“I have privilege”, she said. What made it a wow moment for me, is that Terri Burns is a black woman. Here is a black woman standing on stage in front of a mostly white male South African audience and she admits to having privilege.
Now I’m not sure if she understood that privilege is currently a hot, sensitive topic in South Africa. You see, Terri is American. She is an associate product manager at Twitter, and came to SA to give the keynote speech at the annual DevConf, a conference for software developers held in Johannesburg.
But sometimes we need to see our debates outside of our normal context to get a better understanding of it. What is her privilege? She earns a reasonable salary, has a university education and a supportive mother. This she considers her privilege.
White privilege is sore point in our country. It is the fact that white people have special rights, advantages or immunity over non-white groups.
Even though some of my conservative facebook friends will try to disagree with this, I’m sure most of us will have to confess that white people do have a certain advantages. The main advantage is that it takes about three generations of upwardly mobile families for an individual to have the personal confidence and social intelligence to be successful in today’s high paying corporate world.
In my case, my grandparents were respectively farmers and railway workers. Neither were wealthy and neither would have been able to get a job at a bank. But they were hard working and able to support their kids to go to university. My dad and both his brothers became religious ministers. Again, not high paying jobs, but socially very highly respected in Apartheid South Africa (and to a lessor degree still so today). So me? I grew up in a world where my dad was highly respected, and by default his kids were treated with respect both by adults and by other kids. I was a little bit addicted to elections, and stood for any position I could get my hands on, and I won most of those elections. Now if you are elected, you had to also do it. So from a very young age I had to learn how to lead and get stuff done. Very valuable lessons for how to be successful in corporate South Africa!
Did I create this advantage? Mostly not. It is the result of mainly the support and hard work of the two generations before me, and maybe a little bit by me not sitting on my arse and playing video games all day long.
Although white people do not have specials legal rights these days, we sure as heck (I said my father is a minister right?) did have 25 years ago and knowingly or unknowingly used those rights to our favour. I was in a very good school which other groups were excluded from. Not a private school, but the well supported public schools called Model C schools. We had the best equipment, best teachers and middle class peers that meant the school was able to institute the right rules to create the right level of discipline to allow for effective group learning.
Now I turned 18 the day after the April 27 elections in 1994 and it being 3 days of elections I was able to vote on my birthday. My first vote and citrus smelling thumb.
So I have no idea what immunity I had in those days before 1994, I was too young. But I can tell you, today I do have immunity. I live in a gated community in Centurion. I can walk in the street with my family. We’ve had some petty crime in the area, so the residents are on high alert. Luckily, I’m immune from being stopped by the neighbourhood watch if walking at night. Let me not go to deeply into this argument…but I think you get it.
The rights and immunity part of privilege is something that is real, but can be corrected in a short time.
Rights can be quickly revoked and changed by law. Tick, that part was already done.
Immunity is slower to change, but can be corrected within a reasonable time. And the authorities also cover for people’s lack of social immunity by creating laws to compensate. Less effective, but at least a little bit of protection there.
Advantage is a bigger issue. We are trying to fix advantage quickly by forcing people to skip the generational process, but are not equipping them to do so. I believe it normally takes three generations of hard work and the right choices, and some luck, for a child to be able to reach upper middle class. (Yes, upper middle class is not the be-all-and-end-all, and might not be your goal. But for a very big majority of people in our country today it happens to be the goal).
I see a lot of young people that are smart, skilled and talented. They just do not have the confidence that is needed to be successful in corporate South Africa. We have invented a system of work that discriminates against low self esteem, low social intelligence, and to some degree discriminates against introverts (but that is the point of another topic). So the skills needed to be successful is not only gained through education. It also needs to be gained by the support of your previous generations and your support structures.
I cannot see how we can expedite that, and that leaves us with…