It seems that race is an uncomfortable topic for many South Africans, especially many white South Africans. Specifically, the issue of white privilege. White South Africans swear high and low that white privilege does not exist, that they’re the victims of reverse racism and that affirmative action has made it impossible for them to make a living in the country. They’re tired of hearing about apartheid and how black people are still suffering. In fact, they’re happy to tell black people to just “get over it”, like the subjugation of the majority of the population is something people can overcome with little or no effort.
Part of the problem, I think, is ignorance. White people don’t experience discrimination at the same level as black people. It makes it much harder to express things like institutionalised racism to white people when they see affirmative action as a personal attack on their race.
But, what do you call it when white people benefit from the legacy of apartheid while black people continue to suffer? It means that white privilege does, in fact, exist. White people have told me that their privilege is a myth; this is despite their higher level of comfort compared to the majority of the poor. You’re mistaken if you think it’s only about wealth because there is a clear difference in how white and black people are perceived.
How many times have you rolled up your windows or checked to see if your doors were locked when a black man approached your vehicle, and have you done the same when there was a white person begging for money on the streets? How many times are black peoples’ voices stifled because they should just “get over it already”? Who is the last missing or killed black person’s name you remember who actually received major coverage in the media?
Missing White Woman Syndrome
There is actually a term for this one, it’s called Missing White Woman Syndrome. Social scientists reckon the media and society pay a disproportionate amount of attention on missing middle class white women while men and women of different ethnicities are given significantly lesser coverage. Think about the coverage the Leigh Matthews murder received, or that of Reeva Steenkamp. Anyone remember Sinoxolo Mafevuka whose family knew more about the murder of Franziska Blochliger than about Sinoxolo’s death? The Social Justice Coalition even organised a march earlier this year to demand the investigation into Sinoxolo’s murder be given the same attention as Franziska’s. If that doesn’t convince you, what about the murders of Zanele Mayila who was battered to death by her boyfriend, or Anelisa Dulase who was killed on her 21st birthday, or Msawenkosi Ndlovu who was attacked and murdered in KwaZulu-Natal?
If ever you wanted to see white privilege in action, consider the reaction to white people who are victims of crime, as well as the attention they receive in the media. Black people hardly receive as much attention. It is most frustrating when white people don’t acknowledge this privilege and that it does indeed help to shape the reality and narrative of modern South Africa. White South Africans hardly have many positive things to say about South Africa, their voices are represented far more in the media and they are the first to question how black people acquired their wealth. Speaking of wealth, consider how the poor or homeless are treated by South Africans.
I’ve lived in an area occupied by white people for many years. The neighbours would get extremely annoyed if a non-white person came begging at the door and was given food. One day a white man who fell on tough times and came looking for money at the different houses in the area told me how all the neighbours gave him R10 each, which is what he had been asking for. Even poor white people get a better deal than black people do. I’ve seen how white motorists pour their wallets out to white beggars, but roll their windows up and completely ignore the coloured and black beggars.
White people tend to not experience discrimination in the same way black people do. When I was a journalist, I’d sometimes hear of stories where black reporters struggled to get comment from white people in a neighbourhood while their white counterparts had it far easier. I’ve experienced this personally when sources would be rude or abrupt but grant my fairer-skinned colleague an interview instead. It might not be much, but it’s not the sort of thing you expect people who haven’t experienced instances of discrimination to understand.
The world is unfair
The university protests that took place in South Africa is a good example of people living in different worlds attempting to make sense of what happened. White people said they, too, found it tough to pay university fees and yet they felt no need to protest about the cost of education. But riddle me this: what exactly do poor folk have to offer as collateral when the university fees go up and they need to take out loans to pay?
In a just world, people suffer because they’ve been bad. In the real world, they suffer because the world is unfair. What exactly are students to do when their livelihood is on the line? It might be self-defeating in the long run to damage the facility that is providing you a future, but students from poor communities have few outlets for their anger.
In a recent chat with a son of a farm owner, he mentioned how they would occasionally slap and beat workers who came to work hungover or drunk. Sure, they shouldn’t be nursing a hangover when they’re about to work, but this doesn’t justify physical abuse. The farmer would also never fire his workers because they know how to work the land and take care of the cattle, which their families have been doing for generations. The land issue is a painful reminder to black and coloured people about what they have lost.
A combination of corruption in government and no real effort by white people to help have created a huge gap between the haves (mostly white) and the have-nots (mostly black). This is not a healthy situation for South Africa’s future.
As things stand, white people are happy to continue while black people suffer, which is why the topic of race and inequality should not end on white peoples’ terms. It is not a crime to be privileged but there is much that can be accomplished when white people realise the extent to which they have separated themselves from their fellow countrymen and women.
Black people, do not be afraid to talk about the issues that affect you because it makes some people uncomfortable. There is still hope for the majority of people in South Africa but it requires a collective effort.
Originally published here.