White Trash Blues: Class Privilege v. White Privilege (Participation)

White Trash Blues: Class Privilege v. White Privilege

by Jennifer Kesler on March 27, 2007

If you blog about white privilege, you’re probably sick to death of people playing the “white trash” card in your comments. Their argument usually goes something like this:

  • “Being white didn’t give me all these privileges you’re talking about.”
  • “I know plenty of [minority] people who are better off than I am.”
  • And the advanced version, which I’m guilty of using myself: “It’s really more about class than it’s about race.”

I am “poor white trash”. I can relate to all of the statements above. I grew up looking the part of Average White Girl, but middle class white people always pegged me as “different”. This left me vulnerable to losing opportunities and even jobs to white people who “fit in” better. Also, after my family made its great escape from White Trash Hell into Middle Class Purgatory, I learned to my surprise that there were black kids in the world who’d grown up with more money than I ever had. And so on, and so forth.

Here’s where the confusion comes in. Yes, I have a legitimate grievance against the system. Yes, I’ve lost out on things because I didn’t have the $20 to invest or know the magic social password that would have marked me “normal” (read: “middle class, preferably white”). And yes, it hurts when you don’t fit in with your own race because of your class, and you don’t fit in with your class because of your race. It’s hard to see privilege around that stuff, but the examples are out there.

Wealth gets you a ticket, but it doesn’t guarantee you a seat

One of the black kids I went to school with whose family was richer than mine? We discovered we’d given identical answers on a test, and she’d gotten some of them marked wrong while I got 100%. When we examined her other papers, we realized the teacher had been doing this for some time: “giving” the black girl a lesser grade. And one of the Jewish girls I knew whose family was richer than mine? When she was absent for a Jewish holiday and missed a test, one of her teachers decided to teach her a lesson by refusing to let her make up that test anytime but on a Saturday – the Jewish sabbath. The teacher offered truly pathetic excuses why after school, during lunch and during the girl’s study period wouldn’t work. Sunday wouldn’t work because it was the teacher’s Christian sabbath! The girl’s mother had to call the principal and threaten to bring the ACLU into it before she got a proper time slot to retake the test.

I’ve never been pulled over for “looking like you’re out of your neighborhood” (unless you count the time I was lost in a snotty part of Beverly Hills in an American car, gasp!). I’m not nearly as likely to get pulled over for traffic violations as black or Latino people, even if they grew up with more money than I did. Taking things a step further, I’ve never felt pressured to join a gang just to survive. I’ve never worried I’m going to get shot in my own neighborhood (and I’ve lived in some neighborhoods the white middle class considers “bad”).

That white skin would get you a seat, if only you had a ticket

My approach is to look at all the types of privilege that affect an individual. Take me, for example. I have white privilege and heterosexual privilege and able-bodied privilege working for me; I have class privilege and male privilege working against me. In the case of poor whites, the class privilege often takes more from them than the white privilege gives them (i.e., the college admissions board prefer my skin color, but if I can’t somehow pay tuition, I’m not getting in). In my personal experience, white privilege may be a total bust, and I have the right to feel that way: I do not have the right to muddy a discussion of white privilege with all my anti-privileges. But before I learned to separate the types of privilege, I’m afraid I probably did that once or twice. Not in the “minorities have it so easy” tone that marks one type of troll; I just couldn’t figure out which part of this stuff I wasn’t getting.

Not a credit to our race

I will probably write a whole post on this someday, but I’ll leave you with one last point to consider. In my experience, poor whites are one group of people that even PC folks think it’s okay to take potshots at. Make a “dumb blonde” joke, and someone sooner or later will call you on your sexism; make a “you know you’re a redneck when…” joke, and chances are everyone will take it as good clean fun. This is something that makes me generally distrustful of the supposedly “progressive” thinkers out there, and I assume it affects other poor whites simiarly. See, we’re an embarrassment to the white race. We’re proof that whites are not invulnerable to the repressions they’ve visited on other races. So we’re taught to keep quiet. On one level, we know we shouldn’t take that crap. On the other hand, experience has taught us if we take a stand, we’ll stand alone. I don’t know how many times I’ve endured jokes about my homestate when a potential new friend asks me where I’m from. And if you know me, you know I’d never let an insult to my gender go by without comment.

And if we have an accent of any sort – many of us do, since by definition it’s the higher classes who get the privilege of their accent being declared “no accent” – we’re supposed to put up with being made fun of and/or being fetishized. Or being expected to change it, if we’re “serious” about getting certain jobs or promotions. We’re vulnerable to class assumptions that we’re ill-educated, lazy, immoral or even criminally perverse (only in redneck jokes is incest somehow a topic for humor!).

While these points still aren’t germaine to a topic about white privilege, I’ve seen them get dismissed in discussions about privilege and bigotry in general, and in those cases they are relevant. Hopefully, something in this post will help someone weed out trolls and/or communicate more effectively with sincere poor whites who mistake a lack of class privilege for a lack of white privilege.

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