Thus Spake Zuska

Patch Hunky, PhD

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:

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Change
    March 13, 2008

    Your post hit really close to home. I know I am not of “Them.” But my folks back home think so. (I’m not white or American.)

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    March 13, 2008

    I think that this was superb – I already knew some of your story but this is perfect. I’m having an even more difficult time getting my similar post done but I share your eastern European heritage. I was another generation removed from PA coal miners (Grandpa was a coal man but in SE PA).

    In no way do I intend to diminish the struggle of any people not of European privilege and there is no way that I could truly understand the black experience or the experience of any other underrepresented minority in the US. But what I think we are learning from stories like yours and Alice’s is that the white privilege of ours is very different from that of a Ivy heritage family.

    Thanks for sharing yours.

  3. #3 Miss Cellania
    March 13, 2008

    Yeah, this hits home, except my patch is in Kentucky. I’ve had all those feelings at one time or another.

  4. #4 Mrs Whatsit
    March 13, 2008

    I tried to write a very similar post, but ended up getting so depressed about it, I stopped. Perhaps I will work on it some more.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    March 13, 2008

    I’m not quite satisfied with what I’ve written here but I’m going to post it anyway. What do you think?

    I think what you wrote is superb.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    March 13, 2008

    I’ve enjoyed reading the stories so far, and I’m glad that someone brought up the topic of what it means to be “white”, for discussion in the blogosphere. I’d write my own blue-eyed white girl story for my blog, except that it’s really boring, as I’m of entirely Northern European stock, and both my parents are academics. We were never rich, but we certainly weren’t poor either (well, my parents were poor in grad school, but I was a baby then and don’t remember any hardships, if indeed there were any).

    I take exception to the “European ethnicity is not true ethnicity” attitude expressed by some, though. One side of my family consists of recent immigrants to the US, and my grandparents’ families had retained much of their culture and language throughout their time in the previous location, which was also a “foreign country”. Very stubborn people, those old German farmers. I have a German name, I look German, I have relatives in Germany and Poland, and I fail to see how it’s wrong, or white-privileged, or divisive, to connect with that heritage in the typical language, food, and travel ways. Those are exactly the ways in which my Chinese-American and Mexican-American friends connect with their respective heritages, after all, and no one would criticizes them for it.

  7. #7 Academic
    March 14, 2008

    I sincerely appreciate you telling your story. I’m a first-generation college student from a town where a lot of people still do not go to college. It’s interesting when you try to transition to working with people who come from the true upper class structures. My family was a moving family: we weren’t “townies” as the lingo goes. Because of that, we didn’t really fit in. I had no sense of community with the place I spent my childhood years. Thanks for detailing some of the otherness that comes with class.

  8. #8 wrpd
    March 14, 2008

    I am a total WASP. The bulk of my ancestors came from England. My most recent immigrant ancestors arrived here in 1840. The only group of non-English speaking ancestors arrived in New York from the Netherlands in 1668. By then the area was controlled by the British, so they learned English quickly. None of them came here for religious reasons. None of them were oppressed in their country of origin. None of them came here because of famines, droughts, or other catastrophes. They came here to earn money. We never had any ethnic enemies, except maybe the French, but who doesn’t hate them? None of my ancestors were rich. They were all either farmers or blue collar workers. I was the first–and only–one among my siblings and first cousins to graduate from college.
    None of my relatives grew up speaking anything but English. We did not have a “mother country”. We had no special customs or practices. We also had no real ties to any denomination. Most of us were Christian but there were some Jews, too. There is a whole branch of my mother’s family who were descended from a collateral ancestor whose wife own slaves. She died and my ancestor freed the slaves and married one of them. I have never met one of them. I didn’t know about them until recently.
    Having said that I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago where everyone else was of first or second generation Eastern European immigrants. We moved there when I was ten. Before that we had lived in an integrated public housing project. Talk about culture shock. They hated everyone. The kids were told not to talk to the lady who lived at the end of the block because she was Lutheran. We became good friends. I went away to college just to escape from the neighborhood and find some sort of ethnic diversity. The old neighborhood now is mostly hispanic; the Eastern Europeans have moved but their attitudes are mostly the same.

