By Gillian Schutte
To be born white in South Africa is akin to being born with a trust fund left to the white collective courtesy of our ancestors.
White people can be guaranteed, even before they are conceived, that they will be born into a 500-year-old (colonial history) white-friendly, socioeconomic system created to advantage them.
When a white person is born they are automatically endowed with a set of benefits, securities and givens that not all black people can guarantee.
Of course there are wealthy black people and a black elite – but we are talking about white privilege in South Africa – and all whites benefited from colonialism and apartheid in one way or another.
Most white people continue to benefit from elitism and neoliberalism.
Most white people are reluctant to shift this status quo and lose their special privileges.
Enduring white resistance to transformation and the dearth of moves towards genuine equality says it all.
This is why 21 years into an independent African democracy around 70% of the top management positions are still held by white males, even though white males often complain the loudest about being pushed out of the economy under black rule.
White people are afraid of losing this set of privileges and thus create a lexicon of nonsensical terms such as ‘reverse racism’ and plentiful negative anti-blackness notions that continue to label black people as incompetent and less worthy.
This says more about white hegemony than it does about black potential or black excellence.
To point out the hegemonic nature of whiteness or write about white privilege does not mean that all white people are ‘black-hating monsters’ or that you want white folk to feel immense guilt.
What you want is for white people to notice how this hegemony thwarts transformation and equality and thus robs our future generations of a world that is equal, celebrates diversity and commonality and is pro-humanity not pro-white.
To point out majority black poverty and the enduring nature of systemic and institutional racism does not mean that you think all black people are victims, have no potential or are not fully fledged and successful vibrant people.
To write about this race and inequality means to write about what is wrong and what needs to transformed in our society – especially in a country with a Gini Coefficient of 0.77 and around 53% of our population living in extreme poverty. That means around 27 million (majority black) citizens are critically poor as a direct result of a white colonial history of oppression and continued blacksploitation.
Yes we know not all whites are rich and spoiled and that those white folk born into wealth and economic privilege have it all the more easier than those of us not born into ‘old’ or ‘new’ money – but this does not cancel out the systemic privileges afforded to the whiteness club.
These benefits, securities and givens are not only economic, because, again, we know that not all whites are actual ‘trust fund babies’ – but whiteness still bestows numerous privileges onto those born into it that are often at the expense of, or denied to, those not white.
This is not to suggest that the zygote or the new born baby is personally racist – but white racism is an inevitable fact for white skinned people, even those who perceive themselves to be not racist.
This is because white babies are not born into a race-neutral world. They are born into a world that has been systemically skewed by white colonial history to benefit whites and disadvantage people that are born ‘not white.’
Contemporary neocolonialism and neoliberalism has further entrenched white privilege – to the point that even Marxists would have to agree that in countries with a settler history, racism is the primary premise of white economic and social privilege.
Surely without the historical exploitation of the black collective body and the subjugation of indigenous people in colonies, white economic supremacy would not be entrenched.
The curse of white skin for race abolitionists is that no matter how non-racist or anti-racist they purport to be they cannot escape the systemic condition of whiteness.
Bringing it down to the basics
- Besides that small percentage of whites that have slipped through the systemic cracks and are also critically poor, on average white new-borns can mostly be sure of the following:
- They will not be born critically poor.
- They will more than likely have access to nutrition, nappies, and a healthy mother.
- They more than likely will never have to watch their mother, father, grandparents or siblings suffer the indignity of the bucket system or porta-potties and then experience the added indignity of having to find somewhere to dispose of their waste.
- They will never see their mothers or relatives walking over 200 meters to a tap, or 2km’s to a river, to collect water for daily washing, cooking and family hygiene.
- They will most likely have access to electricity, warmth, hot water, bathtubs, flushing loos and toilet paper.
- They will more than likely have access to decent housing, education, service delivery and justice.
- They will have access to an education system with highly qualified teachers, libraries and decent facilities.
- They will not have parents who can be shot at with live ammunition and tear gassed or arrested for joining a protest around service delivery or better wages.
- They will be less likely to know personally, or have a family member or friend who has been incarcerated, either for political or criminal reasons.
- A white new-born’s parents are less likely to suffer the same types of stresses that the majority of black parents suffer from because the majority of white parents have more access to economic opportunities.
- They live in areas that are closer to work opportunities.
- Their neighborhoods are built around social spaces, such as parks, community halls, shopping spaces, libraries, schools, restaurants and cinemas.
- They are more than likely able to afford to use these amenities.
- Their homes will more than likely have adequate furnishings and domestic resources.
- They will not have to spend 30% of their meagre earnings on transport and travel long distances to get to menial low paying jobs.
- If they become struggling single mothers they will still, on average, earn a much higher salary than struggling, uneducated single black women.
- They will be less likely to be victims of HIV or AIDS, TB, Malnutrition and related illnesses.
- They will have access to health services and they will more than likely live a longer lifespan.
- They will not have the burden of the history of systemic oppression to work through.
If compared to middle class black society…
- White middle class youth will be less likely than black middle class youth to have to financially support family and relatives when they begin to earn money.
- They will be less likely to have huge economic cleavages between them and members of their extended family if they make it up the economic ladder.
- They will have less guilt about how they spend money on themselves whilst part of their family still uses the bucket system or has no access to proper nutrition.
- They will probably not have a husband, brother, mother or neighbour who can testify to having been suspected of stealing, loitering, planning a heist or spoken to like a child by a white shop owner.
- They will not consistently have to prove themselves by working doubly hard to underscore their intelligence in a white dominated corporate world.
- They will not be accused of wanting to be ‘white’ for joining the economy and climbing up the economic ladder.
- They will not be mocked for driving a smart car as if they bought the car at the expense of their children’s education.
- They will not be forced to adhere to a skewed system that belittles them to gain acceptance in an economy historically built on the backs of their own people’s oppression.
- They will not have to prove that they are not ‘whining victims’ when they complain or protest against delegitimizing white racist discourse – whether overt or covert.
- They will also be assured that their views would be the default position and everyone around them would have to work hard to prove their counter views.
- They will be assured of positive representations of their own likeness in advertising, films and news stories.
- They will have the security of knowing that if you are white, male and rich could possibly get away with murder because the justice system is more geared towards white males than women or black people.
- They will never be accused of reverse racism as a way to silence their dissent against unfair privileges bestowed onto people because of their skin colour in a world skewed to advantage some at the expense of the other.
- They will, on a conscious and subconscious level, be given the message over and over that white humanity is more valuable than black humanity.
- They will be less likely to be brutalized by the state and state mechanisms.
- They will never experience racism.
They will be more likely to deny that all of the above is the truth about white privilege. In fact they will more than likely deny that there is such a thing as white privilege and hegemony and label those who shed light on this topic as a race traitor.
But no amount of denialism or aggressiveness to those who write about white privilege and its negative impact on fellow humans is ever going to change the fact that white people deny and threaten those who shake up their comfort zone or question the status quo precisely because they do not want to give up on their privileges and are more than willing to perpetuate the conditions that allow them to continue living with a set of givens, norms and benefits denied to other people.
(A shorter version of this piece was published in Sunday Independent on 02/02/2015)