The world is in upheaval (COVID, police brutality, White silence, literal lynchings in the streets…) more than I have ever seen in my lifetime and I’m a bit overwhelmed by it. Some days it’s all I can do to make coffee, feed the cat and scoop the litter box. The rest of the time, my eyes are tired from staring into a screen abyss of politics, activism, hatred, inspirational, revolutionary moments in time for us social justice warriors. My teaching job is exclusively online now also. The screen is the new daily norm. I’m also heartbreakingly bearing witness to those who are clinging to the banks of the river of change and they seem like dogs who have also been chained, but by their own illusions of superiority. I believe deep down they know the difference between right and wrong – humanity from hatred – but they’ve never been able to access it for a vast many number of oppressive reasons.
White supremacy and power is an imposed bigotry system. It gives poor White people the notion and perpetuates the belief that they are in some way superior to people of color, regardless of how poor they may be. People of color were perceived to have been (or deserve to be) dominated and defeated, enslaved and incarcerated. White people in poverty do not have the slightest clue that they too are incarcerated in an insidious way, by their own ignorance and subsequent hatred, by a system which benefits by feeding them White supremacist lies.
Poor White people are fragile because deep down, they know the experiences of all Black, Brown and Indigenous people of color are indications of grave sins committed by White power. Even if they haven’t consciously tapped into that notion, they are fighting to save what little they have in an effort to maintain a sense of their own right to exist. They have been convinced, over time, that their lives mean something more than Black and Brown people, because they aren’t “getting into trouble”. They are kept from the truth of the thin line which keeps them safe, but only in the moment – until they can’t pay for their cancer treatments, they lack the money to buy their children what they need, their car breaks down and can’t be fixed, addiction kills a family member, they lack true protection from police even if there is sexual abuse or other atrocities in the home, they lack the ability to save their children from dying of diseases which could be treated with access to money. They have no idea that the color of their skin makes all of this heartbreaking reality just a little bit (if not a lot) better for them. President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Poor White people are, in all senses of the term, appeased. They are complacent and comfortable enough to swallow the messages of their racist and bigoted churches, their right-wing news commentators, they’re whispering racist coworkers or military regiment brothers and sisters, their parents’ or grandparents’ “generational” ideas about race and gender inequality…
“By most accounts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 couldn’t have become law when it did had not LBJ personally wheedled, cajoled, and shamed his former colleagues in the House and Senate into voting for it. One of the secrets of his success was the ability to speak the racially insensitive language of his fellow Southerners. (For two decades in Congress he was a reliable member of the Southern bloc, helping to stonewall civil rights legislation. As [biographer Robert] Caro recalls, Johnson spent the late 1940s railing against the “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves” in East Asia. Buying into the stereotype that blacks were afraid of snakes (who isn’t afraid of snakes?) he’d drive to gas stations with one in his trunk and try to trick black attendants into opening it. Once, Caro writes, the stunt nearly ended with him being beaten with a tire iron.) He (Johnson) understood them (Southerners). He understood their reluctance and in some cases downright refusal to tear down the walls of racial segregation. He knew racism from the inside, and he knew well the role the rich and powerful played in promulgating it.” (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/lbj-convince-the-lowest-white-man/)
My point in all of this is in attempt to say this: those poor White people who believe themselves to be superior to Black and Brown people of color are imprisoned by their ignorance and inherent privilege. This is poor White people everywhere – Southerners are not alone in this. They are blinded by the imposed class structure so much so that their struggles, financial and otherwise, are not seen. Therefore, their reality is not shared with minorities who have similar experiences, but theirs are even worse comparatively and statistically. Poor White people can’t imagine giving up anything in order to allow for Black and Brown people to come forward because they don’t have anything to give – that they can see. This is why the argument of privilege is so unpalatable. They do not see their own struggle in those to whom they subjugate. They are systematically prevented from feeling empathy or understanding. It is impossible for a White person to understand what it is like to be a person of color. I struggled with this specific concept in my own experience in developing an anti-racist praxis coming from a working-class, poor White family. At one time, when I was around 2-3, my mother, father and I lived in the back of a beat up Grand Torino. I was sexually abused and physically abused as a kid and young adult. I knew hunger, neglect and I hated/feared police because they never saved me; they didn’t put my abusers in jail… if all this is part of my identity, then what do I have to give? I had (and continue to have) a lot to learn is all I can say.
The insidious nature of racism cannot be understood by someone in terms of privilege if one does not see their own yet, it can only be taught relationally, the process and idea of imagining oneself in someone else’s shoes. The sacred concept of critical thinking isn’t bestowed upon people who go to public schools. “You may have experienced all those things, but you’ve never been Black.” says a White, anti-racist advocate Alice Sarti. What an amazing way to put it, how simple, how understandable! Knowing deep down that Black and Brown people have had no stick at all, instead of the short end, that’s the part Poor white people got. This concept is simply and finally understandable. Poor White people can only understand the privilege of their existence through the example of relationships. Somehow, honoring Life (not just White lives) has escaped the awareness of hateful, White supremacists. That a Black person’s life has value, or a Lakota has the right to this land or the Guatemalan or Mexican person is a human being has been intentionally manufactured as unrecognizable realities.
I see a way to begin this conversation with someone. It starts by making a relational statement, as I did with my grandmother on Sunday. “Put yourself in the shoes of George Floyd’s mother, his grandmother. How would you feel to watch that happen to him? What if he was your grandson? Imagine little Kevi (my nephew, her oldest grandson) under the knee of that police officer and even worse, remembering intrinsically that your entire family knows it could’ve been one of them on the ground that day. That’s how prevalent this kind of violence and police brutality is for the Black and Brown community. Imagine seeing little Joey’s face (our youngest nephew/grandson) sticking out from under the police officers knee and recognize that it happens all the time. If this had not been filmed – there would not yet be people of all colors outraged in the streets.”
White people had to see it to believe it. Even though we’ve seen it before, somehow, thank God, there has been a breaking point, emblazoned by technology and the Black and Brown community saying “We will take no more. Our lives matter too”. Imagine that Maw Maw… Then I read to her statistics about disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown people in prison and she asks “So they’re not just getting into more trouble, they’re being met by racist system?” “The system which teaches cops”, I added, “by design or inadvertently, explicitly and implicitly, that Black and Brown people are more dangerous and therefore deserve to be targeted.”
Yes. I had this conversation with my grandmother after she said this: “Please don’t misunderstand me and think that I am intentionally being prejudiced (or something like that), but shouldn’t all colors be included? They (Black Lives Matter) should change their slogan to ‘all lives matter.'” Our conversation was civil and respectful. My grandfather, sitting to my right, seemed a bit less enthused about my perspective and was quiet for much of the conversation. However, when I told them about the White professor asking her mostly White class to raise their hands if they would want to be treated like Black people in the United States. I explained that no one in the class raised their hand. Then I shared that the professor then asked, “What are you all doing about that?” My grandfather retorted, “Sounds like she’s just an agitator.” Sorry Paw Paw, looks like you’ve got an agitator for your granddaughter… I love you.
In the end, I think my grandmother began to see what I was explaining. I asked her several times, like the teacher I am (she was also, for 32 years), “Does that make sense about George Floyd’s grandmother and the prevalence of police targeting, brutality and institutionalized racism?” “Yes, it does.” she said.