Socioeconomic success Essay

The American Dream is an age old ideology that anyone can come to the United States with no money and a ‘dream’- that no matter what your socioeconomic background, you can start with nothing and still have the opportunity to be financially prosperous as long as you work hard enough. Although this dream has shifted from extensive economic success to simply financial stability over the past century, the ideology remains among many of those who are ignorant of the obstacles faced by individuals who were born without the privilege of being white, straight and male. This is not an account of hatred towards those who were born with privilege or white cisgender males, as there are many other forms of privilege (just being white is considerably one of the largest advantages in society). It is an attempt to disprove the false narrative that anyone, no matter ethnicity, gender, sexuality, birthplace, or income, has the same exact opportunities to be successful in the United States as someone who was born white, as well as many other socially favorable traits including, but not limited to, being straight, male, and wealthy. This analysis of white privilege’s existence, prosperity, and misconceptions in the United States is articulated through several writings in Race, Class, and Gender: An Integrated Study authored by and written about a diverse group of people of color, women, and non-gender conforming individuals.

The first and most crucial step to understanding privilege is to have an open mind to the perspectives of those who have walked through life not being white. If these voices are continually silenced, people are less likely to be educated on race and gender issues and will continue to be ignorant to the fact that if you are born a white person, there are some extra detrimental obstacles that you will just never have to face in your lifetime.

To understand privilege in full, it is important to gain a comprehensive understanding of race relations since the start of United States history. In Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege, Pem Davidson Buck explains how privilege was initially formed through a timeline of racially motivated legislature in the United States, writing “Given the tendency of slaves, servants, and landless free Europeans and Africans to cooperate in rebellion, the elite had to “teach Whites the value of whiteness” in order to divide and rule their labor force” (21). The author goes on to describe that “Part of this process was tighter control of voting. Free property-owning blacks, mulattos, and Native Americans, all identified as not of European ancestry, were denied the vote in 1723” (21). Congressional decisions like these that limited the rights of those who were not white set the precedent for years of racially biased legislation. It was not until the United States era of Reconstruction that black people had the legal right to vote, but still faced aggressive opposition at polling places due to black codes and Jim Crow laws. It wasn’t even until 1924 that Native Americans could vote because they were finally pronounced citizens of the United States by the government that stole their land. Even when non white men had their right to legally vote written into law, they often still could not physically vote due to the immensely common racist ideology of the time, especially in the south and the mid-west. An interesting point that the author also makes its that poor, landless whites did not reap the benefits that the elite possessed over people of color. The government literally introduced legislation that favored those with European ancestry (white people) when distributing land. Now, even poor whites had a tangible advantage over non-whites.

Although much racially charged legislation have since been repealed and reformed, the historical ideology of white supremacy is still carried through today. The laws have been replaced for the most part, but the socially constructed idea of privilege still flourishes among us. A common argument often heard in modern conservative rhetoric is the idea that since we don’t have slaves anymore and everyone has the right to vote, that people of color should essentially ‘get over it’ because they are not affected by systematic racism on paper. This contention is not only racist, but it is ignorant to the fact that our society is still organized to favor white people and disenfranchise all other people. In White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh ponders why it is so difficult for those of privilege to recognize and even admit that they have an advantage, stating “Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege which was similarly denied and protected” (176) and continues to find that “Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color” (179). McIntosh comes to the realization that most white people do not understand or recognize their privilege because they see everything they have earned in their life directly correlating to the sweat on their own brow- that is to say every accomplishment, achievement, degree, job offer, etc. has nothing to do with their skin color, but simply because they worked hard for it. The author contends that there is a phenomenon of “unearned entitlement” that “systematically over empowers” a certain group. McIntosh explains:

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systemically. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. (179).

McIntosh concludes her piece by acknowledging that we are oblivious our white advantage, and that is something we as a culture feed off of to continually strengthen the ‘invisible’ and ‘unearned entitlements’ we have. Still, there are huge misconceptions about systematic oppression of people of color and lower classes. Marilyn Frye writes that “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable” in a case to acknowledge that their are personal experiences based on race, gender, and class that only some people have to face. Frye continues to state that although these issues may seem separate and uninvolved with each other, they “are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby-trapped” (Frye 133). Words like ‘oppression’ and ‘privilege’ are used so much and, while they are still ignored and dismissed, they are losing their meanings. Frye states that you can be “miserable without being oppressed” (130) because people act like not saying a group is or has been oppressed at any point in time implies that their lives have been easy or perfect.

It is also important to note that race relations are not just in between those who are white and those who are black. The term ‘people of color’ is increasingly being used to connote any person of any ethnicity that is not white, or not of white, European, Anglo-Saxon ancestry. In Neither Black nor White, Angelo Ancheta writes that an issue that comes up often in educational references about the experiences of discriminatory race relations is that it is all too often written from the perspective of a white person or a black person and nothing in between. Ancheta states that “Popular works on race suggest that expositions of Asian American experiences are peripheral, more often confined to the footnotes than expounded in the primary analyses. Studs Terkel’s Race frames race relations through a dialogue about blacks and whites” and that they seem to always be “confined almost entirely to the opinions of blacks and whites” (120). He cites examples of numerous texts that discuss race relations, all finding the similar characteristic in common that they leave out other non-white ethnicities that also face systems of prejudice and discrimination, writing “Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal contains, as its subtitle implies, extensive discussions of inequality between blacks and whites, but only a minimal analysis of inequality among other racial groups” (120). It is critical to be informed on the experiences of all people rather than the two groups that seem the most prevalent in America, even though they may not be.

