By Tamsyn Woolley
I recently blogged about why white people struggle to “get” white privilege. But what if, as a white person, you do manage to “get” it? What then?
As far away as I am from understanding all the nuances of what makes me privileged, this morning underpinned just how truly privileged I am. My domestic worker arrived at work this morning with tears in her eyes. Concerned, I asked her what was wrong? She looked at me, eyes shining, and said, “Tami, I am so happy! Tumi passed her matric.” It turns out Tumi, her niece, is the first person in her family to ever complete Matric. In my heart-breaking ignorance, I couldn’t fathom an existence where it was deemed out of the ordinary for a child to matriculate. No matter how little money we had when I was growing up — and money was scarce — not going to school or matriculating was never even a consideration. How privileged I am!
Tumi wants to study to be a lawyer. I am not sure yet how my domestic’s family will afford to send Tumi to university, as tertiary education is not cheap. I didn’t attend university for the same reason. But in hindsight, that’s a feeble excuse. If I had really wanted to, and with a little bit of effort, I know that I could have walked into any bank and received a student loan. Another marker of my privilege is that I just know I would have gotten a loan.
So now that I have some awareness of how privileged I am, what can I do about it? I cannot undo my privilege, it is part of the fabric of who I am by virtue of how I was raised. Everything I see and am aware of is coloured by this privilege, even the realisation of my privilege. How does this realisation help level the playing field?
Truthfully, it doesn’t. It would be vanity to assume I can change everything. But I can start by making small changes in my everyday life. I can do everything within my power to assist Tumi with her studies, thereby helping to move a single person across the scale of inequality. I can make sure that I treat my domestic, her family, other black people and indeed all races, with love, dignity, fairness and respect. I can start at home, ensuring my domestic worker is afforded the same respect and fairness that I command at my place of work.
While this may help, how do I avoid the pitfall of “white saviour behaviour”? Well, I can start by not just giving, but also by accepting. By accepting that I am privileged, that no race, culture or language is superior to another and that they’re all worthy of the same respect. More than that, I can decide to curb my privileged behaviour. For example, I can decide not to view the group of piece-job seekers loitering outside my estate with suspicion and distaste. They got up really early to try to find a paying job this morning despite the odds being severely stacked against them. Many haven’t worked for days despite early wake-ups to get to wherever people are building. They are not resorting to crime for an income but are here, trying their luck yet again.
I can try to learn a language that is not English or Afrikaans so that I don’t automatically expect people to bend towards my own native tongue in conversation. It will be tough, but it will be interesting to be on the receiving end of laughter over my own poor accent when I try to pronounce an isiXhosa word. Chances are, I will find myself on the receiving end of encouragement rather than being the butt of a joke.
I can try to be tolerant and accepting of cultural practice which deviates from my own. I may not like some practices but I can have the decency not to think that just because it doesn’t fit my mould of what behaviour should look like, doesn’t mean that it is barbaric or backwards.
So here is my commitment for this year. I will try to be a better person and avoid the subtle racist behaviour caused by my privilege. I also encourage people to give me advice on what else I can do. Who better than the people on the receiving end of the results of white privilege to give guidance on where we can improve in this matter? And I urge all white and/or privileged (there are privileged non-whites too) people to do the same.
Be the change you want to see. Maybe start small, but at least start somewhere.
Tamsyn Woolley is a writer, bibliophile and technophile living in beautiful, busy and brave South Africa with her husband, baby boy and two cats. She is currently studying towards a BA in language and literature through Unisa.