Don’t Forget the Trash: The Complexity of Whiteness in Education Policy
Tyler Chase Knowles
Research has shown that there are structural and societal factors negatively influencing the performance of underrepresented youth in the American education system. Often, research focuses on identities (such as race, class, and gender) independently and finds that discrimination against these identities is pervasive in the education system. This essay aims to challenge the focus of individual identities and instead support the need to focus on the intersection of identities, especially the intersection of whiteness and low socioeconomic class. The author combines an extensive literature review and critique of popular discourse with an autoethnographical narrative to call for the focus on the experiences of low-income whites in the education system. The author finds that the complexity of whiteness is often misunderstood and this misunderstanding negatively affects low-income whites throughout their academic experience and perpetuates a cycle of poverty. The essay ends in a demand for policy change that will benefit all underrepresented students and allow for research to focus on inequalities as they relate to the intersection of identities.
inequality, intersectionality, education, whiteness, identity
“Students are eligible for the scholarship if they have a GPA of 3.3 on an unweighted 4.0 scale. Check. Have demonstrated leadership abilities through participation in community service, extracurricular, or other activities. Check. Meet the Federal Pell Grant criteria. Check. Are African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American or Asian American. Silence.”
It was early August 2011, and I was sitting on my best friend’s bed reading as many scholarship applications as possible. I was a first generation, low-income student and felt passionate about education, but I was having trouble finding ways to make college affordable and a feasible reality. My mother had recently been arrested for maintaining a meth lab, and I was on the verge of being homeless. Subsequently, I felt that my situation was very relevant to the scholarships aimed at adversity, including the aforementioned Gates Millennium Scholarship. I read multiple accounts of past scholarship recipients and their class struggles, and my heart beat quickly as I felt ecstatic about the connection I felt to their stories and the feasibility of college; so many students shared a similar background with me, and they were able to receive scholarships. However, my excitement was short-lived as I continued to find that there was one important factor restricting me from applying to so many scholarships: my race.
I felt angry. I felt hurt. I felt silenced. Having grown up in the poor, urban American South, I was no stranger to race conflict. “Cracker,” “Honkey,” “White Trash,” and many other slurs were ways for my peers to differentiate themselves from me. Often, they were meant good-heartedly and as friendly banter, but sometimes they were not. I lacked the historical knowledge to understand exactly what structural factors were influencing these differences across race and the larger issues that these terms reflected. However, reading the scholarship applications presented a very different experience than being called the aforementioned terms.
It was at this moment that I felt the most silenced. I couldn’t afford college, but I also couldn’t apply to the many scholarships that explicitly restricted the application to non-whites. As a poor white student, I was trapped in a cycle of poverty that the school system was perpetuating: I needed to go to college to break the cycle of poverty, but I was too poor to afford it. Scholarship applications were just another reminder that I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t deserving. I was white, but I was poor.
The education system was like my father: I had to respect it, thank it, while it only left me alone and quiet. These scholarship applications were nothing more than the bars of the prison cell my mother was trapped behind: restrictive, constant reminders that I’m not worth it and punishing me for the structural inequalities that I was born into. Poverty is cyclical.
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Despite the difficulties and setbacks, I was fortunate enough to break through the barriers separating me from higher education and ultimately receive a scholarship to an elite university in the Northeast. However at my university, I found that it was challenging to find peers that shared both my ethnicity and class background. This spiked my interest in what was happening to low income whites: did they face similar struggles with scholarship applications? I began reading literature on class issues and race issues in order to find research on low-income whites and the education system, yet I found that the research on low-income whites was limited. Whereas there was plenty of research on race and class, there was little on the intersections of the two identities. While I was fortunate enough to continue on to a great university and fight the cycle of poverty, it was clear to me that my successes were not representative of the majority of low-income white students’ experiences in the education system, and that there were structural factors preventing my low socioeconomic white peers from succeeding in school.
Thus, this essays aims to discuss how the intersection of race and class affects students, particularly poor white students. While research shows that white students receive privileges of being a racial majority within the US, research also demonstrates that low socioeconomic class brings many disadvantages. The experience of seeing my peers dropping out of school combined with my personal challenges provides evidence that this demographic needs to be further studied. What does the literature say about low-income whites and their academic experiences? How does the intersection of class and race affect the identity of students?
Throughout my essay, I use two terms extensively: intersectionality and achievement gap. Because these terms are often used in many different ways, I provide a definition of them that will set the standard for how they will be used throughout the essay.
