What do you have when you come from a poor-white background? And from a place where Reconstruction didn’t end until the 1950s. If you came from people often referred to on campuses as crackers and rednecks or, condescendingly, as blue collar or poor-white Appalachians. If even the uncertain gentility of the South, who accord physical work no dignity at all, refer to your people as peckerwoods – in what tradition do you find an example? That we whaled the piss out of them that first time at Bull Run? That Great-granddaddy did right at Vicksburg, that a corner of Shiloh is forever Yazoo City? There is much honor and more sense in having succeeded with what was left, making something with the damned forty acres and a muddy mule, but you have to be able to see that. No one will tell you.
I am increasingly cognizant, these days, of the notion of privilege, and the fact that, as a straight, physically large and intimidating white man, I possess quite a lot of it by default. It’s increased particularly since my marriage, oddly, because I am now acutely aware that my lovely and wonderful wife does not exist in the same universe I do.
In my universe, a dark and empty street holds no particular fear; as I always jokingly assure her when she tells me to be careful on a late-night walk to the store, I’m the thing to be afraid of in the dark. And it’s true. Nobody catcalls at me, or tries to get me to get in their car, or tries to put their hands on me. But people — men — do that to her, with a casualness and frequency which I find astonishing.
That astonishment may sound naive to you, and maybe it is. But the fact is that men don’t do that to her when I’m around. Men don’t do that to any women when I’m around. It’s not like I’m some kind of white knight; it simply literally does not happen in my presence, presumably because the kind of men who behave this way are the kind of cowards who wouldn’t dare harass a woman if there’s even the possibility that another man might call them out on it. I live in a world where that horrible shit doesn’t exist.
And of course, as I’ve become aware of this, I’ve become aware of all the other horrible shit that doesn’t happen to me; the shit that happens outside the edges of my peripheral vision. Nobody ever follows me suspiciously around a store because of the color of my skin; nobody ever talks to me as if I’m mentally challenged when I go into a bookstore; nobody ever calls me a faggot and threatens to kick my faggot ass (at least not anymore, but that’s a whole other story). Nobody ever makes snide half-muttered remarks about how I ought to go back to my own country. Nobody ever tells me that what I need is a big dick in my pussy to turn me straight.
I don’t even see this happening to other people. Maybe it’s just because I’m not mentally prepared to see it when it does happen, or even recognize that it’s happening. But I’m a pretty observant person, and by and large I think that it really doesn’t happen when I’m around, for the same reason that men don’t actively and aggressively harass women in my presence: because the people who are likely to do that sort of thing don’t want to take a chance that my big scary ass might step in on the situation. (On the rare occasions that anybody will make a bigoted or homophobic or sexist remark to me or around me, it’s usually someone who’s obviously chemically altered or just plain stupid, like some douchebag frat boy or a random tweaker on a bus — people whose sense of self-preservation is at a low.)
But there’s another facet to the notion of privilege that I have begun to think about and question, one that perhaps comes from the opposite side of that idea: namely, the automatic assumption that straight white people automatically possess infinite privilege, a sort of token Get Out Of Jail Free card that they can throw up whenever they need to. I notice it because I see this idea taken for granted by a lot of people, and it is my experience that it is simply and bluntly untrue.
I recently read and was struck by a 2010 piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “A Culture Of Poverty“, in which he discusses his own aggressive reaction to a rude, insistent critic, and how it was, at least in part, a product of his own upbringing in rough West Baltimore:
It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there’s something uniquely “black” about those values, and their the embrace.
He’s right, of course: there’s nothing “black” about the mentality of being willing to whip somebody’s ass for getting up in your face and disrespecting your shit. I recognized his reaction immediately — man, you best step the fuck off — because it’s probably the exact same thing I would have done in the same situation. Because it’s not a product of “black”; it’s a product of poor.
We don’t talk much about poor white folks in America, these days. In the sort of circles I run in — liberal, progressive, culturally tolerant and permissive — poor white trash are the last cultural group who can be stereotyped, lumped together, dismissed and ridiculed without fear of confrontation or social reprisal. We call these people “rednecks” and refer to the rural states they occupy as “flyover” country; we label them as bigots and small-minded, childish religious fanatics; we shake our heads as they consistently vote against their own best interests, whichever way the neo-conservatives tell them to. We act like they’re fools.
And we’re right, of course. They are fools. But they’re only fools in the same way that poor urban blacks are self-defeating fools who perpetuate their own misery indefinitely; in other words, that isn’t the whole story or even most of it. And as Coates rightly points out, the question that’s never asked is: why would anyone embrace that sort of foolishness?
