“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” (Mandela, 1996)
“You [South Africans] are the Rainbow People of G-d.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1991)
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the term rainbow to describe the project of building a unified South Africa, he began a discourse about the nature of racial reconciliation in the country. Given this grand vision of racial harmony, many ask how we achieve its realization. Some contend that what threads us together is a feeling of exclusion, that “regardless of who we are, we all feel outside the box of South Africanness.” (Mashile, 2013). They argue that the project of building a non-racist, a non-sexist and an inclusive society in the form of a ‘rainbow nation’ is only a pipe dream or a failed experiment. These notions are reinforced given massive inequalities along racial lines that stubbornly persist on a daily basis.
Another school of thought proposes that building a unified South Africa requires focusing not only on the vision, but also on the details. The project of threading together our racially divided society involves varying approaches for different groups. South Africans of color have for over three hundred years engaged in a struggle to overcome sustained political, social and economic disadvantage. White South Africans on the other hand, systemically protected, increased and entrenched their advantages through colonialism and apartheid. Ending apartheid in 1994, Nelson Mandela then president of the republic put racial reconciliation at the forefront of his government agenda and sought to restore justice by balancing advantage for all groups. However, despite large strides being made in this regard, white South Africans still embody unearned privileges which can be described as white privilege. One of the methods to uproot the systemic, structured racism and reach the ideals of a truly inclusive society is for white South Africans to understand what white privilege is and how it operates.
The experience of living through the transition, and living most of my life in post-apartheid South Africa provides a unique lens through which to view how the external reconstruction of our society has led to my internal transformation. Part of this shift has involved scrutinizing how gender, race, class, language, ethnicity and geography have combined to create my experience. While each of these aspects comprises who I am, race has played an integral role in shaping my life. Reflecting, it became clear that I was socialized to believe the end of apartheid concluded the issue of racism in our country; and, that any privileges I embodied were naturally mine to have and use, intentionally or unintentionally.
I came to see this situation as both unnatural and unjust. Digging deeper, and using the work of McIntosh (1989) as a model, I constructed a list of privileges drawing from my lived experiences. The list illuminated two overarching themes. First, white privilege is experienced differently according to class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and age. Second, even though white privilege looks different for each white person, there are still overlaps that cross all categories. Overlapping white privilege extends not only within South Africa, but internationally as well. I noticed differences and similarities between being white in South Africa and being a white student attending a predominantly white college town in Texas, United States. Confronting nuances of different and overlapping privileges it became obvious that although not all white people are racist, in racially constructed societies, they all shared a commonality of white privilege.
I am third generation, white South African male of British descent in my late-twenties and brother to a mixed race sister who was born in 1994. Growing up, race was always at the forefront of my existence. Being in public spaces with my sister, I often noticed how her experience differed from mine and later understood these differences to be attributed to her race. This understanding also spilled over in school when, being the first generation to attend integrated schooling; it was natural for those that look like me to thrive, and for those that did not look like me to be attributed as an example to their race when they were successful. Through making friends of color, I became more aware of the subtle ways our experiences differed, especially when colleagues more talented and able than me found themselves having to work harder to gain the same recognition I naturally got from white teachers.
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. 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 color. I rationalized that her presence in my life abdicated me from being experienced as anything other than a champion of human dignity through 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?
Privilege reveals itself in a variety of ways. When describing this concept to colleagues, I use the example of entering a building with two friends. My friends, one in a wheel chair, another a transgender identified person; each of us is likely to negotiate the same space in a different way. I walk up the stairs, open the door, rest my arms at the counter and use the male toilet on the way out. My other two friends have a different experience alongside me. My wheel chair bound friend is thinking about a wheel chair ramp; who will help open the door; if the counter will be a reasonable height or whether they will have space in the cubicle to use the toilet. My transgender friend may not worry about these things. But, they may worry about how people inside will respond to them, which bathroom they may be forced to use or whether their physical safety would be at risk if they used the bathroom in accordance with what they identify. That I don’t have the same experience as my friends, not because I am special, but because the building is designed for me is a form of privilege.
