White work does not negate white privilege

This is not about white guilt or even about white privilege. It is about what it means to be human. There are no easy answers or simple excuses. There is only understanding – and understanding takes work.

This is not about white guilt or even about white privilege. It is about what it means to be human. There are no easy answers or simple excuses. There is only understanding – and understanding takes work.

It would be remiss of me, this week, not to acknowledge the enormous reaction to my last column about white privilege: “Six things white people have that black people don’t”.

However, despite the countless Facebook discussions, the tearful thank you’s from those who agreed and the vicious attacks on my person from those who decidedly did not, my head has been elsewhere.

I have been reading JM Coetzee’s Summertime these last few days. It is one of Coetzee’s riveting and devastatingly elegant “fictionalised memoirs”: sketches of his life set in apartheid South Africa. Summertime takes place in the Seventies. One of the characters, Margot and her husband Lukas, slave away doing extra work to keep their farm afloat. Margot lives apart from her beloved Lukas four days a week to do accounts for a hotel and he drives cattle for other farmers. But it is not for their children – for she cannot conceive – but for their workers.

“The Middelpos farm is home not only to the two of them with the ghosts of their unborn children but to thirteen other souls as well. To bring in the money to maintain the whole little community, Lukas has to spend days at a time on the road and she has to pass her nights alone in Calvinia,” adding elsewhere that the two of them could work less and just provide for themselves but choose not to. “She and Lukas made up their minds long ago that they would house their workers properly and pay them a decent wage and make sure their children went to school and support those same workers later when they grew old and infirm.”

White work does not negate white privilege
There is an enormous poignancy in this act and of course it reflects reality. There are countless stories like this: of white people during and after apartheid who worked incredibly hard for what they had, not just for themselves but for their fellow South Africans of colour. There are white people who have sacrificed and loved and given so much.

Reading it while my social networks pinged with reactions to my column, I began to understand why a small section of white readers reacted so defensively to my piece. Instead of seeing it as a plea for understanding what black people are still going through thanks to the after-effects of apartheid, they saw it as a direct attack on themselves, on their hard-working parents and grandparents who did not have lives of luxury, as they thought I was implying. People like Margot, who only wanted to help in the best way they knew how, inside an inhumane system.

But here’s the thing that the most defensive readers of my last column missed: white work does not negate white privilege.

Even with all the hard work and deprivations that a particular family went through, if they were white in apartheid South Africa they were given enormous advantages that continue to benefit their family several generations later.

Our society needs empathy
If the white family had very little, the average black family had even less. And the point of my column was not to make white people feel bad about this or to exactly describe the benefits they may have had and could tick off a list. As my friend Dominic White pointed out to his circle of Facebook friends: “The definition of white privilege is that it’s a general benefit. Of course some of the other points may not apply to your specific situation, but it’s not the story of your unique snowflake life. The points serve as examples, so maybe you don’t benefit from the exact scenario described but it doesn’t take much cranial flexing to see how you do.”

Criticisms that my points were too generalised missed the point: my column was never meant to be a comprehensive overview of the subject. In fact, the last paragraph made this clear. It was probably the most important part of the whole piece but unfortunately most critics missed it, choosing to become wholly outraged over details like whether or not they had been given a car by their parents. 

I wrote: “Sit down with one of your black friends and ask them to tell you about how apartheid has affected their life. There are so many different kinds of injustice in this world. Race is just one of them. But it’s one that people seem to want to deny the most. When my white friends tell me about some traumatic experience they had that affected their lives I don’t tell them they’re probably imagining it and they should ‘move on’. I try to listen and sympathise. Try doing the same for the injustices someone else has suffered – including those that are race-related.”

It’s not possible to simply move on
If you believe that people should get over apartheid or stop talking about race can I ask you: Have you done this? Have you sat down with someone who claims to be affected by it and asked them to explain how? Or did you rush to nitpick where the article was wrong about your specific situation, as if that somehow proved something.

My column last week was not designed to make white people feel guilty or negate the difficulties that they or their parents and grandparents have been through. It was designed to make them more empathetic.

I was addressing the sort of white person who gratuitously tells black people to “get over apartheid” or secretly thinks in their heart: “It’s all getting a bit much now, this race debate. Why can’t we just move on?”. I was trying to show white people why it’s not possible to simply move on and, most of all, asking that white people empathise with their fellow human being in what they have been through, as we should all do with each other’s various hurts and challenges.

The fact that a white person’s parents and grandparents worked hard, the fact that they did not have the luxuries that other South Africans – including black people – have today is entirely besides the point.

What it means to be human
The character Margot understands this in Coetzee’s Summertime. Towards the end of the section about her life, she must rush her elderly mother to a hospital in Cape Town from their home in the Karoo. She is helped by a cheerful nurse and an ambulance driver, Aletta and Johannes, who are both coloured. She mulls the bitter knowledge that their people will not be rushed to Groote Schuur hospital with its world-class service if they were in a similar position. And she thinks about the fact that she gets all of this for free, from a government which has elevated her in every possible way over her fellow South Africans based purely on the colour of her skin.

The novel describes her attempts to express this knowledge, covertly:

“‘I must tell you how much I appreciate what you and Johannes are doing for us,’ she says to Aletta. Aletta smiles back in the friendliest of ways, with not the faintest trace of irony. She hopes for her words to be understood in their widest sense, with all the meaning that for very shame she cannot express: I must tell you how grateful I am for what you and your colleague are doing for an old white woman and her daughter, two strangers who have never done anything for you but, on the contrary, have participated in your humiliation in the land of your birth, day after day.”

Because despite all the deprivations and hard work that Margot must endure, she understands she still has so much more.

This is not about white guilt or even about white privilege. It is about what it means to be human. There are no easy answers or simple excuses. There is only understanding – and understanding takes work.

If you are a white person, are you willing to do the work? Because no matter what happens to this country, to you, to the seemingly endless race debate, it is this that will define who you are: the extent to which you are willing to understand your fellow human beings and being willing to put aside your own ego to do so.

I’ll say it one more time: black South Africans are not making this stuff up. Stop implying that they are.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling. Read more from Verashni Pillay


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