I think I have a rather unique perspective on the issue, owing to my rather eclectic upbringing. It’s not worth getting into my whole family history, but the long and short is: sometimes I was well-off, and sometimes I wasn’t. At best we were upper middle class; at worst, we were barely clinging to the “working” part of the working class.
I’m fairly confident in saying that I’ve been exposed to pretty much every way of life a white guy can be in this country. My grandparents were friends of the Bush family, Texas jet-setters during the oil industry’s economic explosion of the 1970s and 1980s; I went to private middle school with kids whose parents were business partners of Ross Perot, kids who had their own small yachts to compliment those of their parents. For my seventh grade school trip, we took a bus from north Texas to Vail, Colorado; it was my first time snowboarding, as I remember.
And yet, a few years later, for complicated reasons, my mother and stepfather and I were living in a trailer outside of Hamilton, Montana. My dad was out of work for a couple of months, because the sawmill he worked in had been shut down by Greenpeace activists trying to save the spotted owl. I was expelled from school for mouthing off one too many times to my teachers, so he and I would go and cut down trees for friends in return for a share of the firewood. One winter, we all slept in the living room of the trailer because that’s where the wood-burning stove was; every few hours, during the night, one of us would have to get up and spray off the chimney pipe of the stove with a hair spritzer full of water, because it would get red hot and begin to smoulder where it met the roof if we didn’t. We slept huddled together, because if we didn’t, we would have quite literally frozen to death in the subzero temperatures of the Montana winter night.
I don’t mention this to make you feel sorry for me; I mention it because I feel like I probably have a pretty good handle on what it’s like to be a redneck, to be a flyover person in a flyover state — to live your life, as Jarvis Cocker says in the classic Pulp song “Common People”, without meaning or control. But I also see what it’s like to be the sort of white person that people refer to when they refer to “white people problems,” like not being able to get good wifi so you can download your podcast of This American Life. Ta-Nehisi Coates can tell you that not all black people are the same; I can tell you, with the same absolute assurance, that not all white people are the same, either.
* * *
So here you are, a teenage girl in the heart of America’s heart. You were born in the tiny emergency room of the same small rural town your people have lived in for at least a century. Your parents aren’t hardworking salt of the earth farmers or millworkers, the kind of people that get country songs written about them and whom politicians like to hold up as examples of the rugged American can-do spirit. They’re white trash. Your mom’s an alcoholic who’s recently discovered the joys of bathtub crank; God only knows where your daddy is or even who he is. He could really be any one of the fat bastards who prop up the bar down to the Brass Rail six nights a week, when they’re not bowling.
You live in a trailer with your fifty-five year old grandmother, who insists you call her Mae instead of Granny or Grandma — “because, fuck, honey, I ain’t that goddamn old” — and who works part-time doing nails for the rich bitches who live up the hill, and spends the rest of her time sitting around drinking Southern Comfort out of a tumbler she got with Camel Cash that has a picture of Joe Camel playing pool and smoking a cigarette on it. That’s when she’s not down at the Brass Rail, drinking Rolling Rock and putting quarters in the jukebox to hear Shania sing “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” for the thousandth time and waiting to see which one of the upstanding gentlemen will take her home and fuck her tonight. Hell, it might be the same one who took Momma home back when it was Garth Brooks instead of Daughtry on CMT; nobody knows for sure, and it wouldn’t matter if they did.
Momma’s never had any kind of real job; sometimes she works graveyard down at the Stop ‘N’ Shop out on the highway, but that’s only when they need an extra hand and it’s usually only one or two nights a week when they do. Most of the time, your little family subsists on what they tend to call “government assistance” around here, because “welfare” is for niggers. Your mother will self-righteously tell anybody that she’s a stay-at-home mom, but apparently “stay-at-home” doesn’t include staying at home at night or most weekends.
What she does do when she’s at home is get into shouting matches with Mae and bitch about those fuckin’ skinny bitches on the TV and occasionally sneak into the bathroom to snuffle up some of the shitty crank she gets from one of her boyfriends, who’s a nominal biker with a connection out of Bakersfield, California. Any parenting she does is limited to sending you down to the Vons with your food stamps to pick up a loaf of Wonder bread, some generic bologna with the red wrapping on the outside, and a couple of six packs of Diet Shasta, because if you get a fat ass now you ain’t never gonna lose it, honey. Since the Vons won’t take food stamps for her Camels and her generic vodka, she sends you along with a Ziploc baggie full of quarters for those items.
