I too want to live in a world where my race and gender are irrelevant enough as to render them insignificant in the way I pursue my life. But I believe that the only reason that I can conceive of such a reality is because I have been allowed to live in closest proximity to its potential.
I read a recent article by South African writer and teacher Chris Waldburger that he titled “‘White Privilege’ is a bad idea for everybody”. I imagine it was written in response to an occurrence at a recent conference that we both attended at Waldburger’s school. On attending two of the many plenary presentations of the International Boys School Conference, both dealing largely with the idea of social and institutional transformation that South African continues to wrestle with, the discussion of inherent privilege found its focus on the hegemonic dominance of the White Anglo-Saxon Christian Heterosexual Able-bodied Male: in other words, me (these days people would call me an atheist…but the rest is spot on).
I felt the need to respond to his piece, not out of any anger or antagonism, but more out of a kind of collegiate camaraderie if you will. Chris Waldburger and I both belong to the same “school”, metaphorically speaking. I have attended and enjoyed a couple of his presentations which have always proven both entertaining and elucidating. We both teach high school boys, we both use English Home Language as our vehicle for education, we are both involved in something of a pastoral role in the lives of our pupils. It seems also that we both hold fairly liberal views of society at large, and so in the spirit of our assumed mutual desire to make this world a better place, I offer the following in response.
I’d like to start by saying that I find discussions about ‘White Privilege’ an exceptionally useful method for dismantling entrenched inequality in our society, both personally and in our broader communal and career spaces. I’d even go as far as saying “‘White Privilege’ is a good idea…to get to grips with”. So don’t go any further with my work until you have considered his.
Seriously, read his piece if you want to get anything from mine.
Okay, we should be starting from the same page now.
The first of a few points of contention I have here is the idea that white men are being expected to ‘cede power’ in any way, to anyone. This notion comes up constantly in this discussion and is used to justify the defensive action taken by many of my fellows when confronted by their inherent privilege. I don’t think that we are being asked to give up anything other than our time in considering the way that we walk through the world carrying uncontested agency given the fact that contemporary society places such an evident premium on our lives. I have yet to meetup with anyone racially classified as white, gendered as male, who has had to give up anything or has been denied anything because they were white and masculine. Whereas I have met many others for whom the opposite applies. Their gender identification and/or racial classification has been a determining factor in their being denied the same opportunity that I have been offered in my life. By recognizing this I am not being asked to cede anything other than a comfortable sense-of-self that many others are not entitled to.
Moving on, to speak of such a supposed transferal of power as a “precursor to social disaster” assumes in many ways that society is not already disastrous for a vast majority of our fellow humans, largely due to an old social order that still pervades society, indisputably constructed on age old systems of racialized and gendered norms and values. So it’s like saying that we better check ourselves now before this goes bad for everyone, which completely negates that it has been going bad for the majority ‘other’ for a while now and we’re just coming in early to the late game on this one. Waldburger develops the idea of the construction of winners and losers as being “no way to build society” but makes no mention of the reality: sure it’s no way to build a just and equitable society, but it is how society has been constructed up till now, and without dealing with that construction it will be very hard to deconstruct and dismantle it.
The first of Waldburger’s four reasons for laughing off the idea of ‘white privilege’ completely, deals with the veracity of the notion that ‘white privilege’ is predicated in any way on historical truth. His central argument is that there were times of great historical suffering for white men and that this greatly levels the playing field. But how deep is that reading of history? And which history are you reading? It strikes me as somewhat subjective when you consider, for example, that you may have lost your job as a white man during the Great Depression, but as a black man you probably didn’t have a job to begin with (at least not one that offered any upward mobility or potential for career advancement, satisfaction or self-actualization). One only has to examine the story of Harper Lee’s character Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird to extend this perspective. Again, in the case of the world’s worst wars, if you were lucky to be one of the frontline soldiers that returned home alive and able-bodied you stood the chance of rebuilding a life out of the atrocities you had witnessed and survived…if you were white. For the soldiers of the black regiments that fought for “King and Country” you returned to a life of either indentured servitude or second-class citizenry. The question then is, whose history do we read, and who wrote it?
