28 Feb Privilege in South Africa: The Difference between Losing Human Rights and Having Hurt Feelings
The hardest part of any journey is taking the first step – a part of me wants to believe that’s the reason why so many white people still refuse to acknowledge their privilege. But a larger part of me is less forgiving; surely white fear and guilt are not sufficient answers as to why we allow racism to govern our society and why we continue to ignore its ever-lurking presence.
The fact is it’s hard to talk about instances of racism if we can’t even agree on basic facts like the fact that privilege exists, for example. Because in order for us to talk about racism in South Africa we have to recognise that racism, much like sexism, is not an opinion but a system of oppression. And just like any system, it has to be maintained in order to function.
So how exactly is racism maintained? Quite simply, racism is ingrained in our society; it is normalised to such an extent that we rarely recognise it if it is not directly affecting or, rather, hindering us. It’s important to remember that racism is structured, not random; and that it exists to benefit certain individuals by disadvantaging others – or more specifically, people of colour. I have heard white people try to invalidate the precision and severity of racism by saying things like “it doesn’t matter what skin colour you are – black, white, pink or green” when the truth is: inventing hypothetical races to counteract actual discrimination against people of colour is dismissive and ignorant. This kind of behaviour can be described as a racial micro-aggression (that is, a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional) and contributes to “colour blind” racism – something which I feel is a major problem within South Africa.
It’s important to know how to identify racist micro-aggressions if we are to begin to look at racism objectively and determine how we might perpetuate racist stereotypes and contribute to racial oppression albeit unconsciously. Being “colour blind” for example – not being able to see race or understand its significance – is a novelty afforded to those who have not experienced racial marginalisation on an institutionalised level.
Sure, every human being is likely to experience violence, micro-aggressions and hatred at some point in their life, but there is a big difference between infringed human rights and hurt feelings. When someone attacks you on a personal level, it’s guaranteed to hurt – be it physically or emotionally – and ruin your day regardless of who you are, but that pain is only temporary; it is not enforced by authorities and it’s not powerful enough to impede on your everyday life. Power dynamics matter in any relationship between an antagonist and a victim.
As a white person in South Africa, I have observed how prone my white peers are to crying racism without ever acknowledging our own privilege. But if we are to entertain an intersectional approach, we would discover how out of context “white tears” really are. If you’re wondering what intersectionality is, here is a very brief explanation as seen on www.care2.com:
“Intersectionality is a sociological theory about how an individual can face multiple threats of discrimination when their identities overlap a number of minority classes, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics.”
So while white people can certainly experience oppression in the form of classism, sexism, ableism and so forth, it is virtually impossible for white folks to be oppressed on a race-only basis. And yet, there is an abundance of white South Africans who cry racism at every given moment. What I mean by that is, whether or not you are a white person and your life has been smooth sailing or hard work, racism wouldn’t likely be the cause for it.
Before you defend yourself with the classic retort of “I am not a racist”, consider how knowing that “racism is bad” does not mean that you do not possess problematic or racist views. Few people consider themselves to be racist, and this is because racism is hard to distinguish in oneself – or others for that matter – if you have not only been desensitised to it but safeguarded by it.
Another common knee-jerk defense from white people who are not willing to acknowledge privilege is to play the victim. We do this when we say things like “I worked hard for where I am in my life” or “black people have all the opportunity” with regard to Broad-Based Economic Empowerment. In spite of these rather short-sighted misconceptions, statistics show that 65% of young black South Africans currently live below the poverty line (earning a monthly income of less than R620) while a mere 4% of young white South Africans suffer the same fate. Some economic studies even indicate that a large proportion of whites have grown richer in the last 20 years while the majority of blacks and minority groups have become poorer.
As white people, we want to believe that life is just as hard for us, no matter what the colour of our skin is, but the truth is that it’s not; and to me, this seems glaringly obvious. We have to get it out of our heads that being called out for white privilege is a danger to our livelihoods, because that’s simply not true.
When we pretend we cannot see race or that race is irrelevant, we help to whitewash facts and live in a state of unconsciousness that allows for the most devastating injustices to take place without punishment. Colour blind micro-aggressions and white tears do not live in isolation. The selective solidarity and myopic views expressed by white folk may not seem as violent as Penny Sparrow referring to black people as “monkeys” but they still cause an inordinate amount of damage.
A good example of selective solidarity is the way in which many whites took to social media to voice contempt of protesters who defaced and destroyed Colonial icons like paintings and statues after #Shackville was torn down by unmarked UCT security, but remained silent as white men took to the sports field of the University of Free State to brutalise black people who were engaged in peaceful protest.
While an overwhelming number of whites are quick to express concerns or rage when we feel that we are being personally targeted, the same people seem reluctant to “get involved” when black bodies are at harm.
Even though we no longer live in an apartheid state, it cannot be disputed that authorities and institutions are still more concerned with protecting white lives than they are black. Despite video evidence of white men assaulting people of colour in the UFS rugby incident, 21 students were arrested – none of them white. Read more about how the Free State police target black students here.
Sisonke Msimang writes for the Daily Maverick:
“The violent and public beating of non-violent black protesters at the University of Free State demonstrated white Afrikaner impunity on full display. It was a reminder of the continued ways in which white people’s violence in South Africa is a tool that takes direct aim at black people’s bodies . . . Most importantly, what has become clear in the UFS incident is that public and university responses to white violence and black violence continue to be marked by stark differences. Black violence must be dealt with through increased security, while white violence must be met with love and intense introspection.”
Indeed, white hypocrisy is rampant. Why else was no grief expressed on my timeline about the student that was reportedly shot dead during clashes with security guards at the North West University Mahikeng campus? Why else was there no uproar about the group of black female students who were arrested outside the University of KwaZulu-Natal simply for sitting as a group? Commentary about “violence” and “vandalism” continue to run amok while aggressions against people of colour, whether by authorities or individuals, are politely swept under the mat or worse, justified.
Tone policing and victim silencing of black pain serve as lethal tools for the racist apologists of our nation for they are the first to comment on black struggle and the last to show empathy for black comrades who are fighting for liberation. Failure to acknowledge one’s own privilege in South Africa is as detrimental to the equality of our country as the white fists which beat into black flesh on the sports field at UFS because, for those of us in power, there is far lesser need to affect change.
White people need to stop pretending that we are at risk or that our voices need to echo the loudest whenever conversations or demonstrations campaigning for transformation arise. We need to stop inserting ourselves into conversations lest we become invisible and lose our sense of importance. Crying “reverse racism”, punting ideas like #AllLivesMatter and asking questions like “why can’t we all get along?” just feed into long-established patterns of oppression. More importantly, we need stop scorning black struggles, or moaning about how oppressed we are.
What we should be doing is expressing empathy for those who have been victimised, and acting as allies by vocalising our rage at institutionalised violence against blackness instead of trying to make things all about ourselves.
Here are some more tips for how you can be a better ally in 2016.