People seem to be jumping into race conversations more than ever. Which is great.
With that comes a phrase that has the power to kickstart defensiveness for so many people: White Privilege
“How dare you say I have white privilege? My family grew up poor!”
“White Privilege? I had to work three jobs to get to where I am today!”
“Maybe in the past that was a thing, but these days with BEE…”
Are some of the things that may be said in response to a suggestion of White Privilege.
Let’s start with what it is not!
A lot of the rejection of the notion of ‘White Privilege’ seems to be connected to the word ‘Privilege’. We all have an understanding of the word privilege which suggests some kind of advantage or head start. Which is why the above responses make sense. How can you suggest that I am privileged when I can give you examples to prove that I was not.
It’s important to remember that the term also contains the word ‘white’ which is relevant here.
In the same way that having a visa to enter Australia doesn’t help me get access to America for example. I need a visa to get into America. But it must be an American visa. An Australian visa is still a thing but it is irrelevant when it comes to this particular example.
So having white privilege does NOT mean that you were born and raised into a rich family. It could be that you were, but it doesn’t mean that.
Having white privilege also does NOT mean that you didn’t work really hard to get to the place where you are right now.
Designed with you in mind
The ‘white’ part of the phrase ‘white privilege’ suggests that being white has something to do with it.
What is the significance of the word white in the phrase? Well, what is the significance of being white?
i wrote a number of questions in this blog post which will speak to some more of this, so maybe click on that quickly and work through that and then come back here… but also there is this super helpful checklist called ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ which Peggy McIntosh compiled which is also really helpful in terms of helping you visualise this.
The idea of the Invisible Knapsack [backpack] i imagine comes from the idea that you and i [if we are white] are carrying around a certain amount of benefits that we may not even be aware of, but they are with us wherever we go.
It is changing now [finally, thankfully] but when i grew up – and until quite recently – when i cut myself i would go and get a plaster [band-aid] and on the box it would say ‘Skin colour’ and it would look like my skin.
A black, coloured and indian person who cut themselves and went to get a “skin colour” plaster from the box would look a little more like this.
The same would be true for crayons and pencil crayons. Skin colour label meant that it would look like my skin and not like the skin of the majority of the people who lived in my country.
When i was growing up, the only dolls that could be bought were white. Barbie and Ken and all of her friends were all white. the G.I. Joe range they released that were aimed at boys were all white.
“What’s the big deal, though?” you might be thinking. “It’s plasters, pencil crayons and dolls. You’re making such a fuss about nothing!”
That may seem true, but it didn’t seem to be that for this man:
When ‘Skin Colour’ is defined as something that does not look like yours it makes a powerful message.
White – or let’s be honest here, a more beigy kind of pink – is seen as the norm, as the standard, and everything else is other. Less than. Not quite there.
So much of identity is wrapped up in this. i don’t think we can fully understand it, because the crayons always matched our skin, but we can start to shift our thinking as to why it might be deeply significant for others.
A Trip to the Movies
i know, what’s that hey? In these Homepocalypse Netflix times, what does going to the movies even mean?
Well, when i was growing up it was what we did. But you can substitute ‘watching a show on Netflix’ and the concept still largely applies.
The first movie i remember seeing as a young boy with my dad was this epic movie about flight and space travel called ‘The Right Stuff’. Breaking the sound barrier and walking on the moon. The astronauts were white, the army general was white, the dads were white, the heroes were white. The black people in the movie cleaned the house.
And i never even noticed. Or thought about it, For at least 30 years. Because i didn’t have to. Any time i watched a movie or a series on tv i could see someone who looked like me in all of the key roles.
The History Teacher Explorer was white, the president was white, the king was white, the love interest was white, the scientist was white, the pastor was white, the pilot and doctor and expedition leader and captain were all white. Let’s be honest, even Jesus was white. [Born in the Middle East to Middle Eastern parents and yet somehow turned out white?!] Take an extra moment on that last one – God was portrayed in human form as white!
Meanwhile, for a black person growing up when i did, the majority of the time they could see themselves depicted on the screen it would be either as the bad guy or as the help [and help ranged all the way from slave to servant to butler to cleaner and gardener].
What must it do to your identity and perception of yourself to only ever see someone who looks like you represented as the bad guy or the help? Again, as a white person, i can only ever try to imagine what this is like.
