I’ve had it happen to me a lot. A financially privileged person of color telling me that I know nothing about poverty and oppression. I’m literally living in the hood right now and have my entire life except when I was at Stanford. I feel like rich people lecturing poor disabled people on how they aren’t suffering is basically just good, old fashioned classism.
But you are white
I know. Believe me, I know I’m white. I’m the whitest person in my family in outward appearance and I still come from a family that was a victim of eugenics. My whiteness and poorness are not mutually exclusive. I know that’s not what you’ve been told but I’m not even an outlier in my community, my extremely poor, poorer than any community in the Bay Area community is 30 percent white. I’m not in the South, I don’t live in a trailer park and this isn’t Appalachia. My best friend, who grew up in the projects, is also white and her family was better off than mine was and we were from two of the poorest families in the neighborhood. I know this reality is hard to accept and I’m sorry. But it’s true. But how can that be, you might be wondering, since poor whites only existed in America during the 20s (when most of them, including my family, weren’t considered white) and the Dust Bowl. According to my history textbook, after that all white people became at least middle class.
Your history books are stupid and full of lies.
Ok. So let’s for a second remind ourselves that this land was colonized by white people not that long ago. A very specific set of white people, mostly English and mostly French. Mostly people from some of the worst class systems in Europe. Now, when these white people came here they couldn’t survive well, they didn’t know the land, had methods that were suited to Europe and not representative of the flora and fauna of the Americas, were not immune to the diseases of living in the swamps, and had a nasty superiority complex that made the people who were already here unlikely to want to help them. Just so I’m clear about it, at that moment in history, China, whose Chinese name means ‘middle country’ referred to all non-Chinese as barbarians. Every civilization before the modern period thought they were the best and the center of everything because they didn’t have Internet or international trade. The wealthy whites brought over indentured servants and the poor people in their country to serve them. Or what you might call peasants or serfs. A peasant is someone who is forced to work their whole lives on a piece of land they don’t own for a master who does nothing and takes everything that’s produced. Sometimes they are also brutal or sadistic and can beat you or kill you without consequences. Sound familiar? The English also brought over their “criminals” to work for them, also known as the Irish, also known as people who had been imprisoned under a series of rules created to hurt and control
poor. Sound familiar? Anyway, the people they colonized were dying in mass and hard to conscript because they knew the land and would just leave, and the people they normally had working for them were dying because they weren’t used to the climate and were from Europe, so they decided to bring Africans over to the Americas. Now Africa and Europe had a long standing “relationship” that involved the selling of slaves, historically prisoners of war were sold into slavery, Europeans were sold to Africans and Africans were sold to Europeans. It was wrong, and stupid because selling people is wrong and stupid. But in this world the people who counted as people were rich men, because women were property too. However, under that form of slavery, it was less brutal than American chattel slavery. Why?
The South reached a point where they had several problems. One of those problems was that black slaves outnumbered the white people in the area. Another problem was that slaves kept running away both to the north and to live with Native American tribes. They had long faced another problem, which was that poor whites often lived with poor blacks. Oh and they wanted more profit. So in order to avoid problems and make more money, slavery became a million times worse than the previous version. And in order to avoid blacks, poor whites, and Native Americans coming together and rebelling while also allowing for a way to order this new world they were colonizing they created racism. Racism allows them to treat poor whites marginally better and cause the different groups they are oppressing to fight each other.
It’s important to remember that our world wasn’t constructed with a blank slate. The people that settled here lived in a world with deeply calcified class systems, and that’s why only property owners could vote at first. The American Revolution was first but it was strictly of revolution of the rich. The French Revolution was far more radical, it was a revolution of the working class. Our revolution was about not being taxed, theirs was about toppling the entire class structure. Feudalism existed in Europe for hundreds of years and the people that founded this nation were raised in feudal societies. Rich white people had been treating their poor white people like slaves for centuries, why would they treat poor people of any other race differently?
We often talk about what Europe has without talking about how Europe got there. The continent has all these protections for workers and people because they had real revolutions that challenged and changed the social order. They also destroyed themselves and had to rebuild. World War Two in Europe was a rebuke of unfettered Capitalism, Racism, Nationalism and Militarism. World War Two in America was understood to be a victory for Capitalism, Racism, Nationalism and Militarism. Europe has universal healthcare and has protests where cops don’t kill people and we are still having arguments over whether or not it’s ok for cops to kill unarmed citizens and whether or not it’s ok to have children who are starving. The American revolution is not complete.