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Race & Class Walk Into A Bar

One of the big barriers to getting white people to deal with race is the language we use to try and put race into perspective. One word, in fact:

PRIVILEGE.

White people have serious reactions to this word because the definition we most use for it is RICH. And when we talk about race- especially African-Americans- we talk a lot about being POOR.

So when you’re trying to talk to an average white person about racial privilege, all the hear is, ‘YOU’RE SO RICH AND LUCKY!’, to which they respond, ‘No I’m not! I grew up poor! No one did anything for me!’

Of course, if we get to the poetry of it all, that’s exactly why we use the word ‘privilege’ – because it means HAVING MORE THAN OTHERS. White privilege is the ultimate trust fund.

It occurred to me today that white people connect race and class in a deep way. It’s not that non-white people are poor, it’s that poor people are not white. So if a white person grew up poor, they don’t think they’re any different than a person of color. In fact, some white people, especially those who are under 40, may even consider themselves to be non-white because whiteness is defined by having $$$, not by your actual skin color. As if it were possible for people of color to be given all the best things from the very beginning, they’d all turn out like Carlton.

This does a couple things:

1. It makes POC culture (especially black culture) non-existent because it says that it’s economic status that created things like rap and certain clothing styles and AAVE, not a group of people creating a lush, historically tied culture independent of white influence;

2. It disempowers both POC & non-POC because it supports the capitalist idea that poor isn’t a state of being that you can remove yourself from, it’s a condition you are born into, a biological truth, so we don’t try and elevate ourselves economically;

and 3. It allows white people to further distance themselves from confronting race because it lets them ignore race AND ignore their own privilege.

All this very much reminds me of this popular but no less true Steinbeck quote:

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Ultimately, facing the reality of the intersection of race & class in America is really about this. The second we wake up and admit that the people at the top are keeping all of us at the bottom, we’ll face up to racial inequality at all its levels.