Power and privilege manifests itself in a lot of small and big ways in the workplace. There are a lot of people who complicate the conversation by denying they have it to begin with. I’m willing to go further and say it’s this denialism that causes tension in the multicoloured and multilingual office of 2018.
Without diving too deeply into South African history, and its impact on the racial composition of today’s offices, I’m going to quickly remind the reader that apartheid never loved us as black people. Another reminder is that apartheid has a formidable legacy that can not only be seen with the naked eye, but felt too. It was designed to separate and suppress black people, not just spatially, but psychologically too. And policies like the Land and Bantu Education Act were designed to ensure the slow recovery of the oppressed in the case that apartheid officially ended.
So the fact that the regime is over does not mean that it was defeated.
That’s why you can’t be white, in 2018, and willing to admit a lack of transformation in the modern boardroom, without admitting your privilege in the same breath. Power and privilege, in this particular country at least, are directly attached to one’s skin colour. Let’s look at a few examples to see how power and privilege play out in the office:
White Privilege: John vs Jabu
A John could be late for an important meeting in the morning because of ‘traffic’ and be excused. A Jabu, could be late for the same meeting because of ‘taxi drama’, and not be excused as easily.
White Privilege: Sébastien vs Sifiso
A Sébastien could be considered exotic because of how his thick French accent causes him to butcher any English on his path. A Sifiso could be considered less intelligent because of how he pronounces a word like apple, as ‘ay-pul’.
Confirmation bias makes it genuinely hard for white people to see the appointment of a black person in an important position as having nothing to do with fulfilling a quota. Said black person’s merit is usually an afterthought.
Another variation of the same bias works in such a way that if a black person is appointed in an important position they must be naturally exceptional. The assumption in this case being that it takes a lot more talent to stand out among white candidates than it does among black candidates.
When discussing the Ashwin Willemse walkout, the onus is ultimately on people without power and privilege to prove the ‘alleged’ racial undertones having to do with the story. And even if these undertones are proved successfully, having power allows white people the privilege to dismiss any proof as a racially-motivated attack on their race. A ‘black people are too quick to pull the race card’ attitude.
Male Privilege: Men vs #MenAreTrash
Power and privilege aren’t unique only to race relations, they rear their ugly heads in gender relations, too. Even though rape culture is a conversation that is arguably more urgent for South Africa than race is, it’s notoriously one-sided. This is because men have the power and privilege to dismiss women whose everyday experiences have proven to them that men, are indeed, trash.
To most men, #MenAreTrash is nothing an offensive slogan ‘bitter’ women use to unfairly attack them for ‘simply existing as men.’
In both race and gender relations, the experiences of those will less power are constantly dismissed by those who have it, and this is exhausting. That’s why black people aren’t excited to talk to white people about Ashwin Willemse. That’s what we’ve been doing long before that episode even aired. We’re tired.