It is not just race that affects how we are perceived as human beings in society. Class also plays a huge role in how likely we are to have the opportunity to be socially mobile. In a study done by Annette Lareau, she found that the differences in parenting styles between working and middle class families directly affected how their child would respond to authority figures and their overall sense of entitlement. The author argues that middle class families spend more time conversing with their children and asking their opinions while working class families had far less time to do so and often spoke to each other without making eye contact. Also, in some working class neighborhoods like the projects described in Lareau’s study, it is considered unsafe to make any type of prolonged eye contact with someone. Learning these behaviors, though, is key later in life for job interviews and other opportunities. Similarly, in Defining Racism by Beverly Daniel Tatum, it is explained that “The impact of racism begins early. Even in our preschool years, we are exposed to misinformation about people different from ourselves” and goes on to describe how “Many of us grew up in neighborhoods where we had limited opportunities to interact with people different from our own families” (Tatum 105). It is clear that there are true disparities between race and class in the United States no matter how much our society tries to deny that everyone has the same chance.

Still, when race and class intermix, there is a socially constructed hierarchy. In the article entitled My Class Didn’t Trump my Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege, Robin J. DiAngelo writes about how the family the author came from lived in extreme poverty growing up, but the premise of race was still inflicted upon their ideologies because although they were incredibly poor, it was clear that they still had their whiteness. DiAngelo writes that she was “acutely aware that I was poor, that I was dirty, that I was not normal, and that there was something “wrong” with me. But I also knew that I was not Black. We were at the lower rungs of society, but there was always someone on the periphery, just below us” (181). It is increasingly interesting to see this trend not only in the past but also in the modern culture of race and class relationships. Could a slightly less poor black family be more or less advantaged than an even poorer white family? Does race or class play a larger role in an individual’s experience with discrimination? It can be argued that systems such as housing discrimination prove that a person’s race will hold significant weight over their wealth, being that neighborhoods in the United States are still largely segregated as certain discriminatory programs are in place and in common practice, such as realtors showing black families homes in primarily black neighborhoods even if they can afford to live in a neighborhood that is primarily white. DiAngelo writes that although she might have been poorer than another poor black family, her race was the one thing that “aligned” her with the other girls in her school.

Lareau writes “In a society less dominated by individualism than the United States...the sense of constraint displayed by working-class and poor children might be interpreted as healthy and appropriate” and goes on to state that “in this society, the strategies of the working-class and poor families are generally denigrated and seen as unhelpful or even harmful to children’s life chances” (168). Lareau also supports the idea that many Americans are privileged in thinking all of their accomplishments come directly from their hard work and nothing else, saying “Americans generally believe that responsibility for their accomplishments rests on their individual efforts. Less than one-fifth see “race, gender, religion, or class as very important for ‘getting ahead’ in life” (168). Her study provides substantial evidence that although children coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds already face different struggles starting from a young age, society still refuses to recognize that as adults their experiences are different and may hinder their opportunities in becoming successful.

In another essay by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva entitled Color-Blind Racism, the author does not necessarily redefine racism, but expresses the meaning behind the word in a way that calls out how our society works to keep the disadvantaged in their place and vice versa. Bonilla-Silva writes that “I contend that racism is, more than anything else, a matter of group power; it is about a dominant racial group (whites) striving to maintain its systemic advantages and minorities fighting to subvert the racial status quo” (113). Everyone seems to put the blame on bigots, or society's definition of a ‘racist person’ to account for the racism seen by people of color. They can then get on their high horse and say “That’s wrong!” and “See, I’m not racist!”. Unfortunately, as Bonilla-Silva points out, it is actually the “regular white folks just following the racial script of America” that pose the largest threat to a post-racial system in America; perhaps even larger than your local Ku Klux Klan chapter. The author says that white Americans have inherently come up with a system that ignores instances of inequality to further support the claim that we live in a post-racial country, and that racism does not occur where we live. This helps us “maintain systemic white privilege” according to Bonilla-Silva, and should be eradicated as an ideology in which we invalidate the experiences that people of color face daily, such as housing discrimination as well as micro aggressive behaviors. When interviewed on housing discrimination, naturalization, and a plethora of other issues where the processes in the United States are historically discriminatory, most white people tend to use excuses to ignore the real issues. A main argument used by white Americans is that the ‘cream rises to the top’ (114) meaning that the reason why most people are holding executive positions or have other means of success in this country is because they are the best of the best and that they rightfully earned their positions through sheer hard work and determination. The most conclusive point the author makes about these ideologies is that the color of the cream is more often than not, white. It is not valid to argue that white people own disproportionate rates of wealth in this country simply because they work ‘hard’, implying that they must be working harder than most black people- a racist but prevalent assumption from these interviews. The biggest problem is that white people want to bask in their privilege while denying their own inherent, micro aggressive or not, racism.

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