Relativity, Identity and Privilege: Have you checked your privilege lately?

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

The fact that the taxi driver would only reach a settlement with me and not my friend was a clear demonstration of this unconscious oppression, which is fueled by cultural and patriarchal understandings of the role women play in society. Regardless of the intersectionality of my gender and sexuality, the fact that I am male overrode everything else for him.

Scenario 1:

“So Authi, do you work around here? Give us your number and we will call you to come get the rest of the money tomorrow.”

A couple of weeks ago a female friend was involved in an incident with a taxi and the driver was rather aggressively insisting on resolving the matter through an immediate cash exchange, refusing to go to the police station. Seeing that he wouldn’t let up, she gave me a call to come help her diffuse the situation. My friend quickly became a non entity in the resolution of the matter as he began to negotiate with me as if I was her keeper.

Scenario 2:

“In a victory for fairness and equality, sexually active gay men are now finally allowed to donate blood in South Africa.”

In May 2014, the South African National Blood Services (SANBS) was ordered to allow gay men to donate blood since 2006, deeming its old policy discriminatory.

Scenario 3:

“It’s so hard to find the right cultural fit and we are really invested in ensuring that we hire people who can fit in and make the most of this opportunity”

A line often said in corporate South Africa to a young graduate after they have secured an entry level position after going through several rounds of rigorous interviews.

Jamie Utt, in his blogpost titled ‘How To Talk To Someone About Privilege Who Doesn’t Know What That Is’, defines identity privilege as “any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege are race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, physical ability or citizenship status”.

Privilege takes on many forms in terms of its relativity to the intersectionality (by gender, race, age, nationality and more) of the individual’s circumstances but at its core is the undue right it gives to someone by virtue of who they are. It is an unspoken currency of exchange in which the privileged person gets access to and/or demands resources largely and sometimes even purely on the basis of who they are and not on the basis of what they have done or not done.

Looking back, I realised that the reason why the incident with the taxi driver left me uncomfortable was that as a non hyper-masculine, homosexual identifying black male, I do not move around the world with any sense of assumed privilege. That incident made me accept my male privilege and realise for the first time that I too benefit from the patriachal system even as an oblivious benefactor.

In her 1989 essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible backpack’, Peggy McIntosh says, “I realised the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege; I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence”.


 The fact that the taxi driver would only reach a settlement with me and not my friend was a clear demonstration of this unconscious oppression, which is fueled by cultural and patriarchal understandings of the role women play in society. Regardless of the intersectionality of my gender and sexuality, the fact that I am male overrode everything else for him.

Privilege is not only limited to gender identity issues. In contemporary South Africa, the concept of white privilege is one that is often contested by white South Africans as many believe they are not benefactors of any system of privilege, whereas many black South Africans see white privilege as a continued barrier of entry to industry and resources across the economy. Both anecdotal evidence and socio-economic structures inherited from our apartheid past, and not yet shaken off in our nation-building project, support the notion of ‘white privilege’.

Gail Golden, in her essay, ‘White privilege as an Addiction’, notes that “in a racist society, those of us who are called white passively enjoy the benefits of whiteness. We do not have to DO anything in particular for the system to continue to work to our benefit. But we certainly enjoy the benefits, whether the enjoyment is conscious or unconscious. And I believe that we are psychologically dependent on the rewards of privilege. We tend to perpetuate behaviours that support inequity, despite the negative consequences of which we are aware.”


Gillian Schutte, in ‘Of clowns, covert racism and whitewashing black concerns’, notes that white South Africans make statements such as “the poor have so many children when they cannot afford to feed them? Or Why don’t they just get a job instead of waiting for hand-outs from government? These questions and depictions are devoid of the acknowledgment of historical or structural oppression and contemporary racialised bias, nor is there any awareness of the role that white privilege plays, both economically and discursively, in the marginalisation of the poor”. The reality is that these sort of statements are not limited to the South African context only as ‘whiteness’ benefits from structural privilege the world over and fuels this continued willful ignorance.

Privilege of course does not only benefit men and white people. As middle class South Africans – both black and white – we enjoy an incredible amount of class privilege. Our obliviousness to it is no more evident than in how we manage the working relationships with our domestic help, our thoughts on strikes in various sects of our economy or our reactions to various service delivery protests across the country. It is not uncommon to hear remarks such as “why are they behaving like hooligans” or “why don’t they just work this out with management” or “if they only understood economics of demand and supply they would not be striking over their wages”.


By definition, being a middle class individual, one has access to many privileges that many people outside of that class realities can ever access, ranging from easier access to functioning services, responsive engagement with authorities to a family holiday at least once a year. In their essay, ‘Understanding why service delivery protests take place and who is to blame’, Kevin Allan and Karen Heese comment that “it is worth remembering that the communities living in informal settlements are essentially excluded from society – they have access neither to economic nor social opportunity and find themselves on the outside looking in”.

Getting to grips with one’s privilege is complex as it is not limited to gender privilege (maleness), race privilege (whiteness) or class privilege. There are a myriad of contexts in social groupings that confer privilege relative to other groups depending on the identity and power structures they belong to. Such as being heterosexual in a hetero-normative society, being able bodied in an able-ist world or being skinny in a fat-shaming world.


