.
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.

Behaviors like how to speak, dress, move and gesticulate define class as much as income in white America.  On a visit to Westport, Connecticut, I overheard residents complain about a guy who could afford a big house filling the driveway with fixer-upper cars perched on cement blocks. He had the money but not the class.

Gene Bailly, a retired professional living in Vermont who was raised in South Carolina, felt identified with his culture of poverty despite comparative financial success.

He explained, “Even though I worked as an administrator at Columbia University and was pursuing a graduate degree, I behaved and understood the behaviors of others through the lens of a kid growing up in the cotton mills. "

My father-in-law, Sam Schatsky, grew up poor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but become a manager of an arts supply store, proudly raising a family in a New York City suburb. The direct line from ethnic immigrant to a thriving member of the so-called melting pot is no longer typical. So many white Americans have more than one socio-economic affiliation and their connection to each has been a circuitous path rather than a straight line. Lifestyles and values interact with incomes to create a class structure that is more kaleidoscope than pie chart.

Aren’t all of us part long-skirted immigrant grandmother, part someone who longs to work with his or her hands, part kid dreaming of becoming a firefighter or part parent working too hard to achieve a secure financial future?

Further, those of us who now enjoy an easier standard of living sometimes find the concept of class alien. We have been so self-guided, self-driven, self-educated and self-blaming that we no longer consider ourselves members of any group. Many succeed economically, but falter emotionally, having lost family support and friendships in the quest to fulfill an ambition.

Some relatives and friends still feel angry that I moved on, not realizing how much it hurts to leave home and disconnect from loved ones to fulfill yearning dreams. A young woman who attended a prestigious private high school on scholarship expressed similar feelings when recalling what happened when her mom volunteered for the new school’s fundraiser: “I watched her pick up her coat and leave while the other moms stayed for the event. She couldn’t afford a ticket.”

Newly acquired class status brings the fear of losing it, and the worry about how loss would affect family and community. Even though the median net worth of white Americans is just more than $81,000, economic insecurity is at a record high of 20.5%. Especially in these times, it seems like anyone’s financial architecture could crumble without warning.

Jeanne Egan, a marketing consultant in New Jersey, who comes from an Irish-American working class family, explains, “I got here on my own and I’m still on my own even though I have a supportive and loving partner. But the minute I stop making my new life happen economically is the minute status can slip away.”

Sadly, white racism is legendary. Yet tensions between the classes also occur. Some white people aim to buttress their self-worth by enacting superiority over other white people derogatorily termed, “white trash.” Bailly, the son of the teenage cotton mill workers, revealed “even though I was in the top 15 or 20 of my high school class of 200, the guidance counselor never once suggested my going to college because I was the kid of mill workers and he didn’t see us as college material.”

Scott Lenz started working at age 14 and eventually graduated with a bachelor's of business administration in economics from a college he could afford. He was hired as a corporate logistics manager. When his job performance evaluations indicated he qualified for a promotion to the financial department, he was denied because “I didn’t have the markers of the right background.”

The assumption that white people should be able to “make it” in the style of Horatio Alger, despite economic stickiness at the higher and lower income brackets, also contributes to class tension. Is the wealth of those who work in finance a new standard that renders others less worthy? Even successful people perceive that they have failed, making excuses for what used to be considered triumphs. Doctors, artists, small business owners and teachers, as well as those performing the maintenance tasks that support a functional society, bristle at being undervalued. The fundamental respect traditionally granted to everyone’s contributions, including those still building their lives, has waned.

Charles S. Smith, a 30-year-old custodian working the night shift at a Tucson middle school, keeps trying to afford to complete college. He feels stung when people assume he is an immigrant because of the job he holds. “People come up to me while I’m at work and start speaking foreign languages to me,” he said, “as if they can’t believe that a regular white American could be doing such a job.”

Kelly Washburn, a strategy and communications consultant in New York, lost her job during the "Great Recession." Comparing her life to how hard it was for her widowed mother to raise a family, she now feels the expectation that "anyone can make it" denies a piece of reality.

She said, “We can’t, by definition, all be exceptional. We can’t all transcend the statistics."

