There Doesn’t Need To Be a War Between Poor Whites and People of Color
I have seen white people act the same way when they are asked to acknowledge the realities of racism and their white privilege in the United States. After denying the existence of the privilege, they get angry. They deny a pained experience is happening for the other person. It was happening here.
I was inspired to write this essay, because for a couple of days I was involved in a heated discussion with a middle-class black man who has declared civil war on “progressives” — previous Bernie Sanders supporters — in the Democratic Party. He identified these individuals as white people who want to divert resources from black people to white people. The recent push by so many to end “identity politics” — otherwise known as civil rights — in favor of focusing on economic justice had triggered him.
I told him I completely agreed with him that we can’t let this past election be an excuse to coddle white working class voters in favor of other black or brown people. I told him he made a lot of excellent points. White privilege is enjoyed by the white working class who in turn do not acknowledge that fact. There wasn’t anything he said about racism or white privilege I disagreed with. He’s right about it all. I just didn’t think we needed to go to war. There was a way to focus on economic and racial justice at the same time.
He wrote me back, and provided me with statistics about white poverty versus black poverty. Black wealth versus white wealth. All of the markers of white supremacy in our society.
I wrote him back and I conceded all of his points. In fact, I have written most of what he was said to me in an essay of my own several months ago, but I didn’t mention it to him:
The Epidemic of White Denial of Racism
I can’t scroll through my feed or read the comments of an article about racism without running into a white person…
I knew that I still had white privilege despite growing up in poverty. It wasn’t always easy for me to make that conclusion. When you are put in foster care in fifth grade, because you are poor, you just don’t feel like you have had any privileges. My brother and I were begging other children for food at lunch time — despite having free school lunch. When the State got to our house to investigate, they found it was thirty-eight degrees inside. In my majority black neighborhood, there was a lot of violence. My friend and I had a knife pulled on us in high school. I was beaten down. Things did not get much better until I was helped to college, then graduate school by a government program.
Nonetheless, I grew to understand the ways I was privileged from being able to get a cab to having my natural hair respected in the workplace to receiving the benefit of the doubt from the police and on and on. If one thinks that race privilege is only about economics, it takes education to learn about systemic racism and white supremacy. I have written on Huffington Post and in a book chapter about my journey to recognizing my white privilege:
Explorations in Diversity: Examining Privilege and Oppression in a Multicultural Society…
I didn’t try to tell my whole story to my new “enemy” because I got the distinct impression he didn’t care. He told me numerous things about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. I listened despite already knowing what he stated. I conceded all of his points.
All this is to say I felt like the conversation I had was one-sided. I wrote two things he ignored. I told him based on my experience with it, it was still not okay for anyone to live in poverty, so I wanted the Democratic Party to have an economic justice focus, too. I felt it would benefit the many poor and working poor people who have become desperate since 1980. This also means helping a disproportionate number of black and brown people. Poverty leads someone to experience many of the things that make racism suck: bullying, shaming, belitting, dehumanizing, traumatization, rejection, unmet need.
Poverty is the worst form of violence. Mahatma Gandhi
At the same time, I again wrote I understood poor whites didn’t have to live in a state of constant hypervigilance. We don’t have to live with a police state (for the most part). We have incredibly better odds of escaping poverty relative to black people. Then, I told him about foster care and begging for food.
But still he would not acknowledge white people having to deal with poverty was not okay. Whatsoever. He told me poor whites were racist, so he wasn’t concerned about them. In his eyes, because I had white skin, my foster care experience didn’t traumatize me. He said my foster care experience would have been worse, if I were black. I agreed with him about that.
There was no acknowledgement that I was capable of pain. It was haunting, because I was familiar with research showing white people believe black people don’t feel pain as strongly as white people. Was he dehumanizing me resulting in his sense of my immunity to pain? Or did he just not care?
Was I really supposed to be protected from my traumas by my skin color? What is going on when you dismiss the idea that foster care experiences are bad for everyone? He was, though. I knew immediately he was not from the poverty class. No one from the poverty class ever blows off foster care. Truth be told, not in my half century of life have I met a poor black or brown foster care veteran who didn’t begin swapping war stories with me. No one stuck out their chin and said, “My poverty hurt worse than yours.”
I finally decided to tell the middle-class, black man — and he ended up confirming he was middle class — “look, you have to acknowledge your economic privilege, too.” He then tried to use the social class of his cousins to lower his own, because they were killed in inner-city violence. I felt bad for him. I know what it is like to lose people to poverty-related death, because my brother took his life following trauma after trauma, which I wrote back. I pointed out how most of my cousins are middle class. That didn’t make our economic disadvantages theirs.
I wanted him to acknowledge what he wouldn’t: he had class privilege that made him indifferent to the suffering of poor white people.
This was his response: Fuck you and your white privilege! There, :)
My response: I’m not surprised at your reaction. White people have the same reaction to confronting their white privilege that you are having confronting your class privilege.
His response: [Blocks me]
I actually suspected he was going to block me when I asked him to face how his economic privilege was affecting his stance, so I took screenshots of all of his comments to me before I posted my last comment to him. I decided against posting them here. This isn’t about him. He is not alone in thinking all poor white people are racist.
Before he blocked me he wrote that he was going to go to war with me and people like me in the Democratic Party. I repeatedly implored with him that it would be more productive for the two oppressed groups to work together.
I have seen white people act the same way when they are asked to acknowledge the realities of racism and their white privilege in the United States. After denying the existence of the privilege, they get angry. They deny a pained experience is happening for another group of people. The people who do it the most vehemently are poor white people. They do it because they are angry their own suffering is not being acknowledged.
We can’t have two angry groups, each suffering from their own oppression, lashing out at each other. Especially when their collective power could be effective in making social changes that would benefit both together. Above all, we have to see and respect the humanity in one another.
P.S. I can’t believe this is the first time class privilege will be used as a tag on Medium at the same time I can absolutely believe it. The ratio of 1500:1 sounds like how I’ve always experienced this diversity conversation. I really regret that this article is about a middle class black man’s economic privilege in light of the fact this is the first article on class privilege. I’m betting at least half — conservatively — of the authors of the 1500 pieces could have written a piece on their class privilege, too.