You’re not in such great shape yourself. You don’t read too good; it’s just hard to pay attention in school. Nobody gives a shit if you do good or not, because everybody knows your family are fucking worthless, so they pretty much let you slide; that fuckin’ No Child Left Behind bullshit doesn’t really apply out here. You think maybe you’d like to go to school to be a fashion designer, but you’re not really sure how somebody actually goes and does that. You’ll figure it out later. They’ve diagnosed you with ADD, but you think that’s full of shit. Doesn’t matter. It’s not like Momma can afford to buy the medicine they prescribed you anyway.
You’ve been sneaking your mom’s Camels since you were ten, and smoking pot since you were thirteen. Momma doesn’t know you dip into her crank a little bit, every so often, when you need a little pick-me-up to drag your ass out of bed and down to the high school. One time, Troy down the road gave you a line of coke in return for sucking his dick at a house party. Fuck, you wish you could afford to do that shit all the time. But you can only think of one way to get the money to have a coke habit, and that’s some shit you’re not really into.
You technically lost your virginity when you were nine, when one of your mom’s boyfriends got drunk and came in your bedroom and accidentally fucked you instead of her. Now that you think about it, it’s entirely possible that it was actually your father. But that was, like, just some shit that happened; you really lost your virginity when you were eleven, to a twenty-three year old mechanic named Toby you met at a party. You told him you were seventeen; girls in your family always did develop early, and besides, he was so fuckin’ drunk you could’ve told him you were Dolly Parton and he woulda believed it.
You “dated” Toby — meaning you went over to his house and fucked him while Survivor played on his TV in the background — for three months, until somebody finally told him how old you were and he panicked. Not that he needed to; it’s not like Momma or Mae gave much of a shit. They said they liked having him around. Mae always wanted him to sit next to her on the couch when he came over.
You heard from Becky’s sister that Toby’s a total homo now, taking night classes at the community college three towns over. “Taking dick-sucking classes,” Becky’s sister said, but what the fuck does that bitch know anyway?
Last year you were going out with Mike, who’s way into hip-hop; he wants to be, like, the next Eminem, except he can’t rap for shit. But he was a good boyfriend and he never hit you or left you stranded out in the country or anything like that. He even told you he loved you, and you believed him. You thought maybe you loved him too, and maybe he was the one. But then he cheated on you with that fuckin’ whore Lorena and got her pregnant, and she went to live with her cousins in Reno and Mike had to go in the Army. He’s in Iraq now, and sometimes he posts pictures of the baby on his Facebook, which you occasionally check at the school library. Lorena’s a fat fuckin’ goddamn whore and you’ve sworn you were gonna fuckin’ stab her if she showed her fuckin’ face around again, but the baby’s cute. You want a baby of your own, maybe.
Sometimes, lying in your single bed in your trailer at night, surrounded by stuffed animals and listening to the wind howl endlessly outside, you dream about a whole other kind of life, somewhere else, like on TV, where people live by the ocean and go and do all that weird shit you can’t even imagine. That’s the life you want; that’s the life you ought to have. When Mae takes you to church on Sundays, that’s what you pray to Jesus for: dear Lord our God in Heaven, meek and mild, please please please take me away from here. I wanna be one of the TV people.
And sometimes you sit on the curb at the Stop ‘N’ Shop, drinking a raspberry Icee and smoking a Camel, and you look out at the highway, the way cars just disappear into the dark, and you’d do just about anything to be in one of them, going anywhere, anywhere but here.
* * *
If that little fictional sketch sounds dramatic to you, then you’ve never spent any time in small-town America. In point of fact, it’s based on specific details of people I knew and went to school with…as well as some people from my own family.
Whatever special favors are granted by white privilege in America, they don’t particularly apply to my little small-town sweetheart here. She’s as trapped by the circumstances of her birth as any African-American kid in South Central or Latino kid in the barrio in Phoenix.
I know these people. I came up with them. I saw how few of them escaped the black hole of being a poor white redneck piece of shit in America. I was lucky I had the resources I did; lucky I ended up living in Las Vegas with a good job and a beautiful wife and a great life, instead of working at a dying factory married to some idiot girl I’d knocked up my junior year, with a parcel of dirty children and a whole lot of potential and good intentions washed down the drain.
And even when they do get out, their escape velocity doesn’t usually take them all that far. For a lot of kids I knew, the Big Show wasn’t New York or Los Angeles or Chicago; it was goddamn Billings, Montana or Boulder, Colorado or Ogden, Utah. They’re the ones who show up for interviews in the HR office at your company wearing Wal-Mart suits and big clumpy work shoes, the ones whose alma mater is Pinedale Community College, who still put their high school membership in Future Farmers of America on their resumes, who never did an internship and have absolutely no work experience because the only jobs where they come from involve manning a cash register, cutting down trees or cooking meth in a bathtub.
