On (White) Privilege

By Thane on Mon 02 March 2015

"Irked" is the best way I could describe my feeling after reading a recent opinion piece on the Mail & Guardian's site on the topic of "white privilege" in South Africa. It took me a while to understand why, exactly, I felt this way, but I've since established that it has a lot to do with the confusion I see in the public discourse here in South Africa between ethnicity and power (where "privilege" could be viewed as a sub-theme in the over-arching theme of "power" in society).

I want to make a recommendation here in attempting to shift the public discourse, in whatever little way I can, to help towards building a non- racially segregated South Africa. Is this not what people have been fighting for for decades now? It seems pretty obvious to me that the more we talk about each other and classify each other by our skin colour, the more we will continue to perpetuate the racial segregation of our past. But if we can't do that any more, how then do we talk about each other, to each other? This way of thinking seems to be so deeply embedded in our national psyche that we aren't even aware of it any more. The current lens that we, as South Africans, use to look at our world is thoroughly broken along the wholly artificial lines of the colour of our skin.

It is, I believe, entirely possible to look at each other with the same whole, un-segregated lens: one which looks at us all as human beings. This lens will obviously not solve our problems, but I believe it will at least help to contextualise and dissect our problems in a more humane, un-segregated way, and could, perhaps, give rise to creative solutions that work towards what's best for all of us, that don't take skin colour into account.

Our tainted past

I cannot and would not want to deny the reality that some of my ancestry that lived through, and possibly even perpetuated, highly prejudiced times. I am not aware of any of my direct ancestry who were involved in perpetuating any of the brutality of the apartheid era, but I am aware of some who still, to their dying day, held subconscious racist views (contradictory to their overt treatment of people of other ethnicities). These views naturally escaped in conversations, especially in regard to their opinions on the country and its direction.

Being an outsider myself in many ways, I've often gone overboard in my attempts to empathise and try to identify with others, which has its pros and cons. I feel ashamed at times: on behalf of my direct ancestry, and of my entire people group. I know I shouldn't feel ashamed, because I was born into this situation and wasn't at all guilty of furthering any aspect of the apartheid era, but I do feel that way. Those were very shameful things that they did to their fellow men and women. I feel especially ashamed, enraged and disappointed when I hear of racially motivated attacks still continuing in South Africa today. It baffles me how we, as a country, proclaim our "rainbow nation" status at every gala event and press conference we can, touting our Madiba caps and shirts as if to try to brand ourselves somehow, yet hypocritically still segregate people in our hearts, minds and policies (at all levels) based on the colour of their skin. Our collective, unconscious hypocrisy inevitably slips through - a perfect example being the article in question.

How, then, do we look at ourselves in an all-encompassing way?

It's about power and symbols of power

Let's first assume the obvious: that we're all human beings. Let us openly acknowledge to ourselves every morning that, regardless of the colour of another person's skin, and whether or not we agree or disagree with them, they are also a human being, just as we ourselves are.

Then, let's admit to ourselves that the themes of power, influence and privilege are rooted in our human nature. The colour of my skin is not the cause of my own power/influence/privilege. It seems obvious when stated explicitly, but you would be amazed at how this crazy assumption - a completely irrational scar of our racially segregated past - has permeated South African society. We are human beings, and groups of human beings have gone to war with each other, for all we know, since we started being human beings or even before then. It's so much easier to use violence to take power/influence/privilege than it is to earn it.

Ask a person of Sotho or Tswana descent about people of Zulu descent, and they will tell you that people of Zulu descent are notoriously violent human beings. One merely has to peek into their cultural history to see this for oneself. This even gives them a certain status to this day: I have spoken to Sotho- or Tswana-speaking people who tell me that, if they start speaking Sotho or Tswana, and someone replies in Zulu, they find it customary to continue the conversation in Zulu because of Zulu people's violent reputation. Is this also not a form of privilege perpetuated in cultural practice by way of violent history? The identifying symbol of power here is the language spoken.

In another example, I have driven around in townships such as Alexandra before, where it's customary to, when one sees an oncoming luxury vehicle, move out of the way so that they can pass by. I have not yet heard an explanation for this, but it is a privilege that is culturally entrenched at this point in time in that community. Here, the symbol of power or privilege is the type of car the person is driving.

In the examples of the theme of "white privilege", the symbol of power is the colour of one's skin. There are probably innumerable similar examples from cultures and societies around the world and throughout history, where such symbols of power have risen and fallen over time. This is possibly what the author of the article in question was alluding to, but failed to do so in a non-racial way.

The common thread in all of these examples is that of power/influence. This is, to reiterate, a fundamentally human thing. It is deeply embedded into the fabric of how humanity works, how societies are formed and unformed, and will most likely be with us for as long as there is one human being in interacting proximity of another.

A healthier way to look at power

Thinking about power and influence seems rather amoral at times, and possibly even immoral if actively pursued. There are reasons for this that are significant, but they are not relevant to the discussion at hand and I would have to diverge wildly to discuss this. Unfortunately, even connotations of power and influence are tainted by the almost visceral understanding each of us has of the history of its abuse in human society, from the greatest atrocities down to everyday bullying in primary schools.

There are glimmers of hope though, because of the two very different ways in which power or influence or privilege are obtained. The main reality to recognise is that my influence on you sits in your mind. You are the one who does or does not give me influence over you. You either allow me to influence you because you are afraid of me, or because you trust me.

The only healthy way to deal with power, actually, is to let it go. By that I mean that we have to continuously, in a highly disciplined fashion, acknowledge that, if you genuinely deserve power, other people will give it to you. The only other option is to take it by way of violence (overtly or subversively, and even emotional manipulation could be viewed as a form of violence here) - this is a non-option, in my opinion. Unfortunately history has shown that we human beings are lazy and would rather exert violence or the threat of violence as a quick and high probability way to gain power. This, rather than taking the long and arduous road less travelled of doing good for ourselves and others simultaneously, creatively working hard towards win-win situations.

Moving forward

I cannot and will not deny the possibility that lighter coloured skin is still a symbol of power of some sort in South Africa, whether because of fear or because of trust, just as I cannot deny the existence of other symbols of power or influence in our various cultures and subcultures. I also cannot and will not deny the detestable things that we, as human beings, have done to each other throughout history.

We need a new lens - an integrated, undivided way of looking at our world so that we can move forward toward a healthier tomorrow. This lens, again, I believe, is rooted in a very simple, practical view that we are all human beings. We all have hopes, dreams, afflictions, fears. We all prosper and suffer from the underlying, unspoken dynamics of power and influence and privilege in our societies. We all prosper and suffer in different ways from our violent tendencies, past and present, as a species.

We need to bring to light the dividing lines between us, questioning them relentlessly and with all ferocity, exposing them for the lies that they are. We need to learn to do good to ourselves, and each other, simultaneously. We need to learn to trust each other, and in healthy ways. We need to acknowledge our humanity and the capacity for good and evil, edification and abuse, giving and greed, love and fear, that lies in each and every one of us because of that very same humanity. We need to acknowledge that the dynamics of power and influence, and therefore privilege, are inextricably woven into our humanity.

How irrelevant, then, is the colour of one's skin in comparison to our present task of having to be ever-vigilant of this humanity that courses through each and every one of us, every day, in every interaction we have with each other?