Photo: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

How Travel Made Me Confront White Privilege

Kenya Activism
by Richard Stupart Aug 15, 2011
Leaving a white world can be a route to confronting whiteness.

TOM MATLACK at the Good Men Project recently reflected on the experience of being white during a journey he took to Kenya.

Being white, and from South Africa, some of the questions Tom asked feel fundamental to the world I live in. Mine is a country where racial divisions remain, and are as embedded in daily life as they are repressed in the interests of national reconciliation.

After years of economic inequality, white privilege in South Africa is entrenched, problematic, and largely invisible. It’s not even a matter of consenting to privilege – history just meant that as a white person, I was part of an ideological universe that cut me more slack, offered me more opportunities for education and advancement. How wide and pervasive that world is, is often invisible to participants.

Confronting it is like trying to ask fish to confront water. Or an entrepreneur to confront the damage and inequality that is a necessary consequence of unfettered capitalism. Too often, the response is a personal one. We rationalise a defence on the basis of personal experience. Say something like “I worked really hard to be where I am.”

Which may be factually correct, but also besides the point. The system supports you. The system lets you never have to think about being white and the benefits it accords. Until you find yourself stripped of them. Find yourself in a society where whiteness doesn’t confer the same respect or opportunities.

The process is explained well in a reply by Tom’s friend Steve Locke when he points out:

When you went to Africa, you said “you were the minority for the first time in your life.” That’s not true. You have been the only adult in a room full of children, the only man in room full of women, the only non-incarcerated person in a jail. In America if you were a minority at a hip-hop concert in Compton, you would still have the privilege that accrues unbidden to persons designated as white, with all of the political, social, and economic access that comes with it.

What you experienced in Africa, Tom, was that the apparatus that supports the dominance of white skin was absent. It has nothing to do with being a minority someplace, you were free of the prison that is whiteness

Travel can have that effect, in that you find yourself in a place where the rules of your home society no longer exist. Where expectations are different. That jarring feeling of strangeness can be the thin end of a very large wedge, leading to an uncomfortable but necessary rethinking of much of what you think you know about yourself.

And it’s often not just whiteness. It’s gender, it’s religion. Sometimes it’s even values or ideas that are so fundamental as to be beyond question – like consumerism. Capitalism. Globalization.

But confronting these issues is tough. In Uganda, an English friend delighted in teasing white South Africans about the difficult questions of privilege that we face. Until I eventually snapped and pointed out that Britain sat upon a mountain of historical racial privilege on a continental scale. One that South Africa paled into insignificance next to.

My own questions trouble me. And will continue to do so the more I see the water I swim in. The tiny victory is that I am at least free to ask them.

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