Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

More on Privilege


A few days ago I did the Privilege meme, devised by PhD students at Illinois State University as way to get people thinking and talking about privilege as a way to think and talk about class. The model is US-centric, which I found doing it, as a couple of questions weren’t relevant to me or the education system I came from. I did it out of interest anyway, but came away with a sense of unease that it hadn’t begun to reflect the privileges I grew up with in apartheid South Africa. Mandarine noticed this and commented:

This is sobering indeed. Especially when I consider that I used to believe South African whites were all spoilt kids, but that I score much higher (25/34) than you (18/34) on this ‘test’.

Actually Mandarine, white South Africans were all spoilt kids. I’ve devised some additional questions to the meme, which do reveal the level of our privilege.

Bold the true statements. You can explain further if you wish.

1. You had live-in domestic help when growing up.
Until my parents were divorced and then we had a domestic worker who came Monday to Friday. She bussed into the city from an outlying township.
2. That help was expected to clean house and take care of small children simultaneously.
Absolutely. I was strapped on the back of my nanny while she swept and cleaned.
3. You had two domestic workers: someone to clean the house and someone whose sole responsibility was child-care.
4. There was additional part-time domestic help in your home: someone to assist with domestic chores such as ironing or someone to garden.
Yes, a gardener came a couple of days a week.
5. You were not expected to take responsibility for any domestic chores.
I learnt how to cook and how to operate a washing machine at university. I was not expected to do any chores at home, though I did help my mother clear the dishes in the evenings when our domestic worker had gone home.
6. Your schooling received more government funding than the schooling of others.
7. Your tertiary education received more government funding than the schooling of others.
8. The training of your teachers and professors received more government funding than the teacher training of others.
9. Your schools had better facilities than the schools of others.
10. You lived in suburbs with running water, electricity, large houses and big gardens; suburbs where others were forbidden by law from living.
11. On leaving school or university, you were more likely to be hired for the job of your choice than others.
12. You presumed you would enter a profession on leaving university; blue-collar work was never an option for you.
I began working in 1992, and in 1994 the new government started its affirmative action programme for people who were previously disadvantaged. Had I stayed in South Africa, I would probably have had to work for myself or start my own company as most of my friends have done. Luckily, their privileged education means they have the tools and the wherewithal to do this.
13. You or your parents did not have to travel long distances to work because your suburb was near the city centre.
14. You did not have to travel long distances to school because there were many schools in your suburb.
15. You routinely went on holiday to the beach or the game reserve.
16. Your parents or friends’ parents routinely had overseas holidays.

In apartheid South Africa, privilege was bound up less with class than with race. It’s become more class-related now, as a black professional middle-class that enjoys many of the above privileges grows. However, as a product of apartheid, I have to acknowledge that I was unfairly privileged above others on the superficial basis of my skin.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “More on Privilege

  1. How fascinating, Charlotte. My godmother lives in Cape Town and I can remember as a small child being told by my mother about her servants. I simply could not imagine such a thing and thought it the height of luxury. Although of course, what you are born with is what you are used to, and it’s changes in status or condition that really hit home. I wonder whether the same authors could identify the elements of a happy childhood?

  2. Good for you for adding what seem to me to be much more relevant information than the initial exercise included.

  3. Charlotte, I think every country has additional questions that are relevant only to that country. Even within each country there are probably sub-cultures which also make distinctions of privilege. Thank you for pointing this out.

  4. My husband and friends who grew up with apartheid have always (as adults now living in the more equitable social strata of the UK) been somewhat embarrassed by the preferential treatment they enjoyed as part of the “privilege” of their skin colour. They’re not embarrassed because they had advantages – they’re embarrassed because many of those advantages came at the expense of others.

  5. This is really interesting. I think I commented on your other post that it seemed US-centric. Having a phone in a child’s room, for example, is not something people in certain countries would expect no matter how wealthy they were. And in the US, very few of us have live-in servants, even those who are quite comfortable. Not to mention that if a younger person who had grown up with a cell phone took this survey, the phone in the room thing would be meaningless. Now they all have phones in their pockets, at least here.

  6. You know what, I think that if you change the meaning of “others” to “poorer neighborhoods”, I score almost as high as you on this too (a ‘live nearby domestic help’ is just a politically correct live-in servant, except that she has to commute by bus daily to and from her rotten neighborhood). And I did not grow up in Brazil or Colombia: I am speaking about upper-middle-class intellectual French upbringing. Sobering indeed, huh?

  7. What a wonderful evolution of our simple experience. Privilege, based on race, on class, on gender, is everywhere. By the way, the experience comes from Indiana State University, and yes, it is US centric because we built it that way. It was our hope to see it modified as you have done.

  8. Well done on your relevant modifications. And our answers remain the same – in fact pretty much every white child of our age would have to answer yes to pretty much all the questions that related to the systemic imbalances that apartheid produced. It was not as if our parents chose to send us to a school that was more heavily subsidised that the schools of others – we had no choice! That described ALL white schools. The servants thing is interesting too – because every friend I have in South Africa still has servants – it is definitely more of an economic divide than a racial one. That said, many of my friends in London have a cleaning lady, albeit one who comes in once a week as opposed to every day. Even within the realms of those who had servants, there were variations though. Our cleaning ladies never cooked, never lived in and never workd weekends. My mom also made it clear to us that she was there to clean, not tidy up after us, so we had to make sure our rooms were tidy every night so that she could clean in the morning.

    But yes – it was almost impossible to be a white child in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and not be privileged.

  9. I had seen this meme before, but your answers provide interesting insight. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Quite a fascinating post, thanks.

  11. This is really interesting. I like this meme and your adaptations – it’s made me view myself and the world in a different way.

  12. Oh, these are really interesting adaptations.

    Not only did my parents have a number of domestic helpers over the years, (cook, cleaner, gardener), I’ve regularly employed cleaners myself over the years. And a gardener, too, thinking about it.

    Mind you, I tend to clean along side them, partly because I canNOT sit on my arse while someone else is cleaning, and partly because it’s the best possible way to get the gossip.

    How interesting.


  13. Pingback: The Privilege meme « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

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