White privilege: Guilt, Responsibility and Hope

naturebeauty-28I live my life steeped in various forms of privilege–unearned advantages bestowed on me through countless means. As a male, I exist in a world that affirms my manhood. Anything considered strong, rational or heroic is applied to my gender. Because I am able-bodied, buildings are designed for my easy access; toilet cubicles for my comfort and bar counters are always just the right height to rest my arm on. As a cisgender heterosexual identified man, I feel no insecurity in people asking who my “girlfriend” is. I never worry about whether there will be a toilet for my gender identification or whether I will be killed for being who I am. Because, who I am, exists in a world designed to affirm me, and nullify others. Not only am I bombarded with positive messages about being a man, subliminally accommodated because my body is considered the standard, or praised for acting according to my genderized norm; I am also advantaged by my white skin.

For generations, my white ancestors used political, economic and social violence to dispossess, dehumanize and nullify people of color. Political assets such as colonial and apartheid laws reinforced economic dispossession and exploitation of people of color. All this was threaded together by a social system that created a false sense of security in the minds of whites, and a false sense of inferiority in the minds of people of color. The vision of post-apartheid South Africa is to address these triple attacks on humanity. And, while the political laws have been overturned, and with them a shallow respite for centuries of violence, the economic and social aspects of white advantage remain stubborn.

For myself and many other white people like me it was easy to see how overt racial laws benefited me. It was also easy to differentiate myself from blatantly racist people. However, what I struggled to recognize was how my unearned advantages, my white privilege, had blinded me to an everyday accumulation of power-and my complicity to the continued economic and social inequality in our country. I realized, just as I am able to be thought of by others as a good person without earning it, that I did not have to be racist to benefit from my white skin. This understanding prompted a journey wrought with guilt, shame, responsibility, and hope.


My fist response to guilt was denial of complicity, deflection of reality and diminishment of other’s feelings. I always held the view that I was a person of integrity. Being told that I was complicit in others oppression felt like accusing me of being an immoral person. I would act defensively, angrily, and often with intimidation towards person’s speaking this truth. I eventually realized that by behaving in this way I was protecting my privilege and maintaining the unequal status quo in my favor. After eventually accepting that I had privilege, I began differentiating myself from those other white people. By pointing to their racism, I felt better about myself and my position as a white liberal. Talking about them made me feel special, ‘enlightened’ and gave me a new blanket of privilege to wrap myself in. In denying and deflecting, I never acted in ways to actually diminish my privilege. I could hide behind it while acting like I was actually against it.

Being part of a mixed race family, I was eventually confronted with a choice that brought immense shame. In situations when we would be treated differently based on our race in public spaces I soon learned that one is either against the system of racial oppression or complicit in it. In working against it, I soon learned that my privilege became a double edged sword: on one side, my privilege could be used to fight the system, on the other it merely reinforced itself. In these situations, I felt immense episodes of shame, especially because I would often hurt others through my ignorant behavior. The blindness of privilege, matched with the naivety of good intentions reproduced people’s pain.

©SydelleWillowSmith_sunshinecinema_PRESS-13Given the guilt and shame attached to benefiting from a racist society and a strong commitment to fighting all forms of oppression I also felt episodes of paralysis- the sense that I had no role in this fight because at the end, I would always just be another white liberal. This would often be followed by introspection and humility. I realized that privilege tricks you into believing that if you set your mind to eradicating it you can achieve it like any other goal. However, this is not how tackling racism works. Whites have a responsibility to be part of the process by working on ourselves before taking the fight to the system. We can only fight the system in partnership with, and under the leadership of people of color. We have no right to ask people of color how to deal with our issues—we have to face our position in society and confront what we say, how we behave and the actions we take to dismantle racism around us.

I have learned that racism is a sickness in our society. Its roots are deep and its impact on our nation has been devastating. Racism rips families apart, turns friends into enemies, and drives us away from each other when we really need to come together. It is also systemic, it is in the headlines we read (or don’t read), the unequal make up of our economy, and the ownership of land. All of which are skewed in favor of people that look like me. Until we answer these real questions in a more just way, we are merely talk-shopping. Nevertheless, I believe we all can be part of building a vision of a non-racist, non-sexist and truly just society. With this hope, and through action, I hope to learn and do more every day. I thank you for sharing this journey alongside me.

To read another article, White Privilege and the Road to Building a United South Africa click here or the image below:


What I Learned About White Privilege and Racism From Buying Bread

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[1]. 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.

On race

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.

[1] 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.



Take An Online Multicultural Education Class

After many requests, put together a multicultural education class teaching basic concepts in the field. I hope it brings you as much joy as it brought me to put it together 🙂

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Course Description

To build prosperous communities, nurturing schools, and innovative businesses; we require understanding of how to work with people from all walks of life. This course systematically prepares anyone interested in diversity and multiculturalism with important skills to make their environments more inclusive, safe, productive, and connected.

Concepts covered include the cultural, historical, and philosophical foundations of education in a multicultural society. We begin by talking about the principles of multicultural education, before looking at the connections between issues such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

We also cover less addressed issues of diversity such as language, geography, religion, and the youth culture. Optional discussions, activities, and a range of additional readings deepen the learning so that anyone taking the class can put the ideas into practice right away.