white men, white women, and black men is easy. Moving down the list, the students list fewer names in each category, even from the race they themselves identify as. As the students scrutinize the names further, a common theme emerges. White men and women often exemplify categories of institutional power: money, knowledge, politics, entertainment, and sports. For people of colour, students generally list figures that fall into two categories: those working under institutions of power (i.e. athletes and entertainers) or those working counter to institutions of power (i.e. freedom fighters or criminals). The students, uncomfortable with this discovery, identify exceptions to these categories: Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, President Barak Obama, Eminem, Oscar Pistorious, and Brett Kebble. These exceptions often mask the norm.

When we are not aware of our own lens, we invisibilize people in subdominant groups, often allowing them to emerge only in ways that fit our dominant mould. Another powerful class exercise is when students in the subdominant group describe the privilege of the dominant group. For example, when the female students describe their experiences of living in a man’s world, the men in the class are often shocked and surprised by their reality. The women recount how frequently they have to say things more than once to be heard in social settings; how they feel unsafe around large groups of men; and how they have to constantly deal with comparing themselves to the media portrayal of women. These reflections are often met with confusion from the men in the room, who react by denying, deflecting, or diminishing their classmates’ experiences. The men assert their truth on the female students by stating that the women need to stop overreacting, that they must speak louder, take self-defense classes, or build their self-esteem by making friends. The men do not realize that by exercising their power in this and other ways, that they are in fact invisiblizing the female experience.

What is white privilege?

Peggy Mcintosh (1989) describes white privilege as unearned advantages one gets because of the colour of their skin . Much like heterosexual or male privilege, white privilege operates in complex ways such that when acts of blatant racism occurs, we, as white people, often react similar to men in my class; we deny, deflect, or diminish the experience. When we do this often and over generations, we informally institutionalize racism such that it becomes normal. This normality epitomizes the white racial frame, with white privilege being one of its outcomes.

White racial frame disadvantages some while advantaging others. In my own life, I have experienced the latter. I am a doctoral student at a university in the United States who works hard, strives to succeed, and participates meaningfully in my community. But, I cannot ignore that I am in this position because I have benefitted immensely from various forms of privilege. Privilege systems combine to create each one of our experiences. Denying that my race, class, and gender played a role in my success would be negating the privilege these systems have brought me, whether I asked for them or not.

My grandfathers each owned businesses under apartheid and were able to accumulate wealth and educate my parents. My dad, an aircraft engineer, and my mom, a nurse, studied in schools reserved for whites only. Not only were they able to own property and open a bank account, but also they could secure a loan by using their home as collateral. When they found themselves in financial trouble, their wealth and assets, including that of my grandparents, provided a safety net. My home, located in a white area, had electricity, running water, and police that protected, not harassed us. The school I attended was located in the suburbs, isolating us from the protests that disrupted the schooling of children of colour across the country. Because of the lifting of sanctions on South Africa, my father’s business thrived enough for me to attend private school where I received the foundational literacy and access to supplementary classes to succeed academically. Because of this, I gained a scholarship to a prestigious high school where the predominantly white teachers treated me like they would their own children. I did not have to deal with being unfairly disciplined or stigmatized for being “from across the road”. After graduation, my high school granted me a scholarship to pursue my undergraduate degree at a university in Johannesburg where I meshed into the entrenched white values that epitomized the institution and, as a result, thrived. Because of this, I networked with professors who then connected me to my university in the United States.

How does white privilege explain blackface?

Engaging with fellow white people about both blackface incidents, their responses ranged from feelings of confusion, anger, or detachment. Confused respondents asked why it was considered racist for a white person to be covered in black paint but not discriminatory for a black person to be painted in white paint. Angry respondents questioned why these incidents were made such a big deal, that people who felt it was a big deal are in fact taking the country backwards instead of forwards. One message in my inbox asked why, as an educated person, I was promoting racism when “all of us can see that it is clearly not.” Finally, many white respondents pointed to the fact that South Africa has bigger issues to worry about, and that spending time on this trivial matter was a waste of time.

Having already participated in blackface not that long ago, I could see myself in each of these statements; both in justifying why I participated in blackface and why I would have been likely to respond the way they did to such accusations. However, I now see how each of these approaches would have stemmed from my white privilege. Beginning with the decision to paint the white child with black paint exemplifies my privilege to reconstruct the image and body, including what it means to be a black person. My white privilege masked my ability to see what I was actually doing: continuing the long racist history of using black people as the source of our entertainment and ridicule. Had I responded with anger to someone calling this to my attention, it was because my privilege gives me power to determine how others should feel because of my actions towards them. I would have told them that being racist was not my intention because I am a good person. In reality, when you have privilege, your feelings matter more than the victims of your oppression.

Had a fellow white person responded to my use of blackface by calling it a racist act, I may have said, “All of us can see that this is clearly not racist.” This would have exemplified not only how the victims should feel, but also covertly expose my white racial frame, the us, I was operating from. Finally, if I had stepped back and abdicated myself from this incident by pointing to the “bigger issue”, I would be cradling myself within the blanket of my privilege. I have the privilege not to deal with it because I am a member of the dominant group. People of colour, women, and members of sexual minority groups cannot afford this luxury; it is their daily reality. Subdominant groups cannot check out because as long as the systems of privilege dominate, they will always be checked in.

Navigating shame and responsibility

When we hear about white privilege, our response is often defensive. Fellow white South Africans who read my pieces about race frequently confront me with threatening emails, Facebook messages, and physical confrontation. This bullying epitomizes the internal navigation of shame and responsibility these individuals are experiencing. Only shame can produce such a response (I would like to hope) from decent people. Also, it demonstrates the toxic nature of racism, which is why I feel so strongly about fighting it in the pursuit of human dignity. 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.

I feel immense shame at the benefits I have received and continue to receive as a result of our country’s racial legacy. However, this shame cannot become a force that perpetuates intentional or unintentional oppression. Rather, it needs to take the form of responsibility for dismantling the white racial frame that permeates our society. Part of responsibility begins with recognizing our commonalities as a nation. Despite our racial differences, we have in common the desire to live in a peaceful, non-racist, and non-sexist society. Further, we have made tremendous strides towards building an inclusive country exemplified through the genuine friendships, relationships, and camaraderie that exist across our beautiful land. We must always keep in mind that these examples cannot be taken for granted in the presence of structural, systemic, and institutionalized racism.

What we often see are the leaves of a tree that has deep systemic roots. We have a collective responsibility to brush past the leaves and uproot racism at the source by using every means available to all of us. As white people, taking responsibility means recognizing our privilege, even as we work to dismantle it. Although complex, some ways to take responsibility include listening to, not telling, the victims of racism and oppression how to feel about their experience. In addition, it requires reflecting upon how we can move forward by confronting racist behavior in a way that seeks to create understanding rather than aggression. We must recognize the denial, deflection, and diminishing behavior when it arises. Finally, we must be committed to the process rather than the outcome. Privilege fools us into thinking we can overcome anything if we set our mind to it, but in reality, the depth of the problem requires a continual process of learning, reflecting, and revisiting oneself– we cannot end racism in our country until we are ready to confront it within ourselves.

(1) Coloured, also referred to as mixed race in other contexts denotes a population in South Africa that uses this apartheid label to self-identify
Macintosh, P (1988). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley College Center for Research on Women
Feagin, J (2011). The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. Routledge: New York

4 thoughts on “White South African Privilege: Between Shame and Responsibility

  1. mbekijr says:

    Thank you Warren. What a lovely written piece. I will share it with my friends. Even though it caught me at a busy time, I will revisit it so that I can respond to the valid claims you have made.

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