Managing white privilege in the context of white female employers’ relationships with black female domestic workers in contemporary South Africa.
Phyfer, Joanne Teresa.
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For many years whiteness has been a neglected topic of study globally, but within the last 20 years academics have made great strides in theorising it. In South Africa, a country with a history of violent racial oppression, understanding the functioning of white privilege holds great relevance for understanding the continued racial hierarchies and race-based tensions in the country. This study sought to investigate the functioning of white privilege in the current setting with a particular focus on the ways in which whites make sense of the continued economic and social privilege they enjoy in post-apartheid South Africa. This was done by examining how white female employers of black African female domestic workers managed their privileged identity in talk about their relationships, considering the moral dilemmas attached to employing a domestic worker. Through the use of a Google+ online community, twelve white female employers from an affluent suburb in KwaZulu-Natal participated in this study, contributing their thoughts and reflections about their relationship with their employees to an online focus groups. This data was analysed using a broadly Foucauldian discourse analysis method, drawing guidance from Willig (2008) and others. Analysis identified patterns of accounting for the participants’ racial identity that suggested that the participants were actively working to produce favourable identity in their talk, despite the unfavourable positioning in which identifying as an employer of domestic worker placed them. This was found to be achieved in two key ways, by either constructing themselves as more moral than their employee (relational morality style) or constructing themselves as more moral than other whites (functional morality style). The participants worked to prove that they were virtuous, ethical people as means of undoing the unflattering characteristics associated with whiteness in South Africa. The findings of this study suggested that through managing how their morality is perceived, whites are able to reconcile their privileged whiteness with post-apartheid.