“Can I get you guys anything else? No thanks, just the bill...Oh, I’m sorry, I just assumed…you know…”
This is an extract from a conversation I had with a waitress-who just happened to be Black and works at a certain restaurant where people with a taste for life dine. When she placed the bill in front of my White friend instead of me, even though I who had requested it. Even though smiling and making light of it at the time, after getting home it struck me that even though we the people of South Africa are said to live in a ‘free, fair and democratic country which has cast off the shackles of Apartheid’ this is so far removed from the truth that one could count to infinity before any viable case could be formulated to established to defend the above statement.
The above extract is also a perfect example of what is referred to as ‘totalizing moments’: at once your entire meaning and being is conferred upon you, leaving no room for you to construct your own identity, or worse to be unlike the identity created for you, hence why you are never a Black or a White, but rather the White or the Black. You bear the weight of your race's history, culture, traditions, behavioral and thought patterns. Put differently, you are immediately responsible for your race's essence.
South Africa is a country in which the foundation of one’s being is founded upon what race one belongs to, or in the case of non-White people, what race one has the misfortune to be cast into. Apartheid’s grip on society is still as firm as it ever was; the White is still thought of as the ‘true’ South African, whilst the Black is that individual who strives to be as much as like his White counterpart as possible. That is to say that the Black’s sole motivation is to be: intelligent, well educated, beautiful, well off and, most importantly, accepted. Put frankly and bluntly, those born White in this all encompassing rainbow nation of ours are better than those not so fortunate to have less melanin in their genetic code.
In a racist society there is a large extent to which we are treated as though the essence of one's being is determined by what race they belong to or, as Frantz Fanon puts it in his revolutionary book Black Skins, White Masks, we find ourselves as “objects amongst other objects” with the freedom to choose from a range of options available to us limited by the colour of our skins. Being White in South Africa immediately places one above; above in the sense that one has that one aspect of being which all Blacks yearn to posses, Privilege, or rather, ‘White Privilege’ and its unconscious psychical and somatic habits, constituted by ‘mental and physical patterns of engagement with the world that operate without conscious attention or reflection.
Some would argue that these are pretty bold statements to make and I concede that they are. However, I believe that I have ample ammunition upon which to hold my position, due to my claims being founded upon of the works of some of this century’s most insightful philosophers (and plain common sense), the majority of which happen to be Black-the irony is rather amusing- namely Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre and Steve Biko, who developed this idea. Blacks all over the world, but more so in South Africa- a country in which ones’ self is so thoroughly saturated by histories of oppression and/or privilege- have this notion that, as the esteemed philosopher Paul Taylor describes, the way the White sees the world is the way it should be. The way the White gets around the world just is the right way to get around. This is what Fanon and Biko take greatest issue with, looking at those whom have been ‘duped’ (the Black) into believing such, and at those who ‘dupe’ (the White and self-loathing Black) with a sympathetic yet contemptuous gaze. As Biko puts it in his highly illuminating book, I Write what I like:
It is not as if Whites are allowed to enjoy privilege only when they declare their solidarity with the ruling party. They are born into privilege and are nourished by and nurtured in the system of ruthless exploitation of black energy.
From this quote we are able to see that it is the system, or rather, the pattern of behavior and thought, which is truly at fault. South Africans, Black and White, are so inundated with trying to ‘make things right for all’ that they have forgotten the most important aspect of this, whilst not impossible but highly improbable task, that being to begin with oneself. The black has to release himself of the shackles confining him in the beliefs that the White deserves better service/treatment simply because he is White, whilst the White is under obligation to cease believing and demanding differential treatment due to his being White.
Does this mean that Whites should feel guilt or ashamed for this privilege they enjoy? Yes and no. As Samantha Vice so very eloquently phrases it in her thought provoking paper How Do I live in This Strange Place, “ shame is a response to having fallen below the standards one sets for oneself, whether moral or not…guilt [is] a reaction to what one has done, not primarily to who one is. Why? The mere fact that one is White automatically means that one will receive preferential treatment and benefit from White privilege whether conscious to the fact or not. This is an unavoidable injustice, especially in South Africa, and feelings of guilt can only be but appropriate.
In closing I hope that this piece has done that which it strove to, that being to invoke feelings of anger within both White and Black readers, for as history has shown us from time immemorial, ‘tis only when anger is awakened (the Roman slave uprising led by Spartacus) that the turbines which generate the winds of change can be started and set into motion…Oh, I also hope that it has shown that the bill should be placed in front of he who requests it…