I’m of two minds when it comes to this widely-disseminated and discussed piece by John Scalzi on teaching straight white men about privilege.
On the one hand, the piece is in many ways as good as advertised. It takes the crucial step in talking about privilege, which is to attempt to do something about it, rather than just using it as a way to assert righteousness. The metaphor is apt and clever, and I think that it could actually be put to productive use in teaching resistant men about how to think of their own advantages. Not many of them, I’m afraid; when it comes to demonstrating received privilege, we’re still on the “low-hanging fruit” stage. But progress is progress, and I think Scalzi has hit upon a genuinely illuminating thought process for achieving it.
At the same time, I wish that Scalzi had done more to look specifically at economic class. Because class is incredibly important, both theoretically and in practical terms of social mobility and equality. I understand that Scalzi embeds that discussion in his talk about different distributions for “attribute points” and such, and I largely agree with that metaphorical analysis. But by being so arch about class, he takes the risk that some readers will miss that point entirely– and they’re the ones who need to understand class the most. To me, the people who need educating are not just the aggressive, privileged straight white men who Scalzi is targeting. It’s also the educated white savvy set that is endlessly linking and tweeting his piece.
Because, look, this is just true: many educated white liberals absolutely suck at talking about white poverty. Follow enough blogs and Twitter feeds, and you’ll find that many simply lack any vocabulary at all for discussing these issues. For many, this is simply an artifact of a very understandable desire to combat racism and take the problems of racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and women seriously. In some cases, it’s a kind of proud, showy ignorance, a signaling mechanism to other liberals. In fact I wonder if that isn’t why Scalzi was so quiet on class in his piece. People are praising him for making his metaphor palatable for privileged straight white men, and he deserves that praise. But I worry that he was quieter on class in order to make the post palatable to the connected liberals who have shown it such regard. The metaphor is white male approved; the refusal to seriously consider white poverty is Twitterati-approved.
Most poor people in the United States are white. The percentages are, indeed, higher for black and Hispanic Americans, and that’s a matter of great concern and considerable challenge to all of us. But talk about poverty is so often focused on racial minorities that it risks ignoring salient aspects of the discussion, when most victims of poverty are in fact white. Wave a magic wand and eliminate all non-white poverty in the country and we’d still have a huge poverty crisis.
It’s similar with education. As someone whose professional life is dedicated to writing pedagogy and literacy education, I frequently interact with well-intentioned white liberals who want to “get real” about our education crisis. They try and get real by making discussions of poverty and poor educational performance solely matters concerning nonwhite children. I have to take the time to explain that, while the percentages are indeed worse for black and Hispanic students, and that fact absolutely matters, we can’t meaningfully make inroads into solving educational problems without confronting them in white students, as most failing students are white and most failing schools are white-student dominant.
Why is there such a blindspot? I think the causes are multiple. I think, in a way that they would never admit, economically stable, educate white liberals often simply identify with other white people on a visceral level, and they can’t imagine being in the shoes of a poor, uneducated white person. It’s a failure of moral imagination. Second, bias exists for sad and intrinsic reasons, and I think lording it over the “white trash” is a convenient and socially-acceptable way to exercise bias in polite society. Witness constant references to “white people’s problems” and the term “sunburnt” to dismiss all problems faced by white people, which demonstrates the invisibility of white poverty and social discord in the educated white consciousness. Third, I think that this is a quiet example of simple, unchosen racism. When consciously enlightened people assume that all problems in education and poverty are black and Hispanic problems, I think that it speaks to a mindset that simply assumes black and Hispanic failure as a matter of course. Sometimes, that kind of insult can be dressed up as social consciousness.
Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that conservative politicians and commentators help to make implementing the liberal agenda more difficult by exploiting the gulf between liberal intelligentsia and the white underclass. It’s a classic divide and conquer strategy: teach poor white people that their enemies are poor black and Hispanic people, and then point to liberal silence on white poverty as proof. That makes it harder for us to create redistributive social programs that benefit lower class people of all races.
Ultimately, solving crises in poverty, education, and a host of social ills will require solidarity and connection. These problems are cyclical and self-reinforcing and thus have to be solved through attention to all kinds of victims. The worst way to think about these problems is to try and rank them, or to approach them with a zero sum mindset. The righteous recognition that black and Hispanic people have unique interests and unique problems (stemming from unique oppression) in no way requires us to be blind to the problems of the white underclass. Nor do we need to pretend that straight people, white people, and men don’t enjoy considerable privileges in order to take white poverty seriously. I would argue, in fact, that politically, critically, and pragmatically, only a unified effort to alleviate our entrenched social ills can succeed.
Update: I believe this may be relevant.