Who gets to say what about whom?


Anybody who’s seen Chris Rock do stand-up comedy on national TV knows the man doesn’t pull any punches. “Sometimes the people with the most ‘stuff’ get to say the least ‘stuff’, and the people with the least ‘stuff’ get to say the most ‘stuff'”, he told my white college mates and me one night as we drank beers and talked smack around the TV some seven years ago.

I’m a prude so I’ll substitute “stuff” for the artist’s more colorful term in this post, with apologies to Mr. Rock.

I laughed at his line at the time–like I laugh at most of what Chris Rock has to say–but the full meaning of his words took about seven years to settle in. Here’s what brought that skit back to mind.

A black friend recently observed that white people (wrongly) feel wronged when society calls them out for expressing their honest distaste for certain things “black”. A white friend then confessed to feeling discriminated against when personal preferences he expresses with respect to people in general happen to (be perceived to) fall along racial lines, leading to claims of “prejudice” or worse.

I like both of my friends and I appreciate the sticky spot the latter is in, in spite of having the very best of intentions. But I’m afraid my white friend’s conundrum is a rather small price to pay for having lots of “stuff”.

You see, one of the perks of being white in the 21st century (and for many centuries past) is that you start and finish life with a lot more “stuff”, on average, than people of different races. That’s just a stubborn fact. Unlike centuries past, however, one of the perks of being white these days is not the right to speak down to or disparage people of color in public–or seem to be doing as much in spite of your good intentions. Perceptions matter. Unconscious bias is real.

To the former perk, my white South African friends and I like to think of ourselves as “middle class”, but I’m afraid that’s only true if we define the “middle” as falling in the top ten percent. That’s the group of people–mostly white–who take home sixty percent of the country’s income each year, and the group in which we’re privileged to find ourselves. It’s a far cry from the bottom half of South Africans–all black–who live on a couple of dollars a day or less and take home a combined ten percent of income. It doesn’t help that most went to failing schools and are structurally unemployed…

Which isn’t to say that we white folks didn’t work hard to get where we are and that our efforts don’t make some contribution to the greater good. I believe my friends and I did and do.

But the fact remains that my working hard at a desk under present circumstances happens to earn me tens of thousands of Rands a month (thanks in no small part to my being born to white professional parents with university degrees), while the black lady who works hard cleaning the office where I work takes home a fraction of what I earn.

Can we agree that white people tend to have a disproportionate share of “stuff”?

As for the second non-perk of being white these days, I return to the inimitable Chris Rock. To make his point, Rock defends the right of short guys to talk stuff about tall guys, but when tall guys talk stuff about short guys, Rock tells us, “That’s just mean!” Need I say more?

The point about race isn’t lost.

Being born white instead of black in the 21st century, whether in South Africa or the United States, is not unlike being born tall instead of short. Tall guys aren’t any better than short guys, morally speaking. They don’t have any more rights, as far as the black-letter law is concerned. Nor can they take any credit for their height. But long before they were born short or tall, society decreed that the average man topping six feet would earn more money, date prettier women, get better promotions, and enjoy a better standard of living than the average man who didn’t quite reach the bar, even after controlling for other factors. That’s another stubborn fact.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and I’m all for letting them be known. But the fact remains that the pathways to worldly success just aren’t the same above and below the six foot line in the society in which we presently live. Nor are they the same for white and black.

The upshot for Mr. Rock? “If you wanna say more ‘stuff’, get rid of some of your ‘stuff’!”

To my white friend, and to myself, I say: until we find the strength to get rid of more of our stuff, I guess we’ll just have to learn to not say stuff about people who don’t have much stuff.

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