Yet we relentlessly demand it of our selves.  We trudge forward in pursuit of the same things that motivate most Americans: healthy meals, an excellent education, travel, a decent place to live, and a few good clothes. But those things now cost more money than most people have.

The real secret of class in white America is that whiteness is like our own Frankenstein. We built a giant creature of spectacle and entitlement that has taken on a life of its own, requiring more of our resources to feed it. But no matter what their class status, no white American is ever quite that white.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Susan Bodnar.

Posted by
Filed under: Economy • Race • What we think
soundoff (1,184 Responses)
  1. Pedro Fernandez

    The US is on its way to become the next BRAZIL a colorblind society, is that wrong?

    I have a white wife and have three children, half latino and half white, nothing wrong with that.
    We have been so engrained by society about white privilege, when we are all just human beings. Though definitely
    belive race is a social construct invented by europeans to dominate other races.

    interracial dating is the best way to bring peace to america, more integration, more unity, then we will truly become assimilated into one solid culture.

    May 23, 2012 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
  2. butonly

    they should be paying for your college..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. butonly

    your parents suck that's why being white doesn't help you..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. butonly

    you have student loans because your parents are poor but you would have had white privilege if your parents had worked harder for you..

    i'm at a disadvantage when compared to some of my white friends.. but then at the same time since i'm friends with many whites my personal self I also have probably an advantage..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. butonly

    actually not even that you can like blacks but still get before everything wait let me expalin something else.. ok.. there are different gradients of whiteness.. a lot of white people are not actually the color white.. you know what this means THEY ARE NOT WHITE.. but then a REAL person who IS the color white walks in and they cannot and SHOULD NOT discriminate against this REAL milky white person..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. butonly

    yea it's not your fault it's a different white persons fault your probably a n$gger lover and that's why none of the other whites care about you..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Wijaya

    or tear TMZ a new one for getting it wrong). Yesterday's entves were the perfect example of process journalism in the Twitter era, as each news outlet gradually updated their stories with the most recent facts (really more first

    April 19, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mr. S.O.S.

    I notice I cannot leave any more comments...I wonder why?

    Mr. S.O.S.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. S.O.S.

      I left a reply comment for Mr. Richard, yet, I do not see it.

      Mr. S.O.S.

      April 4, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Richard

    I'm tried of hearing how whites are benefiting because they are white. I would like to know how I am benefiting?
    I have student loans that I have to pay back – I didn't get a break on that because of my race.
    I served my country –
    I have house payments (that I saved for – for over 20 years to get) – I didn't get some special grant like minorities do.
    If people want equal – let's do equal and quit decrying racism when it doesn't exist in a situation.
    I will NOT say there is no racism – for there is.
    But, it's slowly dying with each generation – and will continue to die out. But if we keep focusing on a person's skin color and bemoaning that the "whites" are better off than the blacks, nothing will get solved.
    Reality is – the drop out rate for high school for blacks is HIGH – and blaming whites for that won't resolve that issue.
    Crimes among black on black is VERY high – blaming whites for that won't resolve that issue.
    The blacks have issues within their community and until they resolve those issues, blaming whites is not going to resolve those issues.
    I (being white) am NOT holding a gun to a blacks head and telling them to go rob the local grocery store because they were too stupid to finish school –
    It's the same for any person of any color – if they were too stupid to finish school because they were bored with and then blame everyone but themself – that is NOT my fault.

    April 4, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Nicci Chavez

    I see this on my part-time job; a young woman who is obviously qualified to be promoted into a managerial position; will never get promoted because she's been labeled as "white trash". But this doesn't keep the company from exploiting her abilities without the benefits of managerial pay. I also see it when other African-Americans are not promoted. The ones who are promoted less and/or put on the managerial track has a lot to do with if their name ends in "Isha", "Ika"or "Iqua".

    February 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. multi-racial rainbow

    No one wants anyone of any race or ethnicity here illegally. That is the point OK. Laws are enacted for a reason and it applies to everyone. You are a bigot yourself and lack compassion. This article was written to bring perspective to 'white' people who are experiencing economic hardships like everyone else dealing with the recession. Apparently it is all about you.

