Understanding white privilege


Over the past couple of weeks universities across the country have been rocked by protests calling for free, quality, decolonised education. Students have expressed their anger regarding overpriced tuition fees at tertiary level. While these have been trying times for all stakeholders at universities, they have exposed issues that we as a country have silently swept under the carpet since the inception of democracy.

One of these issues, which has become a contentious talking point, is the concept of white privilege. While I do not claim to be an expert on racial theory, I have tried to explain my understanding of this concept as well as sourcing the experiences of others who have recognised white privilege. These experiences and understandings are from students from various racial groups and backgrounds. They are views specifically from students of the University of Pretoria. This is a small pool of reference; however, this article hopes to create discourse in all forms around this issue.

I would define white privilege as a social construct that operates within the post-apartheid society which we find ourselves in today. It is a construct which allows for the advancement of white people. Now when people consider the word “privilege”, they immediately place the concept within an economic or financial niche, which in a sense is not wrong. However, this concept is far more complex than this. It’s important here to understand that this isn’t to say that white people are not affected by economic strife or poverty. I often get told, when trying to explain my understanding of white privilege, that “my parents struggle to keep me in varsity” or “I don’t come from a wealthy family”.

It’s not about that. For me, it’s about the systems that were created in apartheid that white people still benefit from today. For example, our education system is dominated by white narratives from a western standpoint. These narratives are displayed as the only narratives that carry any weight or substance. The question I find myself asking is where are the black, particularly African narratives? Many people would respond by saying, “you can’t tell stories that didn’t happen”. But then we must look further into this. Why aren’t these stories accessible to all? My answer would be because the world is viewed from a white perspective and these stories are silenced because people can’t fathom the idea of the black man, the “savage” being equal to them.

For me white privilege is living in Africa and still being forced to take Afrikaans as a language in school. White privilege is, having to hide my relationship from my girlfriend’s step father simply because he can’t understand the concept of different cultures “mixing”. White privilege is people refusing to acknowledge the fact that they benefit from systems set up by their ancestors. It’s being treated by my friends as if I am “one of the good ones”. It’s feeling uncomfortable around my friend’s when they make racial slurs and feeling powerless.
I have much more to say about this topic, but there are other views and experiences that need to be heard. Here they are.


As someone who was raised in a normal Afrikaans household and went to an ex model c Afrikaans school, white privilege was not a concept that I encountered or knew existed until first year. During my childhood all my friends were white, everyone in my school was white and, essentially everyone you interacted with beyond a very superficial way was white and of somewhat similar financial means.

Having been raised in this environment you are instilled with the notion that everyone has equal opportunity (because that is what is taught) but also the cognitive dissonance to simply ignore the blatant inequality we witness on the streets of South Africa. This resulted in some unintentional blindness to the state of our country and was first challenged in my first year at Tuks where I made friends and socialised with my peers from all walks of life and saw there were some people who struggled even with eating regularly, not to mention paying the university fees that even my family had taken a loan out to be able to pay. This was not shocking to me as I always knew there were people that weren’t well-off but rather an eye-opener that these people weren’t lazy or unintelligent as some of the racist members of my culture would have one believe.

The other thing that would occur before having this epiphany is having the response of anger towards the notion of people still being disadvantaged and thus others advantaged – which would be the white people. This response was due to the disconnect of what we were taught and brought up with and the reality we live in, so whenever it was challenged you would either have to re-evaluate what you’ve known your entire life (that everyone has had the same opportunities) or defend the falsehood and have the cognitive dissonance remain and thus not have to entertain any thoughts that might make one uncomfortable.

I do believe that white privilege is definitely prevalent in South Africa and that it can be greatly lessened with the appropriate measures taken from all relevant parties, albeit slowly.


Growing up, I always found it weird that I couldn’t do a lot of what I wanted to do. Things like take ballet or have a weekend-long birthday party, that sort of stuff. I thought that Jade or Natasha could do those things because they had the means to, and by means I mean money.

But see, I had the money too.

So, I sat and I wondered all through primary school just what made me so different that I couldn’t do those things. I started noticing that a lot of my black friends couldn’t either. We just didn’t do those things. Our parents would call those sorts of things “wasteful” – a mentality that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Things like what I’m studying, drama, is wasteful to my family, because it’s not a guaranteed source of income. We always worried about the money we were spending because even though we had it, we knew that we didn’t have enough to “waste” it.