- Intersectionality: “analytic approaches that consider the meaning and consequences of multiple categories of social group membership” (Cole 2009). For this essay, I will focus on intersectionality as it relates to the intersection of identity groups related to whiteness and low socioeconomic class.
- Achievement Gap: Ladson-Billings defines achievement gap as “one of the most talked-about issues in U.S. education. The term refers to the disparities in standardized test scores between Black and White, Latina/o and White, and recent immigrant and White students” (2006). However, I will focus on the achievement gap as it relates to a multitude of factors, including class based factors and factors associated with the intersection of identities. I refute the idea that the achievement gap is only race-based.
This essay has three main components: an extensive review of current and past literature, an autoethnographical discussion, and a call for policy change. My literature review sets the stage for a critical conversation about past research on race and class experiences in the education system, but this research usually addresses specific identities and times in one’s educational experience. The autoethnographical approach, on the other hand, allows for flexibility in discussion across a student’s entire academic experience as well as a way of structuring a detailed discussion on the complexity of analyzing multiple identities. For the final discussion, I aim to use a mixed methods approach, where I partner autoethnographic experience with past literature to discuss two articles in depth and analyze their misconceptions of whiteness. I then use my own experiences as both a student and teacher to discuss how these misconceptions affect education policy, and I call for a change in education policy.
The literature review contains three main components: the complexity of whiteness; economic, cultural, and social capital; and misconceptions of intersectionality. I used Google Scholar with the keywords race and education inequality to find articles discussing racial inequality in the education system. After finding that sociological research often attributes whiteness to middle-class whites, I researched articles on the complexity of whiteness as well as perceptions of whiteness and white privilege. Because whiteness is not experienced the same by all those that identify as white, I break whiteness into multiple categories in order to focus on the experiences of whiteness that most closely reflect the experiences of most low-income white students. I then used Google Scholar with the keywords class and education inequality to find research on class inequality within the education system. Because the intersection of white and low-income identities are lacking in literature, I research the psychology of class identities and race identities. Finally, I discuss research on intersectionality and the intersection of whiteness and lower socioeconomic class.
I use an autoethnographical approach to partner my own experience as a low-income white student with an analysis of past literature to give specific examples of how these issues manifest at an individual level, and I use the research to pull these examples into a broader, more generalizable finding. I choose to use an autoethnographical approach as it allows for a “narrative rather than arguments from data,” and this method allows me to compensate for the hole in current literature addressing the experiences of low-income whites in the education system (Ellis 1998). I give a voice and first-hand experience to a population that is often ignored in education policy research. Furthermore, it sets the standard to discuss the issues across an entire educational experience from both a societal and psychological perspective as opposed to limiting the discussion to a pure analysis of data, since the complexity of intersecting identities limits one’s ability to draw conclusions from purely quantitative data.
I then include my experience as a summer teacher intern to discuss education policy and how policy manifests itself in practice. My teacher intern experiences stem from working for ten weeks, at around 50-60 hours per week, with a well-known summer teaching non-profit, which I will call X in order to protect the identity of the organization and its participants. I aim to give specific examples of how there is a disconnect between what research says and what various organizations practice and demonstrate that this is a greater structural inequality in the American education system.
Because individuals are highly complex with multiple identities, it is challenging to target specific identities of an individual and draw conclusions without making overgeneralized assumptions. However, it is even more challenging to research the intersections of multiple identities. As a result, most research on students and inequality within the education system focuses on specific identities that are commonly associated with different levels of prejudice: race, class, gender, etc. However, the aim of this essay is to challenge the perception of identities as stand-alone forces affecting greater structural issues. I focus on the intersection of two identities, low-income and white, and how this influences educational experiences. I will first discuss the literature on race and race inequality, particularly the complexity of whiteness. Then I will discuss the literature on class, class inequality, and the complexity of class. Finally, I hope to combine the literature to discuss how it relates to the intersectionality of race (whiteness) and class (low-income) and the psychology of class identity.
The Complexity of Whiteness:
The current literature aimed towards discussing race inequality within education often fails to understand the complexity of whiteness. Researchers have done extensive studies on race and race inequality in relation to racial minorities. Mostly, these researchers have found that being a racial minority greatly disadvantages one in his or her educational attainment and achievement (Condron 2009; Thernstrom and Thernstrom 2003). However, these studies neglect to control for class as the samples rely on middle and upper class white students, resulting from an overgeneralization of whites.
