Stark reality of white privilege
Perhaps it’s time to feel guilty, to speak out and really listen to others, says Ella Kotze.
Johannesburg - White privilege. The term raises the hackles of many white South Africans. “How can we still be privileged in an economy that systematically discriminates against us?” they ask.
June, the anniversary month of the 1976 uprising, always brings my position into starker relief. Perhaps it is because of the media coverage that seems to focus specifically on the plight of under-resourced schools in this month. Just recently, there was the Mpumalanga school where Grade 1 to 9 pupils sat on “chairs” made of bricks. The school also has broken windows, toilets without doors and a severe lack of text books.
Twenty-one years into democracy, we tend to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the government. We want to know how these atrocities – because that is what they are – slip under the radar.
We want to know why there is no money for chairs or textbooks.
And we, indignantly, and rightfully, ask these questions of the government, and education spokespeople stutter and stumble over their explanations, because the reality is that rural schools in predominantly poor, black areas are overlooked when it comes to development initiatives, and it leaves the children who live there with little or no hope of moving forward, becoming teachers and nurses and doctors and engineers.
Shift your focus to the suburban, Afrikaans, predominantly white primary school I drive past every morning.
Parents, dressed for business, drop their neatly uniformed children off in German luxury vehicles and 4x4s. These children have proper chairs and plenty of textbooks, and an abundance of extra programmes designed to maximise academic and social growth. These children will, like their parents, become teachers and nurses and doctors and engineers.
“But we work hard for this,” I hear you say. “No one is giving us our German vehicles on a silver platter. And do you know how much school fees cost at this school?”
Sure, I get it. Except that white privilege means there is a silver platter somewhere, and that we whites get to share in its spoils.
White privilege means that we were born in well-stocked, well-staffed hospitals. White privilege means that we went from those hospitals to houses built with bricks, with running water and working electricity. And, as we grew up, white privilege ensured that we got the best type of education. When we went to university, white privilege gave us access to funding, proper accommodation and good nutrition. In some cases, it even meant that we could complete our degrees in our mother tongues. White privilege ensured that we got good jobs, further access to loans for housing and cars, medical care, relative safety and freedom of movement.
Do you still doubt the existence of white privilege? How many white students at your local university have to sleep in the library because they have no place to stay? How many of your white colleagues spend up to six hours on taxis, buses and trains every day to work and back? How many white people do you know who live in shacks, with no running water, no electricity, no indoor bathrooms?
“So what do I do with this?” you want to know. “Should I feel guilty about everything that I have, everything I have inherited, all this privilege I did not ask for?”
Actually, perhaps you should. 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.
Perhaps that is another perk of privilege. And I think we need to start calling it out. We need to start saying out loud that it is not fair for our children to continue reaping the rewards of an unjust system, at the expense of children in Mpumalanga and Limpopo and the Northern Cape.
And then, once we have started feeling and speaking, perhaps we can think of ways of addressing this – lobbying the government and political parties to stop talking and start doing, for example, or thinking of ways to spread our resources more equitably.
Most of all, though, I think we should start listening to the stories of non-privilege, the stories of oppression and discrimination. We should listen without defensiveness, we should listen no matter how hard. We would not listen to the youth of 1976, until they started saying it loudly: “We will not stand for this oppression. We will rise.” And rose they did, changing forever the South African political landscape, at great human cost. Must we wait until the youth start screaming again before we start listening?
* Ella Kotze is a psychologist and Pepfar Fellow at Lawyers against Abuse.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.