Some months prior to the debate currently waged on South Africa’s social media, my teenage son asked me about a new phrase he came across during a classroom debate. Thus his question: “What is white privilege, Mom?”
My son’s question primed me to the reality that ‘white privilege’ is an issue that parents, teachers, and South Africans in general, will have to confront and be prepared to discuss. It is not unlike all the other talks we know responsible parents must have, in order to prepare our children for the future. I peg it right up there with topics such as dating, sex, respect for others who may be different to how you see yourself, the importance of saving, and keeping one’s promises.
I answered by reminding him about an incident a few years ago when he visited the local branch of a major outdoor retail chain to get camping gear for an upcoming school camp. I can just visualise how he fingered different items, just to reject them, and move on to next. He was both apprehensive and excited about the camp, and was determined to get the gear according to his personal tastes. His actual experience was very different from the one he imagined. The entire time my son spent in the store, he was followed by a uniformed security guard, instructed to remove his hoodie, and eventually cautioned that she was keeping a close eye on him. None of the other white adolescent boys in the store were subjected to the same treatment. My son relayed the story to me later that evening. I immediately lodged a complaint with the store manager, received a half-baked apology in return, and some vague promise about future feedback. I never heard from him again.
I reminded my son that despite having a perfectly legitimate reason to be in the store, having the funds to pay for what he needed, wearing a hoodie like many of the other young people (almost a universal adolescent uniform, it seems), he was the only one singled out for close scrutiny. That was racism, of course; the result of racial profiling that so many young black men still have to contend with on a daily basis.
Conversely, the white male adolescents, who in spite of having visited the same store at the same time, dressed in similar clothing, had a very different experience. As is often the case, a white person enters a public space and takes it for granted that nobody will attribute his or her presence to some questionable motive. A white adolescent enters a shop and it never crosses his mind that somebody would assume that he lacks a legitimate reason for being there, nor that he may not have the means to pay for any of the items. It would never cross his mind, because nobody ever treated him like a possible suspect right from the get-go. This is white privilege, and this is how I explained it to my son.
To South Africans who are defensive and resisting attempts to confront white privilege, I would share the following:
I am a black woman with a degree from a historically black university. This means that it is often assumed that my degree is worth less than that of a historically white one, or that it somehow does not measure up in the same way as one from a historically white university. I work in a public institution and earn a comfortable salary. It is presumed that I occupy my job as a beneficiary of affirmative action, and I am therefore inherently incompetent.
I live in a former white, middle-class suburb in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, and after fourteen years, my neighbours still religiously peek over the wall to police what my family and I are up to (I feel that we are somehow on permanent probation. Break our rules and you are hasta la vista, baby!). We remain a social oddity after all this time. More than a decade into democracy, my younger brother, (who lived with me as a student), was once stopped by a passing police van and questioned about what he was doing in the neighbourhood.
Occasionally, a stranger knocks on my door to ask for some or other donation, sell something, or alert me to some or other direct marketing promotion. More often than not, they tell me that they would like to speak to “the woman of the house”. One estate agent asked me to call “the madam”.
I regularly find myself at the local supermarkets, taking items from a shelf, while an irate white person behind me makes impatient noises because I am taking up space, which they believe to be rightfully theirs. On occasion, they resort to disparaging remarks about my “obstructive” presence in Afrikaans, which they assume I do not understand.
In a recent incident, my husband stood in the queue at the cashier, while I darted off to get an item we had forgotten. When I re-joined the queue, I overhead two people in Afrikaans making derogatory comments about how “these people” always want to jump the queue. Because they assumed that I lack common etiquette of how to behave in public spaces, they took it for granted that when I moved past them that I was about to ‘jump’ their queue. Often, when I enter a shop selling luxury goods, the owner or shop assistant will approach me with an anxious expression, as if I might have entered by mistake, or do not realise where I am. When I ask for a specific item, they often volunteer its price, despite my not having asked. On other occasions, they hardly say a word, but follow me around or shower me with surreptitious glances, intended to be both discreet and intimidating.
Dear reader, in polite parlance, they assume that I may lack the means to pay for such items, intending to acquire it through illicit means.
I travel to work by train on most days (that is, when they are functioning the way they are supposed to). Whenever I buy my monthly ticket and do not volunteer the class of the ticket, I am asked: “Metro or Metro Plus?” Standard procedure, I always assumed. Until one day I queued behind a white man, and while he stated the journey, he did not indicate the class of the ticket. For him, the question was slightly altered: “Metro Plus, sir?” Unvoiced were assumptions about his ability to pay premium prices for the same journey and my inability to do the same. The respectful “sir” also begs closer analysis – but I will leave the issue of male privilege for another time and place, at least for now.
A few years ago, I scraped the vehicle next to mine in a parking space. Nobody noticed, but as I openly assessed the damage to the unoccupied car, several owners of parked vehicles were alerted, and descended on me. They were agitated and pointing, with one man instructing nobody in particular that they should try to find the owner of the other vehicle. Some of them insisted on seeing my driver’s license. It turned out that the owner of the other vehicle was an Afrikaans-speaking white woman, and several chivalrous men offered to assist her (as I said previously, let’s talk about male privilege some other time). To her credit, she calmly declined their assistance, and we amicably exchanged details. In the end, she decided not to pursue a claim against my insurer, since the damage to her vehicle was negligible. The crowd’s actions were clearly motivated by conjectures that I would deny responsibility, or find a way to wiggle my way out of any financial liability. They felt justified in their assumption that a white woman would require protection from a black one.
So, dear reader, if you are unable to relate to any such experiences, you have been cushioned by your white privilege.
White privilege means never having to contend with assumptions about your integrity, intelligence, competence, achievements, ability to pay, living in a neighbourhood only as the hired help, etc. simply because you are black. White privilege means never having to put up with irritated sighs because you are taking up space others believe they should not have to share with you. White privilege means moving into any neighbourhood of your choice and not being regarded as the resident alien. It means never having to suppress the urge to make exaggerated hand gestures to reassure suspicious shop assistants or security personnel that you have no intention of secretly palming something – especially if you are a hoodie-wearing black man. In the South African context, white privilege often comes with intergenerational resources (e.g. education, wealth, established networks, property, and knowledge about how to generate maximum financial benefit from this access and choice – yet another topic for another day).
Because of white privilege, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface when it comes to levelling the playing field for most South Africans. Our children will continue to wrestle with its effects long after we are gone. So let us prepare them by talking about it. DM
Berenice Paulse identifies as a black feminist and writes on social justice.