One very massive privilege of growing up in the world i did was that the colour of my skin was represented in film as the ideal. As the norm. As the standard. And everyone who had a different skin colour to mine was less than, was inferior, was other. This particular privilege – or unearned benefit – had absolutely nothing to do with how hard i worked or how much money i had growing up or how difficult my childhood may have seemed to me. The ONLY thing that mattered in these instances was the colour of my skin! White Privilege!
Which one of those two is the bad guy?
The Easier Path
Another story that helps me to visualise the idea of white privilege is this one.
Two students are starting their first year of University. They have both made it there and are about to study the same thing and so everything looks pretty equal. Let’s call them Lindy and Lesego.
Lindy grew up in the Southern Suburbs. She had her own room growing up with a computer in it that is connected to the internet. Lindy has all the quiet she needs to study and eats three good meals a day. Her dad works but her mom is home most of the time. If, for some reason she cannot go online, she has a number of people who can drive her to the local library so she can work there. Sometimes her older brother helps her with her maths. During the holidays they usually head to Hermanus where friends have a house they can stay in. Lindy drives a little grey Honda Getz that her folks gave her for Christmas.
Lesego lives in Khayelitsha with her mom and her three younger siblings. They have a two-room shack and she has to use a communal toilet which is about a hundred meters away from their front door. Her mom works as a cleaner for Lindy’s family actually and has to wake up at 4am as she takes three different forms of transport to get to work. It is cold and noisy and Lesego often has to try and work by candlelight to the sounds of fighting or sirens outside. She is responsible for making sure her siblings are fed and get to school as her mom is already on the way to work.
These are very simplified stories. But they help give some of the picture of the reality that so many people in this country face. At the moment when Lindy and Lesego step into University it might look from the outside as if they are equal, but Lesego has actually accomplished so much more and overcome so much more and had to work so much harder just to arrive at the same place.
Yes, wealth and class are factors, and yes, there are exceptions. But for the most part, still in South Africa in 2020 [where the wealthy still look predominantly white and the poor predominantly black] being white means that you are likely to have less obstacles in your path on your way to success. Or even just to survive.
Unearned benefits based purely on the colour of our skin
We started this off by looking at a few things that White Privilege is not. So let’s take in some definitions of what it is:
White Privilege: inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice. [Oxford Languages]
White privilege refers to societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. [Wikipedia]
White privilege is the unearned, mostly unacknowledged social advantage white people have over other racial groups simply because they are white. [Dictionary.com]
Because i didn’t do anything to get white privilege [accident of birth] i don’t need to feel guilty about it.
That is probably where we lose a lot of people in defensiveness around the term. This feeling that i have to feel guilty about white privilege. But if it is something that was unearned then feeling guilty is not the answer.
Three necessary responses to White Privilege
There are Three Things i think all white people need to do when it comes to white privilege:
 Recognise: See that it is a thing. Hopefully for some of you this post helped you do just that. You might have thought it was something else [having lots of stuff, having an easy life] and now you realise that it is something different to that.
 Acknowledge: Just as we all need to be speaking out that Black Lives Matter, it is important to be able to say this out loud: My name is Brett “Fish” and i benefit from white privilege. Except maybe use your own name else it gets a little weird quite quickly. Speak it out. Let black, coloured and indian people know that you are starting to get this and that you want to make a difference.
 Leverage. For me, this is the key. Not feeling bad about having white privilege but being prepared to use it when you can to assist or ally with those who do not.
An example was seen in the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa a few years ago. On at least one occasion, white protesters formed a human shield between the police and the black students. Realising that police are less likely to respond violently to white lives they were able to use their privilege as a form of protection.
There may be a fine line in this area between something positive and something that is called a White Saviour complex and so we need to do the work of research and taking to our black, coloured and indian friends to make sure what we are doing is helpful and wanted. But all of this requires work and mistakes will be made. We get better as we listen and research and talk to people and get it wrong and do better the next time!
In a nutshell, it is about being treated differently [favourably] because of the colour of your skin.
Here is an article worth taking a look at. Although written from an American perspective it still contains a number of relevant examples of white privilege.
If you have found this helpful, you might want to start working through these 40 Tips for white people asking, “But what can I do?” which a number of people have found helpful in terms of providing some practical suggestions of action and change.
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Keep on. This is a journey that we as white people are going to be for the rest of our lives. The commitment to be anti-racist in ourselves and with others.