Recently FAR contributor Sara Frykenberg posted an article to Facebook that caused me to think again about the now-famous essay by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” Gina Crosley-Corcoran does an excellent job of including issues of class, meaning poverty, into the discourse about race and privilege using the theory of intersectionality. If I am honest, the tensions between race and poverty have made the owning my white privilege challenging.
Like Crosley-Corcoran, I was raised in poverty. After my parents divorced in the early 1960s, our fall into poverty was pronounced. My mother liked to move, so much so that I attended no less than 15 different schools before high school. We lived in one house for two years without hot water. I learned early on the stigma of poverty, when even a Catholic school uniform could not protect me from signs of inferiority. Perhaps worse was the alienation I experienced as a young girl when other children’s parents discovered my father’s second job as a tattoo artist. Once that was known, most friends could no longer play with me outside of school. My psyche situated itself between shame and love, with the burden of keeping my humiliation a secret from the rest of my family.
So when I first read Peggy McIntosh’s essay on whiteness and privilege, I struggled with resentment at the thought of my “privilege” based on my skin color. In my estimation, my life of poverty and its accompanying stigma should count for something. Additionally, I felt that since I married a man of color, I somehow should be awarded extra points along the continuum of informed vs. uninformed when it came to understanding race. Even when using McIntosh’s theory in my teaching I have secretly battled with conflicting emotions about class and race. This inner conflict between the two has secretly spilled over into my academia life. When fellow students or colleagues were awarded extra funding or assistance because of their race, I found myself resentful, which then catapulted me into shame at my white privilege. Not until I encountered the discourse of intersectionality have I been able to hold the tension between my lived experience of poverty and race.
Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s analysis of McIntosh’s essay, through the lens intersectionality, allows poverty to have a place at the table—not with the intent of establishing a hierarchy but rather, “intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others.” This analysis brings me to my own experience as a mother of three children with very diverse skin tones.
My oldest has the same skin tone as her father who is one-half Japanese and one-half Native American. Because their father is a physician, my children were raised with a certain level of financial comfort and security. That said, class could not protect my oldest daughter from the consequences of racism from teachers, friends and strangers. I have been present when she is perceived as “the help” in various public settings based on assumptions and follwed by derogatory remarks. To be present to my daughter’s experience of racial profiling is painful as well as informative. As McIntosh points out, my whiteness viz a viz my daughter’s darkness afford me a way of being in the world she may never know, which is why I am able to intellectually acknowledge intersectionality, though not soulfully. Because of this, I sometimes feel like the female character from Game of Thrones is behind me with her drum chanting, “Shame, shame, shame, shame,” at my need to acknowledge my experience with poverty versus race.
I suspect this division between race and class is what is contributing to our political national divide, especially in regard to how the Black Lives Matter movement is perceived and resisted by pro-police supporters. Herein lies the conflict between race and class I wrestle with. Instead of holding the two together in examination, as intersectionality directs, a hierarchy of worth is created that all but stalls important dialog. It was not the intent of McIntosh’s essay to create guilt about white privilege, but rather to educate the reality of opportunities whiteness brings about.
In the aftermath of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black men shot and killed by police, as well as the deaths of five Dallas policemen, our country is suffering from division that is driven by race, but also class. Social media is filled with opinions representing those who feel the Black Lives Matter movement suggests that only those with black skin have worth while whites do not. I suspect for many whites their resistance to listening to people of color stems from their own battle with poverty that can make them tone-deaf to the consequences of racism.
Even as reread what I have written here, I am filled with apprehension as to how my words may be perceived by people of color. No one wants to be identified as a racist, especially within the walls of academia. What I am searching for is a way that does not dismiss white privilege while also addressing class. While it may be a charged and uncomfortable conversation, it is one that I feel has long been neglected.
Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past eight years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology and Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism.