About Unpacking the White Privilege “Sack” in Appalachia

After the Trump win of the Presidential election of 2016, I heard (and saw) a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth as people struggled with the concept of how such an awful thing could have happened! I was shocked myself, quite frankly. It was something that I never thought I would have seen in my lifetime.

Like so many others I felt the strong need to do something to try to correct what I felt was a serious problem in our society.

A couple of days after the election I was on Facebook and I saw some people talking about something called the Million Women March. I started a chat conversation with a Tennessee organizer  – after a time she asked if I would be willing to help organize a contingency from Knoxville to go to DC for the March. I agreed, thinking we would have 10-12 people. Well, within 72 hours I had hundreds, and had to put out a call for volunteers to help with the effort. I got them, and soon we realized that this was a global movement; one that looks like it will turn out to be the greatest worldwide women’s movement since suffrage. As of this writing (January 2017) we have more than 1300 members in our Knoxville, TN Facebook group with more joining every day. 300 plus cities are having sister marches around the globe with more popping up daily.

It hasn’t been an easy road getting this March off the ground (grassroots movements are always rather messy). There was a lot of controversy about the original name because it appropriated a name of a march in Philadelphia – a gaff, but one done out of ignorance not malice. Then the name was changed to the Women’s March on Washington, and that name stuck (even though there was controversy about that also).

As the movement gathered momentum, the WMOW organizers began to put out the march’s mission statement and communications on what the march was about. One thing I saw repeatedly were references about recognizing white privilege. These statements talked about intersectionality and there was reference to a document called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

I began reading up on white privilege and I read the Knapsack checklist. I definitely saw the value in giving serious thought and reflection to the 26 items in the Knapsack document. However, as time passed I became more and more frustrated and angry with the tone that emerged from some people complaining about the election – including some involved in the March. They were putting out statements that indicated that ALL white people have privilege and seemed to want to browbeat them about it, and some people who had been Clinton supporters were saying anyone that voted for Trump was a neo-Nazi racist.

As I went back and reflected on these comments, the election, my own feelings towards all of the above, I realized that I was mainly angry at ‘intersectionality’ and the neo-Nazi talk because the broadest, most inclusive of all the issues was grossly overlooked (poverty). I was angry that my friends and neighbors being called neo-Nazis/racists because I knew they weren’t.

Only a few essay writers really took a good look at why Trump’s message resonated with so many people – and those were ignored for the most part. They talked about the poverty and financial insecurity in the centerlands – something that only Trump addressed repeatedly during the election. Make America Great Again.

Poverty is difficult to tackle and poorly understood by those who haven’t experienced it. I was appalled at the hypocrisy from people who were so strident about intersectionality and liberal ideology but said seem to recognize that most of the problems we have in the US spring from poverty. People in poverty have more in common across racial divides – food insecurity being a great equalizer. People in poverty are desperate and will grasp at any politician who makes promises of a better life.

I live in a poor county in Appalachia. It is primarily white. The people were big supporters of Donald Trump. I decided to make an effort to get a really deep understanding of what the man’s appeal was here in my county despite his various deep faults i.e. misogyny, racism, egotism and ignorance. How could such a creature EVER become president of the United States? My friends and neighbors in my county are not horrible people, they are goodhearted and decent. How could they have done such a thing?

So, I got in my car and started driving, looking to see if I could come to a better understanding of what they heard from Donald Trump that would make them believe that he was the leader they needed. I thought about conversations I had had with my friends and neighbors over the years. I have never been really political so I never got into discussions with anyone about Trump or Hillary Clinton. But I do talk to people about their day to day lives and struggles. So I replayed some of those conversations in my head for close examination.

When I made the effort to really SEE my community it was like the scales fell away from my eyes.

Finally I understood. How could they NOT have voted for him?

In an attempt to address these revelations I experienced, I decided to take the ‘unpacking’ document and unpack it for the people who live in my county  – extrapolating from what I see, what I hear and what I read.

For it is only by understanding this will we be able to make any significant changes – and this country needs to change.

What makes me such an expert? Nothing really – except experience. I was raised in the Mississippi River Delta, lived in poverty and was surrounded by those who lived in poverty. I grew up a house very much like this one in the photo here (the tin roof on our house was not quite as rusty and we had a wide porch). White people were a minority in our county. I was in high school during desegregation. I lived through stabbings, riots, fire hosings and fights that were race based. I stuck it out in public school when so many white students either moved or transferred to private schools that popped up all over the Delta (and are still there). Was I a racist? Yes. So was everyone else (black and white). But we learned to get along and I made many good friends during that time. The best teachers I had in high school were black and I still think of them with great fondness to this day. Do I consider myself racist today? Well – no one likes to think of themselves as racist but I believe I still have a lot of work to do.

I am one of the fortunate ones. I was able to break free of the poverty and now I live a relatively comfortable, middle class life. I have a good job. I have a good family. And I give thanks every single day for my good fortune. A lot of people that I grew up with did not make it out of the mire of poverty. Do I still have issues that I need to work on to make myself a better person? Certainly. And I hope to keep working on them until the day I die.

So, this series is an attempt for me to tell what I see in a way that I hope will give people a better understanding of what is going on in the centerlands.

This is not meant to take away from Peggy McIntosh’s seminal work – obviously it is an excellent piece worth study and review. But she completely misses the mark by taking poverty or ‘class’ as she calls it out of the equation when addressing what “white privilege”;

“…I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions…”

More information on Peggy McIntosh’s work can be found here:

http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack