No one wins the oppression Olympics
CHICAGO -- The Pew Research Center recently polled Americans on their belief in white privilege, and the results should surprise no one: Though a majority (56 percent) of people of all races and ethnicities believe that white people benefit either "a great deal" or "a fair amount" from their race, only 46 percent of whites say they benefit at least a fair amount from advantages in society that blacks don't have. Just 16 percent of whites say they benefit a great deal.
The easy potshot to make is to say that whites are so privileged that they don't even recognize how privileged they are.
Some in my family have a different take on it.
For instance, like the other 40.6 million Americans who lived in poverty in 2016, according to recent U.S. Census figures, my in-laws are poor. Like 17.2 million of these people, my mother- and father-in-law are white, non-Hispanic, which is the largest racial and ethnic demographic of people living in poverty.
My husband's parents were born in a small, predominantly white rural town in the South. Both were high school dropouts. My father-in-law served in the Army, and my mother-in-law had her first child as a teenager. Their early married years were set to your prototypical country tune: with lots of little kids running around, an ample supply of beer and cigarettes, pickup trucks and church.
Then came hard times, when my father-in-law became disabled from illness and then my mother-in-law was injured while working a low-wage physical labor job.
Today they live in a decaying trailer home on the outskirts of a shrinking town that used to be populated by families flush with good jobs at the local coal mines.
They're the kind of people who shop at Walmart not because they want to but because there's no other suitable place to buy groceries within a 15-mile radius. I've heard them describe, with disgust, the slim pickings of fresh fruit and vegetables available there -- a complaint that has been echoed in rural communities across the country -- but that's the reality of living in the depressed parts of America's Heartland.
Talking to them about white privilege is tantamount to slapping them in the face. From their perspective, they've served their country, lived good, honest lives and seen every one of their four children graduate from college -- and yet they are barely making it. They believe they've never been endowed with any magical racial privileges -- much less access to a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's and the income to be able to afford to shop there.
It's a valid viewpoint that deserves consideration -- even if it doesn't prove that racial privilege doesn't exist.