“Waste” it on sending your daughter into an industry that pays non-white actors much less than white ones. “Waste” it on extra toiletries like face wash, toner and two different kinds of hand cream because they’ll think she’s ugly anyway. “Waste” it on these extra things I really wanted to do because they’ll never respect you for it in the end. My family understood white privilege without even intending to: we all did. So I sat, and I thought about it, and I noticed these things I wanted. But never did I ask for any of it.

Never did I ask for any of it at all.


So here’s the problem with having a white person write about white privilege… we don’t actually know what it means… Why? Because ignorance is a part of the “white privilege” illness. Yeah I said it: White privilege is like a genetic illness: You’re born with it, there’s no cure yet… but you can raise your voice to create awareness so that a cure will emerge and we all live happily ever after (once we destroy the patriarchy). White privilege has a lot of symptoms; ignorance is one of them… so let’s start the treatment on that one. Let’s start with separating race and class… class is cash money, race is: black and white… so because it’s called “White privilege” and not “Cash-money privilege” it’s safe to assume that your family’s wealth has nothing to do with it.

White privilege is having your whole race represented fairly on a media platform, it’s murdering someone and blaming it on mental illness; while black murderers are murderers because they’re black (how sway?). White privilege is getting pulled over and fined for actually disobeying the law, not because of your skin colour. It’s having everyone pronounce your name correctly or without a snicker somewhere in the crowd, it’s being a white girl wearing cornrows while complaining about your tutor saying one sentence in vernacular and no one bats an eye, but just dare to be a black girl who refuses to cut her crown and everyone loses their mind. I don’t know much about white privilege. But I am learning and hoping the system can break and be rebuilt. It’s time to educate ourselves, awake.


Please note that the below is subjective, and an opinion. These views are my own, and are not meant to offend anyone. They are meant to just attempt to shed some light on the situation.

White privilege is a concept I often find hard to explain, merely because it is rooted on the basis of white persons having certain advantages due to past imbalances and them being favoured, just because they are white persons. It is rooted on the basis; that to other white persons, it fails to exist as a reality.

An article named ‘Violence against Women: White Privilege, Colour Blindness and Services to Battered Women’ by Donnely et al described it as a “system of benefits, advantages, and opportunities experienced by white persons in our society simply because of their skin colour”.

Skin pigmentation of white persons has always laid out certain advantages for them. It has mainly been to the detriment and disadvantage of people of colour. As a person of colour; this struggle system has been so heavily imposed on us by society. This is not just an abstract concept. It is an everyday experience.

White privilege involves a collection of unknown (to white persons) advantages, which have been so indoctrinated within us that it appears as the norm to the white person. To a person of colour, it used to be an invisible burden, thinking it is the best way to “survive on a daily basis”, “conform to society”. Through this conformation, eventually people of colour will be accepted. This was my faulty and oblivious perspective.

It began in my pre-school days. I have had the privilege of attending a private school all my life, and have received excellent education, but as a person of colour, this was always evident. White privilege appeared first in my life; when I would receive assistance last out of my peers. White privilege appeared when I was labelled as “the black girl” at all those summer camps my parents sent me to during the December holidays (bear in mind, these camps were predominantly filled with white persons). I was always a target and was easily identified. See, I believe white privilege and racism are synonymous systems of oppression.
As a white person, you are rarely reminded every day of the colour of your skin. Having to attend places where you might worry about your acceptance is most probably not a constant thought process.

White privilege is when you aren’t forced to “straighten your hair” because it does not fit into the definition of “normal and neat”, as set out by your school’s Code of Conduct, which was drafted by a board of white persons. White privilege is when you receive instantaneous service in places such as Springboks and Aandklas (popular hangout spots for Tuks students). Whenever a person of colour walks into such areas, you “stick out like a sore thumb”, simply by virtue of you having an abundance of melanin.

When you “try to board a plane, and they ask you what your name is again, check your documentation, because they thinking you all the same” (a reference to Solange’s album A Seat At The Table). White privilege is when you cannot relate to the above situation.
“Sorry, where do you keep your wine?” I need these in a size 6 ASAP.” These questions have often been directed to me in various stores, just as I was casually shopping. White privilege is when someone never looks at you, assumes you are a staff member, and then continues to bark orders of service at you.

