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August 26, 2010

"Winter's Bone" and the Limits of White Privilege (Part II)

In a recent post, I commented on what the film “Winter’s Bone” might reveal about white privilege.  There I discussed Ree Dolly, the film’s heroine, in the overwhelmingly white context of Taney County, Missouri, where the median household income is about 75% of the national median.  (In neighboring persistent poverty Ozark County, which seems more reflective of Ree’s milieu as depicted in the film, the median household income is about 65% of the national figure).  Now I want to discuss Ree’s whiteness and socioeconomic disadvantage in a broader context.

What if Ree goes off to Southwest Missouri State in nearby Springfield, Missouri?  or even the University of Missouri?  First, should she be the beneficiary of affirmative action in getting there?  In my opinion, absolutely.  (Read a recent discussion regarding the lack of white, lower class and rural privilege in college admissions here and here).  She would bring diversity of life experience to the student body, and she represents extreme socioeconomic disadvantage.

Second, would she enjoy white privilege in a more racially and ethnically diverse university setting?  Yes, and it would presumably be more apparent there.  I daresay, however, that her peers’ and professors’ responses to her—whether and to what extent she experienced discrimination or benefit in a range of settings—would be greatly influenced by how effectively she practiced class passing.  Can and does she "clean up well" in appearance and accent?  And let’s not forget that class passing requires money—for clothes and other accoutrement.

In her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate:  Why Men and Class Matter (2010), Joan Williams quotes from memoirs of “class migrants,” those “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to elite education.”  One said, “It is striking to me and many other working-class academics that faculty who would never utter a racial slur will casually refer to ‘trailer trash’ or ‘white trash.’”   Observing that “academia barely acknowledges working-class existence,” another wrote:  “Where I live and work, white Southern working-class culture is known only as a caricature.”  Yet another reported condescension from his professors, who resented having to teach the likes of him at lower-status institutions, where the relatively few working-class students who get to college typically wind up.

All of this is to say that people of color may over-estimate the ease with which working-class whites assimilate and are supported at colleges and universities as they attempt to transcend class boundaries.  In my own observation, no one is more judgmental of lower class whites than more privileged whites.

Bearing in mind the recent reminder that “anyone who even tries to talk about race risks public outrage and humiliation,” I want to suggest that we lose something by being (too) oppositional when it comes to race and ethnicity.  If we see disadvantage and hardship as being so thoroughly grounded in color, we build walls instead of bridges between the wide range of folks who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or otherwise “lower class.”  I am reminded of Angela Harris’ comment regarding racial differences among feminists:  “wholeness and commonality are acts of will and creativity, not passive discovery.”  It takes such acts to build bridges, and this is true in the context of class, too.  To do so, we may have to look past the differences between “us” and a poor, rural white population who are—Ree Dolly and her exceptional, noble ilk aside—generally unsympathetic, a population whose politics often seem contrary to their own interests, as well as to ours.  (Read more here and here).

I am also reminded of this point from Barack Obama's famous race speech of March 18, 2008:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives.

This perception by whites—partial as it is—is shared by the poorest, most disadvantaged whites.  They are not feeling the privilege because their lives are so lacking the trappings associated it.  Imagine someone telling Ree:  “You’re white, you’ll be alright.”  What a slap in the face—which might be what Ree would literally give back to the speaker.  White privilege isn’t feeding the kids.

I don’t see progressive law professors writing or talking much about socioeconomic or geographic disadvantage except when it is linked to racial/ethnic disadvantage.  This leaves poor whites out of the conversation, and beyond apparent consideration.  Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres are notable exceptions, doing in The Miner’s Canary:  Enlisting Race, Resisting Power and Transforming Democracy just what Harris urges.  They identify commonalities between rural whites and racial/ethnic minorities in relation to educational disadvantage.  More scholars should follow their lead.

In his New York Times column about the Shirley Sherrod debacle, Bob Herbert similarly calls us to seek commonalities across race lines, writing:

“The point that Ms. Sherrod was making as she talked in her speech about the white farmer who had come to her for help was that we are all being sold a tragic bill of goods by the powerful forces that insist on pitting blacks, whites and other ethnic groups against one another.

Ms. Sherrod came to the realization, as she witnessed the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in the South more than two decades ago, that the essential issue in this country “is really about those who have versus those who don’t.”

She explained how the wealthier classes have benefited from whites and blacks constantly being at each other’s throats, and how rampant racism has insidiously kept so many struggling whites from recognizing those many things they and their families have in common with economically struggling blacks, Hispanics and so on.”

To write about poor white people—especially the nearly invisible ones in rural places—is not to say that racism is not a problem in this country (or, for that matter, “in the country”).  It is not to ignore white privilege.  But while whiteness has value in many settings, it's not a magic bullet.

I'm sad to report that there's more than enough social injustice and socioeconomic disadvantage to go around.  Plenty of groups—even poor white folks, a lot of them rural—are getting a piece of that bitter pie.  Ree Dolly reminds us of this.

Film critics have touted Ree as brilliant, a feminist heroine, a modern-day Antigone.  Like many film goers to whom I have spoken, they look past her trappings and her kin, and they see her value.  This is progress—but then, Ree’s character and courageous acts are exceptional.

Last year's winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama, “Precious,” also featured a resilient and courageous female lead.  Both Precious and Ree represent opportunities for us to see profound disadvantage in the context of communities with which few of us have first-hand experience.  Thinking about what these young women share, and not only how their experiences diverge, should remind us to see beyond color—to shared vulnerability and humanity.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog and Legal Ruralism.