Check Yourself, Teresa Downs: There Is No White Privilege Here
- Mar 12 2018
- BY katie
“I have unfairly benefited from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”
So says Teresa Downs, Superintendent of Schools, District 74, Canada.
It’s a mantra repeated over and over in schools and college campuses in so many countries. On posters in corridors, and on pin badges issued by the students’ union reminding you to “check your white privilege.”
As we speak, university academics in the UK are being offered seminars about how to discuss the effects of white privilege, with titles like “Walking on the White Side of the Street.”
As if, somehow, the white side is the land of milk and honey.
In the UK, the only white privilege I know is working pretty damn hard in order to pay the highest rate of tax so that a vast swathe of lazy individuals can live for nothing.
And in other places too, being white is no picnic.
I think back to a few weeks ago when I sat with Peter and his wife on the floor of the place they call home in a white slum settlement just outside Pretoria, South Africa.
The building is no bigger than my garage, without proper flooring or a light. It backs onto the rubbish dump of a slum where 200 whites have ended up.
Peter lost his job as a tow-truck driver after an accident and injury to his back forced him out of his job. Now he cannot get work, neither serving at a till nor cleaning the streets. No one will employ him, an old white guy in a country that doesn’t want to know.
So he and his wife live here in this place with their daughter Joey and her three children. None of them with anywhere else to go, or hope of anything better. They have all ended up in this slum, and in this pitiful existence, together.
I am no prude. I have not lived the liberal life of luxury inside the rich areas of London or Manhattan. I have slept in migrant camps and crashed on the road in truck stops where signs shout at you: “Do Not Sh*t In The Showers.”
Is this the white privileged we’re exhorted to check?
Walking up the dirt track to the hovel those in the white slum share, the smell of sewage makes me retch. Flies are all about, landing first on the open piles of excrement, then on the faces of the little children roaming about in shorts and bare feet, tanned by the sun. Wise before their time, the kids spot opportunity quickly: a small five-year-old has stolen a drink from our wagon and a shoulder-carry from one of the lads before I’ve even found my notebook and pen.
I am happy for the little chap.
The dogs roam about listlessly, too, seemingly without hope. Just like the white people who live here. Peter says:
“I don’t see a way out of here. I don’t have a future. I apply for work, they see my age, and they tell me I am too old. And too white. New rules mean blacks have to be offered the job before whites. If you have too many whites working in your company you are punished.”
Seeking to undo years of racial inequality under Apartheid, when whites were guaranteed employment and housing, the African National Congress (ANC) introduced laws that promoted employment for blacks and aimed to give them a greater share of the economy.
These Black Economic Empowerment measures have become increasingly stringent. Whites constitute roughly 8 percent of the population; they are seen as being over-represented if a company employs more than 8 percent in its workforce, and penalties apply.
Following the end of Apartheid in 1994, whites have enjoyed little sympathy from those who feel they profited from the brutal regime.
On the ground, it feels far harsher than that. There is a sense of vengeance, of retribution about South Africa, as if whites must be made to pay and to suffer for the sins of the past.
In the gloom of the house, I feel cold in the heat despite my best efforts to be cheery. There is no electricity. No running water. No heat. No light. No glass in the windows.
And no place to cook.
I see the taps in the kitchen area and know better than to ask if they work.
“There’s no water, no way to wash,” says the mother, seeing my face fall.
They fill buckets from the shared tap, heat them on the gas stove and fill a shallow bath to wash the children. Youngest first, the rest of the family after.
“It’s the flies,” she says, starting to cry. We sit below a long, sticky strip, so packed with their filthy bodies it hangs uselessly, redundant as the father.
The owner charges the daughter 3,000 rand a month ($255 US dollars) for this place from hell. He has demanded another 2,000 rand a month ($170 US dollars) from the parents for sharing the space. I ask how they will pay; they can’t.
I daren’t ask where they will go. I don’t want to hear that they have nowhere, that even this slum is too good for them now.
The daughter, Joey, sleeps with two children, another makes his bed in a nook behind a door, and the mum and dad share a room. The mother cooks and cleans for six, without a kitchen or water or light.
I think back to my cozy home and easy life, to my kids with their own bedrooms, taps you can drink from, a boiler producing hot water on demand, lights that come on automatically, fluffy towels in the airing cupboard – and I feel horrible and guilty. Is this my white privilege versus hers, this woman sitting here crying on the sofa in the dark under the sticky string of dead flies?
I think of the things we have in common – the love for our family and our determination to do our best for them, no matter what. I see her little pile of washing, hand-folded, socks neatly paired, buttons sewed back in place.
And we chat about how she makes herself feel better here. At home when I am cross or angry I clean, furiously. Somehow, having a clean house and the kids’ school uniform set out ready for the next day makes me feel better able to take on the world.
I ask her where she finds that strength now, in this place, in the midst of filth she cannot possibly clean, in a home so barely distinguishable from rubbish that there’s no point in trying. She cries again and talks about the anti-depressants she is on.
They can’t afford them anymore. I’m told the hospital turns away whites from the squatter settlements: “the whites are not welcome.”
I have heard this story over and over. White farmers are routinely rejected from state hospitals after they are shot and attacked on their farms, because the ANC is anti-white so the staff feel empowered to turn whites away.
According to one AfriForum representative, as many as 400,000 white South Africans could be living in poverty like this. This slum is just one of the 80 or so camps reportedly giving some kind of shelter to impoverished white families around Johannesburg and Pretoria, many of them former farmers who have been “cleansed” from their land.
Black Economic Empowerment legislation attempts to force ever-tighter restrictions on the employment of whites, or the entrepreneurial ability of whites. White business owners must reportedly sign away 51% of their business to a black person (30% to a black female) if they are to win business contracts from the government. There is no way to see a future for whites here.
It is an impossible situation.
These children running barefoot about this stinking place of dirt and desperation seem strangely undaunted. They were born two decades after Apartheid ended, and yet they are paying the price. I watch them and I’m filled with fear – their life has ended here before it has begun. I want to scoop them up and rescue them to a place where there is hope, not leave them here where there is none, where black empowerment will keep marching forward until the whites are cleared from the land completely.
When the whites are gone – only then, it seems, will South Africa be able to let go of its Apartheid past. Until then the Boers, the Dutch whites, who are blamed for all the historic sins of the past, will continue to be seen as the enemy who deserves only punishment and shame.
Turned away from hospitals, run out of their homes, ousted from jobs and legislated from future employment; perhaps this is the only place on earth where whites have less than nothing.
Is this the white privilege you speak of, Theresa Down? Is this the privilege of our skin? You liberal campus fools inside your bubbles of privilege and self-obsession: do these people have it easy?
Is this what it feels like to Walk on the White Side of the Street?
For goodness sake, talk about economics. Talk about Haves and Have Nots. Talk about divisions of politics or persuasions or interests of any kind. But don’t pretend that every answer lies in skin color – that’s just cheap, misleading, misdirecting, and plain divisive.
I feel sick with it all and want to leave. I thank the father for sharing his home and his story with me. He tells me to mind my step; the sewer has spilled out across the track and we pick our way through the human feces scattered about.
He apologizes as he gestures at the mess.
As I leave I pass his three grandchildren coming home from school together, holding hands, cuddling their books, each one immaculate in their white socks and white shirts in the bright sun.
South Africa has taken everything from this man. This is what happens when you decide white is bad and white is wrong. This is the end game for Teresa Downs, apologizing for her skin.
There is no white privilege here.
Leave a Reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *