I have been considering the contents of an article written recently by Father Russell Pollitt of the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg titled ‘Understanding White Privilege’. In it he puts forward the opinion that white folk are inherently privileged, whether they believe it to be so or not – it is, he implies, a fact of life. This is the flipside of racial injustice, Fr. Russell says, an odious practice which we here in South Africa are all too familiar with. It would seem that the nefarious side of European history has a rather unpleasant and long lasting side effect – it’s mephitic odour just will not go away, in fact it is, to all intents and purposes, permanent!
Yet, in the spirit of ‘audi alteram partem’, it is only fair, nay a moral imperative to listen to a balancing point of view. A view which attempts to bring this very real and very valid point into some form of contemporary context.
Firstly, though the general premise can be applied to the global ‘Black v White’ tensions, I am writing from a South African perspective and so examples tend to reflect the South African dynamic.
That apartheid happened is an unassailable fact which bears no denying and for which there needs to be redress; superficially, this has supposed to have been happening for the last twenty-three years through such vehicles as affirmative action, BEE, land reform etc., or so the official line is communicated.
And to set the record straight on my part, regarding my own perspective, slavery, colonisation and any other condescending racial practices are not figments of some ancient mythical legend. No, they were very real, very hurtful and DID benefit those who conquered; but then that was the lot of any conquered nation, whether conquered by the Roman Empire, the Vikings, the British, the Boers – even I venture to say the Zulu’s under King Shaka. As white South African folk, we cannot deny that we were recipients of such privilege – a privilege denied to the black populous of the time. We had access to good education – they did not, a superior health care system – they did not and were beneficiaries of lob-sided infrastructural improvement – which they were not, amongst probably many others.
One could also perhaps argue that South African children born post 1994 also benefited in an offhanded sort of way, from the ‘privilege’ afforded their parents; though this should reduce significantly as time moves forward.
So in writing this piece, I personally am impelled to acknowledge that simply through my ancestry I have benefitted from oppression, I am a recipient of privilege and always will be.
Anyway, it is what it is and no amount of wishful thinking on my part is going to take the effects of apartheid away. I am not some form of liberal apologist, but contemporary observation alone would tell one that from a general black perspective, white privilege appears as real as ever, to what degree of reality is debateable. That perception though, I would venture to say, is not created so much by white privilege as it is exacerbated through the machinations of professional opinion makers with a very different agenda. A very poignant example is the hollow aphorism, ‘White Monopoly Capital’, which seems bound to be repeated ad nauseam within the public space.
It seems that this racial epithet, ‘White Privilege’, is one that is permanently pinned to anyone unlucky enough to be born white, whether they deserve it or not – it seems to be some sort of perverse and ancient curse, something akin to the ‘original sin of Adam’!
But why? Why am I doomed to carry this Albatross around my neck, even unto to my dying day, causing me to stoop low with some intangible and anonymous form of guilt? What unspeakable thing is it that I have done to deserve such infamy? Well the truth of it is, nothing that heinous really! I have not knowingly instigated racial tension, however (and this is what Fr. Russell is getting at, I think) because of my racial classification (White, Caucasian, European – whatever) I have been the recipient of some form of privilege stemming from the oppression or subjugation of others and in the South African context, this would refer to the Black population. I’m fine with that statement, rather embarrassed, but fine. After all, one cannot deny the truth albeit that varying forms of this epithet are all the rage in contemporary political South Africa!
I speak and position myself here also from a global perspective – that is from a stance which covers the entire grouping racially defined as being ‘white’ but also not confined to any specific country or community. Obviously however, given my domicile, much of what I say is referenced to the South African environment.
So why would this dreaded millstone be the lot of any fair skinned person yesterday, today and probably tomorrow? Is there any specific timescale for its removal or is it something as permanent as the air we breathe? Was it always like this, or is this a fairly recent phenomenon? If the rhetoric in South Africa is to be believed, then it started the moment Jan van Riebeeck set foot on Cape soil, though I think it is bigger than that!
Massingale defines whites as being an agglomeration of various labels. He mentions that it is important to note how the term ‘white’ is a fluid category which, over the years, has evolved to include groupings from other parts of the world – encompassing peoples of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (presumably peoples of Arabic descent). Wikipedia also groups Asians into that same ‘white’ category. Massingale further clarifies that, rather than being a racially distinct grouping in terms representing skin colour such as white or black, this term refers more to a socio-political grouping; this makes sense to me as it then explains the grouping of different ethnic groups into the category ‘white’.
However, at the foundation of it all is the archetypal concept of ‘black’ vs. ‘white’; again Massingale points this out when he says that this concept remains the critical reference benchmark for measuring a social group’s position in public life. He quotes renowned American sociologist, Joe Feagin describing the relationship between black and white peoples as ‘archetypal’, the foundation upon which whites’ treatment of other non-European groups has been centred.
In a way I find this characterisation of me as a ‘white’ person quite demeaning. It seems to imply, if you will excuse the hyperbole, that white people are the source of all that is evil and bigoted in the world and that is simply not true! Fr. Russell terms this state of affairs a ‘disease’ and the only way to treat it is to understand its anatomy and thereby eradicate it by attacking the very source of the ‘disease’!
But what is the source? It is, according to Massingale, white attitudes; their [whites] false sense of superiority over other groupings which contributes to the aura of privilege and which pervades every white individual. He says that “a change in attitudes, the loving acceptance of individuals and groups.” is what is needed;this is a very broad description of the ideal that white attitudes must embrace.
And yet, who defines the content of these attitudes, who says when this change has actually occurred. Also who would actually make the decision to drop the racial epithet – ‘white privilege’? There is no worldwide governing or ruling body, no worldwide committee on racism – would it come down to a United Nations directorate initiating the racial emancipation of the white grouping? It just seems so unreal!
Given the fickle nature of humanity, it is unlikely that there would ever be consensus in this regard, thus perpetuating the label ad infinitum. To me the secret here is the simple analogy, asking are you forever looking backwards, or are you looking forwards but not forgetting where you have come from.
Paul Kivel in his book Uprooting Racism, says “Racism is not going to end tomorrow or next year. … How do we nurture and sustain ourselves for what may well be a lifetime struggle?” Indeed, this makes my point, the whole premise of white privilege (benefiting from racist actions) is open ended and thus it appears that this epithet is one I will just have to live with.
Changing is a personal choice really and measuring an individual is feasible, but measuring the entire white grouping to determine whether attitudes have changed in the desired manner is utopic at best and is definitely not measurable!
I’m reminded of a quote by Machiavelli – “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”
- Kivel, P. (2011). Uprooting Racism – How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (3rd ed.). Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers. Retrieved 2017
- Massingale, B. N. (2010). Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Kindle ed.). Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books. Retrieved June 2017
- Wikipedia contributors. (2017, June 6). Asian Americans. Retrieved June 07, 2017, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asian_Americans&oldid=784177725
- Wikipedia contributors. (2017, January 30). Joe Feagin. Retrieved June 07, 2017, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joe_Feagin&oldid=762667856
 (Massingale, 2010, p. 2)
 (Wikipedia contributors, 2017, p. Asian Americans)
 (Massingale, 2010, p. Loc 104/4064)
 (Wikipedia contributors, 2017, p. ‘Feagin’)
 (Massingale, 2010, p. 175)
 (Kivel, 2011, p. 336)