White Privilege: Why Does It Offend Us So Much?

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 white.

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 tone!

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!

Land Expropriation – Bring It On!

As a white person I do not fully understand the land expropriation without compensation issue. In truth, I cannot. My background, my thinking, my skin, my privilege precludes me from really getting it.

But what I do know – and what, it seems some other white writers are beginning to grapple with – is that the issue is not the issue.

The issue is not about people getting “free land”. It is not about what people do with the land. It is not about food security or what it will do to the economy. I would even say that it isn’t about redress, or certainly not all about redress.

It is to some extent about politics and the 2019 elections but perhaps the timing is just coincidental. Or perhaps the timing is just right.

My paradigms disallow me from seeing expropriation without compensation as necessary and good. My paradigms prompt me to say: “Who can argue against the facts? The statistics prove the point. Countries in which land is expropriated are likely to XYZ. Just look at Zim.” This thinking is one dimensional and comes from a place of strength and privilege. And fear.

As an example, food security – a big focus of our arguments against expropriation – is only an issue to the well fed and at that, when their security is threatened. I work with people in areas like rural Limpopo who haven’t enjoyed a single day of food security their entire lives. To them, food security is when the local wild vegetables happen to take root in the red dust and they get a meal. If you have read Trevor Noah’s superb book “Born a Crime” you will have been struck by a story of his Mother making soup out of river clay just to fill her stomach. Many people in our country would just laugh at us if we told them that land expropriation would impact food security.   

And what about the economy? We can argue – and we do so disingenuously to protect our own positions of relative wealth and privilege – that land expropriation will impact the economy and of course the poorest of the poor will be worst hit. This may well be true. But come on! If we really cared so much for the poorest of the poor wouldn’t we do more about them? Would we not give up some of our proverbial farm so that they may farm and eat – or for heaven’s sake screw it up if they wish to? And not just the odd progressive farmer (I have met some of these amazing people) but all of us who have?

The other point we need to understand better from within our privilege is that less of nothing is still nothing. So let’s be brutal with ourselves and say that the economic argument against land expropriation is much more about us who have, than those who don’t.

But if the issues around land expropriation are not the issue, then what is? I don’t know for sure, you would need to ask a black person without land. But from what I have come to appreciate, it’s got as much to do with psychology than anything. It has to do with closure; burying the rotting corpse of apartheid that still lies in the streets and pollutes all of us; It has to do with people being given a realistic chance (not just on paper) to exercise their rights; to be human and adult. It has to do with collective dignity being restored to a vast group of people only some of whom will benefit from land expropriation.

So, when we are tempted to say: But look at what happened in Zim – it will mess up the economy like it did there! Perhaps we can take a broader look and say: Yes, perhaps it will – but perhaps it won’t. And if it does, maybe that’s what is needed for the psyche of people and this country to heal for future generations. We cannot truly do that which so many suggest – move on from the past – until the land issue is resolved.

Bring it on.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

White Lies – Justifying the Racism in Our Schools

An article in last weekend’s Sunday Times entitled “White flight ‘over fear and mother tongue’” tells us that white people are pulling their kids out of schools where there are too many black people.

In former Model C schools there are now only a handful of white pupils, some have none. The article says that most white pupils have moved to private schools or Afrikaans-medium schools. This is not new – it has been happening for over two decades now; schools can be a safe place for birds of a feather to flock together. However, the only white mother left at Saxonwold Primary in Johannesburg says that she doesn’t think the exodus of white families is all about the massive enrolment of black families over the past years. She says that the white families had just “lost faith in government education”. But at our daughter’s school – a private school – we have noticed the same trend.  Unlike most white couples, we have a black daughter and one of the reasons we chose her school was precisely because it is so multi-racial. Since we started there in 2016, most of the white families have left and now there is just the one in Lolly’s class. It is generally accepted that this migration is at very least partially due to the darkening hue of the place, but ironically the reasons given are something along the lines of: “We have lost faith in the school”. So, it seems that the same reason for white flight is being given at government and private schools. Now just for clarity, our daughter’s school is world-class. Sure, you can move your kid from one privileged school to another in search of ever improving facilities, but is this all school is about; a case of my astro is bigger than yours? Educating the 21st Century child is so much more than this.  Learning and socialising in a multi-cultural environment that prepares them for the world they will one day live in, is as vital to their future success as lessons, sport and extra murals. We stunt our children’s growth and development if we don’t expose them to as many cultures, colours, religions and worldviews as possible. And not just at school, but at home as well.

Disconnected as a White Citizen

On a recent family holiday to the Kruger Park, we were enjoying a swim in one of the day visitor’s public pools.

