White privilege manifests itself in varying degrees sometimes in the smallest of ways at other times with a far reaching impact on those affected. Growing up in post-colonial Zimbabwe I did not have much exposure to the racial dynamics because our white population is very low, in fact less than a percentage of our population is Caucasian. My maternal grandmother of course was a stay in housemaid for a widower named John Harrison since way before I was born and she retired the year I turned 7. Although my brothers and I visited her often I was too young and too afraid to venture into the main house when Harrison was present, in fact whenever he arrived home if I were keeping her company while she was going about her chores in the main house I would quickly run back to the servants quarters. What I remember most about him was that whenever he needed something from my grandmother he would call in a loud booming voice “Margaret” to which she would promptly respond “Master” and hurry to his service.
When I was in primary school my only regular encounter with a white person was with our Canadian Scripture Union teacher Aunt Gwendy. Now Aunt Gwendy was the embodiment of piety and there was a certain radiance that she exuded that would make you want to move as close to her as possible. As I grew older and started going to the CBD of my small hometown, I would see white farmers who came in to town from the nearby farms for supplies etc. they would smile and go about their business.
My first encounter with white privilege was in supermarket queues. I always noticed that the till operators always greeted white customers with a courteous smile but when black customers approached the till there was no acknowledgement whatsoever, It puzzled me but the most striking example was when a middle aged white woman took her basket of purchases ignored the queue and proceeded right to the front to get service. The till operator would have proceeded to assist her had it not been that other customers complained bitterly, I remember one man shouted angrily in Shona “Aikaka Ambuya ivhu nderedu iri” loosely translated it means “Ma’am you have no right to skip the queue because we are the native Zimbabweans.” “Ambuya” literally means “mother in law” but it is”” a sarcastically “respectful” term that Shona men use to address women in their age group or older especially in a confrontational/conflict situation. His comment was admittedly equally or even more racially disrespectful than her action to skip the queue but at that point it sounded just a wee bit justifiable because her assumption that she should be served first despite that there were other people in the queue was a legacy of the colonial era which introduced and perpetuated white privilege. Anyway she immediately swallowed humble pie and proceeded to the back of the queue.
The other two instances when I came into contact with white privilege in Zimbabwe was in the passport and SA visa queues respectively. In both instances the different women walked confidently to the front of the queue ignoring the people who had sat and/or stood in the queue for hours to access services. Of course the people would have none of it so in both instances they complained loudly until they were left with no choice but to join the queue but what is most striking about this is the confidence with which this was done. The disregard for the proper etiquette when it comes to service delivery which is first come first served. I then realized this was because they were brought up to believe they were superior beings and the world so to speak, was their oyster.
It used to infuriate me that many contemporary whites do not admit or acknowledge that white privilege exists but I have realized that this is because what we perceive as privilege to them is just the normal scheme of things. The worse part is that humans regardless of race are generally self-centred beings so it is difficult to see how privileged you are if you do not take the time to look at the circumstance of others nor possess that very strong sense of fairness which very few are blessed with. According to Francis E. Kendall P.h.D in his article “Understanding White Privilege”
“Privilege, particularly white or male privilege is hard to see for those of us who were born with access to power and resources. It is very visible for those to whom privilege was not granted”
When I came to South Africa I started to see a whole new dimension of racial relations. About 10 percent of the South African population is white and that means compared to Zimbabwe (where as I said earlier we have less than 1 percent) both in number and in proportion to blacks, there are many more white people and indeed there are places where you encounter more whites than blacks. In fact I have recently been to watch a theatre production at which I was the only black person in the audience and there were three Asians the rest were all Caucasians. In South Africa because I came to search for employment the first thing I noticed was job ads. Whenever I bought the newspaper to job hunt, the majority of the ads I came across would specifically state that they were looking for someone who spoke Afrikaans or English as their first language. No price for guessing what that means. Although we learn it at a very young age, English is only a second language to the majority of black Africans. The very brave job advertisers would even go so far as to say “preferably a white female/male” In a country which claims to be one of the most democratic in the world and a major proponent of equality! It was and still is appalling but the department of labour sadly does nothing to addresss this problem.
