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We need to stop viewing ‘privilege’ as an insult


Sinethemba Zonke is a political risk analyst who comments on South Africa and African developments. He shares his views on his blog Prometheus Unbound

Discussions about privilege have unnecessarily become toxic and unproductive due to the way that many of those involved engage in shaming language against those holding privilege.

The recent discussion on white privilege in South Africa has taken the route of many debates that touch on race or identity, in being toxic, divisive and counter-productive. Many people engaged on the issue tend to come with a very combative attitude towards this highly emotive matter. This is mainly because having privilege or being privileged is seen by many as something of which one should be ashamed.

There are two schools of thought driving this negative attitude towards privilege: the capitalist-conservative ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and the left-liberal ethic of intersectionality with a heavy emphasis on a hierarchy of victimhood.

These two camps see the word privilege as an insult word. The first school believes that the idea of privilege diminishes one’s hard work and efforts at success. The second school sees privilege as zero-sum, that privilege is acquired through taking from or oppressing others.

It is unfortunate that these two schools of thought dominate our discussions about our society as it leads to more division rather than co-operative engagement.

Yes, privilege exists, in many ways and many forms. Most of this privilege is not earned but is an accident of birth, pure luck, and therefore unchosen. Of course, we still maintain some agency in how we can best utilise our privilege, meaning even those of us gifted with the same privileges can end up in different and economically unequal places in life.

This can be seen in the differences between siblings whether they come from economically advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds. The reality of our life in terms of genetics, culture, geography, personal decisions and chance mean there will always be various levels of inequality. We just cannot expect sameness.

Although much of the privilege we are born with is unchosen, it would be remiss for us not to admit how some privilege is a result of social engineering over decades and centuries manifesting into acceptable norms and practices. ‘

These norms define how boys and girls are brought up and live out their lives which in turn can have an impact on their life choices including what type of careers some take up resulting in the different outcomes we see in the “gender wage gap”. These trends are reflected across countries, cultures and classes influenced by systems such as patriarchy, colonialism and apartheid.

Certain norms were legally enforced for generations excluding particular groups from specific industries, reserving jobs for particular races and genders which created inequalities and therefore manifesting in privileges, often generational, for favoured groups. Even after massive improvements in removing legalised and state-enforced obstacles to fairness and open opportunity, inequality still exists and with it a diversity of privileges.

In their book Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson try to answer the question about inequality around the world, mainly between what is labelled the developed world, and the developing world.

The authors attribute a great deal to the differences in prosperity among nations to “man-made political and economic institutions”. These institutions also cause inequalities between groups of people within countries, and it is by improving them, making them more accountable, transparent and inclusive that we can create a more egalitarian world, with less suffering and less poverty.

By improving institutions, especially those of government we will not be seeking to take away privileges from specific groups but spreading privilege to a broader number of people.

The security I have as a man, in how I have a lower risk of sexual harassment or assault is a privilege I believe can be spread by improving institutions whether in the criminal justice system or private corporations with an increase in areas of security and accountability.

The acknowledgement or recognition of our privileges is one of the most mature things a person can do. It allows one to have a great appreciation of one’s fortune in life and a particular perspective on the world around them. So, privilege talk, whether about white or male privilege is essential.

However, discussions about privilege have unnecessarily become toxic and unproductive due to the way that many of those involved engage in shaming language against those holding privilege. Shame may work in some situations, but I think when it comes to something like privilege, something most of us have no hand in creating, you only make people take a defensive posture, which becomes counter-productive to the objective of creating co-operation among diverse groups of people.

My privilege of a middle-class black upbringing from parents who were both disadvantaged and restricted by apartheid did not create the poverty of my peer who lives in a squatter camp in Alexandra. The universe does not work that way; my win is not someone else’s loss.

Therefore, my privilege cannot easily be juxtaposed against poverty as if one creates the other. The comments by DA leader Mmusi Maimane and so many others who want to speak about privilege, make this mistake. The correlation between white privilege and black poverty can only lead to a toxic and divisive debate. Both are creations of the accidents of birth, culture, history and very importantly governance.

As time has gone by since the end of apartheid, at least quarter of a century, the role of institutions of governance in the manifestation of racial inequality has increased. Underinvestment by a black majority government in black communities, particularly in their schools, is what has ensured that the inequality gap between black and white has remained, while we have seen a growing gap among blacks.

It is critical that leaders who are interested in an inclusive South Africa be mindful when wading into particular topics of discussion and choose their words carefully, with circumspect into the quicksand that is South African identity politics. DM

Sinethemba Zonke is a political analyst and commentator. 


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