Recenty, after posting on the Zuma Must Fall marches and how it is a protection of white capital, I’ve received messages that were… problematic. I have asked a white friend, Kirsten Whitfield, to write on this from their perspective which perhaps is more palatable to the white people out there.
White privilege has been coming up a lot in the wake of the Zuma Must Fall marches of the 16th of December. There’s been a lot of heated debate around the protests but something I’m sure we can all agree on is that there was a stark difference in the nature of the march to parliament on the 16th and the Fees Must Fall march to the very same spot in October. Juxtapose that shot of the cop taking the photo of three white people (the phrase ‘protest tourist’ has never felt so apt) with any of the shots of police violence and brutality from the FMF march and you’ll know that something very different is going on here. We’re at what feels like a turning point in this country’s history, but I’m afraid to say it is not the Zuma Must Fall crew that is responsible for it; it’s been happening without the white folks who rolled out in numbers and it will continue without them. If you are white and you want to see this country be a better place for everyone in it, you have to take a long look at yourself before you can be of any use. How we understand whiteness and white privilege as white people is integral to the role we play in this country going forward.
We cannot view our position in society in a vacuum. To exempt ourselves from responsibility and accountability for the atrocities of the past is ahistorical and allows us to exempt ourselves from examining the ways in which our existence in this country is violent. White people exist in South Africa because of colonialism, which only ended here in the 90s with the collapse of the colonial project known as apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission then let all white people off the hook, not just those who were actively involved in performing the atrocities that characterised the apartheid era (I know this is a simplification of what the TRC was about, but structurally that was the impact it had). We were all given the go ahead to continue to live amongst the stolen wealth we had enjoyed during apartheid and before. We got to retain the privilege that centuries of violence and oppression have afforded us. This is where we stand now. Our very presence here is symbolic of violence. When I move through the world as a white person my whiteness acts as an index for violence – it points to the violence and oppression that got me here in the first place, and to the violence and oppression that my continued and privileged presence here perpetuates. You cannot get away from this. As long as you are white in South Africa, your presence is violent. Acknowledging this and finding ways to be better and more productive with your privilege means the potential for that violence to be less active. Denying your privilege is actively violent.
White people will always be passively violent in South Africa, so we may as well accept that and work as hard as we can to ensure we are not being actively so. The first move is to never ever ever deny your white privilege. It’s there and will always be there. Acknowledging it doesn’t make it go away. It’s unfortunately likely that nothing will make it go away in our lifetimes. Experiencing other forms of oppression doesn’t make it go away. This is important and something I see coming up again and again in discussions of white privilege – you might be poor and white, but you still have white privilege. You don’t have class privilege, but you absolutely do have white privilege. Because of the history of this country, race and class are often conflated, but just because the majority of poor people are Black (and therefore do not have race or class privilege), does not mean that a white poor person also somehow forgoes their race privilege. I’m not going to speak for the experiences of poor white people, as I am not poor but this is the defence against white privilege I see the most often. I can say that as a non-binary person I do not experience cis privilege, but my experiences of my gender are made considerably easier by my whiteness and what that affords me in society. This is why intersectionality is fundamental to the future of the whole world, and why white people trying to prove they’re more oppressed than POC because of whatever thing, is basically just reaching for a get out of jail free card so you don’t have to interrogate the ways in which you perpetuate a violent system.
Privilege means access. Access to legal recourse, to healthcare, to education, to employment, to housing, to transport. It is access to ease of living. All these things are made easier by being white. Whiteness removes obstacles. There may be other hurdles to deal with but race is probably the biggest one in this country. The doors to these privileges were opened by white people for white people in the long colonial history of this country. We have shut the doors behind us and refuse to leave, or let anyone else in.
I had a pretty stark realisation when at a protest earlier this year I had the thought “We need to call the police”, when in fact the police were the ones enacting the violence at the time. Realising almost in the same moment that the police weren’t here for us hit me pretty hard as a recognition of how many people have probably viewed the police their whole lives. The idea that none of the systems set up to protect society are there to protect oppressed citizens is deeply disturbing. These systems perpetuate privilege, and in South Africa that almost always comes down to white privilege – the police protect the wealthy white citizens, thereby guarding and maintaining their wealth – the universities award the privileged with scholarships for academic merit that they could only have achieved through privileged access to education – everything protects and perpetuates this cycle of privilege.
It is so deeply entitled for white people to call for the removal of Zuma. To call for the removal of a man you are very unlikely to have voted for is expressly undemocratic. What’s more, it will not resolve the problem. The problem is much deeper, and it is centuries old. In order to see real change we need to dismantle the structures that maintain white supremacy and keep the Black majority of this country in pretty much the exact same position they were in under apartheid. The Zuma Must Fall march was a move to protect white supremacy, not to dismantle it (I’m not going to go into this much as it’s been discussed at length by people who have a way better understanding of these issues than I do – Just look down this blog for HeJin’s discussion of the march, for example). Until white people in this country recognise the many ways that we are protected and advanced by our whiteness, we will have no role to play in healing this country. The people who marched for Zuma Must Fall marched because they saw a threat to their privilege. The motive was to safeguard the spoils of this country’s long and ongoing colonial history and maintain the privilege we have enjoyed for so long.
Kirsten Whitfield is completing a Master’s degree in Linguistics at UCT. Their pronouns are they/them/their. They occasionally write poems and stuff. They intend to work in education.