Is there Such a Thing as a Poor White Progressive?

“We po’.” Almost everyday, my grandmother would say this simple sentence. The missing verb served to make it more immediate, like a simple equation. “We po’.” We equaled poor. Sometimes she said it in response to the evening news when groups of white men argued in Washington, DC about laws and elections. Then, “We po’” was a stand in for “That’s not our business.” Later, when I was teenager, the sentence was used as punctuation after she told me, “Don’t be like grandmama. Go to school. You smart enough to make a teacher.” She looked out and gestured at the neighborhood. “We po’.”

A few years before that conversation, however, I found out that being poor was not the matter of fact designation it was given in our apartment in the Frank Berry Courts federal housing projects. I was the only black child one year in Meridian, Mississippi’s T.A.G. (Talented and Gifted) program. I was sitting in a circle during some down time with the other 5th graders who tested into T.A.G. I don’t remember why we were sharing our socio-economic class, but one child said, “we’re middle class.” Another, (who I knew was rich), said, “We’re upper middle class.” Then it was my turn.

“We’re poor.”

Everyone one in the little circle looked at me with abject horror. Without saying a word they let me know that “poor” was something you should never be, out loud. I quickly recanted. “Well I guess we’re middle class.” The group breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the conversation continued.

I never forgot it. I never forgot the sanctioning I received. And I never stopped noticing the way this reticence to admit to poverty often fell along racial lines.

 

As a working writer, I regularly find myself at literary and artistic events, having conversations with other artists that inevitably include revealing parts of our biographies.

Repeatedly, it is progressive whites who are the most dismissive of their families if they come from poor, working poor, and/or working class communities.

Maybe dismissive isn’t the word. It’s more like they don’t want to remember. Like a forgetting.

I recently met a poet, white and female, who was from a rural part of Missouri. When I asked about what her upbringing was like, she said, “Oh they were trailer trash.”

I suppose one of the unspokens is a belief that their families have bigotries, and I might be put off by the knowledge that they come from people who refuse to acknowledge my humanity.

The student of culture in me can’t help but ask, though, whether forgetting can’t help but be an integral part of progress.

I imagine that there are some horrible cultural practices in all of our ancestral histories that we’re happy to have forgotten.

English descendants, I am sure, would be loath to learn how to conduct a proper witch burning.

Indigenous people in this hemisphere probably don’t want to remember the exact incantation to speak as you’re throwing sacrifices off of a pyramid.

And those of us with roots in west Africa near what is modern day Nigeria don’t want to remember the ritual cleansing after you’ve killed the set of twins you just gave birth to.

In the U.S., “progress” is framed as a sort of forgetting.

But what stands out in the previous examples, are harmful cultural practices that were not forgotten, but consciously interrogated and then discontinued.

Indigenous people don’t say, when asked about ancestry, “Oh they were a bunch of human sacrifcers.”

In this way, white progressive allies or accomplices (the word I prefer) need to question more deeply how framing their progress as a forgetting of some shameful and unusable past creates two outcomes that works against the goal of progressivism.

First, it makes them a member of a club whose entry requires money. Saying “poor white progressive” is like saying pink elephant. It is time for progressive whites to begin to openly envision themselves as a multi-classed movement.

Additionally, it just says, “forget it” to everything (even all the good stuff), rather than consciously interrogating harmful cultural practices, and then discontinuing them.

In the last couple of years, the conversation around how white people might create more actionable items leading to a more just society has deepened in ways that have been quite encouraging.

As a D & I facilitator, I’m interested to see “diversity and inclusion” used in white progressive communities to create a more expansive definition of “progressive.”

11 thoughts on “Is there Such a Thing as a Poor White Progressive?

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