A comprehensive guide to white privilege in South Africa

By: Gillian Schutte:

Picture:  Media for Justice

Since I spend a lot of time  fielding questions around my anti-racism and anti-hegemonic writing and film work  as well as attempting to explain white privilege to denialists, I have decided to write an extensive guide to recognising white privilege. I was inspired by this anonymous Thought Catalog document, which extrapolates from Richard Dyer’s work on white privilege, and using it as a blueprint, I have borrowed from it, added to it and reworked it into the South African context.

1. White privilege, like whiteness itself, is almost indefinable to white people. There are few words to describe the invisible. However, white privilege is only invisible to white people and to those people of colour/black people who benefit from or buy into white privilege.

2. Many whites in South Africa are generally unwilling to engage in the topic of racism – most crying out that we “must move beyond race’ and that they “do not see colour”. This is the new phenomenon of “colour oblivious racism” that denies and ignores the fact that for people of colour/black people, race still matters because they still experience it. This is because colour oblivious white people still practice racism though they often claim to be non-racist.

3. These white folk will make statements such as “we don’t have apartheid anymore” or “there’s a black president now” and “we can’t be blamed for what our ancestors did – besides which BEE has made us the victims of black racism or black supremacy”.

4. Because of the transitional system of reconciliation, which seemed only to benefit white folk – coupled with the implementation of a business-biased macroeconomic policy – whites have continued to reap unearned privilege from the system. Economic studies have shown that many whites have in fact grown richer in the past 20 years – while the majority of blacks and smaller pockets of whites and minority groups have just grown poorer.

5. Yes, there is a burgeoning black middle class and many white people will often use this to point out that blacks are taking over and “stealing” their opportunities. This sense of ownership over opportunities is a sure sign of white privilege.

6. White privilege means not recognising that there is no such thing as Black Supremacy as black folk have not occupied and oppressed the world under a dominant ideology of Blackness.

7. There were also no “benefits” to black people under the colonial and apartheid rule, though some whites will argue that Europeans “brought civilisation to Africa for the blacks”. They did not. They built “civilisation” on the backs of black slavery, for themselves, and were just recently forced to share the spoils of their exploitative history with the indigenous people of this land.

8. This is because black people fought a long and hard struggle to overturn a system from which they received no benefits. White privilege means you do not make the connection between the struggle and a system of historically racialised oppression.

9. Whenever BEE comes up as a way to create opportunities for the previously disadvantaged, a white person is sure to say, “Race shouldn’t matter as much as merit. I don’t think people should be judged on the colour of their skin. Everyone should be judged regardless of their colour.” So why then do white people continue to judge black people according to their skin colour? Why does critique of blackness by the white regime always centre on their morphology, their blackness, their culture‘, ‘their penis‘, their bad use of English among other things? This message is implicit and sometimes explicit in white critique of blackness, whether in news reportage, art, satire, cartoons or columns.

10. The default here is that white people have more merit and capability and are therefore more deserving and worthy of opportunities.

11. White privilege is accusing black people of being racist when whites are critiqued for being racist and then saying skin colour has got nothing to do with it or suggesting they should move on.

12. Although race itself is a non scientific and false construct, racism is about the social construction of ideologies and laws rooted firmly in an exploitative history that have embedded “racial inequalities”. Race is a set of laws that are entrenched to favour whiteness and that most often vicitimise black folk. Racism is the law that becomes apartheid and is then replaced by neo-colonialism

13. White privilege is revealed when whites think or say that everything goes to pot when black people move in. This includes  property values, governance, education and infrastructure.  This often sees white folk moving out of neighbourhoods and countries to escape perceived negativeness around blackness.  Similarly, as we often see locally, when too many black kids move into a private or public school it soon sees whites leaving the school.

14. White privilege is participating in, or giving the order to, or staying silent about, the shooting of 44 striking black men dead because black working class bodies still have very little value in a white dominated system and many white people will think and say that they deserved it.

15. White privilege  is the common white assumption that all black people are lazy even though between 4am and 7am, the streets are filled with black folk making their way to badly paid jobs in white areas because they work hard to survive and feed and clothe their families.


“White privilege is reflected the second a person asks why we are still talking about race.

17. White privilege denialists are people that become offended, angry and often belligerent if another person calls out and probes their white privilege. They assert vociferously that questioning their whiteness is “reverse racism”. They accuse white people who interrogate whiteness of being stupid, mad or destructive and ‘other’ them in dehumanising terms.

18. White privilege is believing that reverse racism is real and moaning consistently about black privilege whilst denying white privilege. It is about equating privilege with material gains only and missing the point on the multi-levels on which black people, rich or not, continue to be assaulted by white negativity towards them.

19. White privilege is asking your badly paid maid to unpack your daily clothes-buying splurges in which you spend more in one day than you pay her for the month.

20. White privilege is asserting on a public platform that a white woman learning to Twerk is some sort of nation building exercise.

21. There are 56-million people in South Africa. Half of those people live below the breadline – the majority of poor people are black. This means they are trapped in a system that favours whiteness and white business at the expense of the poor. Many white people will blame this entirely on the government and while government must be critiqued for failing to adequately change the system and deliver to the poor, white people refuse to see the role of white greed and corporate power in this systemically skewed and racialised economy.

22. White privilege is investing in red rhino horns and demonising impoverished black poachers while never once considering marching against hunger or pointing their fingers at those at the top of the value chain in poaching, which is, sometimes, a white game farm owner.


“I don’t see race” or “we should all just look past race” are two general statements that can only be said by a person for whom race is not a daily struggle.

