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27 March 2017 16:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Gustav Swart

White privilege, pride and prejudice

  • Gustav Swart
    gustav-swart.jpg
    Gustav Swart

    Gustav Swart lectures part-time in the Journalism Programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He promises to keep Game of Thrones references to a reasonable minimum.

The conversation around white privilege is important, but limiting. Perhaps we should be discussing historical privilege instead.

Blake Lively likes big butts and she cannot lie.

The pregnant Gossip Girl alum, who is about as innocuous and vanilla as a person can be without being Gwyneth Paltrow or a puffin, sent out a tweet that quoted Sir Mix-a-Lot's classic "Baby Got Back" to draw attention to her "L.A. face with an Oakland booty". Given Nicky Minaj's and other stars' recent successful celebrations of their posteriors, this seems like a pretty safe allusion from a relatively uncontroversial public figure.

Safe, of course, until you remember Lively's skin colour. Her attempt at wit was met with a barrage of angry tweets as the Perpetual Outrage Machine spat out accusations of her oblivious perpetuation of White Privilege. Much like Kylie Jenner, who drew similar venom from people like Amandla Stenberg for affecting cornrows, Lively briefly became the avatar of an Idea whose Time has Come.

The term "White Privilege" has been knocking about for decades, gaining prominence in academic circles with Peggy McIntosh's 1987 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" before entering the mainstream via social media and Black Lives Matter to describe the unearned advantages that white people enjoy today. Notice I didn't primly insert an "allegedly" into that definition: I am more than willing to concede that White Privilege exists.

I don't think this is a controversial argument as South Africa's wealth is still largely divided along racial lines. Of course the plunder of the past has not trickled down to all white South Africans equally, which might explain some of the vitriol in that comments section, but broadly speaking being born white in this country is still much more likely to be a benefit than a burden.

But "broadly speaking" has added some gratuitous acrimony and confusion to this conversation as the discussion of White Privilege has evolved rapidly in the digital era to cover a wide range of topics, from serious economic and legal questions to lighter cultural imbroglios involving personalities from the world of Entertainment (and even the odd Westerosi celebrity). In an Age of Silliness, the pendulum always swings too far and there are contradictory and at times ugly undercurrents in the way we discuss Privilege.

Lara De Matos acerbically breaks down Stenberg's denunciation of the offending Kardashian and Sir Mix-a-Lot himself defended Lively, but most commentary subscribes to the orthodoxy that white people benefit unfairly from the past. There are a few dissenting pieces, but it's hard to look at Ms Lively and not see her Privilege. Her many Privileges.

And that's where this conversation starts to get weird: why do we focus on racial privilege to the exclusion of all others? There are many different advantages or disadvantages with which a human being enter life: genetic, personal and historic. Beautiful people tend to have better lives than the rest of us, intelligent people might excel with ease and the tall beat the short in elections. Maybe you'll divorce at forty, maybe you'll dance the Funky Chicken on your seventy-fifth wedding anniversary, but the conversation about privilege does not encompass the caprice of nature and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

It's mostly about money, and few would deny that rich people accrue benefits in almost every sphere of existence, from health to romance to politics and justice. And few would deny that it has historically been easier to accumulate and retain wealth if you're white, but there are many factors, macro-historical and demographic or specific to a single dynasty, that define your bottom line (with all respect to Ms Lively) before you draw your first breath. If your grandfather was a degenerate gambler, you will suffer for that. If your grandfather was a degenerate gambler who won more than he lost, you will benefit from that. The wages of sin can be pretty lucrative.

Aristotle claimed that "war gives the right of the conquerors to impose any conditions they please upon the vanquished" and for millennia we humans enthusiastically profited from the misfortune of others. While the world no longer subscribes to such a paradigm, the effects of centuries of conflict are embedded in cultures and economies and prop up the edifice of Privilege. The children of Harold Godwinson's defeated Saxons have been downtrodden by the descendants of the Bastard's Normans since Hastings and the Scots are poorer because of Flodden. To the victim go few spoils.

But how much does the method whereby an individual's forebears amassed or lost their fortune matter today? Whether your family acquired its wealth by honest or nefarious means, why is this debate about race and not about class? More fundamentally, what is the point of this conversation?

Articles on White Privilege tend to straddle two themes: we need to address past differences to create a more egalitarian society and white people should feel guilty about those differences. I agree strongly with the first idea and with Barack Obama when he called income inequality the "defining challenge of our time", but the emphasis on race and emotion distracts us from that crucial conversation.

I was born a white male to loving parents and have no allergies... I am steeped in Privilege. So what? I know that in the same way that Blake Lively knows she's hot. I recognise that my skills and achievements are not very impressive when one considers the cocoon of luxury and support that surrounded me from an early age. So what? The world is full of less-than-impressive people, it hardly seems worth all this newsprint to remind us of that.