Similar to the way my two friends experienced the same place differently to me, in racially constructed societies people of color also experience the world in a different way. When being white intentionally or unintentionally advantages one, this privilege is called white privilege. Peggy McIntosh (1989) describes white privilege as unearned advantages one gets because of the color of their skin (McIntosh, 1989, p. 10) . The term began describing overt discrimination in racially segregated societies and then moved to illuminate the subconscious forms of white advantage. In 1902, African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois published The Soul of Black Folks in which he examined what it meant to be white in the United States of America (USA) and the world. He was the first scholar to connect whiteness with privilege. Later, scholars before desegregation in the USA used the term white privilege to describe blatant acts of overt racist legislation that favored white people. It wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh’s 1987 lecture turned journal article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, did the unconscious forms of privilege emerge to the surface. Much like heterosexual or male privilege, white privilege operates in complex ways. Because we have a history in South Africa where not only the building but the entire system was designed for white people over three hundred years, even twenty years after apartheid many privileges stubbornly hold true.
The passport of white privilege
To be white in South Africa is akin to embodying an invisible, renewable, and powerful passport packed with rights, privileges, access and acceptance not granted to people of color. Even without asking, nor wanting; often unacknowledged, the passport works for the holder in various ways. In South Africa, the passport of whiteness grants the holder rights to resources, privileges of learned ignorance to sustained racial injustice, acceptance as informal authority, as well as access to the benefits of a racially determined economic, political and social system. The system of racial injustice includes both the interpersonal racism but of even greater scrutiny is the system of exclusion that operationalizes the passport of white privilege.
Each passport is unique, granting all white people privileges, but not all privileges applying equally. For example, white women possess white privilege but are not immune to gender, age, sexual orientation, class and ethnic discrimination in the same way white men are. The passport shapes the identity, interpersonal interactions and worldview of the holder so powerfully and overtly that it forms a part of the human functioning. Like eating, walking or breathing, it becomes a tool to use in navigating the world. Combined and institutionalized over time, white privilege is normalized.
Under apartheid and colonial rule, the passport of white privilege was juxtaposed to the dompas carried by black South Africans. Regulating the movement, rights and privileges of South Africans of color through internal passports known as the dompas has a long history. Beginning in 1797 with the introduction of internal pass laws to limit the movement indigenous peoples in the Cape Colony by the British Governor Earl Macartney (Kahn, 1949); the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 and the subsequent Urban Areas Act 1945 controlled the movement of black South Africans under apartheid (Savage, 1986, p. 195). This document acted as an internal passport, containing finger prints, contact details, photograph, address, name of employer and often times the employer’s behavioral judgment on the conduct of the pass holder. Police could stop a black South African at any time and arrest the holder for not complying with the rules governing the pass. In addition, people of color wanting to travel internationally were unable to secure South African passports because they were not considered citizens. White South Africans recognized as citizens, could attain an international travel passport and were exempt from any internal pass laws. While post-apartheid legislation dismantled the internal pass system and opened citizenship for all; it did little to address the system which continues to empower the passport of white privilege allowing it to operate largely as it was designed.
Negotiating the list
After reading Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack; which presents a list of fifty examples of white privilege in the United States; I began to reflect on what this list would look like for a twenty six year old white South African male. Whereas white people are the majority in the USA, South Africa is unique in that although a minority, white people still have enormous privileges which open doors across the country. I felt compelled to examine how my life experiences in South Africa revealed, reproduced or redirected my white privilege. My list revealed items unique to me and overlap with the privileges described by McIntosh.
Because we have been socialized to ignore our dominance as a group, we often learn about ourselves as dominant groups from those in subdominant groups. When beginning to jot down privileges, I found the task extremely difficult. At one stage I almost stepped away from the process believing that McIntosh had exhausted all. Compiling the list required dialogue with close friends and colleagues of color about how they experience my privilege. Friends recounted events where I had knowingly or unknowingly operated from white privilege; describing how they felt when I reacted defensively or with confusion when they spoke about their experiences of racism. Finally, they helped me deconstruct what my privilege lives like for them as friends. Each time, as the list grew, so did my understanding of myself as a group member advantaged by the power structure of South African society. I realized not only how much social, political and economic power I embodied compared to my friends of color, but also how this power sometimes operated in a nuanced manner according to context.
