• Sophie Smith

How White Privilege can be used for good

Updated: May 26, 2019

I am writing while I am freshly indignant or else I’ll chicken out. And I’m going to address this to my fellow white South Africans, although I’ll be thrilled if anyone else reads it too.

This morning I met a lovely white lady, the same age as me, who I will be working with for the next little while, and I had to be brave and stand up for something I feel strongly about. It wasn’t easy, but I am so glad I did, because next time, it will be a little easier.

We have two wonderful coloured ladies who work in the kitchen, and they are both fit and fun but older women, grandmothers in fact. When my new friend referred to them as “the girls in the kitchen” for the second time, I gently told her that they are ladies, not girls.

[So this is a friendly reminder that your gardener is not a boy and your domestic worker is not a girl. It may seem minor to you, but it really is a big deal and is a big indicator of how you regard people of colour.]

Then, a little later, I was telling her about how wonderful my nanny is but I am helping her get her ECD (Early Childhood Development) training so that she can teach at, and eventually run, a creche.

She replied “Why are you doing that, why don’t you just keep her as your nanny?”

“Well, because she is smart, and young, and talented and also has dreams and ambitions just like me, and they certainly include more than sweeping my floors, cleaning my toilet, and minding my children. I asked her what her dream is, and it’s to be a teacher, and I want to see her achieve that dream” I replied, trying to be gracious. I should have added that she also isn’t mine to keep. Or that she has basically raised my children with me and I owe her so much more than I pay her.

I was full of righteous indignation and outrage that she could be so oblivious to this all, but then I remembered that I was like that too not so long ago. I didn’t understand what white privilege really meant, and I found the term and discussions surrounding it a little bit aggressive and offensive. But I am slowly starting to recognise it, for the bad and potential good.

[If you are white and the term white privilege offends or irritates you, I would encourage you to carefully examine why. I’m also going to add a little bit of an explanation at the end of this story just to clarify what white privilege is, as well as a link for further reading.]

My white privilege means that I grew up with a black maid and so this seems very normal. The thought of a white woman cleaning my house for a minimum wage seems really odd.

It means that I assume that having a maid is part of life, and can’t do without one, but I am also not able to budget more than the very bare minimum wage for this person who will literally keep my household together. The problem with that is the power dynamics mean that if she doesn’t like my terms or wages, I can always find someone else who is more desperate.

But the amazing thing about white privilege is that it can be used for good. My white privilege has allowed me the audacity to ask my nanny what her dream would be for the future.

My white privilege means that I have the world at my fingertips because I have grown up using the internet, so I could immediately see what kind of training options, courses and bursaries were available. We tried applying to Unisa but her matric marks didn’t quite make the grade.

But my white privilege means that I have the right connections to know about the major funding being funnelled into ECD training in our neighbouring town. I also happen to know the company doing to training from a previous job. When I made a call to them, I can guarantee that my white accent and confidence paved the way to for them to be very helpful and accommodating - that’s white privilege folks.

We filled in the forms and hoped and prayed that not only would she get into the course, but that she would also get a bursary. She was called for an interview, and I sent along a letter singing her praises and assuring the facilitators that she would be a great asset to the class and an amazing teacher one day. Did she need that letter? Maybe not, but it was a way that I could help to smooth her path.

She was accepted for the program and granted a bursary worth R15 000, which was amazing, but meant that she was now going to have to volunteer in an ECD centre a few times a week for her practical. This meant some major shuffling of our schedule but now that Finn is older, it’s totally possible to cope without her as much for a few months.

She has been able to meet so many other amazing local women who are running preschools, and been so inspired by what she is learning. She is working so hard to look after her own family, look after mine, volunteer and do her course work, and I can see the tiredness in her, but she never complains. She is amazing.

I’m not telling this story to imply that I am the hero in any way. Really all I did was ask her to dream and open a few doors, and encourage her to go for it. She dreamed, she applied, she aced her interview, and she is working so hard to see her dreams come true. This is not meant to be my selfie with a poor black person I helped so that I can feel good about myself and get some likes. I’ve done my time working in NGOs, and that’s why I left.

So what is the point of this story? It depends what you need it to be. Maybe you can recognise that we all have dreams and ambitions, despite our skin colour and class. Maybe you can recognise your white privilege, in it’s negative aspects, but also for the ways that you can use your privilege for good. Maybe it’s time to start being brave and speaking up more, and refusing to let subtle racism go unchallenged.

Instead of getting my knickers in a knot about my new friend’s comments and apparent ignorance, I need to remember that not so long ago I was equally ignorant, and it was the constant and gentle reminders of my privilege that opened my eyes. I used to want to address inequality and injustice and racism by helping people of colour, until they told me that the most powerful way I could help, was to start telling other white people, because they may listen to my white voice. And so this is me, not judging you if you are there yet, but encouraging you to start recognising your privilege, where it is unhelpful but also where you can use it for good.

Everyone is proud to “make their mark” on voting day, but you can make a mark to change our country on a daily basis but changing the way you see things, challenging racism, using your privilege to open doors. Don’t pass your racial bias on to your children. Buy books with people of colour, learn about other cultures, learn to speak the African language that is spoken around you, even just a basic greeting. Call kids out on racism, share about Apartheid and why it was so awful, share what you are learning about race currently. That is how we make our mark on the future.

Why people find the term White Privilege offensive:

1. Being referred to as white can be quite a shock, and even quite affronting, as it doesn’t often happen. Normally if you refer to a person, the assumption is that they are white. If you are talking about any other race, it is normally inserted into the sentence. So if you are talking about a man who you had a conversation with, the assumption is that he is white. Generally, if people of colour highlight our whiteness, it makes us defensive.

2. We think that white privilege means that white people haven't had to work hard to get where they are, that they haven’t experienced hardship, and that what they have is unearned. This is not true.

White privilege is a system which means that it is generally easier for white people to move through the world and exists irrespective of your income or how hard you work. We are more widely represented as the norm, we are more like to be humanised and given the benefit of the doubt and a second chance. Character flaws are less likely to attributed to our race.

As a white person, the things we can do to are to actively engage with the discomfort of white privilege, we can recognise, acknowledge, and share the voices of people of colour, or better yet, share the load and speak up ourselves. Read more and educate yourself about these issues, especially the stories and experiences of people of colour. Engage with white people about these issues and use your privilege to benefit others.

These ideas are paraphrased from this article, which is written about the American context, but is brilliant and worth a read if you want to know more.

If you would like to chat more about these issues, I would love to engage with you, please comment or drop me a line.

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© 2019 Sophie Smith