I can relate to you. You are usually the white person who grew up poor, often living a marginalized existence, who overcame economic barriers to achieve a modicum of success as an adult. Sometimes, you knew a lot of other Black or Latino poor people and you compare yourself and your outcomes to theirs. Other times, you don’t really know anyone of a different race personally, but you have notions about how people should face adversity and overcome it, because you did. You apply these beliefs to people in what you consider to be a “colorblind” way. No matter what, you want to believe your race never got you anywhere. It was irrelevant to where you are today.
I’ve met you hundreds of times in classes I have taught on “Human Diversity,” which in my field is really just a label to mean teaching people about the dynamics of oppression and privilege in the United States. When we start the unit on race and begin talking about white privilege, you get angry and sullen. You grudgingly admit there is racism in the world, but in the next sentence you say, “But I never had any white privilege. No one ever gave me anything. I worked for everything I ever got.” Even though I knew better, I once had the same kinds of fleeting thoughts. I was wrong and so are you.
In my case, after being returned to my mother from foster care when the State removed us for not having sufficient food or heat in the house, our family moved to a community where we were one of only a handful of white families. As the minority in our neighborhood, I was both befriended and picked on. I made plenty of friends, and the more time I spent with them, the more racism I watched them face. When we went to the public library, at one time or another, I saw a friend accused of stealing a video or book when they had not. When we went to the McDonalds on the “other side of town,” I was stunned to be harassed by a hostile group of white men who told us to get back to our side of town or else. When my boyfriend, who was black, and I were driving on the “other side of town,” we were pulled over for no reason by the police and harassed, searched, and intimidated for over an hour.
On the other hand, I experienced prejudice. My best friend’s mother hated white people, and she did not bother to hide that when I came over. I was suspended for fighting three times by the tenth grade, and I started exactly zero of the fights. Each of the fights had racial overtones with the perpetrator seemingly starting the conflict because I was white. We had had no prior quarrel. However, I say I experienced prejudice rather than racism, because I firmly believe that racism must be bigotry combined with institutional power. Only white people have institutional power and maintain the capacity to exercise oppression. People of other races can mistreat white people, but they don’t have the power to practice racism.
Yet, even believing all of this, when I entered my first multicultural education class as a college student, I balked when I was told I had white privilege. I could accept that people of color faced oppression and racism. I could accept that white people perpetrated abuses and even that their institutions were biased against anyone who wasn’t white. But, I was stalled at accepting the notion that I had white privilege. How could I, a woman who had asked other school children for the leftovers on their lunch plates when I was in elementary school be privileged? How could I, someone who had a job by age 8, a job that caused multiple bouts of frostbite and a bad back, be advantaged in any way? What about the years spent with a suicidal, mentally ill mother who left me in the position of raising four younger brothers and sister when I was ten years old? That was misery, not privilege. Right?
Teachers assigned me the ubiquitous reading, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege,” by Peggy MacIntosh, but Dr. MacIntosh made the mistake of putting items in that version of her list that represented economic privilege, not racial privilege, so immediately, I disagreed with the list. She has since revised it.
It was then that a skilled multicultural educator at the University of Michigan asked me to look at the list and see what I could own. He asked me to make my own list, because as he said, “I know you can do this.” I went away and in the end produced a product that would become a book chapter in, “Explorations in Privilege, Oppression, and Diversity,” by Anderson and Middleton. I could now embrace what being white had gotten me.
My elementary school teachers initially labeled me as slow, probably because we moved so many times in my first grade year, but a third grade teacher changed all that and had me entered into the gifted program. The odds that plucking a poor child out of the academic abysses would happen for a person of color are essentially nil. Teachers expect less from people of color, and expectations have a dramatic impact on outcomes.
I was hired for numerous jobs growing up that I have little confidence my Black friends would have gotten. These jobs seemed burdensome at the time, but they helped me and my family at very precarious moments. Then, my junior year of high school, I was about to be expelled for too many absences to my first class of the day. I worked too much, too late, too often, and overslept for that class way too many times. I believe that being white helped me weasel my way out of being expelled. My Black friends in similar situations were expelled.
These are just a couple of the examples that I generated. I also used Dr. MacIntosh’s examples of being able to read about history from my race’s point of view, being able to worry about racism without being seen as self-serving, being able to move into any neighborhood I could afford and expect the neighbors to view my family as non-threatening, not having to educate my children about racism from a young age for their own self-preservation, etc. Coming from poverty hadn’t reduced or eliminated any of these privileges.
Now, as some twenty years have passed since I finally accepted what it meant to have white privilege and how being a poor white person didn’t erase that. In that time, I have witnessed countless white people from backgrounds similar to mine struggle more than any other white people with accepting white privilege. I can empathize, but if that’s you, it’s time to start making a list.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.