And so much newsprint is dedicated to how whites should feel. Ella Kotze suggests "perhaps it is time we feel guilty about everything we have amassed, everything that was really only built on what our ancestors have taken. With the emphasis on feel. I don’t think we feel enough". The illustrious Geoff Budlender urges "those of us who have been privileged need to show a little humility, and a little empathy". He adds that "it’s not a matter of walking around stricken and paralysed by guilt" but "once we have acknowledged it, we can start to deal with it. Inequality creates anger, and denialism fuels the anger".

Well anger fuels that denialism too. If we're going to discuss white emotions with such a broad brush, we should "acknowledge" that imprecise use of language is rendering much of this debate unintelligible and gratuitously vicious. Instead of "White Privilege", reference to "Historic Privilege" would dispel much of the needle in the air as it would address the exceptions to the trend and lower everyone's hackles.

But do the participants in this conversation want less needle? It's an election year and racial controversy is South Africa's media chum. Desperate politicians need distractions to shift attention away from inconvenient matters and the ‘weaponisation of race’ is the most effective sleight of hand to obscure our widening gini co-efficient.

Using the term "Historic Privilege" would also implicate the new black economic elite in the country's inequality and one might uncharitably consider attempts to racialise wealth disparity "strategic". I take exception to being lectured on the income gap by people like Brian Molefe's son and it's hard to understand Andile Mngxitama's obsession with land when he owns six properties and I have none. When he claims, "I am broke like any other black person," one has to question this drive to move the debate away from class and towards race.

Jeff Rudin points out that "the permanence of the "black face of poverty" allows endless scope for those who use their black face to legitimise black wealth" and his piece ran into swift and sharp rebuke by Brian Kamanzi and Nishal Kotecha Robb, two urbane members of the new Black Elite. Is that not the exact brand of denialism that "fuels the anger" surrounding Historic Privilege? The rich of all hues could afford to show more of Budlender's "humility" and "empathy" so that "we can start to deal with it".

And isn't finding solutions the point of this conversation? My sense of Privilege inevitably carries some guilt as I know I've played the Game of Life on the lowest possible difficulty setting, but that emotion is only useful if it translates into action. Maybe "Responsibility" is a better word than "Guilt": every person who is benefiting from the system should try to help those who aren't. If a tall person takes the cookie jar down from the top shelf when I can't, should they feel bad about it? A sense of unearned advantage might make them more likely to share the cookies, but there's a funny thing about Historic Guilt: I feel it keenly on a daily basis but perversely I resent it when other people tell me I should feel it.

It seems we're back to white people's feelings instead of talking about ways to lower the cookie jar. The Mandarins of Strife essentialise the racial facet of Privilege while studiously ignoring class and providing few practical suggestions moving forward. Gillian Schutte focuses on symbols and Mngxitama suggests that white residents of Sandton take in the homeless without suggesting that wealthy black people do the same. Christine Qunta raises the idea of voluntary reparations as "neither a favour nor a gesture of goodwill" but as a means of "avoiding the conflagration" of civil war.

This is the logical conclusion of a twisted definition of Historic Privilege and it's worth interrogating, yet there is only one piece responding to her suggestion and the link doesn't work. In contrast, the nuanced debate surrounding Blake Lively's bottom spans 274 articles (well, 275 now) as the Privilege conversation seems to enter every sphere except where it's most important: taxation and wages.

Qunta anticipates this point: "And, no, paying tax is not restitution; it’s the duty of every citizen to pay income tax for services rendered." But rich people, however they got rich, pay more taxes so they are already by default paying for Privilege and contributing more than those poorer than they. I would suggest that they don't pay enough (and there's always tax avoidance), but the tax bracket that would entail targeting would be... Ms Qunta's.

As a senior official at the SABC, Qunta earned more money than I'll see in a lifetime and so she contributes more to the fiscus than I ever could. Good for her. I take her at her word that "these levels of poverty should keep everyone with a conscience awake at night" so I would strongly advocate increasing income and estate tax and regulating wages, two topics that generate bizarrely little heat in the South African political sphere. These ideas would require greater taxpayer compliance and Qunta suggests reducing corruption by passing legislation "that would make such a dereliction of duty criminal and provide for fast-tracked prosecution". I suppose it's easy to forget that corruption is already illegal in South Africa these days.

I applaud the discussion of Historic Privilege to convince those who have much to share more and to address the vestigial remains and scars of a deformed past, but many articles on the topic focus on questions of emotion, demeanour and shame, generating more heat than light and drowning out the urgent conversation our country needs to have about wealth inequality.

It would be artificial to claim that I feel guilt over the sins of my fathers, which have been rewarded unto the third and fourth generation, but they are still earning interest and failing to address that would induce shame. So I have a responsibility not because I'm white, but because I'm Historically Privileged. With that in mind, I've funded several of my students' tuition and housing over the last few years, but that's not virtue: I could afford to.

It was my Privilege to do so. DM

  • Gustav Swart
    gustav-swart.jpg
    Gustav Swart

    Gustav Swart lectures part-time in the Journalism Programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He promises to keep Game of Thrones references to a reasonable minimum.

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