My white South African privilege:
- I have been called Baas, Boss, and Master or heard my mother referred to as Madam or Missus by a person of color at some point in my life.
- My father and mother are unlikely to have ever been referred to as boy or girl when describing their job.
- I can blame apartheid on my parents, and acknowledge that it was bad; but claim that I reap no benefits in the new South Africa.
- Regardless of class, the terms underprivileged, disadvantaged or landless are not used as synonyms to describe my race.
- I can walk past a car without the occupant locking the door or winding up the window.
- I can live my whole life without interacting with a large number of people that don’t look like me, unless they are serving me, surviving, or I am engaged in charity work.
- I can shop without being asked by other customers if I am an employee of the store.
- I am unlikely to be told that I am oversensitive, “using the race card” or that I “should move on” when I talk about apartheid or how I feel about racial discrimination.
- I can agree in principle that diversity is important, but in practice, I can continue living without ever doing anything to realize it.
- I am unlikely to see a group of white protesters shot by police for demanding a living wage or better living conditions.
- I am automatically assumed to have money.
- I can claim my South Africanness when we succeed, but my Europeaness when we fail.
- There is likely to be a private or former model C school close to where I live.
- At least two generations before me used flushing toilets, had electricity and saw the inside of a public hospital.
- If I enter an IEB school, I am likely to see the majority of people looking like me.
- I am able to choose a school that will likely teach my home language as a first or at very least second language.
- Going to a cinema, almost all the options available are movies whose main characters look like me.
- When I am employed, I don’t have to worry about my position being attributed to my race.
- When I live in the city, I have never heard the places I live referred to as the “in the middle of nowhere.”
- I have never had to change, alter or use other names to be more pronounceable for people of color.
- If I speak with an English accent, I am not asked what school I went to or what my parents do for a living.
- If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege*.
- I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race*.
- If I was corrupt, it would be referred to as collusion.
- Every member of my race is not assumed to be a supporter of the government, related to government officials or happy with all decisions of government.
- I can be thought of as an expert without opening my mouth.
- At least one person in my family, including extended family, owns a car, owns a house and has a bank account.
- I can commit an overt act of racism at an institution of higher learning and be let off lightly or even protected by management.
- If I speak an African language aside from Afrikaans, I am considered an exception.
- If I commit an act of violence against someone of my own race, it is unlikely to be described as white on white violence.
- If am a victim of crime, and attribute it to my race; I am likely to be featured in the media based on my assertion.
- I can be employed by a person of color without being ostracized, called a stooge or sell out.
- I can do business with government without being referred to as a tenderpreneur.
- If I do own a business that does well, my success is not solely reduced to a BEE
- When hired as a public servant, I am referred to as a government employee not a crony.
- I can live in a neighborhood that is not described as a ghetto, location, squatter camp, informal settlement, slum or shanty town.
- The shelter I live in is never referred to as a shack.
- If I relocate my residence within South Africa, I am unlikely to be termed a “refugee”.
- I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race*.
- If I consume drugs, I am likely to be described as an addict or junkie and not a gangster.
- I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color*.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race*.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion*.
- I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race*.
- Although I am also a member of a minority group, my voice in the public space is heard more often than other minority groups.
The list demonstrates the unique, yet overlapping features of white privilege. Comparing my list to the work of McIntosh illuminated common features of white privilege across intersecting identities. Within South Africa, there are differences by class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and age. For example, a white, middle aged blue collar Afrikaner woman from a rural community may not experience white privilege in the same way I as a young, English South African who grew up in Johannesburg may. Her passport of white privilege operates in unique ways for her as it does for each holder.
While the passport of white privilege may operate in unique ways for each holder, it still provides some privileges to all holders. For example, although the white Afrikaner woman may not have ever been called Madam, she is likely to benefit from other forms of privilege such as being seen as an expert without earning it. International boundaries appear to have little effect in diminishing the power of the passport in racially constructed societies. Eight items on McIntosh’s list overlapped with my experience as a white South African and a student attending a predominantly white college in Texas United States; reinforcing the overlapping nature of white privilege. It appears that despite not being a citizen of the United States, my passport of white privilege embodies unique features advantaging me in both countries. Confronting nuances of different and overlapping privileges suggests that although not all white people ideologically promote racism, in racially constructed societies, all share the commonality of benefiting from white privilege.
