White Privilege: Confessions of a Poor White Girl by Cynthia Garrity-Bond


cynthia garrity bondRecently 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.  

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Categories: Feminism, General, Racism

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21 replies

  1. Namaste, Rox

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  2. We need that conversation.

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  3. Thanks for your honesty Cynthia. We must have truthful conversations if we are to move beyond the great impasse currently dividing our country.

    When I went to college from the lower class suburban tract homes, I was dismayed to hear my classmates and professors laugh at the life of Willy Loman in the Death of a Salesman. My father was a salesman too, and they seemed to me to be saying that his whole life, including the sacrifices that enabled me to go to a private university, was meaningless. Later I felt humiliated when I learned that Malvina Reynolds’ song about “little houses made of ticky tacky” was based on the housing development in which my grandparents lived happily during my childhood years.

    Yes class and class bias are real, as is racism, as is sexism. And (by Goddess) let’s hope we are not the greatest country in the world (sorry, Michelle, Barack, Hillary). I hope there is a country that has done better!

    How do we acknowlege our own pain without letting it blind us to the sometimes greater barriers and pain faced by others? This is a conundrum we all need to wrestle with.

    Thanks for getting us started.

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    • Thank you Carol. Your contribution to this oft unpleasant conversation is so very important. Any suggestions on how we might begin?

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      • Good question. Talking more about class and class wounds might be a good way to begin. As Elizabeth says below, class is not acknowledged in the US. Indeed I didn’t have a word for it in college or for many years afterwards. I thought “we were all middle class.” I assumed I was middle class because my parents owned a home thanks to the GI Bill (another little house made of ticky tacky and on the “wrong” side of the railroad tracks), despite the fact that most of the kids in my high school were not college-bound, that there was no Advanced Placement in our high school, I made all my own clothes using my baby-sitting money, etc. I now say I was raised in a lower middle class neighborhood.

        And we need to keep asking how sex and race and sex/gender identification intersect with class.

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  4. Important, timely post. Class privilege in this country is especially pernicious, because it is not openly acknowledged. The American Dream/Myth can be used as much (or more) to shame as to encourage. People with class and white skin privilege like to believe that they deserve their good fortune. If only others would only work hard as they did (even if they didn’t!) they could be just as wealthy and successful. Poverty is viewed as moral failure, which compounds an already painful and unjust condition. Thank you for sharing your experience and perception.

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    • Thank you Elizabeth. You are so right — poverty is deemed a moral failure that digs deep into the soul but deeper I suspect where children are concerned.

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  5. Right after reading this post I came upon an article in the CBC about our Defense Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan. http://tinyurl.com/gm4ft4p

    Will the time come when we think of others as “amazingly and interestingly different” instead of as “better” or “worse”? Can we shed the dualistic thinking of the Patriarchy?

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    • Thank you Barbara. I enjoyed the link about the struggle of Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. It can be difficult, this fear of diversity with the need to instill a hierarchy (which reads as Patriarchy) into the fabric of our lives.

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  6. This is spot on. Thank you for your honesty. A country steeped in patriarchy, both presently and in all of its history, trains us to think solely in binary ways; hence the inability to hold intersectionality as a concept. And yes, we need to talk more about this, but more importantly, in my estimation, meaningfully address poverty via a federal infrastructure building jobs program. Work to end racism, yes, but as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs taught us, people cannot focus on much else when basic needs for food, shelter and security aren’t being met.

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    • Thank you Diane, especially for reminding us of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Also-for recognizing my honesty. Long have I desired to bring this to the surface but have held back for obvious reasons.

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  7. There is such a thing as reverse racism, which, having had a father who fought for integration of the schools, and myself being a Berkeley radical who supported the Black Panther Party, as well as the emergence of feminism and gay rights………..I’ve kind of grown up with. I have neighbors who for 20 years wouldn’t talk to me or my family because we are “Anglos”, and that kind of pure discrimination is something they feel quite righteous about. Of course I am horrified by hate and discrimination, any where and by any name. But as you point out, there is a conversation to open. As wealth continues to be held by a smaller and smaller minority, virtually becoming the new global monarchy, the issue of poverty and class is going to be increasingly apparent.

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    • Wow, such a powerful resume of experience! Thank you Lauren for your thoughts and insight into reverse racism and class. As I stated above with Carol, how might you move the conversation along? Thank you again.

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    • While I understand your viewpoint, I think it is appropriate to use correct terminology. There is no such thing as reverse racism. Racism can only be perpetrated by the people in a position of power. Minorities don’t have the power which is why they are called minorities. What you experienced is prejudice and that is wrong also. But please, let’s call all the bad things by their proper names.

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  8. There are cities in the USA like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, that are incredibly inclusive in terms of race, country of origin, religion, orientation, political preference, etc., and nobody thinks about it, that’s the common terrain, no one’s special, no one’s different. Why can’t the whole country look like that? I think because in these cities, few people own land. The total number of rented apartments in NYC is estimated now at about 3 million. And when you live in an apartment building in these cities, then you are saying good morning and hobnobbing on the elevator everyday with a wide diversity of neighbors.

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  9. There is much that can be accomplished via urban planning. Down the street from me are new apartments and condos being built that combine different levels of rent depending on your income, including Section 8 housing mixed in with higher rents. This is a great way to stop the isolation of poorer families from those with more wealth.

    The problem with the cities you mentioned, especially San Francisco, is the lack of avoidable housing, so the notion of commonality exist less and less.

    Thank you Sarah!

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  10. This is such a wonderful post!

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  11. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Worth the read. I, too, am a white mother with a 1/2 Nigerian daughter who is not very dark and whom many think is Polynesian because of the way she looks. My grandson’s father is Mexican and Spanish–his other grandfather, as well as Nigerian, Swiss German (from me), a little of other European, and Navaho. He has straight black hair, light skin, and obsidian eyes. When people ask what he is and he answers, they often think he is lying. However, I did not grow up in poverty. My daughter is educated. She has a MRN and I have a Ph.D. Nevertheless, she has experienced discrimination and people have made comments to me such as, “your daughter is really doing well for a Black girl”. Seriously!! In this country both class and race matter and get intertwined in all sorts of complex ways. No one says to an educated white woman with a good job, “You are really doing well for a white girl.”

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  12. Thanks for writing this and making so many good points. I think that undergoing the deprivations and humiliations of poverty should count for something, but in this society it does not. People delude themselves that class does not matter. And class does not cancel out racial caste privilege. We have to be able to hold both truths.

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