This error in not controlling for class often stems from a misconception that whiteness is the same for all white people. One such supporter of this argument is Amanda Lewis, who discusses how whites are not “consciously aware of the racial nature of their experiences,” but Lewis relies heavily on using middle-class whites as her sample population and refers to work from other authors that also evaluate middle-class whites (2004: 640). More often than not, authors, like Lewis, switch between “high income or middle-class” and “white” as if they are synonyms, because “whiteness often signals middle-class status” (Morris 2008; Morris 2005: 101).
However, the racial category of “white” contains many subgroups, and research shows that each subgroup experiences whiteness differently. One researcher, Edward Morris, focuses on the experiences of whites that identify as “white trash” or “redneck.” These subgroups of whites are often reflective of an intersection of both low-income and white identities. Not surprisingly, the experiences of lower-class whites and those that identify as “white trash” or “redneck” varies substantially from the experiences of upper class white students (Morris 2005). While “redneck” typically serves as an identity for poor rural whites that also identify as “country,” “white trash” refers to a poor, urban white population. These identities can intersect, especially for poor whites in the south, but the identities are often misunderstood as identical or synonymous. Furthermore, these identities are often embraced by individuals within the identity group, despite being perceived negatively from the general American population (Eastman and Shrock 2008; Goad 1998).
This misunderstanding of whiteness in literature is greatly reflected in education studies, and the use of middle-class whites as representatives of all whites detracts from a true “racial inequality” as many of their findings can be attributed to class-based factors. When researchers begin to focus on the black-white achievement gap while also including class, the findings demonstrate that class-based inequality may be a greater cause of the academic gap than race-based inequality. In one study, Hochschild finds that when class is accounted for, there are actually no significant findings that support racial discrimination in school (2003). Condron, on the other hand, finds that racial gaps in education do grow throughout the school year and class-based gaps in the education system grow throughout the summer; the racial gap does not expand throughout the summer (2009; Downey 2004). Thus, the research on race inequality does not always agree, but many authors do agree that the class gap is actually growing, while the black-white test score gap is falling or has already declined substantially (Gamoran 2001; Hochschild 2003). As a result, it becomes important to understand the current literature on class and class inequality within education.
Economic, Cultural, and Social Inequalities:
While race and gender are studied often, class inequality has not received enough attention from scholars. Nesbit explains, “social class is a major determining factor of accomplishment in most educational, employment, and social arenas and still one of the best predictors of who will achieve success, prosperity, and social status” (2004). A large reason for this is that class inequality is more than just a lack of monetary resources, because class differences often come with cultural and social differences.
Socioeconomic class typically correlates with cultural and social capital, which is separate from economic capital, the primary focus of class inequalities. Cultural capital focuses on what you know based on the culture in which you are from and social capital is primarily who you know (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu 1986; Ross 2011). When these forms of capital are accounted for, it becomes easier to understand some of the factors preventing students from lower socioeconomic background from achieving at as high of a level as their upper-class peers. While Bourdieu sets the foundation for these conversation in his research, Lareau has spent a great deal of time researching the effects of cultural and social capital on one’s academic experience, and much of her literature analyzes white students (Lareau 2011; Lareau 2000).
Research shows that a substantial part of the achievement gap is attributed to a difference in culture and cultural capital across various socioeconomic classes. Researchers that discuss class inequality often have trouble adequately addressing classism and the cultural issues associated with it (Delgado-Gaitan 1991; Duncan and Murnane 2011; Lareau 2000). For example, previous research claims that only 1/3 of the racial gap can be explained by using class; however, the control variables used by the authors to define class are incredibly limited (educational level of the student’s parent(s), residence, and free-lunch eligibility) (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 2003). These class issues in education closely relate to many more issues, i.e class and parental involvement, and it’s apparent that understanding the culture associated with various socioeconomic classes is pertinent to understanding issues stemming as a result of classist structures (Lareau 2011; Lareau 2000).
Research that expands on economic capital and studies culture and social capital finds that working-class families tend to have a culture that teaches student to obey, rather than question or challenge, teachers and superiors (Calarco 2014; Lareau and Weininger 2003). Furthermore, lower-class students are less likely to ask teachers for help than their middle-class peers (Calarco 2011). As a result, lower-income schools tend to rely on the “banking” method, which is a teaching method that depends on teachers instructing the students while the students sit back and silently absorb or “bank” the information, without challenging or questioning the teacher (Freire 1970). This is a cultural difference in teaching and learning styles that research has shown is less beneficial for students and disproportionately affects low-income students.