In his second point Waldburger opens by referring to our colonial and apartheid history with a gross oversimplification and then refers to it as such. I think that he has constructed that simplification, in this case, out of a reaction against his discomfort with being made to feel in any way complicit in our ancestors’ ignominious actions. I feel that he simplifies it in a way not many others do, at least not those with a more nuanced and deeper reading of history. In this instance it reduces centuries of historically verifiable colonial legislation and practice to the way “the current thinking goes”. That’s not really a just reading of history in this case, given the severity of the effects of that lengthy era of iniquity.
If, as Waldburger goes on to state “Our environment, family, and culture have a huge role to play in which path we choose in life,” then we cannot discount any of those factors in examining the path that has led many to lead a life of subjugation and oppression, devoid of any choice in the matter, simply as a result of their skin pigmentation. An environment that developed out of colonialism and a culture of legalized discrimination were and are, as indicated by the author, crucial factors in the current comfort with which we maintain the status quo. Ignoring them further cements our privilege in that, because we were not negatively affected by them we can easily “laugh them off”.
I think Waldburger gets a crucial aspect of white privilege very wrong when he addresses white guilt. Guilt is not assigned, blame is assigned and guilt is the result. White guilt is the result of feeling like we are being individually held to account for history, that we are being blamed for it, and so we feel guilty. But is anyone actually singling us out individually as culprits responsible for Apartheid and its atrocities? Not anyone that is to be taken seriously I think. Cranks and populists aside, there are few that could rationally hold our generation accountable for our ancestors’ actions, so there is no reason to feel guilty. Rather, as some have pointed out, we feel uncomfortable because we recognize our privilege and realize that we are unwittingly complicit in a system that sustains it, that seldom calls us on it. Guilt allows us to play the victim: “Why are you blaming me for something I didn’t do? Why are you making me feel bad?”. Manufactured guilt allows us to avoid the more discomforting truth: we benefited from legalized racial discrimination and continue to do so.
In the third point the most popular spectre of colonial white fear is invoked, Zimbabwe, which is once again held up as an example of what could happen to South Africa. Too much has been written already about this common misperception for me to take it any further, suffice it to say that the conditions that led to Zimbabwe’s collapse are not mirrored in any significant way in South Africa, most apparently in the fact that we are not being led by a megalomaniacal octogenarian with a penchant for rhetoric and power moves.
The real crux of Waldburger’s piece seems to revolve around this idea: “The only way any society heals itself is when it allows for excellent people to come to positions of power and authority.” I agree, but the opposite applies as well. When excellent people are denied the opportunity to come to positions of power and authority, a society wounds itself. We deny such people this opportunity when we deny them their history as an oppressed group, a denial that de-legitimizes their struggle to overcome their oppression and to construct identities beyond victimhood.
Once again, our inherent privilege comes into play when we treat ‘identity politics’ as if it is only a game that we can stop playing and not a critical study of the lived experience of so many of the planet’s human population. As a dominant hegemonic group we white men are able to quickly point to the counter-productivity of identity politics as it applies to us while completely ignoring just how important an understanding it is for those whose identity has largely been constructed by us: the ‘other’ only exists in relation to a norm that we have established. It seems gross to now deny any ‘other’ that identification when it has become such a determining factor in how their world is shaped and experienced.
I share one of Chris Waldburger’s ideological aims. I too want to live in a world where my race and gender are irrelevant enough as to render them insignificant in the way I pursue my life. But I believe that the only reason that I can conceive of such a reality is because I have been allowed to live in closest proximity to its potential. There are many for whom this ideal remains utopian at best, and discounting the truth of their existence in order to create a more comfortable one for ourselves ignores that, while we all have cards to play, some of us are still doing most of the dealing.