The complexities of borrowed privilege


Gosiame Legoale says that those who live in close proximity to privilege need to interrogate their behaviours.

Proximity to privilege comes with complimentary blinkers and I’m from a class that gladly dons our blinkers. With our blinkers on, we become the harshest critics of those who operate a class below us. Empathy, it seems, becomes more of a novelty the higher up the food chain you get.

White people are born into privilege and can largely get away with casting a judgmental eye on the plight of the poor and less fortunate. They make little effort to recognise the foot up they’re afforded from birth – or the generations-deep ditch that the poor must dig their way out of just to get an even footing. It’s simply not their concern. The ever-expanding gap between the haves and have-nots is no longer their burden to bare. It’s potholes that matter, not the fact that we’re still living in an unequal society.

It’s been 20-plus years in the so-called democracy that promised change, but only a select few benefit. For some black people, who may find themselves but an arm’s-length from those benefits, our view is that it’s only hooligans who burn down buildings in protest of a state that still leaves us largely oppressed. Our concerns are for insured buildings and the unsettling effect arson has on those with reservations at the dinner table. Ours is a condition largely accepting of the status quo simply because we’re satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the tables of the privileged. We incorporate their fears as our own; their whims become our whims, we perpetuate the class divide and inadvertently justify their stance on whiteness.

Theirs is a belief that the privileges that come with whiteness are a myth, and the closer we are to their orbit, the more we reinforce their illicit views. When students at Pretoria Girls High stood up to fight systemic racism, decades after the first black pupils matriculated and moved on, it highlighted how we’ve accepted the status quo, and how we’ve become the protectors of that privilege.

During conversations about rugby, we pose as the flag bearers for the term “merit” and conveniently ignore the racially charged connotations of the word. We call into radio stations and lament how those who want their voices heard continuously compromise rules that were never set with them in mind the first place. We cannot fathom the disdain they show the systems currently holding them hostage; the very systems that have us exhibiting traits of Stockholm Syndrome.

The current mood in the country is of frustration and angst. This is the holding pattern we’re stuck in since we were sold the urban legend of the rainbow nation.

We see it in self-serving leaders for whom empathy with the poor and working class is no more than a matter of political gain. We judge people’s intelligence based on their accents. We engage in poverty shaming without a thought because we’re afraid of embarrassing the kind hosts that have us feeding from the edges of their dinner table.

Our borrowed privilege must taste so nice.

Featured image via Facebook


  1. On point Siame, I support and am impressed with what you wrote! The sooner we stop belittling those beneath us and creating more communal and generational wealth as opposed to individual opulence, tbe sooner we dig ourselves out the ditch that is underprivileged… As a society and not selected few who are all too eager to be mini caucasians!

  2. It’s borrowed? No. Privilege is bestowed, not borrowed. And once it’s been bestowed, you can’t “un-bestow” it (though it can be taken away from you with disturbing ease by those who bestow it). You can’t pretend you’re just “holding it for somebody else”. This is how privilege works.

  3. So heres the think I dont get. Im not white but my family is well off. Not because we had someone give us an “equal footing” but because my parents worked their asses off to get us here. My dad stayed in a two ROOM house in a family of 6.My granparents never graduated. My one grandfather was a driver(not the fancy kind just a driver at a company) and my other grandfather was a salesman that was at times unemployed. My dad got his degree through hard effing work. He managed to do amazingly well eniugh even with the crap teachers they had back in the day in nonwhite schools and with the test level of that time being miles above what it is now. He worked hard every year so that his marks were high enough that wits gave him a scholarship every year to study. His parents covered him for food and transport but he also worked as a waiter on the side to ensure he had enough. And sure you might say he is an wxception but the fact is Ive heard tons of similiar stories from other indian people I know. How do I or the goverment or any white person even qiantify how much of their success is due to unfair practices or pure hardwork?

    And let me be clear I wont be the one to say that its a race thing (although it may be fair to point out that indian people do strongly encourage their kids to study, I cant comment on other races cause I dont want to speak for them). The fact is we as indians are a much smaller community. So its pretty easy for most of us to be better off than most black people. BUT we live in a country that is majority black….is it surprising that majority of poor eople are black.


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