When people of colour say you have privilege they are not saying that you don’t have any problems. They are saying you do not have the specific problems that come from oppression. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.” “Privilege just means there are some challenges and struggles you won’t experience because of who you are.” “White privilege is your history being part of the core curriculum and mine being taught as an elective.” These are just some of the quotes I have encountered.

Oppression has impaled people of colour. This disadvantage has enabled white persons to have the ability to reap various benefits handed to them on a silver platter due to past imbalances. For example… Land. I dare you to look into the Land Claims Court, and read one of their judgements… then please proceed to ask your grandparents where they received the land which they own or currently inhabit (this is directed towards persons of colour).

White privilege comes from being a white person, and rarely being aware of your skin colour. As a person of colour, this is evident, and is a constant battle every day, the moment you step out of the house. At times one has to defend their blackness. One often has to remember to not associate their blackness with darkness; see their skin colour as a “badge of shame”. One has to avoid equating their natural loudness with “being ratchet or uncivilized”. One has to remind themselves that being the “angry black girl” is not a bad thing. I have a lot of things to be mad about, by virtue of being a woman, and a person of colour. White privilege is me trying to shed some light on this systematic oppression, and white persons not being able to relate at all.

This system is so deeply entrenched in society. It is not a vague concept, despite its invisibility to some white persons.

If I failed to explain the above, at least catch this illustration by Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 times; that is not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t begun to pull the knife out…They won’t even admit the knife is there…”


I used to believe that white privilege was just a myth or a term used to act out against the white population. It was easy for a while to go on pretending that white privilege was just a term created to make white people feel bad for a social and economic class that they didn’t choose. My excuses for this belief, ranged from “my dad worked hard to provide for the life that I have”, “my dad was also poor, he understands poverty” and “I didn’t choose this life, so why should I apologise for it”.

In all honesty, it took a while to understand the term white privilege, to acknowledge it and to eventually come to accept the fact that I have white privilege. I believe that acknowledging and accepting white privilege as a real concept does not mean that I am against being white or the white population, it just means I am now fully aware and conscious of what being white grants me. By being aware and conscious of the benefits that a white skin gives me, I am now able to clearly see the inequality, racism and discrimination which exist towards the black population.

I believe that the issues mentioned above are largely due to the inability or unwillingness of many white people to acknowledge that they have white privilege. In my own experiences, the very idea of white privilege to such individuals leads to defensiveness and fear. By fear I mean that many white people wish to believe that it was their own hard work and efforts, that provided them with the life they live, and therefore, by admitting that the system helped them achieve this, they believe it will invalidate and undermine their efforts.

I personally disagree, as admitting to white privilege does not invalidate one’s hard work; it just acknowledges that the systems and structures that are in place in society serve to benefit and protect the white population.


By any measure or definition of the word, I have lived a privileged life. I was sent to better schools, I received top-of-the-range healthcare, I had time to pursue hobbies, I have been on overseas vacations and I have never had to use public transportation. I was told growing up that this was because my parents were both hard workers and strove to provide the best life possible for me and my siblings. I was also told that with enough hard work and dedication, anyone could achieve exactly the same. I believed then that this was an immutable law of the universe; that by exploiting every opportunity that presented itself, one could achieve greatness. And I have been presented with many, many opportunities. Not because of any inherent ability on my part, but simply because I was white. That being said, this whiteness of mine has come with innumerable benefits, starting from the day my parents made the educated decision to no longer use contraceptives, to now, where I was just offered an internship at a leading law firm because my uncle knows the director.

What I speak of above is the often misunderstood concept of White Privilege. A quick search online will reveal that White Privilege refers to “the societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances”. This definition is not an easy one to digest. By their nature, societal privileges are hidden within the day-to-day interactions of society. They are not always readily apparent, but they are always present. White privilege encompasses everything from the ability to walk around a mall without a security guard staring at you, to being able to approach the police for help without them treating you as a suspect. Hell, my ability to convey this subject with any measure of eloquence is a function of this privilege.

