It’s been a while since something I’ve read has bothered me as much as Martin Young’s article in the Mail & Guardian did. Entitled “Whiteness is like Herpes,” it was bound to get a strong response. If you haven’t read it, do.
Having thought it through rationally using all my powers of reason and removing emotion entirely, I think the article would read better if the word Whiteness were replaced throughout by the word Privilege.
The word Whiteness assumes that skin colour is inextricably linked to wealth and privilege, which may be the case in post apartheid South Africa. But by using the word Privilege instead, the analogy is suddenly open to the world, to the whole of the human condition.
So I have taken the liberty of doing just that, and I think it reads quite nicely, if I do say so myself. All the words are Dr.Martin Young’s, except the word Privilege, which I used instead of Whiteness.
Privilege is like herpes
You know now that you have it but prefer not to talk about it. Every now and then it surfaces like a rash, provoking discomfort, not in you, but in others. You have lived with it for so long that for most of your life you didn’t even notice it. In fact, you were surprised when someone, unable themselves by virtue of their income level to have it, discovered that you did, and pointed it out. The diagnosis hurt. It was uncomfortable knowing that others saw in you something that was damaging to them, but not directly to you.
And now there are calls to have those with Privilege pay for the damage it has done to others. This makes you uncomfortable, knowing that, like herpes, you cannot eradicate Privilege from your own being. It is just there. Subliminal, under the surface, unseen by you and others like you.
To others Privilege is as glaringly obvious as a flashing neon sign, like the trappings of privilege in good residential addresses, private schooling, the latest smartphones and flashy cars. More worryingly, Privilege manifests in an absence of empathy and understanding of the distorted benefit that those with it enjoy. This is one reason why those without it fear contamination or infection by the same values. This is why Privilege is a barrier to good relationships, just like undisclosed herpes.
There may be a solution however. This can be learnt from those who have herpes, or hepatitis or HIV and have managed to successfully and happily live without causing harm to others. The infection does not go away but its consequences are significantly reduced to the point that it becomes simply a part of one’s identity, and not a disease.
This solution could be as easy as simply saying something like this:
“I have Privilege. I didn’t know what it was and didn’t know what damage it did. But I do know now. I understand and acknowledge all the harm that I and others like me did, even without realising it. I am sorry for the way that things were and are. I accept Privilege exists in me, and am willing to talk about it, and listen as to how it affects others, so that those effects may be reduced and one day eradicated. I know this will not happen immediately, that it will take time, and that others with the same will probably resist this initiative. From time to time my Privilege may get in the way again, and I may not see it. I ask that those that do point it out to me. We need to talk about Privilege and its harm at all levels, as we do with disease, by education starting in the schools, being sure that those with it bear no stigma. We must have open and frank dialogue, overcoming our discomfort, until one day Privilege at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing, no longer exists.”
I believe this is possible. I know it is unavoidable if we are to heal this land.