Kathy Walters: Facing your privilege for the greater good
On my recent trip to South Africa, I wanted to come face to face with privilege — my white, upper-middle class and American advantages. For I believed privilege was keeping me complacent and Africa’s contrasts, with its sweeping black poverty and extreme white wealth of the few, would be the catalyst I needed.
Part of my trip to Africa was to take part in a five-day personal growth retreat by Martha Beck, life coach and best-selling author, at the luxurious Londolozi resort in South Africa. Londolozi is a world-class safari camp and is well-known for its dedication to sustainability, environmental restoration and rural education programs. When I arrived, I was floored by its beautiful and elegant setting, landscape, architecture and art, as well as enormous guest suites and magnanimous service.
At dawn, after staff’s cheerful “good morning” and a delivered tray of coffee and biscuits, we’d take off in Range Rovers with hot water bottles under lap blankets to find wild animals. When we found an animal, the driver would turn off the engine and we’d look and listen. By agreement, every game drive was silent so we might simply learn how “to be.” Now instead of hearing our thoughts, we’d hear the grinding of an acacia branch in an elephant’s mouth, sand sifting from her clump of grass, her harrumph of breath. Then, back at the camp’s large deck overlooking the river valley, our small group would discuss, over a delectably nutritious brunch and later lunch, what beliefs, emotions, or repetitive mental narratives might be keeping us stuck. After that we were free to indulge in their gym, yoga classes, or spa and wellness treatments at their healing center. Mid-afternoon was another silent game drive, only to return at dark to another healthy delicious feast with white linen tablecloths, dozens of lit lanterns and a blazing wood fire. Needless to say, at the end of the day as I lay under my thick down comforter and mosquito netting draped bed, I was blissed out.
But I was also uncomfortable — mentally and emotionally uncomfortable. Before Londolozi I’d visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg with its graphic details of what happens when black lives are stolen because of white man’s greed and fear. All this lavishness made me feel a part of the white man’s greed. At Londolozi, as with all my South African experiences, almost all business owners and management staff were white and service staff was black. And I started to wonder if Londolozi had it all wrong. Wouldn’t it help to break through the blindness of our privileges if the safari experience was harsher, maybe some cold porridge, a cot and tent.
So on our last day I cornered Bronwyn Varty, daughter of the camp’s founder and told Bron of my desire to see through privilege and how I wondered about their philosophy of luxury. Looking quizzically at me, she said something like, “But privilege is irrelevant. We want our guests to experience what it is like to just be.” “Oh,” I said, somewhat surprised. I stared into Bron’s eyes and reflected back was a deeply committed and powerful gaze. Then I looked around at her staff and was reminded again of their generous emotional abundance and physical presence. Caught off guard, I attributed my curiosity to cultural differences and replied, “Well, maybe privilege is just an American obsession.”
Later, though, I saw how privilege might be a useful sociologically but is not useful personally. Yes, all that luxury did spotlight privilege but if we don’t transform our inner landscape, we may stay stuck on the outer landscape — on differences instead of similarities. Londolozi’s sensory rich retreat for their guests was the best way to awaken the spirit and make that transformation. Cultivating self-worth, of which self-care is one important path, is how we’re propelled to do our best. As many have said, “to change ourselves is to change the world” and Londolozi in its luxurious elegance, hard-pressed against the natural animal world and South African social struggles, was an exquisite way to learn how to be that change.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.