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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