  9. #9 Jenny F. Scientist
    March 14, 2008

    Dr. S grew up very poor- skipping meals poor- and even a mention of the myth of meritocracy makes him start steaming out the ears.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  10. #10 Zuska
    March 14, 2008

    Thank you all for your comments. I was half afraid to check comments today, wondering what kind of reaction I’d get. It is astonishingly frightening to talk about this stuff. Yet if those of us with various sorts of privilege can’t bring ourselves to examine and talk about race and class and gender, things will never change in any substantive manner.

  11. #11 Luna_the_cat
    March 14, 2008

    It was an excellent post.

    My own experience is somewhat different, I guess, simply because I never really had a community to become alienated from.

    My family is white. My mother was from a lower-middle-class very white, but almost-but-not-quite-Poor-White-Trash Southern Baptist family in Tennessee. My father was a New York city Jewish boy. My mother never valued education. My father, Jewish boy that he was, definitely did, and he became a chemist.

    He quit being a chemist after a lab accident and a decision that he just wasn’t getting paid enough for doing what he was being asked to do (and not enough to support a growing family, either), and he went into consulting on industry standards, instead. Then, somehow, my mother persuaded my father to buy a small ranch in Colorado. He was what the real ranchers out there tend to call a “hobby rancher”, disparagingly and with some justification; his real income came from his industry work, and he was never going to make any real money on the ranch (actually, he lost a lot of money on it, most years).

    I have older siblings — MUCH older siblings, as I was an “oops! I didn’t think I could GET pregnant any more!” according to my mother. However, these and my parents were about the only people I regularly socialised with as a kid. Where we lived in Colorado was (at the time) extremely rural, anyway, and there weren’t all that many people — but what people there were, were all completely Nordic-stock WASPS, tall, blonde, and culturally uniform. Me, I am short, dark-haired, and I look extremely Jewish (…I’ve got the schnoz, for a start, unfortunately). And mentally, I can’t honestly think of anything at all that I had in common with the people I went to school with. They were interested in cars, getting drunk, shooting pronghorn and coyotes, and who had developed a chewing tobacco habit the earliest; I was into ancient mythology, poetry, physics, space travel and science fiction from as far back as I can remember (biology came way, way later, for a variety of reasons). Even horses and trail riding wasn’t sufficient common ground in the gap that yawned between our family and everyone else. And I was pretty much “outcast” as far back as I can remember.

    Dinner conversations at home were atomic theory and how time and space fitted together, a la Einstein. Nobody I knew in our entire town thought about these things, except for me and my father — not even the teachers at the local HS were really that interested. It was one of those stereotypical small-town schools where the science classes were taught by the athletics coaches, because there was a state regulation that the coaches teach, as well, and the science classes seemed to be the “dump” classes. My father came in with me to the school once when I complained about the chemistry class, took one look at the setup in the classroom, and pulled me from the class. “Not worth your time,” he said. “I had a better chemistry set than that when I was 6.”

    My older sister had already gone off and become a doctor, by that point. I expected to go off and get a professional degree myself, as far back as I can remember. As soon as I got a driving licence, I was off to Denver every time I could, got involved in the Denver SF club, and made friends on the Denver University campus — my friends were largely university students from the time I was 15. So the transition away from where I grew up was not only easy, it was expected, and a relief.

    My husband is a different story, though. He’s Scottish (and the reason why I live in Scotland now), a local lad from a fishing family. His family were all “in the fish”, except his father, who was a gardener and tile-fitter. Not only was my husband the first person in his family ever to go for a PhD, he was the first person in his family ever to go to university at all, even for an undergraduate degree. And this opened up a huge cultural gulf between him and his relatives. Not so much a deliberate alienation, and no estrangement, per se; it’s just that he and they don’t feel like they have much in common any more. Which is true enough. I would have to say they don’t.

