Using white privilege to end white privilege

Picture: Frank Franklin II/AP

Picture: Frank Franklin II/AP

Published Jun 12, 2020


My father was a judge and my mother a teacher, and they both had a cool, easy authority about them. They grew up white and well-off in Apartheid-era South Africa, but moved to an isiXhosa Homeland in the 1970s, where their children went to a multi-racial school. My mom spent her career at Mthatha High School, and my dad sat on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the dawn of democracy.

I don’t know why my parents moved to Mthatha, or chose the work that they did. It could have been for ideological reasons or just life happening, we didn’t really talk about those things. What I do know is that they never treated anyone unfairly.

I inherited my parents’ easy confidence, and was given my first Executive Director role when I was just 30 years old, at a humanitarian NGO in Liberia, West Africa. Today, I am CEO at Save the Children in South Africa.

Full disclosure - I am white, male, English-speaking, educated, heterosexual, tall and charismatic – which I’ve found is a dynamite combination for getting ahead. When I took that first leadership role in Liberia I was young, and one of only two white employees, yet my American boss decided that I should run this complex organization of 135 people. I had some credentials, but most likely it was because I looked and talked like him, so he could confide in me. He was a strange little man.

My subsequent roles were awarded based on my qualifications. I understand the development sector well, am dedicated to child rights, and have become a capable leader. But still, my white male privilege is at play. I have always worked for international organizations, running their member offices in Africa. My unique selling point is that I can move easily between cultures -  comfortable whether I’m sitting in a shack in Johannesburg or a boardroom in Stockholm.

I am just myself in these situations, I speak and act the same no matter who I am with. I never have to apologise for who I am, and if that is not a privilege then I don’t know what is.

I realised long ago that I can use this privilege productively, to tear down racial and gender barriers in the workplace. When I arrived at Save the Children, I had the unusual opportunity to select an entirely new Senior Leadership Team. How often do you get to do that? So I handpicked an A-team of extraordinary people, each with a deep knowledge of their field and an obvious passion for our work with children. All of them female, most of them black.

My job is to make sure they have what they need to get things done. It’s a distributed leadership style in which each person takes full control of their work. I am here to support where necessary, sometimes using my white male privilege to deal with other more obstinate white, and black, males.

I do not have a problem with white people – some of my best friends are white (have you heard that line before?). I live in a nice neighbourhood, I like to jog, I do all sorts of very white things. What I do have an issue with is the racism and misogyny that persists in South Africa, including in the workplace.

Broad-based black economic empowerment will remain a tick-box activity so long as the spirit is trampled upon by those in a position of power and privilege. It does no good setting black people up to fail, or making a few black people fabulously wealthy, or paying a consultant to tell you how to get around the legislation. I once attended an event at an old South African company to say farewell to the CEO and meet his replacement. There were about 200 people in the room, all of them white except for the outgoing and incoming CEOs who were black. That is not transformation.

So, I am using my own white male privilege to help end white male privilege. Simply put, you need to do a great job for your organization, and provide talented people with opportunities to succeed by sharing space and responsibilities. Then draft a succession plan and give somebody else a go. Losing your job security may be frightening, but it is also immensely empowering. Finally, treat everyone the same and don’t expect people to conform to your way of thinking or acting. This is what I learned from my parents.  

* Steve Miller is CEO of Save the Children South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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