Thursday, June 12, 2014

The pesky problem of words having meanings

"Recommended for you," said The Nation, and right they were: another "privilege" article. Mychal Denzel Smith addresses the oft-heard complaint about the expression "white privilege," namely that there are poor white people. Are they privileged?

Yes, Smith argues, they are, because the government treats poor blacks and whites differently: "Yes, you can be poor and white and still benefit from white supremacy. That’s what privilege is." 

While I agree with the essential, I'd have gone with something like, 'That's what racism is.' The problem with calling out issues like this with the word "privilege" is that the defensive response is built into the word itself. A poor white person from Appalachia doesn't come from privilege, isn't dripping with privilege, etc. Some of the balking at the expression "white privilege" is thus coming not from people who deny that racism continues to exist, but rather from people who aren't comfortable calling poor people, any poor people, "privileged." I'm thus not sure that using the term is the best strategy for raising awareness of these issues - it's sound in terms of theory - yes, absolutely, poor whites hold structural advantage over poor blacks in this country - but then there's the pesky problem of, "privileged" already has a meaning in everyday language, and what it means is "rich." That said, if it helps victims of racism conceptualize their situation and react, maybe?

So, too, with "rape culture." Like "privilege," I've used it, but ambivalently. Because "rape" already has a definition, and because it's difficult enough to get across that non-consensual sex between people with a preexisting relationship also counts, I'm wary of using the term to replace others - misogyny, sexism - that also convey a culture that marginalizes women. On the one hand, it gets across that there's a continuum, that these things (from ogling to rape) are all related. On the other, it can seem (to those of a less theoretical persuasion) to be a case of conflating mere annoyances with assault. 

Again, it seems like maybe "rape culture" helps women understand these issues amongst ourselves, but that once we try to explain sexism to men and use that expression, we're inviting a not-unreasonable sort of defensiveness. Again, from men who might perfectly well agree that sexism exists, but who have their doubts as to whether rape is really the issue every time (say) an older male professor makes an inappropriate remark to a female grad student at a conference.


abrahamandsarah said...

"poor whites hold structural advantage over poor blacks in this country"

Is that true? Comparing dirt poor towns in eastern Kentucky to ghettos in Chicago (for example) doesn't reveal any 'structural advantages' for the former. There are differences (meth vs. crack and heroin, etc), but I don't think it makes sense to talk about 'advantages' when comparing different sorts of misery and hopelessness.

Phoebe said...

I agree with you in one sense - thus why I think the word "privilege" is a problem when comparing groups of people none of whom are privileged. But... racism continues to exist. As documented in the piece I link to, or see Coates on reparations. Or consider the differences between what happens when a black or white person is shot - how much different lives are valued. Or what I've seen day-to-day on commuter trains, where it's a different story if a black or non-black person gets on the train without a ticket. And then there's the tremendous difference between what happens if a black or white person from a poor family makes it out of the community - white people who grew up poor may feel culturally out-of-place, but get to blend in unnoticed in a way that black people do not. And so on.

It seems fair to speak of relative advantage, then, because there needs to be *some* language to express the way that racism persists in a separate but related way to socioeconomic oppression. It just shouldn't be a vocabulary that conflates relative advantage, or a lack of a *specific* obstacle, with being one of life's haves.

abrahamandsarah said...

White poverty vs. black poverty is usually just placeholder for rural poverty vs. urban poverty, and I don't think there is any structural advantage to being poor in the country (I'm sure there are advantages in both directions between poor white and black people living in the same place, a lot of them incalculable & related to being accepted as part of your neighborhood). Poor white kids from eastern Kentucky are never going to 'fit in' to well-to-do urban or suburban culture any more than poor black kids from south Chicago or wherever. There's also the not insignificant problem of the structural disadvantage poor white kids face in college admissions.

I guess one could argue that there is a structural advantage to being ignored and left to die versus being actively demonized.

Phoebe said...

"Poor white kids from eastern Kentucky are never going to 'fit in' to well-to-do urban or suburban culture any more than poor black kids from south Chicago or wherever."

Not in terms of how they feel, I'm sure, but in terms of how they're perceived, absolutely. While my knowledge of Kentucky specifically is about nil, I do know a good number of white people who grew up poor (rural and urban) and who do fit into UMC culture, and whose backgrounds only become apparent when they bring up something telling about their childhood. Maybe my anecdotal evidence is skewed, but this strikes me as not uncommon. Whereas black people in UMC settings must deal with the default assumption that they grew up in the inner city, whether or not that's the case.

As for college, I'm pretty sure there's a "geographic diversity" component, which, fine, could mean that the richest family in Kentucky can send a kid to Harvard, but which probably does help poor whites. A poor white kid from Connecticut may, however, be screwed - not sure how geographic diversity is calculated.

Britta said...

Off the top of my head, the likelihood of being murdered by cops/random strangers for no reason at all is orders of magnitudes higher if you're black. If a poor white person gets in a car crash and tries to get someone to call 911, they're not going to be shot. Privilege exists in lots of forms, but to deny that, all other things being equal, a white person isn't more privileged than a black person is straight up ignorance.

Also, what Phoebe said about geographic diversity. It's a huge leg up for white kids predominantly poor rural regions, and was explicitly designed as such.

Phoebe said...


Examples much appreciated. But I'm wondering what you think about the pros and cons of using the word "privilege" to discuss anti-black racism. Injustice "exists in a lot of forms," but as I see it, there's a danger in using "privilege" to describe the forms that benefit people who aren't by any means life's haves, and who merely lack a particular obstacle.

pronetolaughter said...

Speaking as who works in university administration and has read selective admissions applications in the past, poor white kids do indeed benefit from affirmative action, and the principles that support accepting a poor black kid from the ghetto are definitely transferred to the poor white rural kid. Elite universities are currently focusing on the notion of "first-generation" (first in family to go to four-year college) and "Pell Grant-eligible", and reporting those statistics as part of their diversity efforts. The guiding principle for admissions is "did the student make the most of what was available to her/him?". I've heard there are studies that show this shift in the approach is squeezing out people of color and replacing them with poor white kids, but I don't know them offhand.

Phoebe said...


Thanks for an insider's perspective on this. I personally have no idea what goes on in college admissions behind the scenes. I just remember hearing grumblings about "geographic diversity" at my public magnet high school in NYC. I don't remember anyone resenting race-based affirmative action, just the geographic variety.