    I’m not entirely sure where his ambition came from. I suspect that his father had a lot to do with it. Unfortunately I never met his father — died before I met my husband — but according to my husband, his father encouraged him to read from the start, and encouraged his interest in the wider world, and told him that he should look for a better career than the trades. The rest of the family would have been perfectly happy for my husband to go into a trade rather than pursue academia, so maybe it started with his father. That, and my husband is kind of scary bright; I find it entirely possible that he wouldn’t have been happy in anything at all other than academia, and he possibly had sense enough to know this for himself, early on.

    Either way, both he and I have moved a lot past where our families were. I don’t think either of us regret it, and I’ve pretty much got over missing the prairie (not much of it left where I grew up, anyway; it’s all housing developments now). I never actually missed the people.

    Not the same story as being not-white, though. It really is just another flavour of white, and probably closer to mainstream than your experience.

  12. #12 Gabriela Montell
    March 14, 2008

    Nice post. FYI, you can read Thomas Benton’s piece in its entirety for free at http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/11/2007110901c/careers.html

  13. #13 Kelly
    March 14, 2008

    I recently stumbled across this blog: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/2008/03/04/81-graduate-school/
    It’s a little on the snarky side but is really dead-on in having fun with upper middle class cultural conceits. It made me — well-educated, white — laugh at how many of my “choices” have been culturally determined. Especially the grad school post, to which I’ve linked directly.
    Keep it up, Zuska! Kudos for wading into deep water.

  14. #14 ace
    March 15, 2008

    Zuska, your post rang true with me even though I come from a very different background. The common idea is, I am included in the white category, but as a fringe exemplar of this category, and I don’t feel like I belong in that category. Based on experiences like yours and mine, and countless others voiced here or not, I am beginning to feel the main theme of this discussion is that “white” is not something easy to define and agree on…

    Biologically, I am considered white but I neither feel like I am, nor do the truly white people (if you can please allow the use of such a word) feel I am..

    I am white in appearance and I am treated as white in social interactions at first sight. I am from a 3rd world country have been living in USA and UK at different times of my academic career.

    I grew up middle class in my own country and was lucky to have educated parents who could afford to send me to school. I did not have to marry at 13 to some rich guy in the village. I did not bear 5 children by age 20… I can’t complain about the opportunities and priviledges I had (being middle class and living in an urban area of my country). I have little complaints about my life in my own country. Comparatively, I’ve had huge privileges…

    Now in the 1st world, I say where I am from when asked, and get treated differently after that – sometimes it’s just a minor discomfort, other times all-out argument about things I’d really rather not talk about… I could have been born with a darker skin colour, which would have meant I would experience such reactions at first sight, or maybe more intensely.

    The colour of my skin is a priviledge even when combined with my passport. If the experiences I have vs. some of my darker-skinned and male friends during visa and passport applications, or crossing the border into many countries including the UK and US is an indication, I am often being treated OK, comparatively: After “SSSS” for “security” stamped on my documents and being searched thoroughly, sometimes multiple times, each time I travel, I at least usually get allowed into those countries (even though my home and family is there, I need to prove I am worthy to get in).

    And once I am in, I am white. Except, not really…

    For people like me, how do our upbringing and middle class background translate when we live in a 1st world country? Why are we still white if we can’t relate to most of the culturally unifying aspects of “white” and if we don’t get treated the same as other, more stereotype-compliant members of the same group?

    I feel like a minority even though in appearance, white. I think one emerging idea with all this discussion, especially in this post, is that many people who are one way or another included in the white category, may feel similarly.

    I do get some priviledges of “looking” white. I don’t know if I am any more aware of these than a truly white person. But inside me, it doesn’t work: I know in my heart white doesn’t mean from a 3rd world country (or the particular country I am from at least).

    That’s my experience of being white: I don’t belong.

