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

Advertisements

About robykirk

Robyn was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, still isn't dead and despises writing in the third person. She received her undergraduate degree at Rhodes University, having completed a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, History and Journalism at the end of 2013 and completed her Honours in Journalism (career entry) at Wits University in Johannesburg during 2014. From April 2015 until March 2016 she worked as the Communications Intern for the MRC/Wits Agincourt Research unit in rural Mpumalanga. This blog is a collection of the work produced: - for the Wits University student newspaper and website Wits Vuvuzela during 2014 - during her internship at MRC/WIts Agincourt Research Unit (2015/2016) and independent blogging (2014-present). Robyn is interested in everything besides sports and mean people. In the past she has specialised in photojournalism and television journalism, and considers visual media to be one of her strongest skills. She decided to become a journalist because learning about other people’s lives was more fun than putting on pants and having her own. Follow her on Twitter: @RobyKirk

Posted on September 5, 2014, in A slice of life, Wits Vuvuzela and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: