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.