Nelson Mandela Confronts White Privilege

December 20, 2013 Kristance Harlow

Nelson Mandela’s final speech to the African National Congress was in 1997, and he used the opportunity to confront white privilege. His speech made the white privileged masses shudder and react defensively with movements such as Red October. Red October is a fringe movement by some white Afrikaners who claim they are experiencing reverse racism and extreme persecution. Losing privilege is so terrifying that people who lose special privileges become fearful and claim they are experiencing the same pain as those who “used to be” persecuted. South Africans suffer with the world’s highest levels of income inequality, with the black majority at the bottom of the reversed pyramid. After 400 years of white colonial rule and only a couple of decades without apartheid, it’s terribly misinformed to think the power structure has been flipped to persecute those who “used to be” the persecutors. To no longer be automatically elevated above another does not mean you are now being oppressed.

Racism is still a problem and too many people claim that the only ones who still perpetuate racial divides are shockingly ignorant, uneducated, and misinformed. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not racist, my best friend is black so how can I be racist? I don’t see color.” This sentiment, that we somehow don’t see what someone looks like is dismissive and hurtful. It sidelines the very real experiences of racism that millions of people go through on a daily basis. Our understandings of race (and feelings about) are not homogeneous, but we live in a world dominated by racial subtexts. Limiting the opportunity for discussion about these extraordinarily important issues limits the opportunity for growth and change.

During apartheid, South Africa had a gravely specific set of rules which were used to justify legal discrimination. Lines were drawn based on pseudoscientific racial divides. Race is not a scientific term and races do not exist in a biological sense. As a species, we share 99.99 percent of our genes. Only .01 percent are estimated to affect our external appearances. In fact, the differing genes are more pronounced within a local population than between “races.” Race is not science, but it is a cultural reality. Race is a cultural construct used to rationalize inequalities, and because it is cultural it is important. To deny race and to say you are don’t see color denies the sociohistorical struggles that generations of people have suffered through and continue to suffer through. Although race is not science, it is life and whether we like it or not, countless experiences in life are affected by the ways in which race, class, ethnicity, economic power, nationality, and gender are interacted with and expressed. These interactions can be subtle or large-scale, and they can be conscious or accidental, but they affect countless facets of everyone’s lives in profound ways.

Recognizing and changing inequalities of all kinds, is what Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to. He was not seeking to reverse the power structure but to change it entirely and bring equality to his country. Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The best education occurs through dialogue and learning from others requires a very specific skill: Listening. Without listening and putting aside fear and anger and guilt, there is no way the world can move forward and experience true positive changes. Equality requires realizing your own privileges and disadvantages, listen to the stories of others, and open a dialogue that asks, “How can we learn to bring equilibrium to a world divided by discrimination?”

Nelson Mandela knew this truth well and wrote in his biography the Long Walk to Freedom, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This article originally appeared on the now defunct site for the documentary Face of Unity.

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