White Normativity is Classed

By Edward O'Brien, Middlebury Student

Racial and economic oppressions recently have been thrown at each other in Trump era politics as if one contradicts the other. In part, the white poor have started claiming oppression as their own, claiming that policies like affirmative action or individual prejudices amount to “reverse racism” (i.e. racism against white people). It is pretty common knowledge among college-educated liberals that “reverse racism” cannot happen; in other words  systemic racism is different from an individual act of  bigotry. Systemic racism refers to a system that advantages certain races over others and in which people of certain races are more likely to hold institutional power. Bigotry is the individual prejudice one has for a group of people.

There is truth, however, to the increasing claims of oppression of the white poor — not for their race but in other ways. Interestingly, over the past two decades, the white poor are the only demographic in the United States whose health outcomes have declined — the white poor are now living shorter, less healthy lives than they were at the turn of the century. They are also a demographic for whom wages have either stagnated or dropped. In many ways, things are not going well for the white poor, yet many liberals will remind them that they still hold “white privilege.” In some ways, this is true. In others, it is not. It depends on what you mean by the vague, and all-encompassing phrase.

The white poor have not suffered slavery, racial segregation, racial profiling, cultural exploitation or appropriation. At the same time, however, they are in many ways not a part of white normativity. Take, for example, the derogatory term “white trash.” The term itself implies something along the lines of white, but not as good, white but less than white — white but poor.

Just like all other relations to power, whiteness is inseparable from other identities white people hold, be that gender, sexuality, or class. This country is run by white people, with their access to education, their political connections, their historical power in this country, their wealth. But many of these advantages afforded to white people are classed advantages. It is a very different position in society to be white and born to two professional parents in a wealthy town just outside of Boston than it is to be white in rural Missouri and struggling to put food on the table or steadily losing jobs to a globalized market.

Not all white people are equally powerful or fit into an imagined white middle-class mold. Returning to the example of “white trash,” it is worth exploring who is considered white trash among the white poor. What makes the distinction between being “white trash” or finding oneself in “genteel poverty”? Generally, the answer is one’s adherence (or lack thereof) to normative white middle-class values, mannerisms, and definitions of respectability. Many of the white poor are othered by white normativity — because they do not succumb to white respectability politics or because they are too poor to have access to the systems that advantage white people.

We must apply intersectional perspectives in a way that allows for nuances even among the generally powerful group in this country. To say that the white poor have white privilege is true; it also dismisses the fact that many of the systems that advantage people are simultaneously racial and contingent on class. It would be more accurate, then, to say that the white poor have some white privilege. The white poor are advantaged by the purely racial mechanisms of oppression, but not the the ones tied up in wealth.

Edward O’Brien ’17 writes about the intersections of poverty and race.