  15. #15 Rugosa
    March 15, 2008

    Wonderful post, Zuska. I once read our situation described as the “new collar” generation – no longer working class, but not quite fitting in with the WASPy middle. I’m a Polish girl from Buffalo; got myself into college I don’t quite know how, since the Catholic schools I attended were bent on keeping women in their place. My working class parents had no ambitions at all for the daughters; my oldest brother was helped through college, but the younger was on his own. Not surprisingly, the oldest brother is the only one who has become professionally and financially successful. When I got to college, middle-class students resented that I had financial aid – they literally didn’t believe how little money my parents made.

    Even though my career has been pretty humble – support staff in academia – my family thinks I’m a snob. I no longer talk the way I used to; my world view has expanded beyond acceptance of the way things are for “people like us.” But I still feel the gulf between myself and people from that WASPy middle, somehow they’re the real thing and I’m still an imposter.

  16. #16 Lab Cat
    March 16, 2008

    Great post Zuska. Seems like you touched a nerve and got some great responses. Everyone’s story is fascinating.

    I will write my story sometime because even though I am a very privileged white, my story still has a few twists.

    The one comment I wanted to make is how similar changing your social class is to changing your country. I constantly get asked if I am “ever going home”, but the US has been my home for over 12 years! I find sometimes that I don’t belong to either England or the US. I probably never will as there are cultural gaps in the US that I will never stride – even if I know what most of those forks are for.

    I don’t mean to be facetious and I appreciate that you have moved further away from your roots than I have mine despite my being 3000 miles from my parents and you less than 300 (?).

  17. #17 Pam
    March 17, 2008

    Great post. As for me, my maiden last name indicated that I was from the UK (family came to the US in the early 1600s) and stayed in New England from that time until the present. On the other side, I am a second generation Eastern European. I am also connected to the PA coal mines. An interesting twist is that, based on my physical appearance, I am often asked if I am Latina. (Actually, this became so obvious that when I was in undergrad, I was asked to join the Latin Student Organization. I did join, but explained to the organizers that I didn’t share their heritage, but would still support them in their mission.) My high school experience was fairly diverse, but upon going to highly-ranked college, I began to see things that I had not seen before. Most of what is mentioned by Zuska was what I saw. Going to grad school for the PhD and having been away from my family for 11 years (undergrad and grad), I also felt as though I couldn’t connect anymore. It wasn’t necessarily me (being snobby, or standoffish), but it was the more subtle reactions that I got when, for example, I was buying groceries that were ‘weird.’ I did a lot of cooking on a shoestring in grad school and was able to save a bit of money, but I guess I appeared to be living during 1929 and through the Depression.

  18. #18 Cherish
    March 17, 2008

    Thanks for posting this. I wrote a little about feeling out of place when I went away to school…and after a while I left because I couldn’t separate myself from the way I grew up so that I could fit into that “other place”. I still feel stuck in between, though, because no one in my family (except my mom) seems to understand my desire to go into science (especially with all the schooling it requires).

  19. #19 ScienceMama
    March 18, 2008

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

  20. #20 DrugMonkey
    March 27, 2008

    I didn’t get the purpose of this exercise when Alice launched it and I still don’t. The idea was that examining one’s “white” ethnicity was supposed to help with exploring or understanding white privilege, was it not? or with understanding non-white non-privilege. or something like that.

    Yet all I’ve seen so far is a recitation of how people who are phenotypically white and can “pass” for white and are viewed as “white” where it matters are not really “white” because of class issues.

    How would you and your supportive readers view it if some male minority member got in touch with his male privilege by detailing how being a minority male really sucks and implying that this makes him just as much a victim of EvilWhiteMaleHegemony as does your being female?

    I still don’t get what this exercise is supposed to be doing other than for people who are in fact viewed as “white” in just about every place that counts trying to claim that this is not the case.

    Everyone in the English speaking world knows what “nigger” means. I suspect a very large part of your audience just learned wtf “patch hunky” means. Does this tell you anything?