The pool was full of people all having fun together and we were laughing and playing with the other families. Suddenly, I became aware of the pool attendant calling me over to speak to him. I waded over to him and asked if there was a problem. In a typically polite African way, he quietly told me that there was another pool at the main camp that we might enjoy more. “Why, what’s better about it?” I asked him perplexed. But then it dawned on me that he was inviting me (not telling me) to use a pool where there would be other white people. We declined his obviously well-meaning offer and stayed in that pool for the rest of the afternoon. A lot of my writing focuses on race and racial identify in post-apartheid South Africa. For me it has been – and still is – an often very painful journey; a journey on which I have discovered to my shame the positive role that the simple colour of my skin has played (and still plays) in my life. On this journey I have also learnt the negative role that skin colour played (and still plays) in black people’s lives. But my white skin has also, at times, made my life sad and disconnected. It did at that pool. Why? Because I want to swim with my fellow South Africans. I do not want a special pool inhabited only by other white people. As I have grappled with my white privilege and my place in post-apartheid South Africa, I have often felt deeply disconnected, as I did that day. This disconnection results in a form of displacement that manifests in many ways in us white folk; fear; racism; superiority; in statements like: “we’d be better off leaving”; in urgent and often frenzied attempts to “do good”; in burying our heads in the sand about racism; in leaving for foreign countries siting crime or lack of opportunity as reasons. I have come to understand that at least some of these positions and attitudes come about as we discharge our pain and discomfort at living in a country in which we feel – to some degree – unwelcome as we are. There seems to be a built-in shame – acknowledge or unacknowledged – at being white living in South Africa. And lest we think we can outrun this shame, writer and researcher Brene Brown tells us that it is those of us who battle to admit to shame that suffer from it the most.  This shame left unhealed is very toxic. For those of us who remain here, do we deserve to feel unwelcome? Perhaps that isn’t the right question. Perhaps a better question might be; does anyone deserve to feel unwelcome in their own country? Now, I don’t often feel the pain of being disconnected or displacement in overt ways such as the incident at the pool; it is subtle and not all the time. The white monopoly capital rhetoric makes me feel disconnected from my country. This is not because I do not believe that our wealth is still way too concentrated in the hands of white people – it is. Political campaigning which suggests that prospective leaders are using too many white people on their campaign teams makes me disconnected. This is not because I believe that black leaders should use more white advisers than black – I do not. Quotas and BBBEE make me disconnected. This is not because I don’t believe that our sports teams should privilege black players over white – I do. I also believe that a black job applicant should be privileged over a white job applicant of the same qualifications or experience. This is because restitution for decades of white privilege over black people must continue, until equilibrium (whatever that ultimately means) is reached. So then, why am I writing about the pain and discomfort of being white in South Africa? Do I have the right to write this? Do I not deserve to feel this? Is it, for want of a better term, a necessary pain that must drive me – drive us all – to seek the healing, restoration and forgiveness our country still so desperately needs? I guess the answer to this will vary between people. For me, the answer to all these questions is yes: yes, I have the right to write this; yes, I deserve to feel this pain and discomfort and yes, it is a very necessary pain that I must be willing to live with – embrace actually – in order that I might start to learn a new and better way of being white in South Africa. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

What is Done by One is Done by All

The now infamous coffin assault case which saw two white men torture a black man by forcing him into a casket, left me feeling ill.

I felt ill for several reasons amongst them the fact that I – like many others – have often had the dreaded nightmare associated with being buried alive. It is a fate too horrendous to contemplate. This man can only have feared the worst as this heinous act was being committed. That was obviously before they began taunting him with the possibility of placing a snake in the coffin with him to finish him off before his burial. I also felt ill because in a way that I shudder to admit, I participated in this hateful assault fueled by racism. No, I was not there. And no, I have never personally enacted physical violence towards any person let alone a harmless man doing no wrong. Yet, in a deep sense – and certainly in terms of the repercussions of such actions – what is done to one is done to all and what is done by one is done by all. We are inextricably connected. If you need evidence of this reality you have only to listen to the language people use in expressing their rightful disgust at such incidents. A close black friend of mine can often be heard saying: “what is wrong with your people?”. The “you and I” quickly becomes the “us and them” when people are giving expression to their pain. On a very practical level, if I am to disassociate myself too far from these attackers, I am simply denying the reality that I advertently or inadvertently participate in the daily incarceration of other harmless black South Africans. Forget racist thoughts and words – I have become good at hiding those – my very existence as a white South African represents a coffin in which I unwittingly, daily place people. The point that I am making is that this violent, act of racism can and should be viewed as a powerful metaphor for the subtler, often unsighted ways that black people are entombed in our nation.  Of course, it is easier to direct my outrage at these men from Middleburg (and of course I do). But if that’s where I stop, then I have failed to learn the lessons of the parable that this man suffered so greatly to provide me; I have failed to interrogate my culpability in keeping scores of ordinary black people entombed by racism. And what are these tombs? Yes, they can be brazen and obvious; the Penny Sparrow tomb of indignity for example. But they are usually far subtler: my denial of my white privilege, my wish that we could “move on” from blaming apartheid; my subtle satisfaction at black people who say life was better before democracy, my intimation that whites ran the country better; my denial of white influence and supremacy especially in business. In case you feel that I am being unnecessarily hard on myself, think again. As a white person living in South Africa, if I stubbornly insist on not doing the hard, humbling and often harrowing inside work that will radically unseat my “white in shining armour/white-is-right” attitude (I am steering clear of using the r-word here – though I am a racist in recovery – so I can avoid my all-too-easy “I am not a racist!” retort) from the very core of who I am, it will sooner-or-later be done for me. Will this be enacted violently by Julius Malema and his supporters? Could be. But it will more likely be in the form of a slow but deliberate erosion of the everyday supremacy and power of the white person; a certain squeezing into a coffin of our own if you like. If you are white, you are probably feeling this squeeze already. Is this a good reason to adjust my attitude and behaviours? Well, it is one good reason. I am not trying to incite fear here – in fact, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that if I intentionally, actively address my own inherited racism and white superiority and, dare I say it, my white entitlement to that superiority through, firstly, admitting it, then I will cease to lock people in coffins.  I am suggesting that as a white person living in South Africa, I have an opportunity to answer a case against me well. If I do this daily and diligently, loving wholeheartedly until love breaks my arrogant, stiff-necked self, then I can be as great a catalyst for healing and restoration as I have been for suffering and division. Only then will we find the harmony and peace we so need and long for. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.