Dear white pupils, you're privileged. Do something about it
Jeppe High School for Boys deputy principal Kevin Leathem delivered a powerful lecture to his pupils on the P-word
This is a speech given to pupils of Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg by deputy principal Kevin Leathem. It was co-written by his wife, Tammy Bechus.
On April 26 we celebrated Freedom Day here at Jeppe with a special assembly, which included a thought-provoking address from our guest speaker, Ms Lovelyn Nwadeyi, and two equally challenging speeches by the MEC for education and your own RCL chairman, Thando Maseko.
Mr Jackson has asked me to unpack some aspects of Ms Nwadeyi’s speech for you this morning as it has stirred some strong emotional responses. I see speeches like Ms Nwadeyi’s as opportunities for rigorous debate. Her message was hard-hitting and, for some, uncomfortable.
And that’s a good thing.
You see, when it comes to your thinking, much like your body, you need to be challenged and stretched if you want to see progress. If you finish a training session on the astro or in the gym and you aren’t at least a little bit sore and uncomfortable, then guess what? You haven’t really worked.
So let’s get uncomfortable, let’s do some work. Let’s talk about white privilege.
Nothing to do with wealth
The most important thing to understand about white privilege is to understand what it’s not. Privilege is not the same thing as wealth. When we hear the word “privilege” we automatically think of pampered rich people living in luxury in the leafy suburbs.
We imagine excess, ease and extravagance. And that is simply not the experience of all white South Africans. Many (if not most) of the white people in this hall today come from working-class or middle-class families, who have had to work hard for what they have. And so when we hear the words “white privilege” we become defensive because we think that our hardships and hard work are being dismissed.But the word “privilege” has nothing to do with wealth. Look it up. Privilege simply refers to a right, advantage, or immunity that only a particular person or group get to enjoy. So, for example, in our school, the first-team players are allowed to wear white scarves. That’s a privilege they enjoy. It doesn’t mean that they are wealthy – it simply means that they get to enjoy something that the rest of the pupils do not.
My mom grew up dirt poor. She was one of eight children, her father lost his leg fighting in World War 2 and the family had to get by on a meagre government railways pension. My dad was the son of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country with absolutely nothing to their name. Not a cent.
They worked hard. All of them. And I’m sure that they would argue that they were never given a hand-up or a hand-out. They worked themselves out of poverty. But here’s the thing: the only reason they were able to, was because they were white. Their whiteness meant that their hard work was allowed to amount to something.I know we don’t pay too much attention to rankings but Jeppe’s first rugby team is currently ranked seventh in the country behind teams like Grey, Paul Roos and Glenwood. The first-team players have worked hard. They train at five in the morning; their coach, Mr Spilhaus, is one of the hardest taskmasters in the business. And their hard work has secured them a high ranking.But what if I could wave a magic wand and instead of one Paarl Gym, there were suddenly two? What would happen if I could magic up another 10 schools exactly like Grey Bloem, with the same kids, the same facilities and the same coaches? Despite all the work in the world, Jeppe would slip down in the rankings. The effort they have put in hasn’t changed. But because the pool they are competing in has, so have their chances.Let’s look at it the other way around: if Jeppe only had to compete with schools in Johannesburg, then we would probably be ranked number one. Again, the work and effort the boys have done hasn’t changed. But the pool they are competingin has, and so ... so have their chances. Just like the jobmarket my parents were competing in 40 years ago, the pool has changed their chances at success.
This reminds me of the job market my parents were competing in 40 years ago.
You see, no one is saying that white people don’t work hard. But what I am saying is, their hard work was and is allowed to amount to something because the pool was rigged in their favour.
Would my mother have been able to achieve what she did if, instead of competing against the 20 or so other white applicants, she was competing against 10,000 applicants just as qualified as she was? I doubt it. It was because of her whiteness that we, as a family, were allowed to accumulate wealth and improve our lives.
Starting at zero
Imagine playing a video game where the save function was disabled and you were unable to accumulate experience points. That’s what it was like being black during apartheid.
No matter how hard you worked, or how much money you earned, you couldn’t own land, businesses, or homes. You couldn’t buy your kids a safer suburb to grow up in or buy them a better education. Every generation started back at zero.
Being white was like being the only one with a save function. Everyone was working through the game, but only white people got to accumulate an advantage.I want to make this crystal clear: saying that white people enjoy a privilege is not saying that their lives are easy or that they haven’t worked hard. White people are not immune to the human condition, they suffer loss and hardship like everyone else.
So then what is it? What is white privilege? For me, it’ssimply a preference for whiteness that saturates our society.
I guess if you are white, it’s sometimes hard to see the privilege because you’re in it and it’s all you’ve ever known. It’s like asking a fish to notice water.
The tone of the conversation
I’ll give you an example: kids love plasters. They will have the tiniest scratch, and act like they’re about to bleed out – just so that they can get a plaster. I am relieved that these days there are plasters available with cartoon characters on them like Lightning McQueen – because plasters are one of many products that have been designed just for white people.
The so-called flesh-coloured plasters only match a white skin tone. More than 80% of our population is black. That’s well over 40 million people in our country (and another 38 million in the States – so don’t tell me there’s no market) and yet pharmaceutical companies are specifically catering to the needs of less than 10% of the population ... white people. It’s a privilege to have your needs acknowledged; your needs catered for; your needs addressed.When you go to a hotel, and get a complimentary bottle of shampoo, whose hair do you imagine it is designed for? As a white person, when I get a job, or make a team, I enjoy the privilege of people assuming I earned it. People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race or because of affirmative action programmes. When I walk in to teach a new class at the beginning of a school year, my accent and name are unlikely to result in my pupils questioning my credentials or my competence.
