White Privilege

Posted by – May 31, 2008

& More on the Fr. Pfleger post! Someone wrote to me & said:

I am Catholic as well, 1st generation Irish-American, I was poor, faced prejudice – and feel I owe nothing to Father Pfleger’s constituency. I feel I worked myself out of the bottom and I don’t feel anyone owes me anything either. But if this race-baiting (as I see it) continues then I might have to argue that I was discriminated against as well—if not here in the USA then maybe in Ireland/England.

But then when does it end? When does victimization end? It has gone on a long time in the USA and it hasn’t improved. I don’t think victimization helps improve people’s lives. It never helped me. I worked my way out of it (and people don’t understand the work that I did unless they did it themselves).

But when Father Pfleger says we owe some of or 401k’s to black people because we had ‘white privilege’, I have difficulty understanding it because I don’t feel I had equal opportunity and yet I don’t resent it. I accept it–It is life and I don’t think it will ever change.

Which is all perfectly logical & makes sense to me; I think it’s the nut of why poor and working-class white people sometimes object to Affirmative Action programs.

Except that the reality, in the US, is that we have inherited a system where some people are oppressed because of their race and only because of their race. It is not the only way people are oppressed, and plenty of us (white folks) did not have family here when slavery was operable. But the system that came out of race-based slavery was, in turn, racist.

So while poor white people didn’t benefit from equal treatment – because we didn’t – we didn’t have to deal with being poor AND black. We were privileged in one aspect – being white – and oppressed in another – by class. Catholics and Jews and other “white” immigrant groups were often also oppressed due to their religion or recent immigration status. Often these groups are referred to as “white ethnic” – meaning ‘white but not WASP.’ It’s what I consider myself. For an excellent book on the subject, specifically the way whiteness was sold as privilege to unionized white workers – check out The Wages of Whiteness, or on White Ethnic groups, check out White Ethnics.

Being able to look at the ways we are each privileged and the ways we are oppressed is what we call Intersectionality in Gender Studies.

But more importantly, let me say this: the idea here isn’t about victimization. It’s about understanding one’s individual story in context. It’s not about sitting around & saying “woe is me” or anything like it. It’s just about knowing which aspects of your own experience and others works against you, & them; it’s a way of explaining why some women are more privileged than others, and why, say, a white, rich, professional gay man might have a hard time understanding why a black poor lesbian can’t get a decent start in life despite them both being LGBT.

So: no whining. Just acknowledgment in the ways we exist, as individuals, within the larger culture and its institutions, and the ways those institutions, in turn, shape us. (Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who would prefer to blame everyone & anyone for why they suck, but that’s an entirely different issue entirely.)

3 Comments on White Privilege

  1. Catrina says:

    Bravo Helen dear… a very insightful clarification. Might some comments add to it from a political and historical sociological perspective.

    Politically, “white ethnics” are precisely the demographic that is being disenfranchised by some policy initiatives lead by the Democratic Party. (This will ultimately be a catastrophe for the Democratic Party itself. It is only a matter of time.)

    Those initiatives are directed to attempt to redress, quite validly, the racism of the past. But their heavy handed effects have had severe unintended consequences on white ethnics the working class and the culture in general.

    A great example convergence of these events occurred in the early 1970s in Boston and then in other urban areas. The issue was court imposed busing to integrate urban schools. It was working and lower middle class families that found their children the brunt of the policy that was imposed upon them from the courts. Busing to my recollection was never legislated. So life time appointed elite judges told white ethnic families that their kids had to literally get up at 4-5:00 AM in the morning to catch a bus for school, a school located miles away from their families to satisfy integration. (Brown v Board was turned on its head.) Please note we are talking about 5-6-7 and 8 years olds too that had to be bussed. Nothing is more emotional than the protection of one’s own children.

    Meantime, the upper middle class liberals that had conceived such policies were moving to suburban school districts or sending their children to private schools. The policies they created “never” impacted their families or children. This was the growth of the urban elite leftists that conceive policies that try to redress valid social imperfections but are disassociated with the very policies they create. (Chelsea going to Sidwell Friends is the perfect example.)

    This simply outraged urban white ethnics. They too ultimately moved out from the inner cities. Now we find urban areas even less integrated than before, all because the assumption of race, instead of ability was a causal driver to sociological planning.

    The FDR coalition bond to working families fractured right then and there. It has never been the same. It was the birth of the Reagan Democrat and massive shift of political power to the Republican Party. (About 66-70% of voters with incomes between $35,000 and $65,000 now vote Republican. Most are white ethnics.)

    Most white ethnics do not see the disparity blacks still have any longer as a race issue. To them it is a cultural value issue particularly because white working class perceives that blacks are more privileged than they are due quotas, policy preferences, affirmative action etc. The problem they see is not race or legacy. It is policy and culture.

    Example, in the early 60′s before all these policies were initiated, illegitimacy rates in black families was below 25%. It is now “over” 75%. White ethnics see this as a cause for continued impoverishment, not the color of skin. It is cultural norms that are driving their perspective.

  2. Red says:

    right. having privilege doesn’t mean that one’s life has been hunky-dory — and i think sometimes when folks get defensive about the concept of having privilege due to skin color or gender or whatever, that’s how they misconstrue it.

    having white privilege doesn’t mean having class privilege — but it does mean that, say, a POC in the same economic class has another oppression to combat.

  3. lizzy says:

    Comment from Mastic, here it’s money and money alone that makes the difference, not race.

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