Being White, being poor, and having privilege

I’ve seen a lot of comments on the internets from White people and men about being sick of hearing about privilege. Comments having to do with not apologizing for being born into a privileged family and the opportunities given to them because of that, or being sick of being told they didn’t work hard for their accomplishes. I’ve also seen this theme with White people who are low-income; saying they definitely don’t have privilege due to their economic status. While any White person or man saying they don’t have privilege is ludicrous, I do sort of get where these people are coming from. They are saying, “Well, I am really broke and do not get the luxuries typically associated with other White people” or “just because I am a dude doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard for this” and on one hand I get that. But that still doesn’t mean our White privilege (and for men, male privilege) is still not operating. White privilege and male privilege are always operating, even in unjust situations.

To situate myself, I want to offer some transparency regarding my upbringing. My father passed away when I was 3 years old. As a self-employed construction worker, he wasn’t bringing home a ton of money before he passed. Not to mention he battled cocaine and heroin addictions (a battle he ultimately lost) that didn’t exactly help bring home the bacon either. With my mother widowed with 2 little kids and no formal education beyond some college (she was raised in time when they told women not to worry about college because they’d have husbands taking care of them- one of the main issues with that argument), it is easy to guess that money was tight. We always had food stamps, welfare, Section 8, and were even homeless a few times when I was really little. We lived in neighborhoods with a lot of violence due to structural oppression, and once when I was around 8, some friends and I were playing outside and came across a dead body that had been disposed of after some violence went down in our neighborhood. When doing my FAFSA before college, I remember asking my mom what our estimated yearly income was, and she said $800. That's $800. We uh, we were pretty poor.

Fast forward to today: I have a bachelor’s degree, am working on my master’s, and am married with a puppy in Northside Chicago. I have a wonderful job in my field that pays well and I enjoy benefits such as paid time-off, health/dental/vision insurance, life insurance, and other great perks. Typically, our biggest worry financially is whether or not we should drive across the country to see our favorite band, Five Iron Frenzy (the answer is always yes – as if that is even a question). I thank God for these blessings because so many other people do not have them when they’ve worked just as hard, or even harder than me.

Now, if you ask me if I have worked hard for these things, I’d tell you hell yes. Plenty of times in college I stayed in to study when I could have gone out. Now, if you ask me if being White has afforded me privileges in getting here that I did not earn, I’d still tell you hell yes. Because working hard and having privilege are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they usually go hand-in-hand. Another way privilege operates is that if you work hard, the system is set up for you to advance.

I don’t think it would be much of a surprise to note that my family was often the only White family in many spaces we occupied in our poverty. Our neighborhoods, the food stamps and Section 8 office: We typically were the lone White family. And let me tell you that it was those spaces I most often felt my White privilege at work. The atmosphere of the Section 8 office is that everyone there (i.e., the Families of Color) is just mooching off of the government. Avoided eye contact, rude introductions, asking inappropriate questions about money spending; all of those actions from the staff conveyed the attitude that everyone in that office didn’t need to be there if they just worked hard enough. The people using these programs were just lazy, except us. My family, the nice White family consisting of a widowed mother with two good looking kids; we were who these programs were made for. We had just falling on hard times, needed a hand up, not a hand out. We just needed a little help with the cards we were dealt. I cannot tell you how tangible those thoughts were. We were seen as the White family that just needed assistance, when all of the Families of Color there were just lazy. I still remember how differently people treated us when we walked in the door; with dignity, and respect. It made me sick.

So what I am trying to say is that it is totally possible to be White, and be dealt a crappy hand. I’ve been there. But even in those spaces, your White privilege is operating. It instantly tells people that you are not lazy, you are a Good Guy or Good Girl who just needs help. And people will treat you differently because of that. Is it no wonder that my family always got the best treatment at those government agencies? Is it no wonder that when my brother acted up in school he was labeled as “acting-out” and not an inherently bad kid? Is it no wonder that out of all the low-income kids at my school I was the one given the SAT and ACT waivers so that I didn’t have to pay for the tests? For me to recognize that I had White privilege even in my poverty did not negate my hard work, but it does help explain why my hard work paid off.

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts and experiences.

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