I 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.
Given 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:
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.
In 2001, a mother working on a farm in Limpopo province earning R1400 per month says goodbye to her beautiful child as she begins her 8km trek to school for her first day. Thandi, the eldest of three children is starting grade one. She carries a 2l bottle of water and some food her mom packed her. The food is often the only meal she eats all day, costing her mom close to R400 per month if she includes milk and bread. The family survives on moms remaining salary. Although Thandi’s mom cannot read and write, nor has she ever seen the inside of Thandi’s classroom, she sleeps well knowing her children get to go to school. She understands that education is the way out of poverty. Her vision for her children is for them to fulfill their true potential.
Thandi is met with a dilapidated school building and almost slips into the long drop on her first trip to the toilet. Despite this, the principal and teachers share Thandi’s mom’s vision for education–they see their job as more than teaching, but an opportunity to empower, emancipate, and educate young people. Thandi thrives, and despite her constant hunger, progresses well. The learners around her, faced with the reality of caring for siblings, expensive school uniforms, and constant hunger are forced to leave school. 1.28 million learners start grade one with Thandi in South Africa’s 14,565 primary schools. Of the group that started with Thandi, roughly three quarters made it to matric year. One fifth or about 295,478 South African learners were pushed out of the system at an average of 25,735 per year.Those pushed out of school were forced into the mines, factories or streets. The apartheid legacy lives on.
Despite the odds being stacked against her, Thandi pushed through to defy the apartheid designed subjugation that sought to define her only by what she looks like. Of the 978,710 that wrote the final exam, 773,180 (73.9%) passed. More than 200,000 of her fellow matric class stayed behind. Of those that passed, Thandi was part of 278,344 (30.6%) that earned university exemption. That same year, universities received 31,253 applications for undergraduate study but only admitted 6,463 new first-year undergraduate students.Of that group, she was lucky to be part of a small number of students approved for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding nationwide. She began her studies to become a teacher at Wits University, carrying the weight of her community and the vision of her mother.
Her struggle didn’t stop there. Despite being part of only 5% of the original class of learners who began school in 2001, she faced a hostile university environment. The legacy of structural marginalization continued as she faced institutional racism, English lecturers who did not consider her language challenges, a curriculum with expectations such as teaching practical’s without the support to reach those expectations. She felt as though the university did not know who their students were, and frankly they did not care.
Despite this, Thandi pushed on. Enduring hunger as NSFAS funding was cut and resisting the constant threat of financial, residential and academic exclusion. Around Thandi, her peers were not so lucky. In her first year alone, universities pushed out 50% of their first year students. One of the top three reasons given in universities across the nation was financial exclusion. Thandi saw each year how students with stories just like hers were forced to swallow the bitter pill that everything they, their families, and communities had worked for was lost. If Thandi makes it to her final year, she represents half of her entering class. As a Black woman in a previous White Institution, her odds of being where she currently is are slim. Despite this, as a third year student Thandi is determined. One Black student, excluded on the grounds of finances shared with Thandi how betrayed she felt when, after being financially excluded, passed Nkandla on the way home to her village. She wept as she cursed the political greed that snatched her dreams.
Thandi has made it this far, but her final year is under threat. The Vice Chancellor announced a 10.5% fee hike for the upcoming year. Simultaneously, the Minister of Higher Education reduces NSFAS funding by 10% but raises the student enrollment numbers by 71% between 2002 and 2012. Thandi is heading for financial exclusion without the means to pay for her final year. The universities in response blame the lack of funding on government who blame the universities for not absorbing costs. It is easier for these two entities to push the blame to each other while forcing fee increases. Just like 2007 and 2009, publically, government and universities will blame each other, but in private they collude to raise fees. Their strategy is to patiently attack the morale of resisting students using threats of exclusion, co-optation of leaders to divide student unity, court interdicts, police harassment and complete denial of the impact of fee increases. The use of structural power by government and universities against students will only end when students submit to the fee increase which will exclude them from the university.
Thandi has two choices: give up on the vision for herself and her community or fight for her right to be educated. Having made it this far, she has no choice but to fight against the pattern she has observed her whole educational career–apartheid designed educational push out of the Black child. She understands the media will portray her as violent. The police will likely be sent in to harass, intimidate, and even kill her. Fringe groups, political interests will try capturing the narrative through violence or coercion. Many will sell out. Despite this, she understands that what she is peacefully fighting for is her right to human dignity: for her place in this world that has longed denied her.
She is fighting to graduate, teach in her community, and make a difference to the future of our country–how, fellow South Africans, can we fight alongside her?
*As a White male South African I used the fictional character of Thandi to place #FeesMustFall in context. I humbly recognize my privilege and in no way aim to speak on behalf of Black Women or any other marginalized grouping. Thandi’s character is based on a series of interviews with students and a range of public access data.
The Department of Basic Education’s Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy to Portfolio Committee on Education (2011)
 DBE. (2008). Ministerial Committe Report on learner retention in the South African School System. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.
 The Department of Basic Education’s Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy to Portfolio Committee on Education (2011) (p. xii)
 South Africa Info (2013) http://www.southafrica.info/about/education/matric-070114.htm
 Southern African Regional Universities Association. 2012. “South Africa Data Profile 2012.”
 Letseka, M, and Simeon M. High University drop-out rates: a threat to South Africa’s future. Pretoria: Human Science and Research Council, 2008. N. page. Human Science and Research Council. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
 Bizzoli, B (2015) Behind the university funding crisis. http://www.politicsweb.co.za/news-and-analysis/behind-the-university-funding-crisis
 Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) – South African Higher Education Open Data. “Full Dataset 200-2012, Table 01 – Enrolments Headcount and FTE.” http://chet.org.za/data/sahe-open-data