Another example is in job selections themselves. I realized this when I worked for a recruitment agency. I specifically remember one of our clients needed two plant operators and of the six qualified and experienced candidates we sent though the two who were chosen were one black and one white. The white candidate had experience yes but no more so than the others who had applied. His highest educational qualification or should we say level was however grade 10 this means that he never wrote the minimum high school leaving examinations which is referred to as matric exams. The black candidate had experience plus a bachelor’s degree just like all the other black candidates who had applied but were not chosen. He was probably just chosen for the purposes of fulfilling the government’s statute for equal opportunity in industry Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Such is the norm, for a black person to achieve what an average white person casually receives they have to be excellent in that particular field beyond a shred of doubt.
It is interesting to note that it is not only whites who perpetuate white privilege, blacks are guilty of that too. The other day I went to a popular chain supermarket and I wanted to buy some onions. When I went to get them weighed and priced there was no one on that station so I went to look for the fruit and vegetable assistant. He was busy packing some vegetables when I called him to come and assist, to his credit he promptly left what he was doing and accompanied me to the weighing station. When we got there we found a white man standing there. He wasn’t so much a Caucasian but more like a light skinned Arab/Middle Eastern but to some black people that’s considered white as well. He immediately rushed to that man’s assistance forgetting that I am the one who had called him to the weighing station to come and weigh for me. The man who had been bequeathed of this unwarranted privilege however was not willing to take it both him and me simultaneously indicated that I should be served first. That is not the only occasion I have had a few other instances where the assistant whether black or white would ignore me and the other blacks in the queue to assist whites at the back of the queue. Most of the times the beneficiaries of this privilege would embarrassingly point out that there were other people in front of them who needed assistance.
Another thing I have noticed is that whenever you visit a supermarket or pharmacy in a predominately black neighbourhood, when you leave the supermarket the security guard asks for proof of purchase and thoroughly checks that every item in your packages appears on the till slip, not only that but your handbag also goes through a thorough search. However, go to any store located in or close to an affluent suburb where the customers are predominantly white there are no such searches. Even if it is the very same store which conducts searches in the black neighbourhoods. From time to time however even in these affluent suburbs they can randomly search black customers while letting the whites go through with no less than a cheery thank you and a smile. This shows a people who are still thoroughly colonized and oppressed not politically and economically but in this case mentally.
Just last week the South African President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party the African National Congress (ANC) and he had to resign from office, This naturally became the trending story on social media and on online news sites. I remember on one such site, one person wrote that as a nation South Africa should move away from voting for people because of the colour of their skin and the people perhaps needed to remove ANC from power. There were many responses but one guy wrote that as long as the majority of the people still lived below the poverty datum line or in some cases abject poverty organizations like the ANC were needed in power so that they can redress the imbalances which were brought about by apartheid. There was a lot of backlash from the white readers on that site. Many denied there were economic imbalances based on race and others went so far as to blame the black majority for these imbalances. One wrote if blacks did not have so many children there wouldn’t be impoverished, which is just not true. Modern black South Africans hardly ever have many children regardless of their financial situation. The one who took the price for either being totally ignorant or just plain racist wrote ”During apartheid blacks were settled into designated areas and given the right to self-determine and self-govern, why did they not utilise this opportunity to economically empower themselves?
This is a ridiculous and outrageous assertion because this writer did not take into consideration that as a result of The Land Act of 1913 blacks or what they termed natives were placed onto different Bantu stands and given the right to self-govern but this self-government did not come with absolutely no interference from the apartheid government. They still pretty much controlled everything, for example would the tragic Soweto Uprising have happened if the government had not imposed the teaching of Afrikaans in schools? How is it self-governance when the government imposed the language of instruction? Secondly and most importantly, the white minority controlled practically all the means of production for example they owned and controlled 87 percent of the land including arable land and all the mines and industries. So how was the native majority supposed to achieve total economic independence in their respective Bantu stands if they had nothing at their disposal to utilize for that purpose? In the cities the black townships were and still are located very far from the city centres and despite that the ANC government has so far built 5 million RDP houses to date to help ease the housing problem, the majority still live in squalid conditions in uninformal settlements with no access to sanitation or running water.
Such uninformed and unfair statements fly around every day on South African social media groups or threads whenever racial imbalances or white privilege is brought up but I think as a people it would be more progressive if those who are/ have been privileged would acknowledge their privilege and try to do what they can to unite with the less privileged and work towards a common goal of racial equality and national development. As long as the existence of an injustice is denied the injustice can never be addressed let alone avoided in the future.