Should economists heed call to measure ‘white men’s privilege’ in emerging economies?

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White privilege in emerging economies isn’t measured, but it should be, argues a South African researcher. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of the University of the Witwatersrand has been looking that the role ‘white men’s privilege’ in particular plays in modern, growing economies. She comes to the conclusion, based on her studies, that skin colour is a major factor in closing deals in India as well as South Africa. Many white men, meanwhile, might be wondering whether this could possibly be true. My own ‘white male’ husband was told he was ‘too white’ by an HR colleague at a South African institution some years back, sparking a rethink on the future. Many of my ‘white male’ friends have been retrenched from the media sector over the years as organisations like the Independent Media group and others continue to roll out plans to change the complexion of their businesses. Job advertisements blatantly discriminate against ‘white men’ as black economic empowerment laws are implemented across business and government. I’d be hard-pressed to identify a ‘white man’ working in a cushy government job today. Of course, there are some white men who are obviously privileged and make the headlines for amassing wealth, in part because of their efforts but also because of their privileged status in society. Improved levels of education that have come from being born into white households undoubtedly create additional advantages for many. As the South African economy crumbles and its diaspora spreads, many black South African men as well as white South African men are seeking opportunities elsewhere. According to Myambo, black men come up against much discrimination in the world. She calls for economists to identify ways to measure the role of white privilege, expecting this to increase in emerging markets as India and China claim ever-increasing chunks of the global GDP pie. Some might welcome scientific moves to measure white privilege with a view to demystifying race-based assumptions that have a real impact on people’s livelihoods. – Jackie Cameron

By Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

On the same day I interviewed a white Dutch man living in Gurugram, just south of New Delhi, I spoke with a black Congolese migrant. Their contradictory experiences speak eloquently about the impact of skin colour on shaping migrants’ everyday experiences. The Conversation

The Dutch gentleman, who is in his 30s, told me he increased his business team’s success rate in closing business deals just by showing up.

If you bring a Western guy … then they really feel important, so if I come in there I almost feel like a God. […] Honestly, every meeting where I have been, they give me business afterwards … I always see that the business is increasing when I’ve been there. Not that because I’m so good, [but] because I’m a Western guy.

The Congolese gentleman had been living in India for about a decade. He had recently lost his job and been evicted from his apartment. He suspected that in both cases his dark skin was to blame. Africans have a very hard time finding housing in South Delhi’s more middle-class colonies because people don’t like to rent to Africans. Africans also report being vulnerable to sudden evictions and being harassed for rent money even when it’s not due.

The Dutch man’s white privilege makes him more effective in the workplace. It also imbues him with special status in the gated residential community where he lives with his family. He rents rather than owning an apartment, but was invited to sit in on meetings with homeowners – a privilege not extended to Indian tenants.

Flag map of South Africa

The Dutch and Congolese men’s experiences are echoed in many emerging market economies. My research focuses on migration and globalisation, primarily on what I call “frontier migration”: the movement of people, capital, technology and ideas from a more “developed” economy to one that’s less “developed”. Through my work in India and earlier research in South Africa, I have concluded that migrant experience is over determined by perceived socio-economic class and what the migrant looks like – eye shape, height, hair texture and race.

Traditional economists cannot quantify or measure the effect of white male privilege in facilitating business dealings or obtaining employment in emerging market economies. This is because white privilege cannot be easily measured. Ironically, part of whiteness’ privilege derives from its position as the “norm” against which all else can be made visible for dissection. Meanwhile, it remains almost invisible itself.

Social and economic capital

In both South Africa and particularly in India, white men from the west benefit from positive stereotypes. People believe they are wealthy, are a boon to the economy and are “legal” migrants.

In India, one factor stands out far above the rest. Almost every single white man from a “developed” country whom I interviewed candidly explained the positive effect his white skin had on his migration experience. Many felt a mixture of discomfort and surprise at the power they’d gained by moving from a white-majority society to a white-minority society. At home they looked like everybody else. In a country like India, their whiteness set them apart.

Read also: Max du Preez: White privilege a bigger enemy than Zuma

It also gave them an exponential social and economic advantage. They report being ushered into nightclubs and concerts and, according to one 20-something American man living in Bangalore, receive a lot of positive attention on dating apps like Tinder.

Whiteness is a selling point for many employers. I interviewed a British man in his 60s who was the headmaster at an elite South Indian private school. During a speech to parents, he explained that he was happy to relocate to India because one of his great-grandparents was actually Indian. His employers were unhappy that he’d mentioned this Indian heritage. Part of the school’s cachet and competitive advantage derived from having a “genuine white guy” in charge.

White women and darker-skinned migrants have very different migration experiences from their white male counterparts.

Read also: Michael McWilliams on White Privilege and how to get it

In India, particularly in the north, dark skin is associated with poverty and being low-caste. British colonialism exacerbated this prejudice. Indians discriminate against others based on their degree of “darkness”. Darker Indians also struggle with this, but dark-skinned African foreigners are the most severely hit by this prejudice.

This has been grimly illustrated by a spate of mob attacks on Africans in north India.

“Fairness” is associated with being high-caste. This is often correlated with a higher socio-economic status, so lighter skinned foreigners also benefit from this positive bias. A white South African man told me he feels “very welcome” in India because most Indians perceive him as a white Westerner, not an African.

Measuring white privilege

ChinaThere is no simple way to quantify the impact of white privilege in the global economy. But economists should join sociologists and post colonial scholars in trying to do so. Countries like India and China represent greater and greater shares of global GDP. As they grow, the role of white privilege in their economies will likely increase as well.

I have argued in my research that it’s important to speak about the global ethnic economy. Whether one is studying the role of entrepreneurs in increasing growth or trying to understand labour market dynamics, factors like race, ethnicity, gender and so on should be accounted for. This will deepen our understanding of daily global transactions.