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White privilege debate: Let’s build a society where respect and decency are the norm


Chris Desmond is the director of the Centre for Liberation Studies, co-director of the UKRI GCRF Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub and a research associate at Brigham and Women's Hospital (Boston) and the Centre for Rural Health (UKZN). He holds a PhD from the LSE and a Masters from UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

Instead of focusing on white privilege, we should focus on continued white advantage. Here's why.

There has been much debate of late about white privilege. The articles on the topic are internally consistent, they make sense on their own. However, read across articles and it appears we have two definitions of white privilege. One of these is clear cut. The other is potentially misleading. It is important to be sure which we are taking about, as this should shape our response.

The first definition: white South Africans were privileged under apartheid, and many of the advantages accrued have been maintained (even amplified) post-1994. Those who dispute the privilege white people enjoyed under Apartheid (and prior) are clearly wilfully ignorant of history. The Apartheid system, a crime against humanity, was set up to exploit Black South Africans to the benefit of white South Africans – that was the point. How this can even be debated, boggles the mind. That these advantages have perpetuated is similarly obvious. The advantages in income, wealth and education accumulated by 1994 have allowed many white South Africans to continue to enjoy their privileged position in society.

The second definition: white people in South Africa enjoy a privileged position because of the way in which society responds to them. In the work place they are assumed to be competent. In public, their behaviour is rarely interpreted as suspicious, and in shops, they are always assumed to be potential customers ,not criminals. Their ability to pay for services is never questioned, their intentions never considered anything but good. This matches closely with the kind of thing the term white privilege was coined for in the US. I would suggest, however, that while used in this way it is capturing an important and damaging aspect of life in South Africa, it is also misleading and masks the way forward.

White privilege of the type described in the second definition exists, but it exists, other things being equal. The way in which you can expect to be treated in South Africa is a function of your race, gender, sexual orientation, age and, critically, your wealth, among other things. A white wealthy heterosexual woman aged 30 can certainly expect to be treated better in South Africa than a black wealthy heterosexual woman aged 30. In many circumstances, probably a lot better. But there are times when factors other than race combine to trump race. Race is still such a powerful influence the other factors may need to be extreme for them to come out as more important, but it is possible. I am sure many homeless white people will tell you that they do not enjoy much privilege in society (even if they enjoy more than black homeless people, they still both enjoy very little). We must note, however, that many of the “other things” which determine the privilege you get are also skewed towards white South Africans – many white South Africans then get a double benefit. They are treated better because they are white, and because they are wealthy, but they are wealthy, because of apartheid.

Despite this double benefit, the “other things being equal” distinction is important. Without it we may unduly focus on race as the determinant of unequal treatment in society. We have a mountain of work to do to address pervasive racism, but we cannot delay attempts to begin to do the mountains of work which must be done to address sexism, homophobia and systematic mistreatment of people living in poverty.

While important, the “other things being equal distinction” is not my primary concern. My concern is with the word “privilege”. In the first definition of white privilege it is certainly an appropriate word, I am not so sure about in the second.

Is it a privilege to be treated well and respectfully in society? It is wrong that only some are treated in this way. It is disgraceful that how you are treated is shaped by race, gender and wealth. But is it a privilege to be treated well? Is the idea of focusing on white privilege, so defined, to take that respectful treatment away? Would it not be more useful to focus on dismantling systematic racism? On trying to ensure respect and decency are distributed based on individual behaviour not racist, sexist, homophobic, classist stereotypes? Those white people whose behaviour does not warrant respect would then lose it, but not because they are white, but because of how they behave; because of who, not what they are.

We should be furious that nearly 25 years into democracy black South Africans are so often treated disrespectfully, including by other black South Africans. The security guard who follows a Black person in the shop is rarely white. We should be furious in a country so scarred by a history on unequal treatment, that we have allowed unjustifiable unequal treatment to continue. But the solution cannot be to take away respectful treatment from white people, as you would take away a privilege, it must be to build a society where respect and decency are the norm. This is not easy, but surely it is a worthwhile endeavour.

This does not mean that I think white privilege should not be addressed. It just means I think we should focus on the first definition. Many white South Africans continue to enjoy the fruits of apartheid. The advantages stemming from 300 years of oppression will take more than 25 years to address. Perhaps to avoid confusion we should focus now on addressing continued white advantage (other things being equal).

How to address white advantage? I am not sure of the specifics, but have a general idea. I am sure, however, that we will not make much progress by continuing the current obsession with getting white people to acknowledge their advantage (privilege). First, it is unlikely to succeed; people hold on to narratives that make them feel good and resist those which don’t. Second, while I think it would be nice if they (we) did, and that it may help in some important ways, it is not like millions of white South Africans are then going to sell everything they own and give the money to the poor.

Apartheid, and colonialism before it, were systematic state-led efforts to provide advantage to a few. They utilised the law, the education system, tax system, industrial policy, the media, along with many other tools. Dismantling that advantage requires a similar systematic multilevelled state-led approach – not just to addressing poverty, but to addressing inequitable treatment. But there is a problem. Those in leadership have now joined the advantaged few, they have little motive to help the disadvantaged many. They would rather we focus only on white privilege, and not the elite privilege they now enjoy. We must tackle both or tackle neither. DM


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