The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege

The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege

The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege

The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege

Synopsis

"Even though we lived a few blocks away in our neighborhood or sat a seat or two away in elementary school, a vast chasm of class and racial difference separated us from them."--From the Introduction

What is it like to be white, poor, and socially marginalized while, at the same time, surrounded by the glowing assumption of racial privilege? Kirby Moss, an African American anthropologist and journalist, goes back to his hometown in the Midwest to examine ironies of social class in the lives of poor whites. He purposely moves beyond the most stereotypical image of white poverty in the U.S.--rural Appalachian culture--to illustrate how poor whites carve out their existence within more complex cultural and social meanings of whiteness. Moss interacts with people from a variety of backgrounds over the course of his fieldwork, ranging from high school students to housewives. His research simultaneously reveals fundamental fault lines of American culture and the limits of prevailing conceptions of social order and establishes a basis for reconceptualizing the categories of color and class.

Ultimately Moss seeks to write an ethnography not only of whiteness but of blackness as well. For in struggling with the elusive question of class difference in U.S. society, Moss finds that he must also deal with the paradoxical nature of his own fragile and contested position as an unassumed privileged black man suspended in the midst of assumed white privilege.

Excerpt

As a child, I watched with a curious fascination the few White children and families who lived on the edge of our neighborhood of Black families. In elementary school, I watched (and participated, I admit) my Black classmates point, whisper, and laugh at the tattered clothes, hair, and lives of the two White kids—a boy and a girl—who sat in the back of the class. Since social difference has distinct ways of dividing people, all I and the few White families in the neighborhood did for the most part was watch each other from a distance in wonder and scorn. Ironically, even though we lived a few blocks away in our neighborhood or sat a seat or two away in elementary school, a vast chasm of class and racial difference separated us from them.

Over the years, I have often wondered who these people actually were. Why were they so poor compared to us? They no doubt existed, at least in our neighborhood and city, but why were people like them seldom represented in the newspapers and on television shows? And why were they assumed to be better than we were even though we seemed better off than they—hygienically, socially, and even economically? We, solidly working class. They, a teetering lower class, or as we called them, never really knowing any different: poor White trash.

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