What if I was born white?

There are things we don’t say, there are things we are too scared to talk about. We tip toe around sensitive topics because we don’t want people to feel bad. Hey Mr White Man, I know you didn’t earn everything you have in your life but don’t think I’m trying to make you feel bad about it, it wasn’t your fault. We create islands of politeness and steer our conversations carefully around them. All the while we still seek acceptance, we fear the rejection that the truth will bring. Don’t treat me differently, I’m just like you Baas. I’m just like you. I’m just like you, apart from the fact that I’m actually not.

Had I been born White, I would have been born to a land that favoured me. I would have been born to a country who stacked the odds in my favour. In a country where over 50% of our population is poor, I would have been born to a race that doesn’t equally share that burden. As I entered the world of employment, I would know that of all the races in our country, I belonged to the only one with a single digit unemployment figure. I would have entered the world of employment never once having to prove that I was more than just the “employment equity candidate”. Had I been born White; my skin would have been the same colour as every single person I have ever reported to throughout my career. In meetings with my non-white counter-parts, people would turn to me for answers irrespective of seniority. Maybe when my non-white colleague tells me that prejudice exists and that even unconsciously, racial biases are prevalent in the workplace, I could chalk it down to an exaggeration. I mean, weren’t there more people of colour in the workforce now than 20 or 30 years ago? I may not get the point, but I may be eager to talk of how biases exist against white people in the workplace, providing a wealth of examples, all the while not realising that at it’s core, I am strengthening my non-white colleague’s statement.

Maybe if I was born White, I would tell you that Henrik Verwoerd was a misunderstood man because I had never really experienced Bantu education and somehow, I still fail to see the link between a crippled education system and who are considered skilled labour in this country. Maybe I would like to quote the exceptions; the young Black woman who excelled at school even though her mother was a domestic worker and she never met her father. Maybe those exceptions would make me feel less guilty to the plight of the masses in our country, it would make me feel less guilty because when I quote those exceptions, I would know that we live in a land of opportunity and all one had to do was to seize that opportunity. I would not always know that gaining access to that opportunity is open to the few and not the many, because like the generations before me, I have been part of the few. Maybe I would talk of progress and in same breath bemoan the fact that South Africa is not a place where “White men can work”. Maybe I would tell you of the incredible White candidate who my company simply could not hire instead of considering why everyone I interviewed for the position was White.

I am writing this now, irrespective of race, as a privileged person in South Africa. I was raised in a single parent home, I understood what an overdraft was, I knew what it meant to buy groceries using the budget facility on a credit card and I started working, as early as I could, so that I could worry a little less amount money, so that I could help my mother out. But make no mistake, I was privileged. I went to a school where I had resources at my disposal; we had toilets in my school, we had books and desks, we even had a library. I never went hungry, neither my older sister nor I were the first in my family to get a tertiary education and my mother had a car so I never had to take public transport. So, I live with that privilege and I live with everything that privilege has afforded me. I live with the knowledge that while I feel like I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve earned, my fight was not the same as a significant portion of young people in our country. I see that. I see that my path may have been easier and that because of that ease, and because I believe that South Africa belongs to all of us, “united in our diversity”, that I acknowledge that I am part of the solution that our country needs. I do not write this now as a plea for White people in our country to see me or to see our Black and Coloured brothers and sisters. I write this now instead, for my White brothers and sisters, I write this now for you to see yourself and for you to see your place in the solution.

Published by Denira Varma

I am, if nothing else, a perfect example of the dichotomy that exists in every one of us. I seek adventure, yet I long the grace of long days spent reading in a quiet treed spot. I am hedonistic but pragmatic. I long to create yet I burden myself with thoughts that I am not worthy. I started this blog to share part of me, my thoughts and experiences.

4 thoughts on “What if I was born white?

  1. Beautifully written, and that last sentence sums it up so well. Acknowledging privilege is such a vital first step, whether it be having white skin or XY chromosomes or being heterosexual, or more than one of these attributes. I have often thought of the psychology behind how difficult it is for many to even do this, and it seems that if more people realized that by simply saying out loud “I am privileged”, it doesn’t mean you dismiss your own struggles, it simply means you respect that others have had obstacles from the start that we have never had to experience. When we think of someone who for example was born with one leg instead of two, we don’t say “just get up and walk”, yet our society has a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that disrespects the fact that so many people don’t have those bootstraps – or have a lot crappier bootstraps – than those who come from a place of privilege based on their skin color or gender or sexuality, or a combination. I am a white woman who grew up in a lower/middle class upbringing where, while I wore hand-me-downs, never had to worry about where my next meal came from and was always expected to go to college. There are things that I have never experienced because my skin is white, and it reminds me of when I talk to my husband about what it means to be female, and the things that he will never fully understand being male about what we’ve been taught and what’s been embedded in us by society as to what we can and cannot do, how to stay safe because of what men have a long history of doing to women, how to look and behave in the workplace and “play nice”. And this is me as a white woman, and even with my experiences, I still do understand that because my skin is white that my black women friends and colleagues are subject to even more on so many different levels. The world we live in puts it upon people of color to tell white people and upon women to tell men when the populations who perpetrate the violence and the discrimination and everything in between need to look at ourselves in the mirror and say ‘how can I do better both as an individual and in my community?’ Living in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest major cities in America, there are a lot of people who like to claim they are “colorblind” which to me is saying they refuse to see the reality and the complexity and the diversity of the world…my white next door neighbors with their oh-so-trendy all-encompassing diversity sign in their yard who never once in 10 years spoke to the black family living on the other side of them even though they had kids in similar age range…or when I volunteered as a reader for several years in the local grade school which was the most beautifully diverse classroom I’d ever been in, but watching the teacher and coordinator for the program punish the black boys who acted up, refusing to let them read with us when the white boys were doing the exact same thing. It was the first time I had seen it up close and personal at such a young age, and I left the program because of it. My Australian husband grew up with very little exposure to black women’s voices and is now reading Alice Walker with a vengeance 🙂 Imagine if our schools had their reading curriculum as diverse as many like to say they are…okay and I could go on and on about it all, but I just want to say THANK YOU for your words, for putting it all out there, and for your truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow, I wish I could hit a love button in response to your comment. Thank you for your honesty.
    I often have the conversation with my husband about what it means to be a woman in the workplace as well and about how as women, we’re often raised not to be assertive because that’s a man’s role. So when a woman acts in a certain way to be good at her job she is disliked, seen to be a “bitch” or “acting like a man”. It’s a conversation I could have for days on end and it’s actually part of another blog post that I’m nursing at the moment 🙂
    Personally, I find the notion of being “colourblind” a silly one, we should be celebrating our diversity instead of assuming it doesn’t exist! And your experience of being a reader saddens me so deeply even though your words and thoughts give me so much faith that we all can be part of the solution.
    I love the James Baldwin quote “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” and that is so much the spirit of your comment and my post.
    Much love to you my sister from Oregon!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a woman of color, I appreciated this post. It is something that needed to be talked about. Although some things has changed for the better, there are still so many things that need to be done to improve the treatment of people of color and this touched on that perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kara. I definitely do agree that there have been changes and in some respects we’ve come so far but you’re a hundred percent spot on that we still have a way to go.


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