Alice recently told her ethnic story over at Sciencewomen, and asked others to join in the attempt to “displace white from the default position”. Of course lots of comments ensued; her follow-up is here, and well worth reading. In the follow up you can find links to others who took up Alice’s challenge.
I’ve been lying around with headaches most of last week and this one, thinking about what kind of post I might write as part of Alice’s challenge. I have to admit I find the task quite daunting, which gives me some new insight as to why some of my fellow Sciencebloggers were loathe to contribute to Scientiae the few times I asked. Afraid to say something Really Wrong that will offend everyone. It’s the understatement of the year to observe that race is not easy to talk about. It’s not just that white people (self included) are very blind to white privilege most of the time. We are also blind ourselves to what it actually means to be white, what is this condition we call white. Which is itself a form of white privilege, but one that I think actually hurts white people in some ways.
So, I now jump into the abyss with my story…
We think of “white”, when we think of it at all, as a universal category. We don’t question what it means or what the experience is, because everything that is desirable and good is understood, tacitly, to be associated with white people, who are all the same.
This of course obscures serious differences in the experience of being white, and in particular makes invisible the experience of being white and working class/poor. We do have the term “poor white trash”, whose qualifiers let you know this is not the Real White, just some subset that is clearly not as good as the (wealthy) Real Whites. All whites are encouraged to identify with Real Whites, no matter how different their lives are.
I grew up in a coal patch town, daughter and grand-daughter of coal miners. A coal patch town, for those of you who don’t know, is a town that was entirely built by a coal company for the express purpose of housing the mostly immigrant peoples whose men and boys worked the mines. (See here for pictures from my hometown.) In southwestern Pennsylvania, immigrant mostly meant eastern European. “Hunky” was a derogatory term for all those unwashed immigrants from the eastern European countries. A patch hunky, of course, was an eastern European who lived in a patch town. Eventually the term “patch hunky” was co-opted by those so designated as a marker of pride. Sort of like gay people co-opting the once-derogatory queer. We’re here, we’re patch hunkies, get used to pierogies. Or something like that.
Essentially all the families in my home town had their origins in Poland or Czechoslovakia (now divided into two countries). That meant, of course, that everybody in town was white, though the complete lack of contact with black people did not impede widespread belief in negative stereotypes and a sense of superiority vis-a-vis black people.
We knew, however, that we were not like the Real Whites. Too poor, too ethnic. What we saw on t.v. did not reflect the particulars of our lives. There were no coal mines on t.v.; Mr. Brady did not come home from work covered in coal dust, nor was he ever injured in a work accident. Marcia and Greg and the rest of the family did not live with a constant nagging fear that today might be the day Dad doesn’t come home from work alive. The only place we might find parts of our experience was in farces like The Beverly Hillbillies which told us that even poor people who become very wealthy do not then become Real Whites. Poor people just do not know how to behave in polite society. Also, they are stupid. Poor people are hilarious!
My parents had wanted all of us to go to college; my dad often exhorted us “get an education and do something where you don’t have to work shift work!” My parents understood college as the path out of the working class. I couldn’t wait to go to college, because I understood it as a path out of my circumscribed small-town existence and into the world of books and thinking. My first college roommate, who was white, did not believe me when I said my father was a coal miner. “That work is all done with machines now,” she insisted. “There aren’t any coal miners.” Her father was a banker. She was a Real White. We had a difficult co-existence, class separating us more than color united us.
I went on to graduate school at prestigious private institutions, and felt excited to be accepted into that world at the same time that I felt uncomfortable and out of place. Thomas Benton has written a wonderful essay about moving from the working class to the academy, titled A Class Traitor in Academe. (Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall.) I quote this lengthy excerpt from him because it illustrates this so well.
To a great extent, my life’s course was set by the determination of my parents to give me chances that they never had and to foster a conviction that I would not live as they did: They chose to have only one child, to send that child to parochial schools, to emphasize study, and to enforce strict rules.