These privileges need to be recognised because if they remain unchecked, the ignorance does not foster real change in how we relate to each other but rather reinforces repeated dynamics that already exist in society. Those of us who are privileged in whatever way must recognise that we do not only enjoy economic, social, and political privilege but also set the agenda in terms of what is valid or not as we often become the dominant voice in these conversations.

In continually checking our privileges, we create a process that allows us to become ’allies’ to communities we are not a part of. Being an ‘ally’ does not mean becoming a messiah for or spokesperson for ‘oppressed group’ (that in itself is perpetuating the system of privilege), nor does it mean ‘walking on eggshells’. It is first and foremost about being conscientious.

You won’t always get it right, but if someone from a marginalised group makes you aware that your behaviour is oppressive, for example, if a friend of yours who is homosexual calls you out on your homophobia that comes in the form of your ‘no homo’ jokes, then it becomes your responsibility (and not theirs) to do the work necessary to educate yourself in order to understand how and why you are being oppressive and how you can self correct. (See our ‘FURTHER READING’ section for articles on how  to become an ally)

The conversation should be about action steps to be taken by the person and not the character of the person being engaged. ‘Checking your privilege’, or in other words becoming conscientious and aware of the ways in which we can be privileged by virtue of our social identities and how we can often unknowingly participate in the disadvantaging of others is a good place to start. Then we can begin to do the work to deconstruct those systems of privilege and be true allies to each other.


READ: ‘The relativity of privilege’

READ: ‘So you call yourself an ally? 10 things all ‘allies’ need to know’

READ: ‘How to be an ally & not an asshole’

READ: ‘Checking your privilege’

  1. The mental snaps that were taking place as I was reading this are uncanny-could not have said it better myself!
    I think definitely the first place to start is interrogating our own forms and sources of privilege and naming them as such. Everybody views and experiences the world through personalized blinkers and it is necessary for us to really scrutinize systems that we are undeserved beneficiaries of. I also like the statement about problematizing how we use our privilege not only how we consume it. Privilege breeds ignorance-this is inevitable, what we can do however is understand the very fine line between being consumers of privilege and being inadvertent oppressors in the process by perpetuation and reproduction of ignorance.

  2. Great article, being an emotive article, I naturally disagree with many statements but similarly agree with much of what is said.

    Some extracts that I found thought provoking, rather than answer questions they created more questions.

    I am struggling with your quoted definition of privilege as it excludes those who have worked to be privileged, where that same privilege then is not extended to someone else. Opportunity creates more opportunities.

    undue right it gives to someone by virtue of who they are Brandson is extended privileges without asking for them by virtue of whom he is. I bet if he booked a cattle class ticket on any airline they would upgrade him for free, to first class. Is this privilege then undue? He is because of what he has done.

    notes that white South Africans make statements such as “the poor have so many children when they cannot afford to feed them? I like this statement as it creates a fantastic debate or argument about perceptions.
    One, she assumes whites were talking solely about blacks. Since I have used this statement this myself, I inferred it to anyone who could not afford to another child and yet does so. There is economics paper on small town poverty trap, where children burden their parents financially, the parents’ earned money is used to survive instead of invest, the parents then burden the children when the children begin to work, using money to survive instead of creating wealth. Those children then have their own children and the cycle is repeated. Not knowing any better is being ignorant. Does then the absence of ignorance make someone more privileged? And if one is more aware than the other due to background (schooling or upbringing) make the privilege undue?
    Secondly: what does poor imply. When I was in Tanzania many rural farmers earn less than $1 per day, but ask if they would change their lifestyle for more money, many answer no. They had a number of children, were clothed and housed on their own small farms.

    “why are they behaving like hooligans” – There is a saying that the language of the oppressed is violence. (I think Johnathan Jansen).

    The article really made me think back to the SOY day, where the kids are segregated by class and served different lunches. Later in the day, they are allowed in the auditorium but there are limited seats and Quinton asks then to those who do not have seats “Do we take away the seats from those that have so no-one has any seats”.

    I am still unclear on my view, even feeling towards the word privilege or perception of what privilege means to me. I think my struggle resonates from what is fair of the privileged or not so privileged person.

    In the South African context of limited resources, there will always be those who are more privileged than others. And if there were unlimited resources and everyone benefited equally (fairness abounds) will it remove divisions created by race or language? I don’t know.

  3. When a black person says to me that I am privileged, I feel threatened by the thought that the person is implying that I do not deserve that privilege. Am I fortunate or unduly privileged to be presented by an opportunity such as a great education, when others in my country were not? And is then the implication from both of us that only whites were afforded the privilege of great education?

    I disagree from that Farai, implying that privilege breeds ignorance, privilege is a tool, and how that tool is used is dependent of the person wielding it. I believe that the person who is privileged is in a better space to question those lies society has created, about what is and what should be. Privilege in upper class society certainly allows the comfort to ignore the lower class. Whilst the lower class have the privilege of blaming others for their position, and that they remain stuck because of their own thinking, is a structural issue that needs to be addressed.

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