Monday, May 25, 2009

Ebony and Irony

White Trash Blues: Class Privilege vs. White Privilege

Jennifer Kesler has some good points in this post from the blog Blind Privilege (see below for her comments indented after mine), and the comment stream is worth reading as well. I don't necessarily believe everything she believes, but a lot of it rang true for me. I grew up knowing black people from TV, but nowhere else. When I was eleven or so, my great-aunt died and I found out I had cousins who were of mixed race. That was the first I'd heard of it: no one had ever mentioned it before. So my mother and I (my father worked, of course) rode from Elmira NY to Albany NY by bus for the funeral, and even now I remember it not being much fun. It was all stress all the time when we got there, as family secrets got blown up and out of proportion and I skated around my just-told-about cousins' race as I knew I ought to, but my grandfather didn't. That's all I'll say about that.

Then my cousin David asked if he could take me around the city. My mother hesitated--she had been the one keeping the secret from me, after all--and then said yes. I'd like to say I wasn't nervous, but I was. I remember struggling with what I knew was the right thing to do--I wasn't a Boy Scout for nothing--but stopped worrying when I found out David and I read the same authors of what were then called 'men's fiction:' Mack Bolan, Eric Van Lustbader, some others. We also shared the same passion for martial arts movies. We got into his car and drove around, where I was introduced to and talked with his friends, and he bought me pop and a candy bar. We came back. End of story.

The next black person I met was in high school, several years later.


One other relevant bit from my life. I noticed no class distinctions when I was younger. I knew we didn't have much money, but I was almost proud of that, not envious of other kids who seemed to have more. We made it through life, the way other people around us did. My dad worked construction six or seven months every year for 60+ hours a week, then relaxed for the winter, able to live, albeit not terribly well, on unemployment compensation during the winter. We had a big-ass garden, my brother and father kept us in venison during the season and the winter, and often Dad would help butcher cows in exchange for some of the meat. During this trip my mother and I took to Albany, though, we were in a tough stretch. Dad didn't get called back to work for two years or so, and everything seemed tight. He and my mother picked apples, he picked up mechanic's work when he could, he even ended up doing these odd jobs for neighbors, jobs that usually fell to me or my brother. I remember distinctly, when prodded to join the conversation, that I said to my newly-met cousin Roy: "Do you know my entire outfit cost a dollar at the Salvation Army?" Roy laughed uncertainly. My grandparents, already drunk, laughed. My mother reddened up, and after a bit, I figured out I had said something I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have mentioned it because it was clear as we sat in their big house in the city drinking from fancy china cups, that the way we lived was different.

This is the last bit of personal stuff. This past year my 20-year high school reunion came up. With a newborn and an ill wife, I knew I wouldn't make it, but via Facebook and other means I reconnected with some old classmates, one of whom I spoke with on the phone, and after the usual exchanges--kids job family--I mentioned the subject matter of my writing--rural, Appalachian, somewhat depressing--and he listened, fairly interested, I guess, until I mentioned my just-post-college discovery that some of the scholarship money I used to get through my undergrad career was money designated for "poor kids from the area." "I didn't know my family were part of a rural poor demographic like that," I said. He said,"that's because nobody had any money where we grew up." I cogitated on that for days after I got off the phone, and that's where my fascination begins. There's no end in sight.

"If you blog about white privilege, you’re probably sick to death of people playing the “white trash” card in your comments. Their argument usually goes something like this:
  • “Being white didn’t give me all these privileges you’re talking about.”
  • “I know plenty of [minority] people who are better off than I am.”
  • And the advanced version, which I’m guilty of using myself: “It’s really more about class than it’s about race.”

I am “poor white trash”. I can relate to all of the statements above. I grew up looking the part of Average White Girl, but middle class white people always pegged me as “different”. This left me vulnerable to losing opportunities and even jobs to white people who “fit in” better. Also, after my family made its great escape from White Trash Hell into Middle Class Purgatory, I learned to my surprise that there were black kids in the world who’d grown up with more money than I ever had. And so on, and so forth.

Here’s where the confusion comes in. Yes, I have a legitimate grievance against the system. Yes, I’ve lost out on things because I didn’t have the $20 to invest or know the magic social password that would have marked me “normal” (read: “middle class, preferably white”). And yes, it hurts when you don’t fit in with your own race because of your class, and you don’t fit in with your class because of your race. It’s hard to see privilege around that stuff, but the examples are out there.

Wealth gets you a ticket, but it doesn’t guarantee you a seat

One of the black kids I went to school with whose family was richer than mine? We discovered we’d given identical answers on a test, and she’d gotten some of them marked wrong while I got 100%. When we examined her other papers, we realized the teacher had been doing this for some time: “giving” the black girl a lesser grade. And one of the Jewish girls I knew whose family was richer than mine? When she was absent for a Jewish holiday and missed a test, one of her teachers decided to teach her a lesson by refusing to let her make up that test anytime but on a Saturday - the Jewish sabbath. The teacher offered truly pathetic excuses why after school, during lunch and during the girl’s study period wouldn’t work. Sunday wouldn’t work because it was the teacher’s Christian sabbath! The girl’s mother had to call the principal and threaten to bring the ACLU into it before she got a proper time slot to retake the test.

I’ve never been pulled over for “looking like you’re out of your neighborhood” (unless you count the time I was lost in a snotty part of Beverly Hills in an American car, gasp!). I’m not nearly as likely to get pulled over for traffic violations as black or Latino people, even if they grew up with more money than I did. Taking things a step further, I’ve never felt pressured to join a gang just to survive. I’ve never worried I’m going to get shot in my own neighborhood (and I’ve lived in some neighborhoods the white middle class considers “bad”)."

That white skin would get you a seat, if only you had a ticket

My approach is to look at all the types of privilege that affect an individual. Take me, for example. I have white privilege and heterosexual privilege and able-bodied privilege working for me; I have class privilege and male privilege working against me. In the case of poor whites, the class privilege often takes more from them than the white privilege gives them (i.e., the college admissions board prefer my skin color, but if I can’t somehow pay tuition, I’m not getting in). In my personal experience, white privilege may be a total bust, and I have the right to feel that way: I do not have the right to muddy a discussion of white privilege with all my anti-privileges. But before I learned to separate the types of privilege, I’m afraid I probably did that once or twice. Not in the “minorities have it so easy” tone that marks one type of troll; I just couldn’t figure out which part of this stuff I wasn’t getting."

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