But even as a child, I can remember feeling that school was training me to be a subordinate in a culture — nearly a caste system — where the people who have money and power were different from us in personal style, language, and values. The suited professionals in their BMWs looked like members of some kind of alien occupation army; there was no possibility of communicating with them on equal terms. And they seemed to wield almost absolute power — over rent, jobs, health care, schools, prices — from inaccessible conference rooms in downtown office buildings. We never met their children because they lived in faraway suburbs.
In the context of working-class schools, I saw that a few students — compliant, ambitious, individualistic, and possessing an aptitude for mimicry — were eventually singled out for advancement. They passed by using test scores, recommendations, and loyalty oaths in the form of application essays. And if one of those students succeeded in a decade — usually by joining the lowest level of suit-wearers — they were brought back to reinforce the myth of unfettered meritocracy: “See kids, you just have to work hard.”
I was a believer, but most working-class kids only half-trust what they are told. They see what happens to their parents and older siblings. And they know that trying too hard at school will cost them friends and make them targets for violence, particularly in the earlier phases of education, before the weeding process and tracking systems produce cohorts who cling to a sense of being exceptional and deserving, unlike their lesser peers. And they pay a price for spending time studying instead of building alliances in the neighborhood.
Some students, like me, can rise into the middle class that way, putting the dangers of the early grades farther into the past, but, at some point — maybe decades later — the ability to mimic elites must become so refined, so subtle and nuanced, that one cannot succeed anymore.
There are five forks, and you don’t know what to do with three of them. You’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard. You are reluctant to speak anyway because you can’t remember the rules for “who” and “whom.” People are laughing, and you don’t know why. You feel like a lead pipe on a lace napkin. You have risen to your level of incompetence, and what is there to do but admit you don’t belong and rely on the charity of your hosts?
Education lifts you up, but only so far. However, in the eyes of those you’ve left back home, you’ve become an alien, one of Them. One of my sisters once said to me, in a bitter, angry tone, “You don’t know how things work here. You’re not from around here anymore.” In academe, I often felt like I had Patch Hunky painted on my forehead. At home, my family could not connect with my life in academia. They were proud of my success, but alienated by it as well. As an adult, I was cut off from many of the things that constituted our culture, events that built and cemented the sense of belonging. School and work took me far from home; I missed weddings and baptisms, birthday parties for my nieces and nephews, church socials and family reunions. I ate different sorts of food.
I see myself as a combination of both worlds, even as neither world claims me fully. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb wrote about this situation years ago in The Hidden Injuries of Class. Some more recent works are cited in Benton’s article:
- Strangers in Paradise: Academics From the Working Class (1984), edited by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey
- Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory (1993), edited by Michelle M. Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay
- This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics From the Working Class (1995), edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law
- Teaching Working Class (1999), edited by Sherry Lee Linkon.
The monolithic and universal concept “white” obscures both race and class, even as it helps divide members of the working class and poor. Poor whites don’t want to admit to common cause with poor blacks or Hispanics, preferring to cling to the white privilege they are able to accrue. “If we’re not on top, at least there’s someone below us.” It’s especially depressing to me to see how Republicans exploit race to keep the working class divided, fomenting fear and anger against immigrants among people whose own ancestors were immigrants themselves. Fostering the notion that all our economic problems come from “those immigrants who are stealing our jobs” helps divert attention from the ever-growing, yawning gap between rich and poor in America. If poor/working class white people began to think seriously about class and how their experience of being white in America is quite different from the white upper class that’s running things, they would be more likely to make common cause with other races. Instead, they are encouraged to identify with Real Whites, even though they can never be one.
I’m not quite satisfied with what I’ve written here but I’m going to post it anyway. What do you think? In what ways is the issue of class salient to understanding what it means to be white? Do any but a very tiny majority of whites really live the Universal White Life? Can talking more about class help us better understand race?