This blog post is inspired by two recent interactions on Twitter – interactions which provoked introspection, and which demanded a response that I could not find a way to condense into batches of 144 characters. The first, by @, challenged me on being willing to interact on mundane or lighthearted topics, while avoiding issues that require more courage to engage. The second, by @, was perhaps a devil’s advocate question about the integrity and sincerity of my initial response.
The thoughts on this page are not directed AT either of them directly. They both, quite frankly, see enough of their time wasted with this kind of bullshit that they don’t need another rendition of it from me. They also undoubtedly have nothing to learn from me on this topic. But indirectly, to Mamokgethi: this is my willingness to engage – in the public eye – on difficult topics. I am willing to be wrong, to be corrected, to learn. I begin by writing what I have come to understand, so far. To Xolani: Sorry, this is much more of an answer than you asked for. But this is my willingness to put effort into my thoughts, and not just to make trite offerings of characters on Twitter only when it is safe to do so.
The soul searching presented here is not penned off the cuff in response to a tweet or two, of course. It is something I have been struggling to put into words for some time, and which has now been invited by circumstance (and by Mamokgethi, and by Xolani, and over time by others) into the open. It contains no literary works of art, nor original thought. As imperfectly worded as it is, though, it is a line of thought that all South Africans must consider at some point, and then accept, or reject. (Most South Africans, I think, have not had the luxury of choosing the time of their consideration.)
My disclaimer is in two parts.
First, this is my best effort – we do not share the same experiences, or the same context of life, and so your mileage and interpretation may vary, as may the words you would choose to use to say the same thing even if you agree. Have I made mistakes? Over simplifications? Probably. I will hear your disagreements out.
Second, I have written these words as they have formed most naturally in my head. I realise they are framed somewhat like a lecture, which is perhaps not the ideal tone for a contemplation of this nature. Perhaps it is six years of parenting, or perhaps it is simply my white male tendencies. Consider it a lecture to myself, and take from it what you will.
I welcome, as always, your responses, positive or negative.
I Am White
I am white. White is the colour of my skin. I am not ashamed of that, but neither am I proud. At most, I am a little bit sad because minimal exposure to the sun turns my skin bright red and hurts like hell, and it isn’t the most practical for a South African climate. I did not choose the colour of my skin, nor my other physical characteristics, nor the history that comes with it.
I wish nobody harm, regardless of their skin colour, and do nothing to intentionally to stand in the way of other people and their progress in life.
This is where many people with a similar skin tone will cease their introspection, with the final implication – spoken or unspoken – that they not be held responsible for what other similarly hued people have done in the past or do in the present.
I did not create apartheid. I did not vote for it. Leave me alone.
The reality of this world is that your physical characteristics do not absolve you of the consequences of those characteristics. The sun does not care that you did not choose to be born pale, it burns you anyway. Structural racism does not care that you did not choose to be born black, it fucks you anyway.
Forget the ridiculous semantic debate of whether or not black people can also be racist, or whether white people are racist by default. Forget also that silly straw man in which #AllWhitePeople must be racist in order for any of them to be racist.
The cold, hard reality is that, in South Africa, regardless of who did what to get us here, life is not fair to people who are not white. No, scratch that – life is not fair to anyone. The very structural framework of our society is deliberately, and intentionally, by design, unfair to people who are not white. And male. And straight. To varying degrees, in an inconsistent variety of ways, but unfair in undeniable, mathematical, scientifically demonstrable ways.
‘Life’ is random (or too complex to be interpreted otherwise), and randomness is fair to nobody, but the reality we have in South Africa today is not simply random – it is calculated. It might be a calculation that thousands or millions of people other than ourselves are responsible for, and we can certainly debate who might be considered ‘guilty’, but it is impossible to deny that we are all involved, and that the nature of the problem has a strong correlation with skin colour. As does the nature of the solution.
To begin, let us understand that ‘The Land’ is a metaphor for a complicated mess of many things (including, incidentally, actual land. But not ONLY land). So let us once again do away with the tired semantic (and sarcastic) argument of which particular property rightfully belongs to which particular person. Understand the principlethat the distribution of ‘The Land’ – the everything – is no simple random distribution that quite by accident misfortunes black people, but that it is a deliberate mis-distribution.
To use a simple analogy, imagine that your father stole a car, and left it to you in his will. When its rightful owner comes to reclaim it from you, the original owner is not stealing your car. You would understandably be sad to lose a car you thought was a gift, but save your anger for your father who gave you something that was never his to give in the first place. So it is that we cannot just wash our hands of apartheid looting with the immortal words of Shaggy: “It wasn’t me.”
Yes – I know it is complicated. It wasn’t your dad, but your cousin’s brother’s uncle’s grandfather’s grandfather’s mother’s former roommate, and the car has been sold, resold and chopped up for spare parts. Someone legitimately paid for the engine without realising it was stolen, and put it in a race car. The original owner is dead, and has eighteen great grand kids. But some of your shit is still stolen, and someone is still out of pocket, and no problem ever went away because the solution was complicated.