    February 13, 2012 at 2:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      Mr. THE SPIRIT OF ANASTACIO HERNANDEZ, KILLED BY THE BORDER PATROL, your only beef is with the truth.. I see your demonstrating your Ivy League education again by calling names and refusing to use facts..
      Love ya Ghost.. 🙂

      February 14, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. multi-racial rainbow

    Thanks for writing this article and providing perspective from another point of view. It is sad that people cannot appreciate that the recession has hit everyone. It is not selective of race. The more we band together irrespective of race, the better chance we all have at survival.

    February 13, 2012 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
  13. franklinluvsu

    There has always been racism in the world, and there will continue to be racism in the world as long as humans continue to find defaults in others. Proverty is everywhere and it touches all races and this article is just talking about a stereotype that is in this nation. It is just one of many stereotypes and is not a rallying cry for race war. The fact that everyone is so stirred up about it just shows she hit on a subject close to home for most people.

    February 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. DSBsky

    Blah blah blah, white man keeping me down, blah blah blah, that's all I hear. Go cry me a river dude. I'm white and I have to work 3 f'n jobs. stfu and go get one yourself. Spare me the sob story about "poor me I'm this color" seriously.. We ALL have it hard...

    February 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • multi-racial rainbow

      Agreed we all do have it hard. People who go around snipping only make it harder.

      February 13, 2012 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
  15. Kelly

    Ghost, missed ya.. I been away for a day or two. I see you are at it again, lying. As I have done many many times already, I will ask you to show me where I have ever denied that racial inequality and bigotry exist.. It's easy Ghost, just cut an paste a quote from me an then tell us all where to find it so we can verify. If you would like to debate anything else, I would just ask that you do it without name calling and/or racial slurs (something you should have learned while obtaining your Ivy League education). If you can follow those very simple rules, lets debate..

    February 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  16. ProudAmerican

    It is doubtful that we will make much progress as long as we choose to deny the past. The point is to learn from the past, not re-live it.

    February 7, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • thiarline

      Business Blogging can generate tfarfic and roi for efforts if done correctly. There are four major reasons your business blog s bounce rate may be high.

      July 2, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  17. scott.

    tO ME THE MOST IMPORTANT RACIAL QUESTION OF OUR TIMES IS ...WHY CAN'T BLACK PEOPLE SHUT UP AT A MOVIE?

    February 7, 2012 at 6:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Steph

      sCOTT, wHY CAN'T YOU FIGURE OUT YOUR CAPS LOCK BUTTON IS ONE? tHAT, MY FELLOW WHITE PERSON, IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION.

      February 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
      • Steph

        ON not one...

        February 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan Bodnar

      Totally not the way to take this discussion.

      February 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Susan Bodnar

    As the author of this article, I keep reading these comments and thinking about what good can come out of them. The expression of anger, disappointment and frustration has an important place in our society right now. I can see that there is a great deal of divisiveness and blame between different groups of people. Can grow without first appreciating how hurt people have been? I'm not sure. I do, however, believe that once we comprehend and accept each other's anger, we can also recognize how much we are the same when we hurt, feel disappointed, or are treated badly; and how much we share when we experience success and accomplishment. I hope this forum can offer a path to that type of healing and recovery and that we can figure out how to create healthier and more equal communities from our racial, class, or cultural diversity. Bridging differences requires a the creativity that can pave a path toward our future.

    February 6, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMC

      Susan,
      I enjoyed your article and can appreciate most of your thoughts and feelings towards the challenges America faces with race. I also consider you brave for offering the same to CNN and subsequently accepting comments. The courage anonymity provides is endless. Your mention of perceived class was a reminder that money does not necessarily determine social standing but it sure can make you a lot of "friends" and attract an equal amount of envious attention. Thanks again and I hope to read more from you.

      February 7, 2012 at 5:49 am | Report abuse |
      • Susan Bodnar

        Thank you.

        February 7, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott.

