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The “P” word: privilege

| September 13, 2018 | 0 Comments


On April 26 2018 we celebrated Freedom Day1 here at Jeppe High School for Boys with a special assembly, which included a thought-provoking address from our guest speaker, Lovelyn Nwadeyi, former student activist and head of research for public policy and regulatory affairs at MTN,2 and two equally challenging speeches by the member of the executive council (MEC) for education, Panyaza Lesufi,3 and your own representative council of learners (RCL) chair, Thando Maseko.

I see speeches like Nwadeyi’s as opportunities for rigorous debate. Her message was hard-hitting and, for some, uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing. You see, when it comes to your thinking, much like your body, you need to be challenged and stretched if you want to see progress. If you finish a training session on the Astroturf or in the gym and you aren’t at least a little bit sore and uncomfortable, then guess what? You haven’t really worked. So let’s get uncomfortable, let’s do some work. Let’s talk about white privilege.

Let’s break it down: what is privilege?

The most important thing to understand about white privilege is to understand what it’s not. Privilege is not the same thing as wealth. When we hear the word “privilege” we automatically think of pampered rich people living in luxury in the leafy suburbs. That is simply not the experience of all white South Africans. Many (if not most) of the white people in this hall today come from working-class or middle-class families, who have had to work hard for what they have. And so, when we hear the words “white privilege” we become defensive because we think that our hardships and hard work are being dismissed. But the word “privilege” has nothing to do with wealth. Look it up. Privilege simply refers to a right, advantage or immunity that only a particular person or group get to enjoy. So, for example, in our school, the first-team players are allowed to wear white scarves. That’s a privilege they enjoy. It doesn’t mean that they are wealthy – it simply means that they get to enjoy something that the rest of the pupils do not. My mom grew up dirt poor. She was one of eight children; her father lost his leg fighting in World War 2 and the family had to get by on a meagre government disability pension. My dad was the son of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country with absolutely nothing to their name. Not a cent. They worked hard. All of them. And I’m sure that they would argue that they were never given a hand up or a handout. They worked themselves out of poverty. But here’s the thing: the only reason they were able to, was because they were white. Their whiteness meant that their hard work was allowed to amount to something.

Let’s look at it this way

I know we don’t pay too much attention to rankings but Jeppe’s first rugby team is currently ranked seventh in the country behind teams like Grey College (Bloemfontein, Free State), Paul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch, Western Cape) and Glenwood High School (Durban, KwaZulu-Natal). What if I could wave a magic wand and instead of one Paul Roos Gymnasium, there were suddenly two? What would happen if I could magic up another 10 schools exactly like Grey College in Bloemfontein, with the same kids, the same facilities and the same coaches? Despite all the work in the world, Jeppe would slip down in the rankings. The effort they have put in hasn’t changed. But because the pool they are competing in has, so have their chances. Let’s look at it the other way around: if Jeppe only had to compete with schools in Johannesburg, then we would probably be ranked number one. Again, the work and effort the boys have done hasn’t changed. But the pool they are competing in has, and so… so have their chances. Just like the job market my parents were competing in 40 years ago, the pool has changed their chances at success. You see, no one is saying that white people don’t work hard. But what I am saying is, their hard work was and is allowed to amount to something because the pool was rigged in their favour.

Apartheid denied people access to basic human rights

Imagine playing a video game where the save function was disabled and you were unable to accumulate experience points. That’s what it was like being black during apartheid. No matter how hard you worked, or how much money you earned, you couldn’t own land, businesses or homes. You couldn’t buy your kids a safer suburb to grow up in or buy them a better education. Every generation started back at zero. Being white was like being the only one with a save function. Everyone was working through the game, but only white people got to accumulate an advantage. I want to make this crystal clear: saying that white people enjoy a privilege is not saying that their lives are easy or that they haven’t worked hard. White people are not immune to the human condition, they suffer loss and hardship like everyone else.

Privilege saturates society

So then what is it? What is white privilege? For me, it’s a preference for whiteness that saturates our society. I guess if you are white, it’s sometimes hard to see the privilege because you’re in it and it’s all you’ve ever known. It’s like asking a fish to notice water. When you go to a hotel, and get a complimentary bottle of shampoo, whose hair do you imagine it is designed for? As a white person, when I get a job, or make a team, I enjoy the privilege of people assuming I earned it. People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race or because of affirmative action programmes. When I walk in to teach a new class at the beginning of a school year, my accent and name are unlikely to result in my pupils questioning my credentials or my competence. I would argue that constant and daily messages that you are somehow ‘less-than’ because of the colour of your skin, shapes your sense of self, and does serious damages to your sense of the possibilities for your life.

