White privilege – an alternative point of view

The topic of white privilege has become a heated one with many people arguing that its a reality in today’s society whereas just as many others are arguing that its a myth. Given South Africa’s troubled past and recent incidents of naked racism this debate is especially topical at the moment.

Sara Gon of the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) wrote about the myth of white privilege and argues that whilst whites were privileged under apartheid the answer thereto it is not black privilege but rather access to advantage:

“A privilege is a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group.

Whites were a privileged group under apartheid. Indisputable. This was the reason for apartheid. Whites gained access to education, job and wealth opportunities that were denied to blacks. This is no myth.

But white privilege as a method of attack and insult is becoming a leit motif in our politics. And white guilt is always on hand.

……….The tone is totalitarian and intolerant. It also implies that black advancement cannot occur without white degradation. Thus blacks remain victims who cannot redeem their own lives without the subjugation of whites.

The ignored truth is that being white under apartheid didn’t automatically lead to success. Whites still had to work hard to realise the benefits of advantage. Most did, some didn’t. Advantage didn’t cause success to just fall into white laps. Hard work and commitment had to be exercised to realise the benefits.

………..It is crucial to understand that once advantaged has been gained, it is seldom lost, whatever your colour.

Blacks are increasingly entering the middle class. They work hard, earn good salaries, buy houses and educate their children. Their children are then poised to take advantage of this background. No group, whatever its colour, is going to see its children regress into poverty.

Succeeding generations usually build on success. The real challenge for South Africa is to increase the size of the middle class.

The Awake SA initiative launched recently argues that white privilege is a reality that needs to be acknowledged. On its website Awake SA define and describe white privilege as follows:

“Society values certain aspects of our identity over others. In its simplest form, privilege means that we experience advantages over other people, as a result of possessing these valued aspects. Privilege normally refers to something that you were born with, rather than something you worked for – an example is society treating males differently to females based purely on their gender.

When we talk about white privilege, we are talking about the perks in life that we experience, that have been denied to others, based on the colour of our skin. This is done unknowingly, not on purpose, and is entrenched in our society as a norm.

Does it mean that you should feel guilty? No, you didn’t ask to be born white.

Does it mean that you’ve had an easy life? No, everyone has their fair share of hardships in life.

To have white privilege simply means that you gained an unearned advantage, in comparison to others. This is not through any fault of your own, but rather, as a result of prejudice and longstanding structures in our society.

White privilege is experienced differently according to class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and age. For example, a white, middle aged blue collar Afrikaner woman from a rural community may not experience white privilege in the same way as a young, English South African who grew up in Johannesburg. Her passport of white privilege operates in unique ways for her as it does for each holder.

By examining your white privilege, you are critically reflecting on the ways that your skin colour has afforded you advantages, and disadvantaged others – even though you didn’t ask for any advantages or earn them.

Only by acknowledging it, learning about it, and speaking about it, are we able to truly make a change to the way we view and interact with each other.”

In response to the above post of Awake SA, I proposed the following alternative view on the thorny issue of white privilege:

Congratulations for launching this initiative. It’s a very important matter that requires due attention. Having said that I do think that the matter could be approached from a different point of view, a view that should not put any reasonable person’s back up, ensure that as many people as possible sign your proposed pledge without any reservation and therefore achieve what you are trying to do with this noble campaign.

It’s human nature, wrongly or rightly, to believe that what we have achieved in life are due to hard work, commitment and perseverance. That’s why it’s difficult to even begin to consider that who we are is perhaps, even in part, because of opportunities that have been denied to others. You yourself acknowledge that it’s not an easy thing to do.

I would however even go further to say that to request a person to consider that what he or she is are not earned but only due to privilege, how well meaning or intended, is inherently unfair. To do so denies that person’s self and dignity as its ‘attacks’ the basis of that person’s being, personal effort and heritage. It also takes away such persons human agency to act in a given environment, to make choices freely about his or her life and future. It limits such persons choices as they are ‘instructed’ to willingly or unwillingly  accept that they are privileged and are therefore required to act in a certain manner.

In addition, whilst I personally don’t deny the existence of white privilege, it’s impossible to quantify the extent of such privilege. Each white person’s circumstances are vastly different which you yourself highlight through the blue collar Afrikaner women versus young English man example. A blanket approach to ascribe white privilege equally to all white persons however does not allow any room whatsoever for such circumstances to be considered. Even if it could it would still be impossible to quantify the extent of privilege of one white person as opposed to another.

Lastly, it would be dishonest to argue that white privilege is the one and only reason that many of our fellow South Africans today are still poor and many more lack access to opportunities. Surely many other factors also played a role one of which is historical considerations such as the developmental gap that existed in Africa even before the European nations scrambled to acquire colonies on the continent. Another is the current governments failure to deliver on its mandate and open up economic opportunities to all.

What do I then propose? That the sting be taken out of the matter by urging South Africans of means, black and white, to acknowledge their privilege as opposed to white privilege per se. No reasonable person that are privileged today, irrespective of the reasons for such privilege, should have any qualms about acknowledging that they are more privileged than many many of our fellow citizens.

It will remove the feeling of quilt and it would then not be seen as an insult or attack on any person’s being, achievements or heritage and not act as a constraint to anybody’s human agency. It will also de-racialize the debate as it would also create room for black South Africans of means to also freely acknowledge their privilege.

I would argue that this approach will get the majority of white people to sign your pledge without delay and to commit themselves to work towards uplifting our fellow citizens (which I do think most white people already do by being loyal taxpayers of national and local government taxes, that are used to build a social welfare safety net for millions of poorer individuals and to provide free water and electricity to just as many poor households).

In conclusion, my suggested approach would also speak at a spiritual level to the hearts of especially older white people, who like me, are still devotedly Christian to act as the Holy Scripture demands in 1 John 3 verse 17:

“17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”