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: