Addressing whiteness

By Jemima Meyer

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Fellow white people, please open your mind and heart while reading this. Take your time to reconsider thought patterns and possible biases. I’ve always thought myself painfully aware of racial inequality and biases, but lately I discovered I’ve actually been quite naive and accepting about many attitudes among white people. I want to share what I’ve realised regarding white privilege and its nuances.

As white people, we enjoy benefits we don’t deserve and usually don’t recognise. This is especially prominent in South Africa, where white privilege was literally enforced by law.

There are some obvious benefits to being white, such as being more likely to have better education and opportunities and be of a higher socio-economic class. According to 2017 statistics, the average income of white South Africans (R 444 446 per year) was about 5 times more than the average income of black South Africans (R92 893 per year). Many Afrikaners would respond to this by emphasising the hard work they put in to earn their success, or that Apartheid was long ago and we should move on. It’s sad that these statements ignore the fact that Apartheid created the comfortable and secure circumstances that enabled success while suppressing other groups’ opportunities to develop and thrive — or even meet basic needs. The chaos created by Apartheid, as well as our failure to correct or compensate for injustices, are the primary reasons South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. We live in a country where the wealthiest 1% owns 67% and the top 10% owns 93% of all the wealth. The remaining 90% of South Africans owns only 7% of the wealth. 

Still not convinced of the socio-economic benefits that come along with whiteness? Consider this thought experiment from Oxfam’s Even It Up report

Nthabiseng was born to a poor black family in Limpopo, a rural area in South Africa. On the same day, Pieter was born nearby in a rich suburb of Cape Town. Nthabiseng’s mother had no formal schooling and her father is unemployed, whereas Pieter’s parents both completed university education at Stellenbosch University and have well-paid jobs.

As a result, Nthabiseng and Pieter’s life chances are vastly different. Nthabiseng is almost one and a half times as likely to die in the first year of her life as Pieter. He is likely to live more than 15 years longer than Nthabiseng.

Pieter will complete on average 12 years of schooling and will most probably go to university, whereas Nthabiseng will be lucky if she gets one year. Such basics as clean toilets, clean water or decent healthcare will be out of her reach. If Nthabiseng has children there is a very high chance they will also grow up equally poor.

Being white also comes with less obvious benefits, such as more freedom, better life satisfaction (due to a higher standard of living), and a lower likelihood to be seen as “suspicious” and be interrogated by police. What’s more, the world usually sees whiteness as the universal standard — e.g. for experiences (white weddings) and beauty (lighter skin, straight hair, slim figure). We as white people have been indoctrinated to see other races as different while we perceive ourselves as the standard human beings. To illustrate, it is very common for Afrikaners to use the word “anderskleuriges.” Oh really, is this skin colour the normal one? Even though we only constitute 7.9% of the South African population? In first grade, my mother scolded me for calling a crayon “menskleur” — a word that was used at my Afrikaans school by kids and teachers alike.

Also, it’s time we recognised that, globally, white people have dominated entertainment and media industries for centuries — and even history. This reinforced the idea that being white is normal — whereas, in reality, white people are a global minority.

White people’s greater social status means that both white and “non-white” people believe that whiteness is superior. These feelings of superiority/inferiority manifest in often subtle, sometimes brutal ways.

Let’s start with us white Afrikaners, who seem to believe our religion, morals, and intellect are superior to those of other races. Afrikaners tend to make comments which imply that black people are stupid, immoral, or lazy. It’s baffling that we fail to recognise that poverty and lack of basic services such as access to piped water and electricity (largely due to Apartheid and its aftermath) severely inhibit people’s ability to break from the poverty cycle. The less money, less education and lower quality of living you have, the harder it is to earn money. Because of poverty and associated negative psychological consequences, the incidence of social issues and crime might also be higher. It has nothing to do with skin colour or culture or inherently inferior genetics.

Regarding how people of colour perceive whiteness: Have you ever realised that lighter skin is usually seen as more beautiful? Persons with very dark skins often feel ashamed of it — all because of a perception of inferiority that has been sustained and reinforced for centuries. When I dated a Motswana, his family and friends would congratulate him on dating a white girl. As if he upgraded or something. When visiting his family in a rural area, they made comments implying that it would dishonour me to use their pit toilet, and refused to let me help with household chores such as washing dishes. Even at home affairs he also received preferential treatment because he was with a white person.

Most of us don’t realise how intense this worship of whiteness is. A drop in a sea of examples illustrating how race influences our perceptions of value, is that black people (especially guys) often ask me to introduce them to my white friends (girls). No white person has ever asked me something similar.

What should we do about these dark layers of white privilege? Most importantly, we should recognise our privilege and entitlement to undeserved benefits. If we take baby steps to acknowledge injustices, we can start confronting them. Only then can we tackle the direct or indirect outcomes of white privilege (e.g. privatisation of public services) and factors that further exacerbate inequality (e.g. poor living conditions, education and health care, as well as tax evasion by the elite).

Let’s start paying attention to the white threads woven into the story of our lives, our social interactions, and our institutions. Let’s stop removing ourselves from the experiences of people of colour. As we continue with our day, let’s ruminate on the pain that paved the way for our pleasure.


Jemima Meyer is a community dietitian, composer and writer.

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2 thoughts on “Addressing whiteness

  1. Yes, white privilege does exist! 100%, it’s called hard work, dedication, reliability, devotion and honesty. You talk of white people having privilege of education, well I went to the same school as thousands of black students. I went to the same college as thousands of other black students, while I was in my room on Friday nights studying my ass off, they were out partying, having sex, and drinking enough that the roads into the college were littered with thousands of alcohol bottles, which took days to clean. I finished my course top of my class. I started working, not immediately, because my White privilege didn’t extend to just getting a job, in fact I didn’t get a lot of jobs, I was out there for months going to interviews, trying to prove to someone I was worthy of giving a chance. I eventually found a job, a really bad job, paid really bad, R2500 per month bad to be exact, but I worked at it, spent hours learning, worked late nights, early mornings, weekends, volunteering and pushing as hard as I could, mostly while my black colleagues were out partying, finding lovers, drinking. So after months my hard work paid off, and I got a small increase, to R4000 per month, great thing this white privilege, and so I carried on, and a few months later another increase R5000, and so on and so forth, all the while working, pushing, persevering, while my black colleagues were out there partying, having sex, making babies, getting into dept, getting into more dept. I’m now reasonably well off financially, have a number of job opportunities, and generally in a good space. I see it a lot, it is endemic, white people are working, putting in the overtime, volunteering while their black colleagues are out there, throwing parties, having sex, making babies, getting into more dept and more dept and more dept. All the time leftists bash them for some imaginary form of reward based on skin colour. So is it that (an imaginary special power all white people are bestowed with at birth) or hard work? This is why you will always be fighting against the silent right (right of leftists which could be anyone from classic liberal to far right) and it will seem to you in your mind that we neither don’t care, or willingly wish for the poor black majority to suffer. This is in fact another fallacy of the mind, the more poor black families that exist, the higher the taxes on those of us who are working and consequently the harder it is to get anything sorted, roads, schooling, health care, etc… Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your idea’s, with an “open mind”, and start seeing how your approach to achieving some sense of equality is flawed and how best to approach those of us who spend the better part of our live, not partying, having sex, making babies, and getting into dept, more dept and even more dept.

  2. Does white privilege exist? Or rather there something else that could be giving white people an advantage? Something called hard work, dedication, reliability, devotion and honesty.
    So firstly, you make some terrible assumptions, that all white people grew up in a life of privilege, which is far from the case, many white people grew up in poverty and never had the option of attending the esteemed institutions which you clearly have had the fortune of attending.
    So perhaps from your perspective you do have some form of privilege, but many of us attended public schools along with many people of colour. I personally attended a public (formerly government model C school) along with thousands of black students, so where was my privilege in that? I also went to the same college as thousands of other black students, while I was in my room on Friday nights studying my ass off, they were out partying, having sex, and drinking enough that the roads into the college were littered with thousands of alcohol bottles, which took days to clean.
    I finished my course top of my class… lots of Black students either dropped out, or had to repeat modules.
    I started working, not immediately, because my alleged “White privilege” didn’t extend to just getting handed a job, in fact I didn’t get a lot of jobs. I was out there for months and months going to interviews, trying to prove that I was worthy of being given a chance. I eventually found a job, a really bad job. This job paid really bad, R1500 per month bad to be exact, but I worked at it, spent hours learning, worked late nights, early mornings, weekends, volunteering and pushing as hard as I could, mostly while my black colleagues were out partying, having sex, drinking, and getting into debt.
    So after months my hard work paid off, and I got a small increase, to R3000 per month (great thing this so called “white privilege”) and so I carried on, and a few months later another increase R4000, and so on and so forth, all the while working, pushing, persevering, volunteering, while my black colleagues were out there partying, having sex, making babies, getting into dept, getting into more dept.
    I’m now reasonably well off financially, I have a number of potentially lucrative job opportunities, and generally in a good space.
    Is this the alleged white privilege of which you speak?
    I see it a lot, it is endemic, we white people are working, putting in the overtime, volunteering while black colleagues are out there, taking days off, throwing parties, having sex, making babies, getting into more dept and more dept and more dept.
    All the time white leftists bash us for some imaginary form of reward based on skin colour. So…? is it an imaginary special power all white people are bestowed with at birth, or just pure hard work and dedication?
    This is why you will always be fighting against the majority of decent white folk, and it will seem to you in your mind that we neither care, or want the poor black majority to suffer. This is in fact another fallacy of the mind, the more poor black families that exist, the higher the taxes on those of us who are working, and consequently the harder it is to get anything sorted, roads, schooling, health care, etc…
    Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your idea’s, with an “open mind” as per your own suggestion, and start seeing how your approach to achieving some sense of equality and “justice” is flawed and how best to approach those of us who spend the better part of our lives, but not partying, having sex, making babies, and getting into debt, more debt and even more debt.
    With regards to your suggestion that our whiteness somehow gives us special privileges with law enforcement, I won’t even bother to respond, the crime stats speak for themselves, so if the law feels it necessary to profile based upon realities of life in order to maximize their effectiveness, perhaps we should be asking why a black unemployed person is far more likely to choose a life of crime that a white unemployed person.
    As for your opinions on beauty standards, all I do know is that I am not out there, throwing parties, having sex, and making babies so perhaps I might not be the best to discuss this matter.

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