Having had many debates with self-proclaimed socialists or Marxists with white skin, there has been a noticeable trend to deflect from white privilege (or deny that it exists altogether) on the basis of class oppression. Yes, working class whites do exist and they may struggle with certain forms of class barriers, but the point is that they will never struggle with racial oppression. That’s part of what having white privilege means: not having to calculate and consider racism in every aspect of your life. That is a social, political, institutional, and factual reality for white folks. What is crucial for us to understand is this: class status can be changed, race cannot be changed. A white person who has been university educated and holds a degree, who can’t find a decent job or lost the one they had, and finds themselves on the verge of homelessness still has more opportunities and racial advantages than a person of color who couldn’t afford to attend college in the first place.
Thinking critically about the idea of us whites experiencing class ‘oppression’ is also important. Changes in class status are often expressed in “rags to riches” narratives, or what is also called the myth of meritocracy. This is the idea that hard work can take anyone in the US anywhere in terms of social mobility, and once this upward mobility has been achieved they can say they ‘earned’ everything they have based on individual merit. First of all, does someone who grew up in Watts or on a reservation really have the same opportunities as someone who grew up in say… Beverly Hills? The proverbial playing field is not level, and anyone can see this obvious truth in such a small geographic example. Even if there are white folks born in the Ozarks instead of Beverly Hills, the promise of “rags to riches” was made for us. It protects and comforts us. How often does this narrative apply to POC? If we see Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this lens we can see how limited this idea is: she is the first and only Latina to hold this title while also having this kind of story.
White folks that go from “rags to riches” do not have to overcome racism to discard their rags, and they do not have to continue to confront racism once they’ve earned their riches. If they don’t have riches, that doesn’t necessarily mean they experience class oppression. During one particular debate about class oppression with a white socialist, her argument against her own white privilege was presented as follows: I don’t have a six-digit bank account balance, I don’t have a private yacht, I don’t have a ten bedroom mansion, I don’t get to take lavish vacations, I don’t have a “Cadillac health care” plan, I’m not a CEO of a major corporation, therefore I don’t have white privilege. The items on this list are better understood as luxuries, not as parts that comprise the whole of privilege. If you can also say: I have family and friends with money and a family home, I have a car/laptop/smart phone, I have a decent apartment in a decent neighborhood and grew up in a white neighborhood, I have the freedom to take road trips and flights out to conferences, I have been in safe environments away from constant pollution and can afford to feed myself well so I don’t have conditions that require “Cadillac” health insurance, and I am a leader in my social institutions who might find the search for gainful employment difficult but not impossible… then you have privilege. White privilege is whites having more advantages, access, safety, protection, and comfort than POC even if we don’t possess the luxuries of the super rich.
Class barriers do not negate white privilege. Not being able to pay the mortgage on a house is a financial barrier, not having a mortgage because you will never be able to qualify for a loan and afford a house is oppression. And if we’re going to talk numbers with this shit, the actual percentage of whites living with class barriers is quite small. Here are some statistics for thought from the National Poverty Center:
“The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for Blacks and [Latin@s] greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of Blacks and 26.6 percent of [Latin@s] were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.”
That’s 9.9% of over 300 million people. And that’s white folks living in poverty, not white folks living in “I have a car but I don’t have a yacht” land. Not to mention, the economy was already falling apart two years before that data was compiled. Breaking down white privilege involves being honest about what we have and getting perspective on what POC don’t have, it isn’t denying the existence of white privilege because wealthier white folks have more stuff.