Part of the White, Working Class, and Worried about Trump (#WhiteWorkingClassVsTrump) Campaign*:
I grew up in economically depressed, though beautiful, northeastern Vermont. My family was on and off welfare throughout my childhood, and we were always poor.
As a child, I was acutely aware of the ways poverty set me apart from other people. As I got older. I tried to hide my background and assimilate into the middle-class culture that I found all around me, especially in activist spaces. It wasn’t until I became involved in anti-racist activism – and started learning about the intersections of race and class and collective liberation – that I was exposed to a politicized view of my class background.
What I discovered was that not only was my working-class/poor background not an obstacle to anti-racist work, it had great potential to be an asset.
Recognizing Unequal Systems
Those of us who are white and who grow up poor and working-class already know that the system doesn’t work. If we can avoid being tricked into thinking that somehow people of color are to blame, we can see that the people who are very invested in the unequal, exploitative economic systems of this country that harm all of us are who we should hold responsible.
We may wish we, like presidential candidate Donald Trump, had unlimited wealth and power. But, in reality, we are the people who lose money in his casinos, the tenants suffering discrimination in his real estate, and the workers left without jobs when his businesses fail. If our poor and working-class white communities are tricked into voting for people like Trump, we are voting to make our own conditions worse.
Maintaining Power Through Divide and Rule
Throughout history, people in power have held on to their power by using the tactic of divide and rule. The easiest way for them to do that has often been to exploit already existing differences among groups of people to prevent them from building power together.
One early example of this is during colonial times, when the colonial masters enacted laws giving small privileges to white indentured servants at the expense of enslaved Africans. They did this because the enslaved Africans and the indentured (white) servants were joining together to rebel against the ruling class.
Divide and rule continues today, as poor white people are encouraged to look to immigrants and people of color as the cause of their woes rather than at the ruling elites who set up, maintain and benefit the most from systems of oppression. As a result, poor white people and poor people of color have a much harder time building solidarity and the power to challenge the existing economic system that hurts us all.
Fueling Fear of the Other
This is on display during the current election cycle, where white men who are economically insecure are being organized through their fear of the “other” (women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color) to pledge allegiance to the very forces that make their financial futures so unsure.
So often, when poor white people look for answers about why their lives are so hard, and how to change things, the white supremacist right wing is waiting. But their “solutions” just replicate the ruling class’s strategy by channeling our frustration toward people of color. That has never improved the condition of poor and working-class white people. What has improved our economic conditions is when we join forces with people of color to fight back against white supremacy and economic exploitation.
[gdlr_quote align=”right” ]Poor white people are encouraged to look to immigrants and people of color as the cause of their woes rather than at the ruling elites who set up, maintain and benefit the most from systems of oppression.”[/gdlr_quote]
Living with Privilege and Oppression
Intersectionality is a term that was developed by women of color feminists to describe the impact when different systems of oppression intersect. For example, white women hold privilege as white people and oppression as women simultaneously, while Black women live at the intersection of racism and misogyny.
Those of us who are poor and white sit at another intersection of privilege and oppression. So much of what gets described as the privileges of whiteness are not actually available to us, and it’s always hardest to see our own privilege. And yet, we do have it. We have white privilege without class privilege.
What does white privilege without economic privilege look like? In my own life, it looks like getting a job that generally requires a B.A., with no one ever asking if I actually have one (spoiler: I do not). It looks like being able to challenge the administration at my child’s school and being treated as a stakeholder instead of a problem. It also means being let off with a warning from the police when the taillight on my car is out.
Bluntly, it also means that we do not experience the racism that all people of color, especially black people, do, regardless of their economic situation. Poor white people receive biased treatment at the hands of police and the courts, but nothing like the epidemic of state murder and incarceration faced by the Black community. The examples are endless and easy to find.
Allying with Other Exploited People
But, when we look at the privileges we do receive for being white, they are not a consolation or compensation for our place at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Materially, we have more in common with poor people of color than we do with class privileged white people. Our natural allies in the struggle for positive social transformation are other oppressed and exploited people.
We need to understand these differences and the power systems associated with them, and the ways these systems intersect with other systems of oppression. Then we will be able to see the attempts to use those differences for what they are, and resist them.
* White, Working Class, and Worried about Trump, is a collaboration between a group of concerned working-class anti-racists, Class Action and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Action. Sick of the media and pundits all blaming working-class whites for Trump’s popularity, #WhiteWorkingClassVsTrump was created to show that not all white working-class people embrace Trump’s racism, fear and hate.
You get jobs that normally require a B.A. although you don’t have one? How does that work? Do you lie on your resume and no one checks? Cos my partner (white, male and working class) actually did earn a B.A. degree and can’t get a job that requires one. And he’s not alone. Nearly half the people with degrees work in jobs that don’t require a degree. So I’m curious how people who don’t have degrees manage to get jobs that require one.
Hi Sasha! It really is a hard time to find work right now; I would hate to be in today’s job market. I’ve been in my current job for over 14 years, so I started there in a much different economic environment. I’d also say that there was an assumption that I had a B.A. because I am white and was probably assumed to be class privileged and thus college educated. The final factor is that a B.A. is totally not required to do the actual work of my job, it’s just that it’s usually required by employers. So, I never said I had one, no one ever asked.
Lydia Howell says
As a white middle-aged woman who’s been working poor (or now on disablility so even poorer) I’ve doen anti-racism work for the last 40 years. (Primarily around police violence, the criminal “justice” system & the death penalty). Obviously talking about white privilege is important–but, all too often it’s done in a “mechanical” way that ERASES ALL COMPLEXITY. It makes many ASSUMPTIONS that may or may NOT be reality-based. Too often people of color assume that “no white person has ever experienced any oppression”—which isn’t a useful position from which to organize coalitions! When a middle-class person of color, with one (or more) college degrees, who own their own home and grew up in a stable family goes off on me about all my “privilege” it just makes me feel hurt, angry and alienated. Being
nobody” has meant police DON’T take sexual & domestic violence seriously against poor white woman (especially if they are queer). From age 18 to 30 I was regularly “profiled’ in my nieghborhods in Dallas & Houston as a possible street prostitute—just for being a woman on the street after 9pm at night (cming home from my minimum-wage job!) Having a disability means I’m on the trash heap when it comes to employment. Women of color talk about “white beauty standards” WITHOUT recognizign how they SEXUALLY OBJECTIFY WOMEN (Example TRUMP’s ‘rating” of women). Many more examples but, I wish that when white people try to engage in anti-racism struggles, that people of color would TRY to avoid their assumptions & sterotyupes about white working people just as they expect us to do re: people of color. I’ve NEVER got paid fordong activism and enver had wages more than $2 aboive the minimum-wage…yet, too often people of color ASSUME tha I must ahve plenty of money & that my MAIN role in the struggle is to write a check. It’s both demeaning & discouraging