Why it matters
Recognizing privilege can help our country move forward by providing frameworks to enhance intercultural dialogue, strengthen cross racial relationships and illuminate structural barriers requiring dismantlement. Unravelling my own privilege and how it operates has empowered me with greater sensitivity, cultural awareness and facilitated deeper dialogue around the realities faced by different people in our country. Although not perfect, I feel better equipped to collaborate, learn from and build alongside fellow South Africans of color.
Cross racial relationships are also enhanced. Understanding how my privilege operates transformed relationships with my sister, my friends, and South Africans of color. Although I describe myself as an African, I live in a world that sees what I look like and responds whether I like it or not. In the same way, no matter what my sister identifies, the South Africa she lives in will treat her as a Colored woman. Deconstructing my privilege has made me more sensitive to how our lived experiences differ on a daily basis. This has also been true of friendships. Engaging with close friends of color about my racial privilege and how it operates has brought us closer. The honest discussions about privilege has also captured my experience as a white person in post-apartheid South Africa in a way I often could not see because I had been taught not to.
Honest dialogue among all South Africans using privilege as a framework can shape policy, institutions, symbols and language to dismantle the structural barriers blocking the realization of a truly non racist, nonsexist and inclusive society. Interpersonal racial phenomena are borne from formal and informal structures. In unpacking where various forms of privilege emerge, the role of structure is sometimes hidden from the discussion. Discussions about privilege illuminate structures of power from the perspective of lived experiences and help us reexamine the paradigm.
The rainbow nation is meaningless without daily action from all towards the realization of a truly human approach to racial injustice in South Africa. There can be no doubt that 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. Regardless of who we are, we have all been affected by the toxin of this phenomenon and are all responsible for its banishment. Yet, the only way to adequately address the effects of racism in South Africa and reach the ideals of a non-racist, non-sexist and inclusive society is through race: addressing in a real way the advantages and disadvantages bestowed by this social construct. As white South Africans, it requires understanding unchecked whiteness as a passport of privilege operating to inhibit meaningful dialogue, block nation building and strengthen racial injustice in our favor. Unmasking one’s own privilege through a process of honest and critical reflection can help form stronger relationships with those around us and expose systems that continue to operate with impunity in our country and around the world.
White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa by Warren Leslie Chalklen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
© Warren Chalklen and https://wchalklen.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Warren Chalklen and https://wchalklen.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Baines, G. (1998). The rainbow nation? Identity and nation building in post-apartheid South Africa. Mots Pluriels, 7.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Bantam Classic.
Kahn, E. (1949). The Pass Laws. In E. Hellman (Ed.), Handbook of Race Relations in South Africa (pp. 279-291). Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Mandela, N. (1996). Creating boundaries: The politics of race, class and nation. In K. Manzo (Ed.), Creating Boundaries: The Politics of Race and Nation. London: Boulder.
Mashile, L. (Writer). (2013). The Big Debate on Racism, The Big Debate. Johannesburg: SABC News Online.
McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace and Freedom(July/August), 10-12.
Savage, M. (1986). The imposition of the pass laws on the African population in South Africa 1916-1984. African Affairs, 85(339 (April)), 181-205.
 Translated as the “Dumb Pass”. The informal word for passport used to control the movement of Black African men under apartheid.
 The Afrikaans word for Boss.
 “Model C School” a term under apartheid used to describe a former White only government funded school.
 Term describing a person in government who abuses their political power and influence to secure government tenders and contracts. The word tenderpreneur is a portmanteau of “tendering” and “entrepreneur“.
 Black Economic Empowerment: A programme launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving certain previously disadvantaged groups of South African citizen’s economic privileges previously not available to them.
 Neighborhoods with houses made of wood, cardboard, tin and other scrap material. Whole families live in a single house, the size of a garden shed.
*Elements of McIntosh’s (1987) list that apply to my South African context.
 Coloured—ethnic label for South Africans of mixed race origin, reinforced by apartheid government.
White privilege and the road to building a united South Africa by Warren Leslie Chalklen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.