As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult not to turn and look the other way.
I find it harder and harder to bear witness to the suffering of people and creatures and our planet: The decimation of forests, the poaching of endangered animals, the neglect and abuse of babies, the lack of education of our children, the ravages of extreme poverty and the rank unfairness of excessive inequality. I used to be able to look at all this and it used to enrage me to the point where I would act.
But recently I have found myself less and less able to keep my eyes
open. I have found myself turning away. In fact, I think this could be a very
neat description of privilege: The option to turn away.
At times like this I need a good dose of Pink Floyd. They remind me that turning away is no way to live. This is a Momentary Lapse of Reason. This is the Dark Side of the Moon. They remind me that turning away can never be an option.
Be reminded too – and enjoy! Watch the video here
On the Turning Away – Pink Floyd
On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”
It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud
On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night
No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?
The notion of white privilege challenges many of us wit ou’s
deeply. It seems that no greater offense can be levelled at us than an
accusation of white privilege.
I heard a definition of privilege that came originally from
one of my gurus Dr. Brene Brown. I found it useful. She says that privilege is
simply the degree to which we have choice. As a rule, white people through
history have had varying degrees of greater choice/freedom/access – whatever
words you wish to use. Put simply, we have had greater choice in terms of where
we can “live, move and have our being”.
I find it difficult to deny that this is true – however
unpalatable I may find it. I just don’t want to think of my skin colour
privileging me over other human beings. But it does. I know that because I was
white I could move anywhere during apartheid. I could go to the beach. I could
visit any restaurant I wanted to. I could walk freely into any place of
worship. I could be up late at night in any area. I could go to any night club
or bar I wished to. I could vote. And
all of this was done with no fear of being arrested and jailed without reason,
beaten-up, tortured or even killed. This freedom to choose is the basis of all my privilege. At this point it has
nothing to do with money or hard work. It just is what it is because I am
Then I had the choice to study what and where I liked, I
could walk into any job interview, I could command a decent living wage – all
these choices, because I was white. I naturally got paid more because I had had
access to better education and because white people generally get paid better. I
could buy any shampoo or soap I wanted because most products were made for
white people. I could even put on a Band-Aid that blended nicely with my skin
By the way, nothing has changed materially since the demise
of apartheid/colonialism here or anywhere else in the world. White people still
have many more choices than most black people. Because white privilege is
systemic in the exact same way as racism is.
So, what am I meant to do with this knowledge? I think my
main task is to acknowledge that I have – and still do have – many more choices
than most black people. When I do this, I can begin to heal – myself and the
world around me. I can let go of the need to defend myself as a white person –
telling people how hard I worked and the struggles I had to “make it”; I can
stop telling people how tough my parents or grandparents had it. I can begin fresh
new conversations that are at their core humble and enquiring. I can start to play a meaningful part in
addressing the deep-seated imbalances of our world.
A black woman and another of my gurus once said this to me:
“Justin, enjoy your privilege, but use it to help others less privileged.”
What a challenge!
During the 16th Nelson Mandela lecture, former US President Barack Obama humbly and vulnerably took issue with a side of humanity that few are ever brave enough to; the side that says that more is always better. He said: “Right now, I am actually surprised by how much money I got…There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough.”
The questions we might ask when presented with this thinking is, what is a former US President’s definition of enough? What is my enough? What is your enough? But by asking such questions we lose ourselves in ‘for instances’ and ‘hypotheticals’ and we miss the essence of what he is suggesting; that inequality is – at least to some degree – in our hands to fix. He is basically suggesting that as long as one of our number is in lack whilst I am not, then I have more than enough.
Of course, in our capitalist world where ‘more’ is the only game in town, this thinking is naïve. It sounds like charity speak. But that is where we have gone wrong; we have commoditized giving. We have turned what should be a normal everyday human response to inequality into a system of points, rewards and tax breaks.
But President Obama is asking us to look at inequality differently, perhaps a little more like my child who looks at the beggar on the street and says: “Give that man our money – we have enough!”
How do we do this well? It begins with a shift in mindset: What can I go without, so people can have what they need to survive? This may be a physical thing like a meal or a movie or some new clothes, or it may be less tangible like a degree of financial security or the size of my savings account. Having begun to think this way then we begin to free ourselves of the constraints of our own poverty mentality. We can then think about doing some of these things:
- Enjoy the fact that our tax goes in large part to feeding the poor. We can pay it thankfully and think or pray for those who have less.
- We can become radical tippers. I loved the story of the Brit who was so impressed by having his petrol pumped by an attendant that he tipped 10% of the value of the full tank of fuel. We can make 15% – 20% restaurant tips the norm. R10 minimum for car guards and bag packers in supermarkets.
- R20 an hour is not a living wage. We can pay R30+ an hour which is okay but still not great.
- We can employ more people – especially women – than we necessarily need. We won’t do work that someone else can do for us and be paid for.
- We can help our domestics, our gardeners with educating their children, maybe by arranging that they attend a better school, and maybe by assisting with the fees.
Does all this sound naïve? It may do – but the alternative is not: The alternative is a society slowly but surely torn apart by inequality.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.