From One Rich White Girl to Another

My Wednesday night began with a conversation between me and some white friends outside of the Moxie program talking about Moxie over pizza.  They started asking me basic questions, “How do you like it?” and “What do you do in it?” but the conversation quickly progressed from this boring superficiality to more in-depth topics (thank goodness, or this would be a really dull blog post).

I explained to them that one of the coolest parts of my program is watching how all of these different women engage with feminism–many of whom have little experience with the term. I talked about how one person didn’t consider herself a feminist because she sees it as a white women’s movement. That blew their minds so I continued on, explaining feminism, womanism, and my own struggle with recognizing my privilege, particularly when it came to race–something I hadn’t (embarrassingly) ever put much thought to until the beginning of my sophomore year of college. They kept asking me questions and it was extremely exciting explaining everything to them. It was a personal challenge, trying to find ways to explain intersectionality and how saying “I don’t see race” was not anti-racism, and what systemic problems were to people who had never really engaged in this kind of academic thought.

But a friend was there who really started frustrating me. She just didn’t get it. She was complaining about how her black roommate in New York had tweeted about her (something to the extent of “ugh, living with rich white girls…”) and she asked me what I thought. I laughed and said, “Well, you are a rich white girl.” She also laughed but continued on, saying, “I’m not rich. I’m middle class.”

We’re talking about a girl who just spent 25 dollars on dinner for herself, wears expensive clothes and designer items, lives in an upscale home in the middle of D.C., and is paying for Duke out of pocket. There is nothing wrong with any of that (er, well, maybe I’ll get into distribution of wealth another time…) but the fact that she was so dopey, so utterly out of touch with reality really made my blood boil. And this was from one rich white girl to another.

Surprisingly, it made me think a lot about the way academics work. As a science major, she wasn’t required to take any identity courses (i.e. african american studies, women’s studies, etc.) and likely had never thought about these things before. But that wasn’t necessarily her fault. As a white, straight, upper-class person she didn’t have to think about race or sexual orientation or class because of that privilege. What was holding her accountable? What was encouraging her to think about these things? There was nothing.

I kept thinking. How can we expect anything to change if we keep ignorant people ignorant and they continue to be our leaders, our teachers, our law enforcers, our presidents? Why isn’t there some sort of institutional push (at least at a highly-esteemed university like Duke) to bring kids like her into classes that will make them think about these things? Can you imagine what our world would be like if Elementary students were taught that being called a “girl” or “gay” isn’t an insult? If Elementary students had a thirty minute block in their day where they got to talk about who they think they are, at such a young age? Where they could be encouraged to think about their identity in the world around them? How would this shape the people they would come to be?

The most interesting part about my conversation was that all of the girls I was talking with, this girl included, really seemed to take away a lot from the very basic things I was saying about identity. There was a lot of  “I can’t believe I’ve never thought about that!” and “Oh my gosh, are you serious…wow” flying around the room. And this was me talking about basic, simplified concepts and examples. I just kept thinking about how bringing these women into identity classes, at least one, could be incredibly personally rewarding for them. They could learn how to better work within our world and interact with others in classes where professors could better explain these concepts. If they got so much from me, I can only imagine what would happen if these students (men and women alike) were encouraged to take courses with people who really know what they’re talking about.

Duke did force me into rocks for jocks, after all.

Let me know what you think and Hollaback! at yo’ girl!

6 thoughts on “From One Rich White Girl to Another

  1. Ah, we all need pushing, and for me, I deeply appreciate when my friend – whom I trust — push me. I also need people I admire to push me. I ALSO need people I don’t identify with to push me and that’s the hardest one.

    I’ve been reading the blog of a local NGO exec here in Seattle who works with use. Despite my chagrin at his blog title, http://nonprofitwithballs.com/, I have learned a lot from his posts from the perspective of communities different than mine (AND part of mine in terms of Seattle). You might enjoy a peek at his blog.

    (And I had to laugh at the rocks for jocks — still around, eh?)

  2. Trust the learning in the hallways . . . . be glad for learning and mind-changing where ever it happens. Even without a tailor made class – and I agree, why not – people’s thinking is challenged at places like Duke because they are exposed to people unlike themselves or their friends who may be too much like them take internships or projects that challenge the way they’ve always thought. The rich white girls don’t come out unscathed and they definitely don’t go out the same way they came in even if the differences are subtle. I remember House G hallway conversations late into the night questioning my Republican friends’ views and learning to better articulate my beliefs but to also understand there might possibly be another way to look at the issues and not sharing my views didn’t make the other person wrong. This is a little more wordy than I’d like but the point is . . .talk on.

  3. Everything’s relative, isn’t it? Including rich. Your friend is rich to some, middle class to others. And, having spent years climbing the corporate ladder, only to take a job at an INGO at the height of my career, I know that “rich” has little to do with money. I thank all those who are spending time with friends and family talking about things that matter, such as gender issues, distribution of wealth, democracy, health care, and rights vs. privileges, and exchanging views in civil discourse, rather than in anger (and war.) I am so glad that you are learning one of the most important lessons of Moxie – listening, learning, and sharing are what make us rich.

  4. Your post is very thought provoking. In the end, you led your friends into meaningful self reflection. However, I’m intrigued by the response to the friend who did not like being called a “rich white girl” when she considered herself to be middle class. While I agree with your sentiments that we all benefit by considering the role of privilege in our lives, the various forms it can take, and how it can oppress others, I also challenge you to be open to other perspectives on this matter. Why was your friend bothered by the sentiments of her black roommate? What did her roommate mean with these words? If one seems to come from privilege or possess material wealth (in absolute or relative terms), is it OK for others, who seem to come from lesser means or less privileged status, to make assumptions about someone else’s life or background? Is it OK to demean or put down those of higher status?

    Your story also reminds me of the circumstance of my daughter’s birth at Mt Sinai Hospital in NYC 13 years ago. She had to go to the NICU immediately after delivery and they only room they had available to me at 2AM was with two teen moms who were rooming in with their babies. One spoke only Spanish. Their babies cried all night, and at 7AM the Spanish-speaking mom’s extended family arrived with a large radio and proceeded to play music and speak loudly. When I complained to the nursing staff about the noise, the English speaking teen mom (who was also Black) complained, “Why do they have to put these rich White people in a room with us?” How would you respond this situation vis a vis the role of privilege?

    There are other powerful instructive experiential opportunities for learning (as you are directly experiencing with DukeEngage). For example, as a post doctoral student many years ago, I attended a conference in NYC with a group of African American colleagues. We went out for dinner one night, I was the only white person. We ate at a restaurant with only white patrons. It was the first time in my life where I did not feel white. I was not treated as I normally was treated in such restaurants. We were not well attended to. We were stared at my patrons who clearly were uncomfortable by our presence. Our conversation turned to all sorts of discriminatory experiences of those in my group. It was eye opening – I could not believe the police maltreatment and other egregious examples of discrimination my intelligent, well educated, African American peers had endured. This experience (and others like it) happened 20 years ago but the effects have been more profound and enduring than any conversation I’ve had on the topic. The point: put yourself in situations where you are the minority, get out of your comfort zone, step into other cultures. It will further deepen your self reflection and understanding of discrimination, oppression and privilege.

  5. Thank you all for your responses!

    Nancy, I think that I’ve gained a lot by having people who don’t identify with me push me (it’s certainly the reason why I’m thinking the way I am now), but I’m curious about the best way to prompt others into that kind of listening? I’m partially convinced that the only reason my words resonated with the girls I was speaking to was because I was also a rich white girl. I wonder if the same words coming from somebody who doesn’t identify that way would have elicited similar responses or if would have been written off.

    Christy, I’m so happy you wrote that because I do feel like the most learning I’ve done and challenges I’ve been faced with have come from conversations outside the classroom with my peers. But often the more serious topics we talk about are discussed because of things brought up in the classroom. Was this your experience too?

    Margaret, I think that’s a really good point. But I do push back on the “middle class to others.” While I feel like I can understand the wealthiest of the wealthy seeing her life as one that isn’t monetarily rich, I still feel like it’s incredibly important for those people to recognize her standard of living realistically when compared to others in the country–a standard of living that does far outweigh the lives of people governmentally classified as “middle class.”

    Michele, your post made me think a lot. And it’s a little frustrating posting this now because I’m not sure if I have a solid opinion at this point in time. I do think that the words were harsh and judgmental, and I don’t think that anybody enjoys being generalized–we’re all individuals, after all. It’s easy to understand why she would get upset because I’m sure that I would also be upset if the same things were said about me. Maybe it’s easy for me to write this blog post regarding this experience with her because all of my past experiences with her she has epitomized, in my eyes, vapid wealth. Now, certainly there’s more to her than that and I’ve experienced a lot of that as well, but I can easily imagine myself tweeting the same thing her roommate did if I had to live with her day in and day out. Do I think it’s okay to demean or put down those of higher statuses? I would say no. But is it okay to tweet frustration about a “rich white girl” after living with a clearly privileged roommate who doesn’t try to engage with those different from her? I think so. Now, do I know that that is her roommate’s experience with the girl? Absolutely not, so it’s hard to say definitively. The thing is, her roommate’s tweet got the girl thinking about her wealth and race for at least a second–things the girl (in my experience with her) doesn’t really engage in otherwise. And I think that’s a great thing. As a “rich white girl,” I would hate to ask for music to be turned down and have that reflect a stereotype and assumption about me–particularly since I try really hard to listen and engage with people different from myself. But I can’t completely decry the action as injustice. I’m going to sit and think about this a lot more! Thank you for your comment!

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