While naming “white privilege” is an important part of exposing and dismantling structural racism, I can see how the term “privilege” is hard to swallow for white folks on the downside of our economic system. Being marginalized in one power system doesn’t mean you can’t be privileged in another. But this particular form of pushback should not be so easily dismissed as generic white resistance to confronting white privilege. Rather, the resistance I experience from poor and working class white people feels like an important opportunity to check my own class privilege and cross-class competence, as well as to develop either different language or perhaps different techniques to help the language resonate more clearly. Force feeding doesn’t work with anyone, and it gets in the way of building cross-race solidarity.
This race/class conundrum is both ironic and predictable. We know from the excellent tools developed by anti-racism trainers and capacity builders like dismantlingRacismWorks and Western States Center that the whole race construct, from its creation, has been intertwined with class. We know that “white” or “whiteness” is not a biological condition, but was deliberately constructed in order to give people of European descent a common identity against Africans and indigenous people. This was necessary because the men with political and economic power were small in number, and they needed to break up the natural affinity poor Europeans felt toward their oppressed brothers and sisters. By doling out a handful of privileges, including the privilege of believing in the myth of meritocracy, the white elite bought racial solidarity from oppressed whites.
In my opinion, some of our modern-day tools for dismantling racism reinforce this construct to the detriment of us all. An un-nuanced approach to understanding white privilege as it intersects with class dynamics prevents us from building a truly powerful coalition of people of color and poor and working class white people. How could we help illuminate shared interests and the potential for change?
Take, for example, racial diversity policies in university admissions. To whatever degree they still explicitly exist, they understandably frustrate white people who also face barriers to advanced education. They intentionally, though not explicitly, pit people of color against low-advantaged white people to fight over the bare minimum of opportunity while leaving the exponential privilege of the white elite untouched.
What would happen, instead, if poor and working class white people and people of color more clearly saw their shared self-interest, joined forces, and demanded an end to the practice of “legacy admissions” and other ways of leveraging privilege for continued access and disproportionate resources? Together, they could expose and begin to dismantle privilege – and advance race and class justice, rather than playing the zero-sum game that undercuts both. Those of us who identify as anti-racist trainers and capacity builders need to build our competence on classism as well so we can help rebuild this alliance.
In our consulting work to build organizational and leadership capacity for breakthrough social change, we often help groups connect their work to structural racism and racial equity. Without fail, at some point in the discussion – usually when it’s just starting to heat up and get uncomfortable – someone will say, “Isn’t this really about class?” To be sure, on those occasions when we begin with a discussion of class, at some point – usually when it’s hitting a little too close to home – someone will say, “Isn’t this really about race?” Which has led me to two conclusions: (1) race and class are inextricably linked; and (2) unless the relationship between them is explored, or at least acknowledged, they will continue to be pitted against each other and used to deflect from making true progress in dismantling all systems of privilege and oppression.
Gita Gulati-Partee builds organizational and leadership capacity for breakthrough social change through the national consulting practice OpenSource Leadership Strategies, Inc. She is a native of North Carolina and the daughter of professional middle class immigrants from India. Gita has served as senior consultant to the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, project consultant to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and core faculty of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Academy for Leadership and Action. Previously, she served as public policy director with the NC Center for Nonprofits and as a program officer with The Cleveland Foundation. Gita earned an MBA as well as a certificate in public policy from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University. Gita has published books and articles on advocacy, philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and racial equity.
N. Jeanne Burns says
Sing it, sister. I’m beyond frustrated at the painting of white people as a monolithic institution, unified in every way. I don’t say anything about this at anti-racism training sessions (like all day yesterday) because I know this can be perceived as wanting to differentiate myself from my whiteness or as a way to excuse my white privilege. But it’s not.
I want what YOU want–a way to seek solidarity with people of color because when they tell their own stories, which includes profound economic oppression, bits of my own story. I want to stand beside them and say we have a bunch of stuff in common and I am right here beside you and support you.
At best social class gets a little nod and lip service in every anti-racist training I’ve been to but I don’t know how to end that.
Mike S. says
this was a good read! some of it i agree with some of it i don’t. for instance one thing i think the 3 major factors that need to be addressed when it comes to ending racism among poor people is:
1) there are still a lot higher percentage of poor black people than poor whites in the nation and i think poor white people need to except that this is because of racism. if not currant racism at least an indirect side effect of past racism. and this is a fair argument for affirmative action and extra scholar ships or even reparations if it came to that. this is because middle and upper class white people did benefit from the slavery of black peoples unpaid ancestors. and black youth got cheated out of any chance of inheritance that would have been handed down.
2) another major issue people need to admit before addressing racism poor people is that black people are just as racist as white people. thats sort of the elephant in the room liberals no one but poor urban white people will tell you! they wanna put the entire responsibility on white people who’re usually the minority in most poor neighborhoods. my neighbor hood is about 50/50 now but growing up there more black people.
a lot middle class liberals love to argue that racism from poor blacks against whites is justified. BUT this racism is directed specifically at the low income whites who live in the same neighborhood as blacks who obviously didn’t benefit from slavery like they middle class counter parts.
in my personal opinion its acceptable for black folks to be heavily suspicious toward poor white people, but no white poor white person is going to get behind using slavery as a means to justifying jacking mo fuckers, violent harassment, and assault.. its jsut not gonna happen and the people that think it is aren’t serious about stopping racism! or they should at least go after the middle class white people who actually benefitted from slavery. shit i’ll even get behind that.
3) the middle class needs to stay out of it! unless they have honest and helpful opinions like the one in this post they do nothing but fan the flame!! i honestly don’t even think racism among poor people would be half as bad if it wasn’t for the middle class!
middle class liberals hate poor white people and middle class conservatives hate poor black people. its really that simple and once you see it you can’t unsee it. its like one of those things.
the gentrification of middle class liberals or just middle class liberals in general that have such an enormous sense of entitlement that they self appoint themselves as arbitrators racial equality telling poor white people how much better off they have it than black people and acting like poor whites are stupid all the time does not help. and just being complete fucking assholes in really every way imaginable (which is what i think you touched on in this article!)
and middle class conservatives do the same thing to poor whites like “oh you’re only poor because of affirmative action, and black people get a all these extra benefits and shit blah blah blah”
when you take a step back, this is really a major problem! see the rich are fucking the middle class and blaming it on the poor. and the middle class by right into this shit. they just do it to feel superior to someone i guess. its all jsut a game to them i think.
but yeah finally glad to find other people who are at least realizing that there is a difference between poor and middle class people! thank you for this article!
You really gave it to ’em with this one, especially when you said racism among poor people wouldn’t be as bad if it weren’t for the middle class sticking their nose in it. We have to stop this infighting, because whether black, white or brown it’s the poor folks who get all the crap thrown at us.
I think this is more true now than it was when you wrote it. Thank you!