The most important thing to understand about white privilege is to understand what it’s not. Privilege is not the same as wealth. When we hear the word "privilege" we automatically think of pampered rich people who live lives of ease and extravagance, and that’s simply not the experience of all white South Africans.

Many white people come from working-class or middle-class families that have had to work hard for what they have. So when we hear the words "white privilege", we become defensive because we think our hardships and hard work are being dismissed. But the word privilege has nothing to do with wealth. It simply refers to some advantage or immunity that only a certain group get to enjoy.

My mom grew up dirt poor. She was one of eight children; her father lost his leg fighting in the Second World War and the family had to get by on a meagre government disability pension. My dad was the son of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country with absolutely nothing. They worked themselves out of poverty, and I’m sure they would have argued that they were never given a hand up or handout.

But here’s the thing: the reason they were able to work their way up was because they were white. Their whiteness meant their hard work was allowed to amount to something.

Jeppe’s rugby team is currently ranked seventh in the country. The first-team players have worked hard. They train at 5am and their coach is one of the hardest taskmasters in the business. Their hard work has secured them a high ranking.

But if Jeppe suddenly had to compete against all schools in the southern hemisphere, then no matter how hard we worked we would almost certainly slip in the rankings.

Similarly, if Jeppe only had to compete against Johannesburg schools we would probably be ranked number one. The effort of the players wouldn’t have changed, but the pool they were competing in would have. Just like the job market my parents were competing in 40 years ago, the size of the pool changed their chances of success.

No one is saying white people don’t work hard. It’s just that the hard work they do is allowed to amount to something because the pool is rigged in their favour. Would my mother have been able to achieve what she did in life if, instead of competing against the 20 or so other white applicants, she was competing against 10,000 who were just as qualified as she was? I doubt it. It was because of her whiteness that we, as a family, were allowed to accumulate wealth and improve our lives.

Imagine playing a video game in which the save function was disabled and you were unable to accumulate experience points. That’s what it was like being black during apartheid. No matter how hard you worked, or how much money you earned, you couldn’t own land, businesses or homes. You couldn’t buy your kids a house in a safer suburb, or buy them a better education. Every generation started back at zero. Being white was like being the only one with a save function. Everyone was working through the game, but only white people got to accumulate an advantage.

I want to make this clear: saying that white people enjoy a privilege is not saying that their lives are easy or that they haven’t worked hard. White people are not immune to the human condition; they suffer loss and hardship like everyone else.

White privilege is simply a preference for whiteness that saturates our society. It’s all around us. But if you are white it’s sometimes hard to see the privilege because you’re in it, and it’s all you’ve known. It’s like asking a fish to notice water. For example, plasters are one of many products that have been designed just for white people. The so-called flesh-coloured plasters only match a white skin tone. More than 80% of our population is black. That’s more than 40-million people in SA alone, so don’t tell me there’s no market, and yet pharmaceutical companies specifically cater to the needs of less than 10% of the population — white people. It’s a privilege to have your needs acknowledged and catered for.

As a white person, when I get a job or make a team I enjoy the privilege of people assuming I earned it. People do not assume I got where I am because of my race or because of affirmative action. When I walk in to teach a new class at the beginning of a school year my accent and name are unlikely to result in my students questioning my credentials or competence.

White people also have the privilege of options. Whether it’s dolls, books or greeting cards, it’s white people’s needs that are being catered for. Some might argue that these examples amount to nothing more than an inconvenience, but I would argue that constant and daily messages that you are somehow "less than" because of the colour of your skin shapes your sense of self and limits your sense of the possibilities for your life.

If you’re looking for more obvious, more severe examples, I can provide those too. About two years ago, while walking through Woolworths picking up the week’s groceries, my wife was stopped by a wannabe "good Samaritan" who warned her to keep an eye on her belongings as the boy walking behind her might try to take something from her handbag. The boy was my son, Oliver. He was four at the time. Since my son is black and my wife is white, I can understand there may have been some confusion over whether they were together. But why assume he was stealing? Because before she saw my son’s age, she saw his colour. You see, if you are black, even as a child, you do not have the privilege of being presumed innocent.

And that’s not just an inconvenience. It can be deadly. How many cases have we heard of innocent, unarmed black teenagers being shot by police for "looking suspicious", or for walking through a neighbourhood others didn’t think they belonged in?

As a white man I benefit daily from the colour of my skin. Daily. And let’s just remember what that privilege comes from. I benefit because crimes against humanity were committed — torture, murder, rape, humiliation, oppression … that’s the source of my advantage. That’s not easy to admit. That’s one of the reasons many white people respond so defensively when the topic comes up. I think the other reason is that when you are used to privilege – when you are accustomed to it — equality feels like oppression.

So what should white people do with this? Making you feel bad about yourselves is certainly not my intention, nor is it helpful. But I will tell you what I feel is an appropriate way to respond. Stop denying it. Stop pretending it isn’t real. Just acknowledge it. You have been given an unfair advantage.

So use it. Do something meaningful with it. Or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t deny it. Your denial is not harmless. It’s criminal. Times columnist Tom Eaton compared it to "walking into a blood-spattered room and not seeing anything amiss". If you can’t see that a crime has been committed, if you refuse to acknowledge the injustice, then no matter how generous a person you imagine yourself to be "you are subtly working to defeat the ends of justice".

• Leathem is a deputy principal, and Bechus a teacher, at Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg. This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the school. The full transcript is available at