“We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be ‘outside’ the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and equalitarian my intentions.” – Harry Brod, “Work Clothes and Leisure Suits: The Class Basis and Bias of the Men’s Movement” in Men’s Lives (ed.) Michael S. Kimmel & Michael Messner
In her thought-provoking article, “Musings from the Groin of a Self Absorbed Zimbabwean (Part 1),” Felicity Sibindi briefly discusses the issue of white privilege and its prevalence in Zimbabwe. Some continue to refute the existence of white privilege. Oftentimes, those who defend it – across racial lines – often misconstrue the full meaning and scope of privilege, how it functions and its aim and impact in our societies.
The world is run by a plethora of oppressive systems, all of which are inextricably linked. These systems bring with them privilege that is bestowed on people that are part of the dominant and/or oppressing group at the expense of the oppressed and/or perceived subordinate group. This applies to, amongst others, issues of gender, sexuality, class, religion, ability and of course race. The modalities of their oppression are intersectional and are as concrete as the lives of the people oppressed by them.
There exists a common misconception that because of the times in which we live, the milestones made and perceived victories realised, certain, if not all, forms of oppression or inequality no longer exist. And where they still do, there is a misperception that because they no longer manifest themselves in the ways of old that they are somehow less harmful. There are delusions that we are now all equal and that all universal injustices impact and affect different groups equally without discrimination or favour despite all evidence to the contrary and that is why there are still a lot of people who rubbish the reality of privilege, be it white, male, heterosexual and/or ableist.
It is unsurprising to encounter a person with privilege defending their entitlement, oftentimes by rubbishing claims of its existence.However, it is always an interesting, if not unfortunate, twist when the defence of a dominant group’s privilege comes from a member of the subordinate or disenfranchised group.
It is worth noting that most people have some form of privilege at any given point in their lives. I have navigated spheres of privilege based on my socio-economic class, my ability and my sex and gender identity. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of privilege. Some privilege has more currency than others and all privilege is linked. You can’t separate race from class much the same way you can’t separate race and class from gender. Trouble is that when people hear the term privilege, often what comes to mind is economic or class privilege. People also view privilege as something one can choose to have or to discard.
That is not how privilege works.
White skin privilege saturates our societies much the same way male privilege, cis-gender and heterosexual privilege do. People who are part of a group that has privilege do not necessarily have to do anything to create it or earn it and many do not enjoy it consciously. They just live it and most times do not question it because the world says things are as they should be.
Indeed over-generalisations are not ideal but they are however unavoidable in many discussions on social, political and economic issues in relation to systems of oppression.
Racism cannot and should not be reduced to overt acts by an individual or a group of people at a certain point in history like colonialism and apartheid. Once we make that error, we inadvertently legitimise and uphold the prevailing systems of white supremacy and inequality. It is not always necessary to insert caveats to point out the obvious whenever we seek to challenge inequality. Yes, not all white Afrikans are rich or have been awarded British or European citizenship since the land reform process in Zimbabwe, but at the same time the truth is you will be hard pressed to encounter a white Zimbabwean economic refugee in South Afrika working as a domestic worker in a black middle class household or holding up a cardboard ad that reads “plumber” on a street corner. The fact that you might find white Zimbabweans working menial jobs in the UK or in Europe and yet hardly find any camped out for days on end at Home Affairs offices in South Afrika speaks volumes to race-class privilege in southern Africa.
Granted generalisations and assumptions about people are wrong but it is not an assumption that there is privilege in whiteness. The assumption may come at the claim that no white people are challenging this privilege that their white bodies awards them but even then, it really isn’t a stretch to assume that many are in fact not, given that many white people just like many men do not even acknowledge that they have this privilege let alone use it to challenge the systems oppressing other groups.
When non-white people criticise others for bringing up white privilege, I couldn’t help but think of W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness that, although it was conceptualised in the American context, applies to black people the world over. Our modern world is constructed on white or Euro-normativity. It sets whiteness (not white people) as the transcendental norm. Therefore our world automatically awards people living in white bodies privilege over those that don’t, in turn pushing non-whites to aspire to whiteness. It is 2015 and blackness is still considered something that contaminates the system as it were – be it black bodies or black culture or black thought. These things are still seen as inherently violent, contrary, deviant, unsophisticated and backward, and that is why you are more likely today to find non-white people assimilating into whiteness in order to both survive and advance. The thing with assimilation, however, is as Fred Morten aptly puts it, it’s “a modality of genocidal regulation” which impacts how we understand who and what we are and how we exist in this world as people of colour.
