Janet is a cleaner at one of Dr. J.P Van der Merwe’s surgeries. She has worked the same job for over 50 years and describes how her father moved from Malawi to Harare in the 1960s to find a job in the big city. The Van der Merwe’s had shown him kindness, firstly by giving him a gardening job and later, when he had become competent in English, by appointing him a messenger at JP’s first surgery.
Growing up, Janet knew that like her father, she would end up working for the Van der Merwes. Her father was fiercely loyal to them and tried to inculcate that in his children. She never believed that, like Dr. J.P’s daughter, she could finish high school and pursue higher education – a diploma or a degree. All of the black women that she had known were housewives or went in to some form of domestic work. As a little girl, her circumstances taught her that white girls grow up to be doctors and black girls grow up to be maids.
In my post ‘No Child Dreams of Being a Domestic Worker When They Grow Up‘ I talk about the fact that no child aspires to menial work. And yet, the majority of our population grows up and ends up in jobs like these. And now, as a result of our dire economic situation, we even have pilots working as car guards and doctors working as cleaners.
But regardless of Zimbabwe’s current economic situation, Janet’s story is not unique and it presents an opportunity for us to discuss white privilege. A lot has changed since independence, but a lot still remains the same. On the one hand, more affluent black people can buy houses in the neighbourhoods they prefer and patronise any restaurant they choose. On a Saturday morning at places like Sam Levy’s, black people shop, eat and drink together.
On the other hand, however, these neighbourhoods, restaurants and shopping malls are still ‘white places’. And if you look closely you will see that white places are peculiar in a number of respects; located as far away from the [black] townships as possible and featuring more space, greener lawns and higher walls. Some have even made the observation that security guards act differently in malls in the suburbs; for instance, unlike in shops in the CBD and beyond, no one stops you and demands to search your bag in those parts.
Privilege or ethic?
White economic privilege, by definition, is the idea that white people as a group have an unearned or undeserved economic advantage over other racial groups, simply because they are white. It doesn’t mean that every white family is wealthier compared to a black family because we know that’s not true. There are poor white families; there are poor black families. It does not mean that all white babies are born with a trust fund to their name but it does mean that the average white baby is economically better off than the average black baby.
Most white people are tired of hearing about white privilege. Most black people think we need to talk about it more. Most white people do not understand why they should feel guilty. Most black people want them to take responsibility. White people are all about moving on from the past and focusing on the future. Black people say what white people think is the past is not the past, but a black person’s lived reality.
In response to an article about white privilege once, I saw the comment, “It’s not white privilege; it’s white work ethic”, followed by some thoughts on why white people should not feel guilty about their advantages because they have worked hard for everything they have. This is a view I have heard expressed by both white and black people.
But Janet’s story exposes the lie behind the concept of white work ethic. It proves the fact that economic or vocational success is not just about hard work. Janet’s story proves that an essential ingredient to success is opportunity. In her acceptance speech at the recent Emmy Awards , Viola Davies said “The only thing that separates women of color [sic] from anyone else is opportunity.” For a black woman, the opportunities have been beyond her reach since even before she was born.
The Bantu Education laws meant that while the Van der Merwe’s had access to a decent schooling, Janet’s father was forced to learn under an inferior education system. The colour bar reserved certain jobs for white people and dictated that black people could only rise so high on the ladder.
Anyone who holds the belief that it’s not white privilege, but rather ‘white work ethic’ would firstly have to acknowledge that, taken as a whole, white people are economically better off than black people. The ‘work ethic’ explanation therefore is not denying the advantage that white people have, but is explaining it by stating that the advantage is earned and deserved. The argument is the privilege is not unfair but is merely the product of the principle of reaping and sowing.
This is just another way of saying that black people are lazy and completely ignores the historical and present day circumstances that we live in. It is based on the idea that one race group has an inherent quality that is lacking in another. It is a racist ideology. A racist ideology that is expressed by black people when they say, “Abelungu (white people) have always been better at running things. We’re good at running things too – straight into the ground!”
We need a new conversation on race in Zimbabwe; an honest conversation that unpacks the many stereotypes we bandy around as though they represent some uncontestable truth. White privilege is real.
Main Image taken from denersteinunleashed.blogspot.com