I keep asking people to allow for complexities, one because I’m a historian and I like to be accurate, but two because it allows us to see absurdities in the system.
Currently, it in vogue to argue that poor white people are not oppressed or are less oppressed and therefore less important. There are two basic strands to this argument and one is more legitimate than the other. The more legitimate one begins with the idea that they don’t endure systematic oppression but the problem with that argument is that they do. Poverty is a systematic form of oppression. But maybe, it’s different or not as bad because it’s not racial oppression. This argument stems from a legitimate frustration from the people who try to use poor whites as a distraction from talking about race. Which of course part of why racism exists, because early (and forever) in our country’s history, poor blacks, poor whites and the native population lived together, which is one of the reasons most poor white people have native blood in them so they had to find a way from keeping all of the poor from revolting and working together. Which they did, several times throughout our history. But I understand that frustration because it’s really frustrating that people try to derail discussions around race by co-opting poor whites, but I don’t think it’s the most effective means to combat that problem.
The less legitimate argument is the idea that poor whites can’t be oppressed because it’s not racial oppression. Of course, it’s not racial oppression, though whites all experience the system we call racism because everyone does. But it doesn’t have to be racial oppression because there can be lots of different forms of oppression that overlap, and we should know this by now but we are still stuck in the sixties on our college campuses where everyone wants you to declare your allegiances, which is why even though I helped plan and orchestrate and demand for rallies from our school for Black History Month, I suddenly got to college and had people demanding to know why I had showed up to speak at rallies against racial oppression.
We all operate under multiple identities and sometimes we choose to operate more strongly with one than the other. For example, I feel most strongly identified with my class, then my gender, then my education background, then my race, then my disabilities. But that switches, if I am say, at the doctors or talking about race or in a room full of Stanford graduates for work functions.Vincent, who appears to most people from Stanford as Hispanic actually identifies (usually) in this order: class, disability, race, educational background, gender. That order changes when he’s applying for jobs, or at the doctor or hanging out with me when I’m talking about sexism. And he usually doesn’t identify as Hispanic at all, because he considers himself to be biracial and sometimes he’s treated like he’s white and he identifies as white.
Which brings us to this idea of passing. Passing, is being able to identify as the identity with power, which allows you access to more resources and power. Vincent sometimes passes as white, but not every Hispanic person could do that because not every Hispanic person has the amount white blood or has been here as long or speaks English as their first language or has the education he has. People have passed racially throughout our history, some lighter skinned black people could pass even during slavery (which is why the south had the one drop rule). Our country is large and diverse and the state has a spectrum of means to control people but it’s been very difficult for our state to stop the creation of multiracial people completely. Rape happened and also people fell in love. There is a spectrum of whether or not people can do this and colorism is a real byproduct of racism. The same is true for gender, although that one is arguably harder, but women, even emperors have passed as men throughout history. And this is all not accounting for the fact that white has been a moving target and keeps being redefined. Five generations ago (which in my family is within living memory) my family wasn’t white, which is why our last name was Americanized. And we are German!
What about class? Class is the easier one right? You can pass, the differences are changeable. Well, as a poor white person it is easier for me to pass as rich and white than it would be for a poor black person but even here there is a spectrum. And rich black people in this country are still rich, so they experience one system but not the other. It’s insulting for them to claim the forms of oppression that poor black people experience and in my experience poor black people don’t appreciate that at all, which is why they often consider me to be “more black” than the rich black kids I went to college with. Ironically, I seemed to have the hardest time passing as “not poor” out of anyone I know and it’s not just because I didn’t try very hard. I didn’t know how to try. The visible class markers, my teeth, my curviness, my glasses, my clothes, my speech, my height, my attitude and demeanor were all dead giveaways. I was visibly malnourished when I got to college. I had asthma that was horrifically bad (that magically starting clearing up when I live in wealthier neighborhoods, I wonder how that happened, could it be that we place pollutants next to poor neighborhoods). I had whopping cough as a child, my doctors were like, “your chart reads like you are from a third world country.” In one spectacular moment that was repeated over and over again, I was speaking to a Thai student and a Hispanic student who both grew up rich and they started making fun of my accent. Why did I have a harder time passing then some of the other poor people I know? Well, I went to a bad high school and had never left my neighborhood so I didn’t learn how to codeswitch like my friends who went to good suburban high schools or private school. People could tell when I opened my mouth and the shock to me was so glaring that I opted not to even try to pass. I’m also a terrible liar. But even my poor white friends who went to good suburban high schools or private schools can’t pass all the time because there are more subtle indicators. I can tell almost immediately whether or not someone is working class. The person that I know who passes most successfully, I knew the second I met him. How? He stood up when I walked into the room, something that working class men are trained to do in the company of respectable women. Bill Clinton, could not pass, when I got to college my rich classmates were calling him “trailer trash” and the man was President among other impressive things. It is much harder than you realize to try to pretend to be something you weren’t exposed to for the first 18 years of your life. So I couldn’t just go to college and blend in and the poor kids who argued I could couldn’t either.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter. Why? Because we should all be fighting oppression everywhere. I speak about class most often because that’s my speciality, it’s the area I am most suited to be vocal for, but I also talk about race and gender and other forms of oppression because I see us as all in this together. I support people working against racial oppression by promoting their voice, arguing against racists and educating other white people. My oppression doesn’t negate your oppression and we have to stop allowing ourselves to be pitted against each other. But I do believe in priorities and I will tell you that I’ll happily take being being made fun of because of my accent over hunger and violence any day of the week, so it’s important that we are fighting just as hard to combat hunger and poverty as we do to fighting to change the language. Some of that is going to take teasing apart the language and discussing the ways that the system and systems treat different people so we can dismantle the system by proving it’s stupidity. And it is stupid, so incredibly ridiculous that if it weren’t in my own country in this time we’d point at it and talk about how silly our ancestors were in the same way that we point at something like foot binding or corsets and talk about how grateful we are to not be in that time. And we should start treating it like it is absurd and stupid because that takes the power away, and we can do all of this while doing all of the other things. We can fight against all of these systems, talk about language, feed the poor and laugh at the stupidity of it all, at the same time but only if we stop shouting at each other and work together.
So, I’m pleading, once again to help each other. And I know that’s not fashionable but I don’t care because I’m not interested in being cool in the eyes of who ever is at top of the activism chain, I’m interested in freeing people. Let’s spend our time and energy doing that.