It is worth illustrating with a few (of many!) examples to better support my assertions of the existence of white privilege in the world, including Zimbabwe for all the naysayers:
- “White”/European systems and institutions of governance, culture and knowledge are accepted as the standard the world over. These institutions are seen as the benchmarks of sophistication, progress and civilisation. Anything that deviates becomes the other and oftentimes inferior (until, of course, they are co-opted or appropriated into whiteness – hello Macklemore and Eat Pray Love woman…). This means that anyone raised in white culture automatically fits in seamlessly into society and is accepted and those who aren’t have to try that much harder to do so.
- Black bodies cannot navigate as freely and as easily into spaces they wish without being perceived as foreign and having said foreigness met with some sort of violence or disdain. They are viewed with suspicion and perceived as malignant (and on the flipside, as an accessory or ornamental) while white bodies are often viewed as benign. In Cape Town for instance, white people can enter townships to view the wildlife, I mean the people, and take photos of and with them. Meanwhile across town, black bodies that enter “white spaces” are called kaffir, beaten up or urinated on simply because they are not welcome. Hell! Trying to access the beach (because, you know, they are just one of the many spaces considered the property of white people) to perform a ritual or ceremony without the presence of my Canadian friend’s white body (also there to perform ritual) was always challenged or met with suspicion. Because white sage is so much more kosher than imphepho zve.
- There generally tends to be more empathy and sympathy directed towards white suffering (and the white rhino of course) than black suffering (what’s up Charlie Hebdo, you racist bugger you?). Social and class hierarchies have always existed in Afrika (always nuanced of course), but ever since colonialism these hierarchies exist primarily within the context of race. Poor black people are often perceived as vulgar, ghetto or lazy and undeserving – even by fellow black people – not necessarily for being poor but for being poor and black because we have internalised the white gaze, complete with its mythomaniacal nature. On the flipside, poor white people almost always manage to invoke some sort of sympathy or empathy from the now more diverse middle class.
- White violence is always excused, justified or individualised whereas black violence is always “senseless” or barbaric or, you know, just a black thing.
- People will always question the motives of the Rasta brother dating the German volunteer or the beweaved sister on the arm of the Slav jeweller but never the other way around because thina boDarkie, we’re the ones who’re always up to mischief isn’t?
- People don’t clutch their purses or lock their doors when white people appear in their general vicinity and dining or shopping does not really cause any anxiety.
- The police will always protect white bodies with more verve and gusto than they will black bodies and likewise, they will sooner exert violence on black bodies than they will on white bodies.
- Can someone please show me the colours most commonly known as nude or flesh and tell me whose flesh they most resemble? It’s OK, I can wait. Things such as band-aids generally match white skin tones because those are deemed the norm. Same with products like shampoo and things like toys and books for children (and adults for that matter) make white bodies the default setting of humanity. White people do not have to worry about being erased from history or misrepresented or made invisible by history books or Hollywood and the advertising industry. These seem like small things but it’s very many small things that go unchecked that contribute to maintaining one big really fucked up system isn’t it?
- White people do not have to be less white in order to succeed but others have to be less non-white in order to enjoy any success or be protected from any scorn for refusing to abdicate their non-whiteness in any way.
- Whiteness does not have to exist in relationship with other racial and ethnic groups in order to be valid but other groups have to exist in relationship with whiteness in order to get legitimacy. One example would be what black philosopher Lewis Gordon would call “epistemic colonisation”. Black thought is by and large still treated as an oxymoron in and of itself because until it is either endorsed or infused with whiteness it is not considered valid. Generally as a people, we still believe knowledge or culture is only really knowledge or culture when it is steeped in white culture or there are white voices or bodies to validate black thought. White people are generally (yes generally) perceived to be more knowledgeable about anything than black people even when they aren’t. Just look at who the dominant voices on discourse concerning anything in the world are; including Afrika.
- This post is in English and that speaks for itself. Sorry gogo maGambiza, masara, but you’re welcome Allison, in London.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. My point is that people need to understand that acknowledging the reality of universal white privilege is not the same as saying that all white people hate non-white people or that all white people are Warren Buffet rich. It is not a personal attack on your really sweet childhood BFF you went to Peterhouse with or your friendly Welsh neighbour in your council housing apartment building in Kent who loves Oliver Mtukudzi’s music or even my own super awesome family. Instead it is a realistic acknowledgement of an omnipresent white supremacist system that automatically awards these wonderful people in our lives a “superior” status over the rest of us.
Doreen “Ray” Gaura