When students at the University of Cape Town began protesting for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue from their campus, a collective breath was held in anticipation of what action Rhodes University students would take. And although the Rhodent front was quiet for a minute, a solidarity march held by the Black Students Movement this past Tuesday would spark a conversation that would lead to the #RhodesSoWhite hashtag and debates about white privilege (and the legitimacy thereof).
One of the most ubiquitious responses I have seen during the past few days is that of white privilege being a racist concept. The argument usually goes as follows: because the white person making the argument has faced their share of difficulties, it is racist to imply that they are privileged.
This simply makes no sense, and that is why I believe that a refresher in what really constitutes racism is sorely needed.
The dictionary definition usually states that it is a belief that one’s race is superior to others. That is not the scope of racism, however. Contrarily, it goes beyond mere mentality to a system which values and rewards whiteness above all else. The oppression of black people is not merely ideological but has become institutionalised. Systematic racism is the reason why it is legal for a white police officer to stereotype a black unarmed person as a thug, shoot them dead and get paid leave.
It is the reason why black women are pressurised into relaxing their hair (and risking their health) to appear “more professional”, while women with natural hair or black hairstyles are fired and denied jobs. Assimilation into a white society is rewarded while natural black hair, being supposedly inferior, leads to the punishment of the person on whose head it grows.
It is the reason why to this very day, it is legal for some schools to have rules which forbid black pupils from speaking their native languages in class, restricting them to English so that everyone can understand what they are saying. Afrikaans, on the other hand, is allowed, even though some black students may not understand what is being said.
These are but three of countless challenges black people face in a white world, challenges that white people are unlikely to ever face. This is what constitutes white privilege. The notion of white privilege does not imply that being born white automatically makes you racist. It is, put simply, an acknowledgement of the benefits enjoyed by white people in a hierarchical system which favours whiteness in just about every sphere of life: historically, economically, politically, legally, socially, economically, etc.
If the concept of white privilege, then, addresses the higher social positioning of white people, how can a black person pointing it out be racist? Pointing out white privilege and higher social status literally goes against the most crucial tenet of racism: that of viewing another race as lesser than your own. Mind you, acknowledging white privilege does not mean viewing white people as a superior race; rather, it is addressing the fact that structural views of race tend to place whiteness in a position of superiority.
I understand that having one’s bubble burst by reality is uncomfortable, and that realising what you believed to be reality is, in fact, illusion can be traumatic, but this common defense of lashing out and crying racism is rather nonsensical. Not just because of the above argument, but because of the lack of black-run institutions which oppress white people (and no, BEE and BET are not examples of white oppression or racism).
You know what is racist, though? Being called a “kaffir” while white people cheer in the background. Being followed by a car full of white men mocking your blackness, or a white male poking his head out of a car window and calling you a “sangoma” for wearing a headscarf. Not being served at bar until you have your white friend(s) with you. Walking into a shop behind a white person and watching them being greeted with a smile and a “How do you do?” while you get eyed suspiciously and followed around the store by security.
The above are real-life examples given by black Rhodents on the Rhodes SRC page. These are their lives and experiences.
And if #AllLivesMatter, as so many of you claim, perhaps you should value those of black people as much as your own by stepping outside of your feelings and defensiveness, ceasing to center yourself in conversation, and instead of being dismissive, actually listening to what they have to say.