When they walk out of the office after their hesitant, doomed interview, you look after them and laugh; you’d never ever think of sneering at a black dude who came for an interview, but you’ve got no problem going “Dude, what the fuck was up with Joe Dirt?” Because he’s white, and therefore he’s got privilege.
Yeah. Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from East Buttfuck Holler, Kentucky might never get racially profiled…but he’s fucked just the same. If his chances of success in modern America are any better than the kids Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with in West Ballmer, it ain’t by much of a margin.
I don’t claim to be one of these people. I’ll absolutely, readily admit that I had opportunities and chances most of them never even dreamed of; the older I get the more I understand that, and the more thankful I am. But I’m also less inclined to simply dismiss them as stupid fucking rednecks.
Are they bigoted, small-minded, racist and homophobic and usually sexist as all hell? Sure. No defending them on that front. But I’m pretty sure Ta-Nahisi Coates would tell you that the easiest way to get your ass whipped in West Baltimore back in the day was to suggest that another gentleman might, in fact, be a homosexual. I’m pretty sure the boys in the hood had some extremely odd ideas about how rich white motherfuckers spent their time too.
* * *
Here’s what I figured out a long time ago: poor white trash and poor black trash have far more in common with each other than they do with wealthier people of their own skin color. We always make it about race in America, when it really has a lot more to do with class than anything else.
Part of that is an incredible trick, perpetrated by the wealthy elite in this country in the years after the Civil War, when all of a sudden the poor white stratus of Scots-Irish former indentured servants and fieldhands were joined by the newly freed African-American slaves. It was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and there was a moment when the paddies and the darkies could’ve recognized their common situation — namely, that their indenture and slavery had been replaced by an unspoken de facto economic subjugation by the same privileged landowners who had held the deeds to their lives so recently — and banded together to level the playing field.
But the trick — that hideous, remarkable bit of probably unconscious legerdemain on the part of America’s rich white ubermenschen — was to whisper into the ear of all those hillbillies. Sure, you’re poor, uneducated; you don’t have anything and you probably never will. You’ll never come sit at our table, Bubba. But you know what? You’re still better than a nigger.
And that hatred was what those poor motherfuckers held on to…because they didn’t have anything else except that toxic measure of their own negligible worth. Still better than a nigger, right? Or some smartass queer in San Fagcisco with his fuckin’ Pride parade, running around in a pair of assless leather pants…or some spic motherfucker wants to come up here and steal my job…or some stupid loudmouth bitch whinin’ about, oooh, equal rights. I may be ignorant as dirt, I may be mean as a badger stuck down a hole, I may have absolutely not a goddamn thing that ain’t on layaway or owned by the bank, but I’m better than all o’ them.
And so on, for a century and a half. The descendants of those bigoted, hating and self-hating and hated servants fought and died alongside the descendants of those slaves on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, the foothills of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, partially out of patriotism but mainly because it was a noble way to get the fuck out of the shithole ghettos and the shithole small towns that spawned them. They died for an America that lied to them and told them they were enemies.
Can you hate them for their small-mindedness, for their savage insistence that they’re God’s chosen people on Earth, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary? Of course you can. You can hate a mad dog for trying to bite you. But you’re not human if you don’t feel pity, too…even though they’ll hate you twice as hard for pitying them. They don’t want you or need you, and you don’t need them. But we all have to live in this country together.
Perhaps if we stopped looking at the deceptively simple barrier of race, if we stopped our centuries-old denial that America is a nation where class matters more than perhaps anything else; if we asked Coates’s all important question of why, maybe we would be able to find more common ground than we ever thought imaginable. Maybe we’d stop seeing shifty niggers and stupid cracker around every corner, and start looking up the ladder at the real bastards who are fucking all of us, the ones for whom the only color that really matters is green.
I know I’ll never fully understand how much grace is automatically afforded to me here, simply by virtue of a set of characteristics over which I’ve had no control. But I’ve also seen where the limits of that grace lie, and what a pathetic advantage it is in the long run. I was also fortunate in that I not only saw how to escape the trap of poor white trash America, but that I was even capable of understanding that there was a trap in the first place: that white privilege and straight privilege and male privilege, for all they confer upon their possessor, only go so far.
It’s a lesson much smarter people than me seem to often miss, one I think they desperately need to understand before any real healing can begin in this country; before we can truly find any common ground.