The Tribune is running a year-long feature called “Exploring Race,” edited by Dawn Turner Trice. A recent blog post asks, “Is white privilege real?” (I must note that whenever I hear questions framed in this manner, I tend to have an immediate assumption about the content. Because here we have to answer the question of whether white privilege is ‘real’ before we can ever talk about privilege.) Quick summary: white woman grew up poor, went to college and is still poor. She doesn’t believe she has known white privilege.
I was going to address this earlier, but it just made me sigh. Plus there are a couple of posters who adequately explained the concept of privilege. So I’m just going to address the things that stood out for me in the essay.
First, the author notes that she was expelled from high school for truancy. Yet none of the vitriolic responses chastise her for “not valuing education” or “not finishing school” or “not having parents who knew the value of hard work.” All of these sentiments are expressed. However, they are all directed towards black people.
Second, she believes that she has not experienced privilege. One of the main ways privilege functions is through its invisibility. I was thinking about this recently because of a white friend who had been stopped by the police while carrying a large amount of an illegal substance. He wasn’t arrested. Rather, the police officer scattered the drug and told him to stay out of trouble.
And this is one of the ways in which I believe privilege functions. White people give other white people the benefit of the doubt, maybe even when it’s not deserved.
The writer also notes as follows:
Yet, because I am white, some people think that I must be a felon or extremely lazy because of my lot.
During my job search, I noticed that when I would go to a job bank, I was treated differently in comparison to minorities. The agents grilled me, not to help me get a job, but to find out why I didn’t have one. They wanted to know what I had done to make myself so poor. They also asked why I didn’t have a family member who could help me. Did they ask this just because I’m white?
I know that many people of color have this belief about poor white people, and I think it is deeply rooted in beliefs about white supremacy as well as an understanding of privilege that eclipses other factors. My mother, for example, is extremely disparaging about poor white people. It’s another version of the “bootstrap” myth. With my mother it goes like this: Our family never asked for a handout and we worked hard and look where we all are now. And we did this when people wouldn’t give us a job because of our color and when we didn’t speak English.
The problem with this myth is that it ignores the very real complexities of poverty.
I think that there are two big problems with being white and poor in America. One is that the face of the poor, as presented by the media, is largely black. Although there are more white people on aid than black people, when most people think of “welfare recipients” the faces they picture are black.
This renders poor whites invisible. And being invisible isn’t helpful when it comes to getting assistance. How can white poverty be addressed if it is largely unacknowledged?
The second problem I see with being white and poor is that white people have been so thoroughly steeped in the idea of white supremacy that their expectations are unrealistic. On some level, they believe in the meritocracy. They believe that the system should reward them. And when it doesn’t, they are angry and bitter and resentful.
They are perhaps especially resentful of people of color who appear to have succeeded. (I am reminded of a friend with a very nice car, who was startled to have a white woman approach at a stoplight, stick her head in the window, and snarl, “Where’d YOU get the money to pay for this?” And look at how white people talk about how Barack Obama must have been an affirmative action admit. People, the man is smart. How can you deny that?)
You can hear the resentment from the essayist (the black financial aid officer, the black students at her college) as well as in some of the comments:
Lets see….my grandparents were european immigrants who worked in the coal mines of Scranton, Pa. They were exploited beyond imagination. My parents worked hard, they never had an opportunity to attend college but they provided a relatively safe albeit modest life for their four children. I put myself through college and grad school, waitressing along the way, taking classes at night.
Tonight, I came home from another 12 hour day working in the nursing profession and I look at my pay check and half of it is gone…poof. In this country we are required to support those who don’t support themselves.
I’m 50 years old and my kids will likely have to work their way through college. There are no grants, funds or scholarships for my white privileged honor student children. My kids work hard for their grades but no rewards for my white privileged kids.
No one in my family has every been arrested, we have all contributed to our communities in a positive way, it’s almost genetic for us. We appreciate every night we have a warm bed and a good meal. We don’t litter. We go out of our way to help our neighbors.
We have never taken a dime of any entitlement program. We have far too much pride for that.
I don’t know what that poster expected, but I do know that many, many people do expect that their children will work their way through college. With everything that she states her family is, it seems like she is implying that this is what people of color are not.
And it feels like there is a very real resentment aimed at people of color in this message, because it seems like the poster (as well as the original essayist) is angry that she has played by the rules, but the game hasn’t gone the way that it should.