      Bite ME

      February 7, 2012 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
    • KELLY

      I am sure you know that the people posting here are but the smallest fracting of the overall population, and that these on-line discussions tend to draw the whackos from either end. Theyt do not represent the whole. In my reality I am White with a Chinese/American wife, my sister has a Mexican/American husband, an I have an aunt with an American Indian husband. We are a true muticultural family. I think the future is already here for us average everyday people.. Those who benefit from conflict (politicians, some editorial commentators, and race baiters) help to keep the conflict alive..

      February 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Susan Bodnar

        I think a multicultural future can frighten people. Many fear it means losing experiences to which they are attached, having to give up things they love. I am okay with the "wackos" on this forum. Their voice also matters. I only wish that they could express themselves in a manner that would dignify what are probably worthy thoughts hidden behind the harshness.

        February 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • AmericanTeenager

        I say again, Kelly rhymes with SMELLY.

        February 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. S.O.S.

      We accept each other? Miss Bodnar, you have just reinforced the validity of my post yesterday. Instead of saying "accept each other", why don't you say "we should first have a honest discussion, on how 'Whites' can atone for what they have done to other races" then talk about unity. Miss. Bodnar you are just another white person trying to make a stand in history explaining why YOUR race have suffered. Instead of facing the truth that it was your kind that killed others to get to the position where you are today. Yesterday I opened my post stating that your were not racist but unjustified; today I am recanting my statement. You are RACIST!

      February 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • Susan Bodnar

        Mr. S.O.S. – Your sentiment that I am a racist for trying to discuss the way class structure operates specifically for people who identify as white Americans expresses the exact reason this stuff is so hard to discuss. I wasn't asked to write about the experiences of those who identify as black Americans, or Asian or Latino. I appreciate that you and many others feel angry with what I write, and I respect and understand your truth. Yet, the dialogue about racism and oppression has to begin with a different way of thinking about what white means. We aren't all the same, we have our own kinds of baggage, and the class issues between us can be quite difficult. The truth that I am trying to discuss in no way challenges the truth of any persons of color. I wanted to respond to you personally because you are speaking for many people on this forum and I wanted you to know that you have been heard. It is very hard to try to bring the reality of white people's stuff to public attention but I do so in the hopes that if we deal with our own stuff we can continue to generate healthy relationships between all races and strive toward the goal of our common humanity. Thank you.

        February 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. S.O.S.

      Furthermore, Miss. Bodnar, every year during black history month, White and Black scholars, like yourself, use this time to excel their position stating that their are masters of this subject. The only masters of race are the ones living it everyday and those are the ones who see the line between acceptance, hate, and pain. Once this month is over, it is back to March Madness. So, why bother?

      Also, just once, ONCE, I would like to see an interview of poor blacks and whites in the inner cities, instead of the rich ones in their homes. Of course, that would be the right thing to do, therefore, we will never see it. (Black in America) what a joke!

      February 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
      • Susan Bodnar

        I just sent a reply to you, see above. I like your idea. I would very much like to write a piece about people of different races and cultural backgrounds who share similar economic statuses. That would have been a better story, but if the writing of this story makes a better one possible then at least we have begun the very difficult discussion about race relations between people of different races. This dialogue won't be easy and none of us know how to have it well. Yet our imperfect starts can lead to wise possibilities in the future, especially if you keep sharing your voice?

        February 7, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mr. S.O.S.

        Good Day Miss. Bodnar

        I have replied to your other response; I hope you get it in kind.

        I am open to any discussion, as long as it is fair and balance. We both know the truth hurts and not many people do want to face it. Race, majorities vs minorities, rich vs poor, white vs black; these things are our reality. To have a discussion on this, you will need to go to places where you are afraid to go. You will need to talk to people who see the pain of their color every day. This will not be a "Help" Hollywood movie. You will have to speak to people of all races; Black, White, Native Americans, Hispanics, Middle Eastern, African, Jews, and Asian. And, you may not believe what they may say but I guarantee it will be the true. You can start we me!