“As a white man, I benefit daily from the colour of my skin.”

Built in assumptions

About two years ago, while walking through a supermarket, my wife was stopped by a ‘wannabe’ good Samaritan who told her that she should keep an eye on her belongings as she suspected that the boy walking behind her was trying to take something from her handbag. The boy was my son. He was four at the time. Since my son is black and my wife is white, I can understand that there may have been some confusion about whether or not they were together. But why did she assume he was stealing? Why was her first response not: “Oh shame, that poor little boy must be lost”? Before the ‘Samaritan’ saw my son’s age, she saw his colour. You see, if you are black, even as a child, you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent. A couple of weeks ago this message popped up on my neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group: “Two black males in a gold Volkswagen circling the crescent – please keep an eye…” To which one of my neighbours replied: “Has the guard house been notified?!” When you are black you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent.

Let’s look at the US

These examples are pretty close to home for me. Literally. Sometimes it’s easier to take a step back and look at cases from overseas. And on this issue, there are plenty to choose from. Recently, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks coffee shop, after a white female employee called the cops.4 Their crime? Sitting at a table and waiting for their friend. They were held for nine hours before eventually being released without charge. Starbucks apologised and has promised to close all 8 000 of their stores for diversity training. Also recently, at Yale University, a black student who is studying for her Masters’ degree, was working on an assignment and fell asleep in the common room of her own dormitory.5 A white student called the police claiming there was an intruder. She told them she was a student and even used her key to unlock her bedroom, but the three officers were not satisfied. She was still questioned and had to produce identification papers to prove she had a right to be there. Is anyone here going to claim that if a blonde girl fell asleep in her own res, the police would be called? Just an inconvenience? Tell that the mother of Michael Brown, the innocent and unarmed black teenager who was shot six times by police.6 Or Trayvon Martin’s family, just 17, gunned down for looking suspicious.7 Or explain to the four year- old girl, who watched from the back seat as her father, Philando Castile, was shot seven times in the chest after being pulled over by the police.8 The video of the murder was caught on tape and it’s one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve ever seen.

Reaction is key

I’ll say it again: when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent. As a white man, I benefit daily from the colour of my skin. Daily. And let’s just remember what that privilege comes from. I benefit because crimes against humanity were committed. The torture, murder, rape, humiliation, oppression of millions of people during apartheid… that’s the source of my advantage.9 Now how am I supposed to feel about that? What do we do with that? I can almost guarantee that, after this speech, I will receive angry e-mails from parents complaining that their white sons were made to feel bad about themselves. Maybe that’s because when you are used to privilege – when you become accustomed to it – equality feels like oppression. Making you feel bad about yourselves is certainly not my intention here today. You have no reason to feel ashamed. After all, none of you were born when the crimes that have created your advantage were committed. But I will tell you what I feel is an appropriate way to respond.

Make life more meaningful

Stop denying it. Stop pretending that it isn’t real. Stop throwing your hands in the air at the very mention of it. As a start, I am going to ask you to be grateful for your privilege, and realise that through no fault of yours, or their own, millions of people are worse off and don’t deserve to be. The best thing to do is just acknowledge it. You have been given an unfair advantage. So, use it. Do something meaningful with it. Or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t deny it. Your denial is not harmless.

In my mind, it should be a crime. I think journalist Tom Eaton put it pretty well when he said:

If you can look out of your car window and still genuinely believe that white people and black people start from the same base and enjoy the same economic and social opportunities, then you are like someone walking into a blood-spattered room and not seeing anything amiss. You are unable to see that a crime has been committed, and you are likely to dismiss appeals for justice because you don’t think an injustice has been done. No matter how kind and generous you might consider yourself, if you deny that a crime has occurred then you are subtly working to defeat the ends of justice.10

My challenge: do something.

This is a speech given recently to pupils of Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg, Gauteng, by deputy principal Kevin Leathem. It was co-written by his wife, Tammy Bechus, who teaches at St David’s Marist Inanda. It appears here with their kind permission.

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Category: Spring 2018

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