The Color of Class
Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege
Publication Year: 2003
"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.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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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...
1. Setting: Midway, U.S.A., an Unassuming City?
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Midway is a medium-sized city tucked away in the midwestern belt of the United States.1 A common assumption of Midway is that it still exists as an immutable frontier town blanketed with acres and acres of farmland and cows. On the contrary, Midway is undeniably urban and within that urban space there certainly exists a readily identifiable White lower and working class, many of them...
2. School: Learning to Live Up to the Paragon
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Northtown High School is widely thought of as a blue-collar, working-class school by many residents of Midway.1 Although in the late 1980s the school was completely refurbished and chosen as one of the city's two inner-city science and high-tech magnet high schools, its murky reputation still precedes such physical improvements. The school's history dates back to the late 1880s but traces its beginnings...
3. Encounters: Intersections and Collisions
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In my frequent tunnel-vision pursuits to gather data, I sometimes forgot the cultural and racial package I carried forth with me into people's lived spaces. In truth, most often I was not as conscious of my Blackness as I was of my status as a researcher on a quest for information and experiences. Throughout my fieldwork White people...
4. Income and Work: Making Ends Meet, Barely
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Sharon, thirty-one, and her two daughters live in a federally subsidized apartment in a racially mixed central part of town. Her daughters are ages twelve and four. For the last two years, Sharon has attended a work-education program for unemployed mothers. Her hope is that the program will teach her some basic business...
5. Encounters: Changing Contexts, Changing Characters
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Looking back over the earlier set of reflections in Chapter 3 ("Encounters: Intersections and Collisions"), I now want to briefly reflect on some of the ways I have come to interpret paradoxical multiple positions of privilege and social class status. This information is culled from the interviews and interactions I had with people from each of the three previous contexts in Chapter 3, where...
6. Home: Sheltered by Whiteness
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Where and in what type of home we live reveal much about who we are and who others perceive us to be. During fieldwork, when I said that my research was in part about poor White families, the first general association people made with impoverished Whites was trailer parks.1 Some asked, "Do you do a lot of your research in trailer parks?" Another common response was, "I know of a trailer...
7. Encounters: Uncommon Class Commonalities
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This final "Encounters" chapter focuses on some of the many common experiences low-income Whites and I seemed to share in our paradoxical connection to privilege. It became apparent while in the field that during many of our conversations we talked as if we were childhood schoolmates or neighbors existing in parallel worlds: finishing each others sentences and recalling minute details of...
8. Deconstructing the Color of Class
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Looking back, when I initially embarked on my research idea, people commonly asked me (and still do, actually) why I was interested in studying White folk in general and poor White folk in particular. I interpreted the deeper meaning of such questions as: Why would a Black researcher (or even a marginally defined person) want to study Whiteness? While in the field, I found that for many people, ...
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My attempt in this ethnography has been to move further into constructionist perspectives because of my resistance to recluctionisms and image presentations that characterize essentialist notions.1 In my intellectual questioning I try to approach grand conceptual formulations like culture, class, and race through different points of knowing. I am not rejecting these concepts, since I do not yet have...
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Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2003