        I have three degrees; an Associates Degree from Prince Georges Community College, a Bachelor's Degree from Howard University, and a Master's Degree from Chapman University. I enlisted in the U.S. Army at an early age of seventeen and served eleven years. I have traveled around the world and across America once. I wrote and self published my first personal novel while I was in graduate school. I held many jobs; I was a car washer, a customer service clerk, a mortgage officer and a corrections officer for the State of Maryland. Now, I write scripts and direct short films.

        I have been called the "N" word more times than I can remember. I have been denied service at restaurants in some American cities. I have been passover for promotions because of my color and also denied jobs, once the employeer realized my name did not match my skin. I have beed harassed by police and campus police while walking...and the most ultimate in all racist bigotry I have ever experienced, was when I was sixteen years old. A white woman pointed a shotgun at my face, one hundred feet from my home and the reason for this incident is because I was walking with a church friend of mine looking at the damaged after a Hurricane came the night before. It was an open beach and my friend was also sixteen at the time.

        Who AM I?

        February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      As a white male, I have been classified as having opportunities that blacks do not, and that has always bothered me.
      I have worked very hard for what I have, nothing being given to me.
      I was not handed my education, I had to work for that.
      I was not handed my home because of some government sponsored program; I spent four years in the Army and was afforded the Vet status of buying my home.
      The material items I have in my home I purchased; none were given to me through government handouts.
      But, I have always felt that until we as a society come to terms with equal in all ways, we will always have discussions on race.
      We cannot be equal but separate, as that has never worked.
      If we are to be equal in all aspects of life, that should be enough said.
      Blaming one's race or social standing is no excuse for not going to school and getting an education and making something of one's self.
      I hear too often a member of the black race saying they are being held back, but I can't see that. They are afforded the same schools as I am, and yet too many blacks are dropping out and then blaming society.
      This trend needs to be stopped at its root cause. And until that time, blacks will suffer for it.

      February 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  19. daisydog

    One race people, Human.....

    February 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • StaticMan

      That view of humanity is very appealing. It resembles something expected of a type-1 civilization as described by Michio Kaku, but seeing the things that I`ve seen so far in my lifetime (and still see today), unfortunately, I don`t think we are there yet.

      February 6, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  20. SmartMan

    After reading this article it left me wondering just why do some whites think that they are better than everyone else in this country ?? I ask this not to anger anyone I'm just curious if they have all this weight on there backs they always vote against there own economic needs ! Just because the pub party says they want to cut taxes when clearly those whites are in the upper food chain ! I just wish to say to those who aren't in that class that we have more in common with you than those that wish to do you harm !

    February 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. S.O.S.

      Mr. SmartMan, you are smart. Every year during black history month, White and Black scholars use this time to excel their position stating that their are masters of this subject. The only masters of race are the ones living it everyday and those are the ones who see the line between acceptance, hate, and pain. Once this month is over, it is back to March Madness. So, why bother?

      Also, just once, ONCE, I would like to see an interview of poor blacks and whites in the inner streets, instead of the rich ones in their homes. Of course, that would be the right thing to do, therefore, we will never see it. (Black in America) what a joke!

      February 7, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  21. DFW Texas

    Shouldnt be trying to use race to their advantage. Nobody's gonna feel sorry for Caucasians whose ancestors weren't treated as property so recently in this country. Two tears in a bucket.

    February 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • pinball

      You misunderstood the intent of the article. Race wasn't "used". Just reread it with an open mind.

      February 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Steph

    It is truly amazing that an article largely about class that just mentions whiteness and no other race has resulted in such racist comments about Black people and Hispanic immigrants. Some people sure can turn anything into a discussion about the "other" so they don't have to look in the mirror. White people making racists comments....here is an article by a white person about white people. Enjoy the attention and stop claiming you are a victim of reverse discrimination! You can spend time talking about what is good and bad about your own race, but instead you choose to deflect and attack others. Sad!

    February 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      I agree, many here have fallen into that trap.. Try not to generalize though, many here have tried to keep the conversation civil with no naming calling or racial slurs..

      February 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
      • Steph

        Yes, I was only addressing the people who have decided to attack others. There are many thoughtful comments here as well. It is just sad that we have to weed through the angry, hate-filled posts to get to them.

        February 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4