“I’ve worked hard my whole life.”
That’s it. The worst reply.* And yet it’s one of the replies I’ve heard the most from white people here in South Africa.
What’s so bad about it?
#1: Wrong topic
By pointing to your working hard, you’re not addressing the issue that the words “white privilege” address. White privilege is not a matter of merit. My black and coloured friends have never accused me of not working hard. When they talk about white privilege, they are by no means attacking a lack of hard work or effort.
White privilege is one of being or position (static), not one of action or activity (dynamic).
White privilege means that you don’t get put on the rejects pile for job applications in Belgium because your name is Mohamed. When Mohamed changed his name, he got a job instantly.
White privilege means that you don’t have to worry for your life when a police car pulls you over in the United States. With disbelief, I read the many stories of police brutality towards unarmed, innocent, black people. Just a quick search shows a plethora of examples.
White privilege means that you don’t get frightened looks when you walk in a park in South Africa by yourself, like my coloured friend Tristan experiences regularly. When he goes for strolls, white people tend to avoid him.
White privilege means that you can identify with the history and literature taught in schools, because the majority of it focuses on white characters and white authors. Both history and literature play a huge role in experiencing a sense of worth and a feeling of belonging. As the book The Number clearly illustrates, the coloured gangs in the Cape Flats are struggling with this lack of history and identity.
White privilege means that you have an advantage, just because you are white. It’s not based on merit whatsoever. It’s a matter of position. It’s not because you do white.
“I’ve worked hard my whole life” is an answer that can be given to a question of merit, like “white people are lazy” or “white people have a bad work ethic”. But that is not what “white privilege” is about.
#2: Wrong focus
By pointing to yourself, you’re shifting the focus from someone in need to someone who’s not. White people – and I’m one of you – tend to think the world is about themselves.
When I’ve heard people of colour talk about white privilege, it is always in a context of pain. Pain about being ignored, pain about not having opportunities, pain about not finding identity, pain about history, pain about perceptions.
We get so easily offended when someone talks about white privilege, but we shouldn’t. I’ve never experienced a situation wherein a conversation about white privilege is started in an attempt to offend me as a white person. It might result in that if I start being defensive.
However, if I properly listen and acknowledge that pain, then no offence is made (or taken for that matter). White privilege is not about white people. It’s about the pain of those who aren’t white.
Stop making it about you.
#3: Wrong implications
When someone of colour talks about “white privilege”, and you understand this is about the lack of position and there is a lot of pain involved, “I’ve worked hard for this” also has very strong implications for the conversation partner.
Because if the person of colour is saying: “I struggle with the fact that life is more difficult because I’m not white”, and you reply with “I’ve worked hard for this”, you are basically implying: “you haven’t worked hard enough.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of white people do not intend this, but that’s how it’s perceived. By pointing to your hard work, you’re shifting the problems from a position-based origin to a merit-based origin.
All together now
So when you hear your black and coloured friends talk about white privilege, don’t point to how hard you work. As the matter of fact, don’t point to yourself at all. Instead, take the time to listen, acknowledge the pain, validate the injustice.
Here’s a good video to introduce white privilege to you, if you have trouble understanding:
You might also want to consider having a look at the enwhitenment project.
*(Or at least one of the worst, sorry for the clickbait.)
Featured 📷 Michael Frattaroli