So I was in a heated debate with a senior white colleague of mine, when it dawned on me: the white privilege argument needs detailed explaining, because of the different understandings of what is meant by the word “privilege”.
The truth is, many of today’s young whites don’t feel privileged at all, which is why they feel insulted when this topic is raised.
But before I offer my thoughts, let me first qualify that I will be speaking generally and not about the few exceptions.
Also, in the spirit of Mandela Day yesterday, this is not meant to stir up white guilt or anger but rather an attempt at forcing open a conversation that has inexplicably become too sensitive to talk about; a spotlight on the hurt caused by the arrogant inability of white people to accept the fact that there are things that they simply don’t know.
The conversations I have had over the years usually go a little like this:
“Well Bobby, you say you were disadvantaged, but you obviously haven’t done too badly for yourself. You have high-profile jobs, live in a nice neighbourhood, your kids go to great schools, you travel occasionally and speak beautiful English, so you obviously had a good education. In fact, you live better than many white people I know!”
That last bit is usually aimed at disarming me and shutting me up. All these things are true about me, but they have nothing to do with the topic of white privilege. More recently, there have been insinuations that because of my own privileges, I can no longer identify with coloured culture.
Let’s ignore the fact that along with many others, I achieved these things despite, and not because, of having the social and political odds stacked against me, and let’s focus on the broader question. What exactly do blacks, coloureds and Indians mean with “white privilege” and what is it that we want white people to understand?
HELP: People of colour have cleaned up after whites for ages
Well firstly, understand that living your culture, speaking good English and all the rest doesn’t mean we have denounced our own culture. It simply means that we are cultural chameleons, having learnt to fit in in order to succeed.
We have been cleaning your houses, raising your kids, working in your offices and factories and looking after you for so long, and, to seem less threatening, we have adopted some of your ways. But it doesn’t make us culturally any less of what we are. When we get home, we simply slip on our true faces.
Understand that you have social safety nets that were created specifically for you. So even if I did have a wealthy great-grandfather, he wasn’t allowed to invest in property in Sea Point, which may have resulted in a lovely trust fund I could have inherited.
This old money, or generational wealth, is the reason why the South African economy is still run by whites; not because we don’t know how to run businesses.
Understand that our country’s history and the world’s economy at large has given you something that is intangible - social capital - probably the most disempowering of them all, because it affects our present and our future. Understand the frustration caused by a lack of credibility and trust without basis.
Sometimes it’s something as simple as understanding that not everybody has a hot shower facility, and coming to work smelling and looking like fresh daisies isn’t possible. Some of us have had to scoop cold, murky flood waters out of our bedrooms in the morning.
Discussing white privilege with white people, especially your workplace seniors, shouldn’t be asking for trouble, but rather asking for understanding.
This is only a touchy topic because we don’t know how to express ourselves without causing unease, and white people don’t know how to accept that they don’t know.
It shouldn’t be a sensitive topic, but most people don’t have the vocabulary to express the feelings they have around this subject, because we are told it isn’t fair and that we should move on. But these feelings of unease are what are preventing us from moving on.
So, knowing what you don’t know is not enough. White people, merely accepting the notion that there are social inequalities, is not enough.
Understanding that these historical things have daily, real-world effects on people’s lives; that’s what we mean with white privilege.