Understanding ‘White Privilege’
by Russell Pollitt SJ
Some issues are difficult to address; ‘white privilege’ is one of them. Some of the immediate responses you get when you use this phrase are: “I worked hard for all I have!” or “I never agreed with apartheid and never voted for the National Party” or “I am not a racist and believe in equality.” These may all be true. However, this does not mean that you have not benefited from white privilege. Before getting defensive or heated about the term we need to step back and attempt to understand what this means and the subtle dynamic it reveals.
White privilege is, as Fr Bryan Massingale suggests in his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, the “flipside and inescapable corollary of racial injustice. Racial injustice comes about to preserve and protect white privilege”. These advantages range from greater ease of moving into whatever neighbourhood you like, easier access to positions of social influence and economic power as well as greater access to quality education. White privilege is the result of social policies, institutions and procedures that have deliberately created a system to advance the well-being of white people and impeded the opportunities for people of colour.
The term ‘white privilege’ shifts the narrative from focusing on how people have been harmed by racism to how white people have derived certain advantages from racism – whether you wanted them or not. White privilege refers to the reality that, in South Africa today, there are opportunities still afforded to whites that people of colour just do not share.
Let’s be clear: you may not choose to be racially advantaged, it may even distress some whites, but you simply are, because you are white. You may have no prejudice in you, but the advantages for you are real. That’s the evil in the system – guilty not by choice but by historic reality. Fr Massingale writes: “Regardless of an individual’s desires, an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’ is enjoyed by white people because of racial consciousness that is subtly pervasive in our social customs and institutions.” He goes on to explain that social habits and policies function to reinforce the individual white person’s beliefs about a sense of entitlement while at the same time instilling in black people a sense of inferiority.
Racism inflicts economic disadvantage. One of the manifestations of white privilege is the economic advantage white people have. This has been enabled and empowered by public policy, law and political power over a long period of time. Therefore, white privilege is a direct spin-off of racism. It is not about how hard someone has worked. It is about the fact that some people have access to resources while others do not. The access is not necessarily based on merit but on racial profiling.
Facing the reality of racial injustice, and its generational effects, means that we must name its causes, attack it at its root, and boldly accept the burden that the system has laid upon us all. It is not easy to talk about this but unless we seek to openly and earnestly understand the anatomy of the disease, we and future generations will continue to be infected, or maybe even destroyed.