24. White privilege is entrenched and systemic entitlement because it has the authority to continuously demand presence of whiteness in all transformation processes and using black representation to further their “causes” only when it suits them. If white people are not in charge of transformation processes, which has become a white industry, they cry racism.

25. If black organisations spring up to take charge of their own representation and transformation white people will use sympathetic media to make a huge hullaballoo about the exclusion of whiteness and label it racism instead of seeing it as self-determination. This has ensured that the means-of-production has mostly remained in the hands of white business and has created another industry from which whites can benefit – the constant training of black people.

26. White privilege is being able to endlessly exploit black body for financial gains and pat themselves on their backs for doing “good” and “beneficial” work.

27. White privilege is the groundless fear that affirmative action programs are going to open the way for “the blacks to take over”, or more specifically to take “my position” at university or in the workplace. As the poster on Thought Catalog points out, white privilege is the assumption that the position is yours by default of being white.

28. In South Africa black people have also often been overlooked for coloured or Indian people for leadership positions in institutions of learning. This is because white people perceive minorities as less threatening and have more inherent trust in those who are not “fully black”. It is a deeply entrenched prejudice towards blackness that has been cultivated and passed down from generation to generation over the past four centuries.

29. White privilege is not noticing that in a country that is majority black and has a black government, the amount of black teachers and lecturers in schools, colleges and universities is not representative of the country’s demographics. Neither is the number of black directors of NGOs in civil society, or owners of film companies and media outlets. The corporate world remains largely untransformed too.

30. White privilege is blaming this on perceived black incompetence rather that seeing how the system is designed to provide opportunities for white people, then Indian and coloured people, and lastly black people, excluding the small black elite and elements of burgeoning black middle class. This is the racialised hierarchy of privilege entrenched in the apartheid system and still in place today. White privilege is accepting this status quo to preserve white benefit and ignoring the negative impact it has on the next generation.

31. White privilege is also blaming the poor for their poverty instead of interrogating at systemic issues that create poverty.

32. White privilege means not constantly having your intelligence or integrity questioned just because you are black. It means not having to work that much harder just to safeguard yourself from character assassination or put downs when you achieve prominence. It means never having to second-guess yourself about your competence or being sideswiped by disparaging comments by white people who are shaken by your success. It means not automatically being suspected of being open to corruption. It means not being racially profiled as the rapist, the tsotsi, the hijacker and the monster in the shadows, simply because you are black and male.

It means that if you are raped you are more likely to see justice.

33. Whiteness is invisible to white people.  In his book White, Richard Dyer describes  this phenomenon by explaining that since “whites are everywhere in representation… they seem not to be represented to themselves as whites” He describes this as the representational power of whiteness, which immunises whites against typecasting. Whiteness ‘culture’ has the innate belief that whites are both boundless in multiplicity yet homogeneous in their representation of good humanity:  “At the level of racial representation, in other words, whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race”.

A white person doesn’t think of themselves as white. We are just people.

White people very quickly revert to being ‘White’ when they need to differentiate themselves from perceived “bad behaviours” of “these people” though.

34. As the Thought Catalog poster points out, when we talk about white privilege, we’re not only talking about being wealthy. Wealth is about class and we all know there is a small elite class of black and minority groups in South Africa (onto whom many whites project all elements of corruption and unfair power acquisition as they somehow think blacks do not deserve to be rich). What we are talking about a set of automatic but invisible advantages, like never being told that we speak well.

35. It means never having someone walk towards you with a face-cracking smile that seeks to prove that this white person is okay with black folk and is inwardly congratulating herself for her magnanimous and non-racial attitudes. It means never being spoken to in broken stilted English in a fake African accent.

36. White privilege is knowing that the stuff you are taught at schools and universities is largely centered on your culture and value system.

37. White privilege is appropriating aspects of black culture in carnivalesque situations such as “Rag or pantomime” or as some kind of fun celebration but then “returning to whiteness” with no inkling of the experience of living black. It is believing that multiculturalism is non-racism and failing to explore the many levels of racism that lie beneath the veneer of a rainbow nation.

38. White privilege is claiming you are “African” and into “Ubuntu” but doing and saying nothing about the inequalities you see around you, thus maintaining your white privilege while assuming commonality and brotherhood with those exploited by the system of which you are a beneficiary.

39. It means co-opting and appropriating black words to push your own business while not fully understanding or practicing the meaning of the indigenous knowledge that you colonise with little reflection on the privileged act of stealing from black awareness.

40. White privilege is thinking it is normal to say you are not racist because you have no problem with “these people”.


“Not all white people are racist, but all white people have white privilege.

This is so even in a country that is African – because we belong to and are privileged by a “white regime” that is global and not just a local neo-colonial phenomenon.

42. ‘The first step to overcoming racism is recognising you have white privilege”. You cannot deconstruct a social construct if you do not recognise how you have benefited from it as a white person. While I have never really been economically privileged, with a single-mother household for most of my childhood, I know I have white privilege by virtue of having white skin and that I am percieved and treated in a way that bestows unearned privileges onto me by virtue of my skin colour. These same privileges are most often denied to black people. An example would be not being held up and searched at customs because I am white and thus less likely to be a potential threat.

When you are cognizant of your own white privilege, you are better equipped to “see and understand systemic discrimination and inequality” and begin to deconstruct it from within. It is hard to imagine being anti-racist without being anti-imperialst and anti-neoliberal as these are the very systems that perpetuate inequality and racism globally.”

44. I am sure there are many more examples of white privilege and I invite readers to please add to this list by sending me your examples of white privilege.

To follow… the many responses to how white privilege impacts on people’s lives that I received to this article.

 (This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared on ThoughtLeader, Mail and Guardian)