There are a number of touchy issues we South Africans can get worked up over, and one of these is certainly White privilege. It might be a sensitive topic but it is one that we ought to debate and discuss. So, in doing so, it might be helpful to ask the question: What is privilege? Privilege is a special right, an advantage, or immunity granted only to a particular person or group of people. Therefore, White privilege essentially means that White South Africans have and an advantage over non-Whites in society largely thanks to structural racism. It is “structural” because Apartheid has structured our society in such a way that an enormous number of people are excluded from taking part in our social institutions.
South African philosophy lecturer, author, and political commentator Eusebius McKaiser says that “This just is a historical fact. The entire system of anti-black racism and apartheid benefited those who were white. Whiteness became the norm of society” (1). Whiteness, in the sense that McKaiser uses the term, has the same meaning as White privilege. White privilege describes the reality that, in contemporary South Africa, there are opportunities still afforded to Whites that non-Whites do not share (2).
Nonetheless, it is hardly a secret that many White people do not like to hear this, and they will retort, often rightly so, that they have worked hard for all that they own, that they never supported Apartheid, or that they believe in racial equality, that the president is a Black man, and so on (3). As a White man myself, one who has also benefited greatly from White privilege (I describe this in more detail towards the end of this essay), these things may all very well be true. However, saying and really believing all this does not mean that Whites have not benefited from White privilege. A White person still benefits from White privilege even though s/he has worked hard for all that s/he owns. Being a recipient of White Privilege is not something one chooses but is a brute fact of reality. One is advantaged simply because s/he is born White, “You may have no prejudice in you,” explains Father Pollitt, “but the advantages for you are real. That’s the evil in the system – guilty not by choice but by historic reality” (4).
I agree with these voices that White privilege exists, but we might ask what it looks like in everyday reality. Bear in mind that not all of these examples of White privilege included below will represent every White person, though the majority of White people will be able to identify with at least one or more of them.
White privilege is observed in how for many White people it is still easy to move into most neighbourhoods they desire, their access to quality education, and jobs. White privilege is seen in how if a White person walks into a store there is a far less of a chance that the security guard will pay attention to him/her than if he/she were Black. White privilege is seen in all the Black domestic workers working for White people half their age. White privilege is seen in how White motorists pull out their wallets for White beggars but ignore Black beggars. White privilege is about being able to walk in a neighbourhood without fear of being stopped by the security patrol. White privilege is seen in entertainment media where it is easy to watch movies and TV shows, and find books where the main positive characters are White, and that White skin is often seen as the standard of beauty. White privilege is if a White person is successful, most people will assume it is because of his/her individual talent and hard work.
White privilege is also about second chances. Think of the White people who have failed at one university only to be afforded the opportunity to go to another, or given the chance to rewrite their exams, courses, modules, and so on. Not so for the overwhelming majority of Blacks who will only have one shot at making a success out of their academic university careers, if they ever have the rare chance of going to a university. Many Whites have the opportunity to take gap years, to travel, or to sit out for a space of time to gain perspective on where they want to go with their lives. This is the privilege that many Whites enjoy while millions of Blacks spend their lives searching for whatever scrap they can get, and hoping for an opportunity that will, in all likelihood, never come their way.
I will be honest and admit that I am a good example of the existence of White privilege. I have attended two schools considered to be very good (both nestled within affluent urban neighbourhoods and of which both have a 100% pass rate, with the majority of the pupils achieving marks that give them entrance into tertiary institutions) of which one was hellishly expensive and privileged in every way. I have completed a degree in marketing and creative brand communications after which it wasn’t very long until I developed a passion for theology and philosophy. I asked my father if I could study that and “Well, there you go Sonny Jim,” and I am now nearing completion of my second degree. In that mix I achieved the TESOL certificate meaning I will be overseas in early 2019 teaching language to non-English speakers. I have completed most of this without having to fork out a penny from my own wallet, or even having to work a day in my life. The times I have worked in a job (one of which was for my dad’s company actually, another good example of my privilege) is because I wanted to, not because I needed to. Would this still have been the case if I were born Black and lived in a shack with six other family members in a township? Well, no. However, at the same time, I do feel like I earned all of these achievements. I’ve worked incredibly hard and knuckled down where I needed to. The effort is there, but so is the White privilege. So, as a White South African, I admit to my privilege.
Ferial Haffajee, a well known journalist and newspaper editor, in her informative book ‘What If There Were No Whites in South Africa?’ urges her fellow White South Africans to do two things. One is for Whites to acknowledge that their privilege exists, as well as give an apology for the past (5). She says that these two acts are both necessary and desired by Black South Africans. I thus take the opportunity to encourage my fellow White South Africans to admit their privilege. I also encourage them to notice their resistance and to reflect on that resistance. This is important, and I believe Whites need to engage their fellow Whites in conversations about their privilege. My hope is that we do so with the goal of increasing the number of White people who are actively confronting these issues.
1. McKaiser, E. 2011. Confronting whiteness. Available.
2. Pollitt, R. 2017. Understanding ‘White Privilege.’ Available.
3. Media For Justice. 2014. A comprehensive guide to white privilege in South Africa. Available.
4. Pollitt, R. 2017. Ibid.
5. Snodgrass, L. What If There Were No Whites in South Africa? Available.