White Privilege must also be distinguished from economic, or “financial”, privilege. It is true that there are white South Africans living below the poverty line and their lives are most assuredly more difficult for it. But their lives are not difficult because they are white. In fact, their whiteness still affords them a greater access to opportunity then their non-white counterparts. It is this access to economic opportunity that is perhaps the most visible manifestation of white privilege. My parents worked very hard to get where they are today, but they were only able to work at all because they were afforded a greater number of opportunities than their black peers were, despite them being of equal skill. This was in essence one of the main purposes of the Apartheid regime.

As a parting note, none of this is said to make you feel guilty for being white. This is something that you, as white person, need to acknowledge: If you have white skin, you have White Privilege. This is not something that you may have asked for, but you need to acknowledge that it is something that you have directly benefited from your entire life, even if these benefits may not seem apparent to you right now. It is not your fault that you are white. It is not your fault that you have benefited from this, unless you have knowingly done so. Acknowledging our privilege is the first step towards dismantling it, and thus the first step towards establishing the rainbow nation that we were all promised so many years ago.


White privilege is the beneficial treatment granted to those with white skin. It is separate from other privileges such as economic wealth and maleness. Therefore if you are white but living in poverty and struggling to survive, you are still privileged in the sense that you are better off than a black individual in the same circumstances. Privilege by definition is: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” White privilege exists because of the imperialist history of the world, slavery and popular western and European media. This history has normalised whiteness as the accepted standard of beauty, culture and civilisation. Things that therefore do not fit within these criteria are seen as exotic, unorthodox and “other”.

White privilege is what leads to white individuals (or even individuals with “white-sounding” names) to have higher chances of receiving invites to interviews, getting bursaries and scholarships, and being rated as having more trustworthy faces. White privilege is being able to turn on the television and be faced with people who look like you. White privilege is being disgusted by mopane worms but not caviar. White privilege is knowing more about Napoleon than Mansa Musa. White privilege is saying all lives matter as if that’s not what black lives matter is asking for. White privilege is saying if you work hard enough you can pay for your tertiary education as if your “maid” doesn’t work hard to pay for their children’s fees. White privilege is this article being written in English in a country where it’s less than 10% of the population’s home language. You can’t choose whether or not to have white privilege, but you can choose to recognise it and use it to help better the world.

Author’s note: These perspectives do not serve to berate and degrade white people. This is just a small group of students who have aired their views on a controversial issue. These are also, not the only opinions that matter. I encourage everyone to engage with discourse around this matter. There’s no need to be hostile towards one another or to feel attacked. We all need to come together as the youth of South Africa, and discuss these issues. Discourse is the only manner in which we can dismantle stereotypes and hatred around these issues. I implore you, get involved in the discussion. You may just change a few minds and dare I say it, you may just learn something you didn’t know before.

Written by: Chad Johnston

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  1. Just a few questions relating to “white privilege”:

    1. If white privilege was brought about by apartheid, why does “white privilege” seem to increase every year as we move away from apartheid? We have a more unequal society today than in 1985 and the average income of whites has increased more in the years after apartheid than at any time during apartheid. The disparities between white and black are also increasing every year.
    Judging also by the increasing number of “anti-whiteness” protests (online as well), “white privilege” seems to be increasing as we move away from apartheid?

    2. You say that “white privilege” entails that whites are treated better in society, but the vast majority of the society is black. Seems that you are recycling an American definition of “white privilege” derived from a society where the vast majority is white and blacks may be oppressed as a minority. Are blacks being racist to blacks in South Africa?

    3. Do you acknowledge that “white privilege” is an American term that doesn’t apply to the South African society where whites are a small minority?

    4. Don’t you find it strange that normal, collective habits of whites that lead to prosperity are labeled as “privilege”?

    “White privilege” in the sense that whites prosper because they are white simply doesn’t exist. The authors attempt to equalise societal and economical disparities with proof of “privilege”. Disparities exist because of many different reasons that have nothing to do with governments, ideologies and pigmentation. Take the disparity in development between Africa and the rest of the world as an example. Does the fact that the life expectancy in Europe exceeds the African life expectancy by about 15 years qualify as “European privilege”? Or the fact that German universities are free as “German privilege”? What about the fact that Jewish refugees in the USA earned more than white Americans just 5 years after the Holocaust? “Jewish privilege”?.

    By the way, isn’t it incredibly racist to accuse people of things on the basis of their race? If accusing a black person of being more likely to commit crime just because he/she is black is racist, then surely accusing a white person of being “privileged” and getting a free ride in life just because they are white is also racist?