What I’m doing about my white privilege

Maybe, instead of painting broad strokes and making seemingly sweeping statements, I need to get real and share a little about my own privilege and what I’ve realised about how my life has unfolded over the last number of years.

I do this, white friend, to help you own your privilege and to decide what to do with it.

In 1987 when I was in Grade 7, my father was manoeuvred out of his influential position as the Director of the South African Design Institute (a department of the South African Bureau of Standards). Amongst other things, the “Afrikaner Broederbond” didn’t like his politics. I was well aware for the next 6 years of my life, as my father fought to keep his startup design business alive, that money was too tight to mention. However, in real terms, it didn’t really affect my comfort despite the fact that I felt we were much poorer than my peers’ families. We continued to live in a four bedroomed home in Pretoria East, there were generous helpings of food on the table each evening, we owned two vehicles and I attended a great high school. We even managed two or three seaside holidays in my high school years.

I didn’t pay a cent for university. I kid you not. 4 years; no fees. Even my books were covered. Faced with certain conscription (at that time mandatory) to the South African Defence Force, I woke up late in my Grade 12 year and decided to pursue a teaching career. My parents couldnt afford to pay university fees but knew someone in the “Transvaal Education Department” who allowed me to attend a late bursary interview. My application was successful, and even in the tempestuous years of regime change in South Africa, I remained a bursary student. After four years of studying free of charge, the education department (The Gauteng Department of Education), couldn’t guarantee me a placement so terminated my bursary agreement. I was free. No working back 4 years of tertiary study. Then, during my my final days at Uni, I recieved 2 firm job offers from local schools. The rest is history. I have moved from job to job for 18 years with minimal resistance and the opportunities these have provided for continued growth and privilege are nothing short of incredible.

When Yolanda (my beautiful-amazing better half) and I got married, my father-in-law graciously paid off her student loan. We had no crippling study debt. This enabled us to buy a flat. We both had cars (I use this term loosely) we did not have to pay for. We had jobs, bank accounts, furniture and food on the table. That dream has grown and we now have 3 daughters who are privileged, like we were. They’re enrolled at, arguably, one of the top girls’ schools in the country. They don’t understand this yet. We’re trying to teach them.

So what?

Well, some other things stand out from those years.

In my third year of studying, I was asked to cover for a mate at a Saturday school for township and rural teachers. I was there to teach English. What struck me was that the teachers I was teaching were not qualified educationalists (nor was I) but simply passionate parents using their own money and giving up their precious time to upskill themselves in order that the children in their community could have every opportunity to become what they dreamed they could become.

Emily Maphosa started working for my mother in 1975. She still does. My mom and Emily are the same age, yet their stories couldn’t be more different. When my father died, the policies he had invested in over the years paid out and left my mom with a secure (albeit fairly meagre) income to see out her days. Emily’s life hasn’t changed much. It’s even taking years to sort out her pitiful state pension. She still lives in Winterveld. She still struggles to make ends meet.

Here’s why I’m starting to own my privilege:

More and more, I realise that the opportunities I’ve had have less to do with luck, talent, hard work, perseverance and education than they have to do with the fact that I was born a white child to a white family in a time when whiteness was king. I’m also realising that 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, white people are the most critical. We complain and point fingers instead of actively being part of the solution. We moan about BEE and affirmative action, when — in truth — white privilege trumps BEE on any given day.

My privilege doesn’t make me a racist but I’ll always be a recovering racist because I’m white. I do not feel guilty about my privilege, however. What I am trying to do is listen to others; I need to hear how my privilege impacts them and those around them. I am also trying to understand how to live in a way that allows others to flourish, because it is their time to bloom. It might mean stepping aside so that others can shine; it might mean affirming and encouraging, or standing beside, in solidarity; it most definitely means a celebration of diversity. Furthermore, it’s about being brave and challenging the status quo.

Whatever it means, I know that I need to walk away from the ease of my armchair and leave my privileged cocoon. I have to get up, stand up and fight for the right of everyman in every way I can. I’m still learning how to do this. I’m asking others to help me learn.