I’ve said it already, but it’s not just land, you understand? It’s the profit on the land. It’s opportunity. It’s money. It’s influence. It’s a complex milieu of a million interconnected things, but we can’t just do nothing because if the tables were turned you’d feel exactly the same fucking way, you understand?
But what else is ‘The Land’ if it isn’t just the land, exactly? What is this white privilege people won’t stop talking about?
You don’t see it until you do. And then you can’t unsee it. But let me ask you a question. You are interviewing two candidates for a job. They are exactly the same in every way, except one of them shares a hobby with you. Who do you hire? Probably the one who shares a hobby with you. They’re both qualified – why not? In the absence of other differentiators, pick for fun.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, there wouldn’t be, if the majority of people doing the hiring weren’t a homogeneous pile of white men. White men who would be much more likely to hire more white men, because, all things being equal, white men are more likely to share common traits with other white men. Affirmative action is not reverse-racism while 91% of CEO’s in South Africa are white. Hell, in twenty years it’s barely shifted, relative to what it should be, in any kind of ‘unfair’ but unbiased distribution.
(Let me stop you right there – yes, my link is from 2010. If you can’t Google at least five similar articles from 2016, there is no help for you. I just grabbed one at random from my own Google search.)
This all assumes that similar traits are a small advantage ONLY when all else is equal. We know it helps a little more than that, and that all else isn’t equal. The benefits of whiteness mount – white men hire white men hire more white men. And support them in arguments. And give them more credit. And are more generous in salary negotiations. And provide more career advice and guidance. And so on, and so on. If I need to labour the point any more, you’re being deliberately obtuse.
That’s the privilege of straight white maleness: a ‘simple’ combination of psychology and statistics.
It isn’t even – necessarily – racism, though the harder you deny the numbers that are there for anyone to see, the further you swing towards racism. To explain that 91% of CEO’s in SA are white (where 91% of people are black) you either need to admit that something is fundamentally and deliberately broken or believe that white people are significantly superior (that’s racist, Carl, and there isn’t a shred of evidence). The only other alternative – that it’s just random chance and freakishly bad luck for black people – makes no sense if you have any understanding of statistics – it would be like flipping a coin to get fifty million heads in a row.
Okay – you’re a nice person. I get that you don’t want it. But like sunburn, you get it whether you want it or not. I’m talking about privilege. You couldn’t turn it down if you wanted to – it’s just so deeply ingrained in society.
When you walk through the security scanner and the alarm goes off and the security guard waves you through – are you going to walk on over and search yourself? When you’re on holiday in America and a cop sees you and doesn’t shoot, and are going to shoot yourself? Are you going to turn down a job to a better (or less) suited black candidate? Are you going to voluntarily take a lower salary than a black (female?) colleague doing the same job? Are you going to deliberately send your children to school to receive an education in a third language?
Fat chance on any of the above – and those are just the obvious, frequently-documented ones. Even a one percent advantage here and a two percent advantage there and half a percent over there, all of which aren’t individually obvious unless you’re looking out for them, add up with compound interest to 91% of CEO’s in South Africa being white.
Look. You’re not a bad person. Your privilege doesn’t wait for your invitation before it sits itself in your lap. But your metaphorical daddy left you a stolen car, and it becomes a little bit harder to wash your hands morally when you’re hiding your metaphorical stolen car at a friends house.
“Not all white peopl…” Stop It. I want to say this again, even though I said it already. I’m sure you know this one black guy who is a CEO of a company AND rich, and a family of white people who live in a shack. I’ll bet you can tell me a story about a woman who once hired another woman who wasn’t qualified. Yes, Jacob Zuma is a black guy. Congratulations on finding a tweet by a black fellow who thinks affirmative action is reverse racism, and another that said something mean about Indians. Yeah, maybe I misquoted a statistic. Not every black / female / gay person has suffered (in your opinion) as a result of societal imbalance. Fine, YOUR childhood was tough, too – you had to do a newspaper route to earn your own damn pocket money (Wait, you had a bike and pocket money?) Yes, as it turns out, 9% of CEO’s are not white.
But ninety-freaking-one-percent of them ARE.
Your handful of counter examples and smattering of anecdotes do not disprove the undeniable, mathematical, scientifically demonstrable imbalance.
Dear white and/or male and/or straight person: Life is not fair. But at some point in our world / South African history, some people went out of their way to make it especially unfair, and specifically towards people who aren’t white, male and straight. It’s still very unfair today. It might not be your fault, and you needn’t feel guilty for the colour of your skin, but whether you like it or not, you benefit from it, and other people suffer. Sometimes tables are turned, but mostly they are not.
All that’s left to argue is whether…and how…according to your personal moral framework, you have a role to play in fixing an injustice in which you are implicit, if not complicit. For now I will leave that as an exercise to the reader.
P.S. I have not addressed the HOW, which also comes up on Twitter. My response is that I do not believe that we can properly address the “how” until we have a critical mass of people willing to acknowledge the problem for what it is. And that is something we most certainly do not have.