White people also have the privilege of options.
Go into any toy store. You will see a wall of blond and blue-eyed dolls. Ten years ago there were no black dolls, but they have recently introduced a handful into the mix. But only a few. It’s the needs of white little girls that are clearly their priority.
Look at superheroes. We all got very excited about the recent Black Panther film, and the first black superheroes. The film took in more than $1.3-billion worldwide, proving once again that there is a huge black market.Some people argued that it wasn’t a big deal. There were always black superheroes. What about Blade, Hancock, Cyborg and Iron Man’s sidekick? Black people should stop being greedy, I mean, there are at least five black superheroes. How many do you they want? Well, do you know how many there are in total? Marvel lists 7,000 official characters. DC Comics claims to have more.
So five out of a possible 14-15 thousand?! Yes, black people, you should be satisfied with that. Know your place.
Now, these are just examples of the millions of ways that whiteness is valued and given priority in our society. Some might argue that the examples amount to nothing more than an inconvenience, but I would argue that constant and daily messages that you are somehow “less-than” because of the colour of your skin, shapes your sense of self, and does serious damages to your sense of the possibilities for your life.
Presumption of innocence
But if you’re looking for more obvious, more severe examples, I can provide those too.
About two years ago, while walking through Woolworths picking up the week’s groceries, my wife was stopped by a wannabe “good Samaritan” in the store who told her that she should keep an eye on her belongings as she suspected that the boy walking behind her was trying to take something from her handbag.
The boy was my son.
He was four at the time. Since my son is black and my wife is white, I can understand that there may have been some confusion about whether or not they were together. But why did she assume he was stealing? Why was her first response not: “Oh shame, that poor little boy must be lost”?Isn’t it human nature to look at a four-year-old child and see innocence, and yet something was stronger than that. Something overrode that instinct. Before she saw my son’s age she saw his colour. You see, if you are black, even as a child, you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent.
A couple of weeks ago this message popped up on myneighbourhood’s WhatsApp group: “Two black males in a gold Volkswagen circling the crescent - please keep an eye ... ” To which one of my neighbours replied: “Has the guard house been notified!” After about three more messages expressing similar concern with varying degrees of alarm another neighbour replied: “I think it was my uber eats – he was in a gold golf …” End of conversation.
When you are black you do not have the privilege of beingpresumed innocent.
These examples are pretty close to home for me. Literally. Sometimes it’s easier to take a step back and look at cases from overseas. And on this issue, there are plenty to choose from. Just this month, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks, after a white female employee called the cops.
Wake up and smell the coffee
Their crime? Sitting at a table and waiting for their friend. They were held for nine hours before eventually being released without charge. Starbucks apologised and has promised to close all 8,000 of their stores for diversity training.
A couple of weeks ago, at Yale University, a black student who is studying for her Master’s degree was working on an assignment, and fell asleep in the common room of her own dormitory. A white student called the police claiming there was an intruder. She told them she was a student and even used her key to unlock her bedroom, but the three officers were not satisfied. She was still questioned and had to produce identification papers to prove she had a right to be there. Is anyone here going to claim that if a blonde girl fell asleep in her own res, the police would be called?Just an inconvenience? Tell that the mother of Michael Brown, the innocent and unarmed black teenager who was shot six times by police. Or Trayvon Martin’s family, just 17, gunned down for looking suspicious. Or explain to the four-year-old girl, who watched from the back seat as her father, Philando Castile, was shot seven times in the chest after being pulled over by the police. The video of the murder was caught on tape and it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen.
I’ll say it again: when you are white, you enjoy the privilege of being presumed innocent.
As a white man, I benefit daily from the colour of my skin. Daily. And let’s just remember what that privilege comes from. I benefit because crimes against humanity were committed. Torture, murder, rape, humiliation, oppression ... that’s the source of my advantage.
Now how am I supposed to feel about that? What do we do with that?
I can almost guarantee that, after this speech, I will receive angry e-mails from parents complaining that their white sons were made to feel bad about themselves. Maybe that’s because when you are used to privilege – when you become accustomed to it – equality feels like oppression.Making you feel bad about yourselves is certainly not my intention here today. You have no reason to feel ashamed. After all, none of you were born when the crimes that have created your advantage were committed. But I will tell you what I feel is an appropriate way to respond.
Stop denying it. Stop pretending that it isn’t real. Stop throwing your hands in the air at the very mention of it.
As a start, I am going to ask you to be grateful for your privilege, and realise that through no fault of yours, or their own, millions of people are worse off and don’t deserve to be. The best thing to do is just acknowledge it.
You have been given an unfair advantage. So use it. Do something meaningful with it. Or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t deny it. Your denial is not harmless. In my mind, it should be a crime.
I think Tom Eaton put it pretty well when he said: “If you can look out of your car window and still genuinely believe that white people and black people start from the same base and enjoy the same economic and social opportunities, then you are like someone walking into a blood-spattered room and not seeing anything amiss. You are unable to see that a crime has been committed, and you are likely to dismiss appeals for justice because you don’t think an injustice has been done. No matter how kind and generous you might consider yourself, if you deny that a crime has occurred then you are subtly working to defeat the ends of justice.”
My challenge: do something.