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The burden of black privilege

By Sinegugu Ngwenya

What an absurd notion. How offensive. What an insensitive response to a people deep in struggle. The thought of privileged blacks is a spit in the face of the “underprivileged” badge we so rightfully wear.

For years I despised everything that happened to me, how I was reduced to melanin. From a young age I was aware that before people considered what I brought to the table they would first consider the colour of my skin. They would move on to my gender and then maybe, depending on the weather and after a cup of tea, they would evaluate my skills.

I hated everything about that. I hated being a stat. I reasoned I was not the previously disadvantaged that corporate South Africa was trying to save. You have it all wrong white people, not all black people are the same. We are equal, yes, but some, I believed, were more equal than others.

How flawed my thoughts were. How lethal. Time passed, things changed, my thoughts matured. I realised the gravity of our plight. I realised nobody cared about my background, my private education, my twang, my address, my achievements, not even that I have Nkalakatha-loving friends. Whatever my story, whatever my claim to fame, at the first point of contact I was a stat. A black female. A quota. A BEE rating. The face of excellence. No, no, let me rephrase, the face of compliance.

So I made peace with that but still felt misplaced. You see black privilege cannot be claimed en masse and therefore cannot be assigned en masse. It cannot be used as loosely as we do with reference to the privilege of white folk. White people were born into a system that favoured them, indoctrinated with notions of supremacy from birth. I’m not condoning less-than-human treatment from them or glazing over ignorance and blatant racist behaviour, no, but I merely make the point that white privilege is real, it is not a choice.

The choice is challenging that notion of privilege.

Black privilege however is burdensome. Self-inflicted pain. Self-initiated separation. Removal of one self from a situation. Allowing your freedom to fool you into thinking the struggle is over. Honey, the struggle has just begun.

Recent uprisings in protest of our black, democratic government have shone a light on this very fact. Freedom for one is not freedom for all and freedom is not running off with a slice of the pie for yourself. You see, where we get it wrong is that when we attain this so-called freedom we forget what it took to get there, we don’t identify with those still striving.

Wits university students occupy Senate House October 20, 2015. Photo: M&G

Wits university students occupy Senate House October 20, 2015. Photo: M&G

Once we’ve tasted success we forget about those that afforded us this life. That it is a privilege to even be here, a privilege to have the right to protest. Black privilege is burdensome in many ways but most importantly it is burdensome because once you have attained freedom, once you cease to lack, to protest, whether for your own needs or those of others, it makes you ungrateful, unsatisfied, a traitor, greedy and reduces your opinions to meaningless.

But, to who? Is it not united we stand?

I’ve always had a problem with the “rags-to-riches” narrative. It seemed so one-dimensional. I could not relate. I aspired to success, still do, but when they interview me on Zaziwa who will take me seriously if I say I was raised in a middle-class family that afforded me private education and I never struggled finding my first job?

Should I fabricate how I’d sometimes go to bed hungry and how much of a mission it was landing the gig that put me on the map? We revel in that narrative, we love the story of the unassuming black kid from the dusty streets of somewhere or other. And we fuel black privilege. The privileged are stripped of their voices and are ashamed to speak, to represent the have-nots from the comfortable position of the haves.

But things changed. The “born-frees” showed that the struggle has no audition criteria. That they themselves were in fact not born free. They gave a new face to freedom fighting. Never have I been so moved by a collective display of pure courage and bravery. Proof that wrong-doing is wrong-doing no matter where you stand. Proof that you don’t need to be underprivileged to fight for free education. That you don’t need to be chained to fight for change.

Let’s stop being stats when we walk into a room, we need to stop separating ourselves from the very struggle that made us. We need to embrace what our freedom has afforded us. And that is the opportunity to free others.

Sinegugu Ngwenya is a quirky millennial who spends her days writing copy for ads and the rest of her time writing about her opinions.

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