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Opinion: When being white doesn't help
Susan Bodnar writes, "Aren't we all ... part someone who longs to work with his or her hands?"
February 4th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Opinion: When being white doesn't help

Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who works with people from diverse backgrounds and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies.  She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.

By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN

W.E.B. Dubois once said that even working white people benefited from the “the psychological wages” of membership in a dominant race. There is, however, more to the story of class in white America than dominance. The hardship and success of upward mobility has created a myth about white American class structure that obscures our truth.

TV shows like "Gossip Girl" make it seem as though most white Americans are simply privileged. Yet, according to U.S. Census data, almost 22 million white people live in poverty. An analysis of reported incomes suggests that people in that income bracket, as well as those with higher incomes, identify with being middle class. In a series of interviews about class status with white Americans, most are uncomfortable being seen as poor or wealthy.

Further, many don’t know what class status they inhabit. Despite the hard work that once ensured upward mobility, many white families have seen stagnant income growth. Others have accrued wealth without anything even resembling a work ethic. When members of different cultural groups marry, diverse traditions of class meet at the kitchen table. Siblings, parents and children can occupy different financial statuses. Some identify with class backgrounds from childhood more than their own.

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Filed under: Economy • Race • What we think