Using Privilege for Good

By Thane on Thu 08 December 2016

There's been much talk of white privilege in the media over the past year or so in South Africa. I pointed out in a post last year that we need to evolve from looking at "white" privilege in isolation because it not only breeds racial thinking and further discrimination, it also neglects the underlying reality that privilege is a fundamentally human social dynamic.

We need a totally different way of looking at society to be able to deal with it effectively. We need to stop thinking dualistically. We need to spend more time cultivating a habit of being grateful for what we have, while using our tendency towards social comparison to motivate us to positive, empowering action. We need to focus on local community instead of individual action, or waiting for government or business to "do the right thing". We all know they have a tendency to favour their own self-serving motives over the well-being of the community.1

The Inner Perspective

What makes you, personally, feel privileged? There is obvious practicality to the notion of privilege, and it is entirely possible to have real-world privilege and not feel privileged. But say now you had to look around you and think about what makes you feel privileged. What has to happen within you, personally, for you to experience the shade of the emotion of gratitude that we call privilege? Let's unpack this a little.

It would seem to me as though this particular shade of gratitude is social in nature. It isn't just a feeling of gratitude: it's a feeling of gratitude for something in particular in relation to other people (real or imagined). You feel privileged when you know you have access to something that you want, that many others also want, but to which most of those others don't have access.

Let's analyse this flow of thoughts and feelings into two broad processes: gratitude, and then social comparison.


If you were to think about all the things for which you are grateful in life, that leaves you with the feeling and experience of gratitude, which is great, healthy and necessary. I think there's a deep, bodily wisdom as to why human beings have had so many feasts and ceremonies of thanks-giving throughout our species' history. This inner motion is thus healthy for yourself individually, and seems to be encouraged by the medical and psychological fraternities in modern medicine today.

Social comparison

Now, if you choose to start comparing yourself to others, you're going to get a rough sense in one of three feelings: that you're worse off than others, that you're doing okay relative to others, or that you're better off than others.

The trouble with feeling worse off is that it tends to facilitate feelings of anger or resentment. Anger is a powerful emotion towards motivating someone towards taking radical action, like banding together with others who feel the same, and overthrowing the elite whom they feel is more privileged than them. This is further bolstered by deep-seated emotional issues as a result of generations of abuse and neglect - part of the ugly fallout of the apartheid regime.

Then, the trouble with feeling better off is that it tends to facilitate feelings of guilt, and potentially even fear that others will want to take what we have. We can can respond in several ways to these feelings. Firstly, we could try to ignore it. This takes an increasing amount of effort over time, and has the tendency to numb ourselves to the suffering of others. If numbness does not come easily, we resort to anger and lashing out. This, I think, is why so many white people's comments to the recent spate of articles on "white privilege" in South Africa are so filled with anger and outrage.

Secondly, we could try to escape it by leaving the province or country to go to some place where we feel more "equal" to others in terms of privilege (at least in our immediate community). Although there are very often positive reasons as to why privileged people leave South Africa, as there could be some incredible opportunity for them and their families elsewhere, I get the sense that many people who have left the country already, or are looking to leave, are just tired of feeling guilty and afraid.

Thirdly, we can look at this in a positive light and use it as a motivational force towards action to try to give others around us access to more opportunity (the pay-it-forward approach). This is the most difficult option, because it forces one to take responsibility for the fact that one lives in a society of extremely unequal sets of privileges, across the ethnic spectrum. The scale of the challenge in South Africa specifically is also, unfortunately, so large that no single person can have a significant impact to the country in its entirety. It therefore requires collective action.

Moving Forward

The trouble with collective action towards something positive is that it's like an entire stadium of people all standing up together at a sporting event. Most of the time, this results in people behind each row of standing people having their view of the game blocked, and a collectively shitty experience for everyone except those in the front row. If you elect to "do the right thing" and sit down, it's highly unlikely it's going to encourage the people around you to do the same, which means you'll be the only poor soul sitting down not being able to see anything at all.

Individual vs government action

This is the analogy sometimes used by economists who advocate for governments to be able to intervene at large scales, as some kind of authority needs to encourage people to act together towards the greater good. This is a classic case of a threshold in social life where, below which, there's no real benefit to the individual to act in the interests of the greater community.

It'd certainly be great if the South African government could come to the party and focus on the real issues affecting communities. Since meaningful change doesn't seem any closer than it was a decade ago in South Africa, with inequality only increasing over the last decade, it doesn't seem as though government is going to help in this regard. In fact, some people claim that our current government has a vested interest in protecting privilege.

The power of local community

I believe that all is not lost though. We're so conditioned into dualistic thinking in society today that we tend to see everything in life as either/or instead of shades of grey or more subtle, nuanced, complex solutions. Why does it need to be a case of, in our example here, either pure individual action or government action? Why can't there be something in between?

One thing we learn from the study of cellular automata is that sometimes the collective action of smaller communities can, on the whole, result in a completely new and different dynamic. Especially when, after the communities have been able to establish new behaviours, they come into contact with each other to further bolster the positive behaviours on a larger scale.

My strong belief is that we need to band together as smaller communities in South Africa: start talking to your friends, family and colleagues about this. Ask the question: What can we do, as a small group, to help people in our immediate vicinity? If you can't find like-minded people in your immediate vicinity, but feel you have relevant skills you'd like to contribute, reach out to relevant organisations in those spheres.

Coming back to our analogy of the sporting event: the equivalent would be having a chat with the few people around you, getting them to be aware of the problem (to see the value in taking action), getting them to see that there's something they can do about it, and encouraging them to talk to those around them too.

Of course, there will be those assholes who will just ignore you or be downright rude to you, but I've found in reality that they're few and far between. And once you've encouraged enough people around them to sit down, peer pressure will kick in and they'll be forced to sit down too. Even those people in the front row will have to sit down too, or suffer the wrath of the stadium.

Getting Started

For me, personally, since I can write software, I'm trying to get more involved by taking part in events like the Kent Beck Project, and want to start contributing my skills in more meaningful ways to non-profits. I'm already having these sorts of conversations with colleagues and friends. I'm hoping that once my community is more active in contributing towards a better life for others, we'll start connecting with other such communities in South Africa.

Just try it. You'd be amazed at how willing people are to get involved.


  1. Just take a look at this article from the Helen Suzman Foundation. It appears as though nearly 75% of the wealth in South Africa is concentrated in the hands of 10% of the people. Of that 75%, it appears as though 70% is tied up in financial assets. Judging from the incredibly high levels of indebtedness of the average South African, our steadily high unemployment rate (with real unemployment potentially being far higher than the reported statistics), and our terrible inequality, it doesn't seem to me as though these financial assets are being used effectively to create real wealth for the overall population. Note that these figures refer specifically to personal financial wealth, and not corporate wealth (although the lines between these types of wealth are probably quite blurred when considering many high-net-worth individuals' declared assets are in shares in companies). And this is only what's actually been declared.

    I'm most certainly not advocating for communism - I wholeheartedly believe that communism is a failed ideology precisely because it ignores the dynamics of human power and social influence. But I do tend to agree with Russell Brand in that things do need to be a little more equal across the spectrum. How equal, exactly? That's still a topic for debate and research.