I love Portuguese rolls. Especially the ones from the bakery on the corner. These rolls are famous enough that they are greeted by many customers as they emerge at 10am, fresh from the oven and ready for an after breakfast snack. The half or full dozen rolls are prepackaged by the baker while anyone wanting loose rolls can manually put them in a packet. As I stood third in the queue with my three rolls waiting to checkout I noticed a white woman at the front with what looked like six rolls in a loose packet. “How many? the Black African cashier asked, not even looking up. “Five” came the reply. The item was rung up among other small items in the basket and the lady went on her way. In front of me was a Black African man who clearly had two rolls and a slice of polony in his hands. “How many?” the cashier asked grasping the rolls from him. “Two” he replied. The cashier looked down and counts the rolls before ringing it up with the polony. Without flinching, she administers his change and greets me with the same routine. I had a basket full of items, many of which were loose items. The cashier simply asked me how many of each item were in each bag, without removing them from my basket as she inputted into the register. I smiled, paid and left the shop.
Halfway down the block on the way home I realised what had just happened. How, despite constantly trying to be aware of various forms of my privilege, and take active steps to undermine them, had I completely missed this? Why was I (and the white woman in the front of the line) trusted to provide the right number of rolls to the cashier? Why, when it was so much easier to see the Black African man in front of me only had two rolls, would he have to be subjected to having it counted-was his word not enough?
As a young white multilingual South African committed to building South Africa, I was convinced that because I had family members who are Black and Brown I was exempt from racism and white privilege. I was often heard asking: “How could I be racist if I did not see colour?”; “How, if I worked hard could I be accused of benefitting from apartheid?” or the classic: “I am not like those white people” (read: my racism is not as obvious as theirs). As I began to truly be honest and reflexive, I faced the reality that I am a benefactor of a racist society designed to affirm people that look like me, and dehumanise those who don’t.
Despite the silence around race in our family, I found it particularly difficult to reconcile my love for my sister of colour from within a society that taught and rewarded me for being hateful towards people that resemble her. I eventually concluded that I could not be both: fully loving to my sister while being hateful towards people that resemble her. In this conclusion, I began to slowly face the realities of my own privilege and how these played out in the daily life of people around me: differently abled, women, immigrants, gay, lesbian, people of colour. The process began to shape my understanding of myself and the country I grew up in.
The connections and disconnections between white privilege and racism
As I deconstructed this bakery situation I saw the connections and disconnections between white privilege and racism. What happened in the bakery was an example of my white privilege playing itself out. That the white woman and I both received trust without earning it, compared to the fellow Black African shopper is a form of white privilege. McIntosh describes white privilege as the unearned advantages one receives because of the colour of their skin. In the bakery, what separated our three experiences was not largely our gender, our language (we all spoke English), our overt socioeconomic status, nor our frequency to the bakery (I have seen these two at the bakery at least four times prior to this incident). Race appeared to be the deciding factor in this situation. Race determined who was trusted and who was not.
I cannot leap into the mind of the Black African cashier to understand why she counted his rolls and not ours. Nor can I ascribe any malice to the white woman or myself. I can, however, point to the fact that regardless of whether I or the white woman would admit, acknowledge, or take responsibility for (as opposed to deny, deflect or diminish) our white privilege, it still operated for us. It ensured that we were immune to similar experiences of human degradation in the form of a microaggression experienced by our fellow Black African customer. When I spoke to my best friend, who identifies as Black, about the bakery incident he was unsurprised. “Warren, this happens often when we are together, you don’t see it not because you are racist but because you have white privilege”. Lesson learned: Not all white people are racist, but all white people possess the advantages of white privilege.
I came to realise that skin colour is not a neutral thing. It is not like eye colour, hand size or height. These things are not given the same meaning as what someone looks like. Skin colour means something in the world. It has power. What someone looks like determines how they are responded to (even so called colour blindness is purposefully emphasising a person’s race). In a country like South Africa, were racism is baked into the cake of our society, racism is our ‘normal’. It is the most normal thing about our abnormal society.
When we think of racist people, we often question people’s moral integrity. Racism, that is, discrimination against someone or a group because of the colour of their skin is often thought of solely as a matter of attitude. But, racism is not only about people. It is also about resources. Imagine that with a magic wand all interpersonal racism was destroyed and South Africans were able to have honest conversations with each other, what would we say? My hunch would be, and not only is this backed by people’s lived experiences and reams of data, that our conversation would be about how people of colour are still marginalised from resources in their own country. That despite how they may feel about us on an interpersonal level it still does not change how unfair the current status quo is.
If we were honest with our brothers and sisters of colour, we as white people in South Africa would admit our lack of genuine humility for our position in this society. We would admit that if true racism is about resources, then it is impossible for a person of colour to be racist. Think for a moment about the Black African cashier: was she racist or discriminatory? In the act of counting, she was discriminating. Even if she was overtly discriminatory towards myself or the woman, could she be considered racist? She may be considered discriminatory in that moment, but because she lives in a system that systematically deprives her of resources she cannot be considered racist. Although we all inherited this system that distributes resources unevenly, we as white people have a greater responsibility to play our role in building our country by working to diminish our privilege.
What can we all do?
Although not all white people are racists, all white people possess white privilege. Once we acknowledge this, what then? How can we as white South Africans play our role in building a united South Africa? It is important to recognise that because racism is a sickness in the white community, we as white people need to educate our white brothers and sisters–it is not for South Africans of colour to guide us on how to take responsibility for our own issues. If we truly love our fellow South Africans of all races then we need to be brave enough to interrupt symbols, conversations, practices, and institutions that foster oppressions of all kinds. Finally, we need to learn to listen to people of colour. Fighting for a more just society is about connecting to the humanity in all of us. Recognising our privileged position at the table, we as white people can learn to play our role without reinforcing the oppression we are advocating against. One cannot build the necessary society alone. Joining communities that can support your journey such as Awake SA and others is vital to continue the learning process necessary to build a country all our children can be proud of.
 McIntosh, P (1989). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peace and Freedom (1)
To read the article: White Privilege and the road to building a united South Africa, click here.