A SLICE OF LIFE: White riches, and white guilt
Oh, what it is to be white and middle class in present-day South Africa! The struggle is real. People, do not brush aside my pain. You do not understand my hardship in trying to convince people I have not benefited from my low-level melanin casing.
Okay, perhaps I need to admit that denial is not just a river in Egypt. I may not like to say it, but hi, I’m Robyn, and I’m a member of the white privileged elite in this country. Luckily, I am not alone in my plight. You’ll see a lot of us around. We’re generally hanging out in places like Sandton City, getting ridiculously over-priced haircuts.
Don’t believe me? Clap your hands if you’ve heard a variation of this argument before:
“I’m tired of hearing about apartheid. I’m tired of feeling guilty for being white, and being made to feel like racism is my fault. I didn’t cause it, why should I suffer through affirmative action/Black Economic Empowerment/*insert other complaint here* in order to fix it? It’s time to move on from the past.”
This statement is an amalgam of conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, and is even an echo of what I used to believe myself. It is also completely and utterly wrong.
When I say that white privilege is still prevalent in South Africa, please try to understand why I say it before you sharpen your pitchforks. I know white privilege exists because I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. Perhaps it’s easier to see the privilege entwined with my skin colour because my roots aren’t as deeply entrenched in this country as other people’s.
I am first generation South African, the daughter of Irish immigrants. My father sometimes tells the story of how our family got here. He was working at a textiles factory in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, 40 years ago. There was a man there named Greg, working as a machine operator, and my father started up a conversation with this man.
“Yes, it is not mine or any other young white person’s “fault” that apartheid happened, but we need to accept that we have benefited from it, in small ways and in big.”
“Oh, you’re an electrician?” Greg said. “So am I. I can’t find any of that kind of work though, which is why I’m doing this. There aren’t enough jobs in this country for us … Do you know where there is work, though? South Africa.”
And so, to South Africa Brian Kirk came. He worked on six-month contracts during the 1970s, doing electrical work here for half the year, and returning home for the other.
In 1982, he and my mother got married in Ireland and moved out here a few months later. They’re still here 32 years later with four daughters and one grandson.
They gave us a good life. We grew up in a nice house, went to excellent private schools and had the opportunity and funding to go to university. I don’t mean to take anything away from their love and devotion – they worked hard to provide.
But did they work harder than a domestic worker, who left home at 4am to get to the madam’s house to cook and clean? My parents’ hard work had more material reward because my dad was a white, skilled worker at a time when the “white” part mattered an awful lot.
My story may not be exactly the same as other white South Africans’ stories but, if you look at them critically, you’ll see a common thread running through them all.
Not so long ago, race was a deciding factor in the work and pay you could expect, the humanity you were shown and the standard at which you could take care of your family. We, as the children of those who went before, need to realise and admit this.
Yes, it is not mine or any other young white person’s “fault” that apartheid happened, but we need to accept that we have benefited from it, in small ways and in big. As a country, we need to keep talking about the wrongs and hatred of the past, not in order to assign blame, but rather to create understanding and move forward. I will quote William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Everything exists now because of what was before.
We need to understand where we’ve come from to find the right path to where we want to go. Sometimes this means admitting we’re complicit in something we wish we weren’t, but if that’s the only way to move forward then I think it’s worth the pain.
Originally published in Wits Vuvuzela September 5, 2014 (22nd edition). Also available from the Wits Vuvuzela website