While racism is a huge issue in the American society and needs to be tackled to ensure equity for all students, classism also serves as a major determinant of academic success. As a result of the both their financial and cultural backgrounds, low-income students are falling behind their wealthier peers, regardless of racial identity, and ignoring the research that supports this is failing to assist low-income students and is perpetuating a system of inequality that is preventing the achievement gap from narrowing. This is especially detrimental to low-income white students as they are heavily dismissed in racial discussions. Thus, Kahlenberg calls for economic desegregation to allow for low-income students to attend schools with wealthier peers. This would allow for more parental involvement, a different school culture, and diversity (Kahlenberg and Potter 2014). Furthermore, allowing wealthier students to attend different schools or private schools pulls the funding of those students and parents from the impoverished schools (Meier 1995).
However, economic desegregation has its own challenges, as research shows that students benefit from teachers that can instruct in a way that is culturally relevant to their students (Ladson-Billings 1994). Since cultures vary drastically across socioeconomic classes, it becomes increasingly difficult to find teachers that can teach in a “culturally relevant” way in a school whose students are from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. These examples of class effects in education demonstrate the complexity of class-based issues and just how far we are from overcoming class barriers to academic achievement for all students.
In summation, race and education literature is fairly extensive and has been a focus of research for some time. However, new research is progressively moving towards discussing the importance of class-based inequality within the education system, but is finding it challenging to define what “class” is. With this movement to discuss class, many authors are using racial minority to imply low-income and vice versa; this avoids a subgroup of the low-income population that is often dismissed in educational policy discussions: low-income whites. Thus, it is important to understand studies of intersectionality, especially of white and low-income identities.
While the intersections of identities is studied less in current literature, the literature that has been done on intersectionality finds merit in better understanding how multiple identities play a role in shaping one’s experience. Furthermore, studies that discuss the intersection of whiteness with other identities support the complexity of whiteness. For instance, research shows that working-class white males are vastly underrepresented in college, and the focus on the intersectionality of these identities finds that there are many structural factors that influence this, such as “lowered expectations, overtly policed behavior, curriculum tracking, and persistent disengagement” (Reed 2011: 38). Furthermore, research has shown that parents and teachers in a poor, white, urban school have a culture different than that of upper-class families. While parents show great interest in education for their children, the parents and teachers in O’Connor’s study shared the belief that it was the teacher’s job to teach the students and not the parent’s responsibility (2001). This, unfortunately, promotes an education gap as wealthier students are learning at home, while poorer students are only learning academics at school (Lareau 2000). In both of these examples, class intersects with whiteness and creates a situation for low-income white students that is vastly different from the experiences of wealthy white students.
Research shows that teachers judge poor whites differently than their upper class peers. One such example is the exposure effect. The “exposure effect” occurs when one relies on stereotypes to make assumptions about an identity that they have little exposure to (Morris 2005). For instance, research finds that African American professors tend to assume that low-income white students are wealthy and good students due to the stereotype or assumption that whites are middle-class or wealthier. White teachers, on the other hand, are more exposed to white students and thus do not rely on this stereotype to make assumptions. As a result, Morris finds that white teachers actually “tend to view low-income white students as unremarkable students” (Morris 2005:99). This finding is interesting in the context of Ladson-Billings’ discussion of culturally relevant pedagogy, which normally calls for African American teachers from the community to teach in local schools with a population of primarily minority students. However, Morris implies that this does not hold true for white students; white teachers disadvantage white students as well. As a result, it is important to better understand the complexity of class and whiteness as an identity.
The Complexity of a Class Identity:
This prioritization of racial discussion over class discussions in the American society affects low-income students as they find it challenging to understand their identity. As a result, there are psychological effects that negatively affect low-income whites’ education experience. Research shows that the while a significant amount of literature studies the effects of race and gender, the “effects or injury of classism are hidden” (Ostrove 2003:680). From one standpoint, their whiteness entails an assumption of middle-class status, for which they do not have an identity. On the other hand, their low-income identity brings an assumption of laziness and not working hard enough, both on an academic and societal level, which stems from a belief in America as a meritocracy. However, research shows that meritocracy in the U.S. is a myth, and the notion of working hard to succeed drastically ignores structural and societal factors that disproportionately disadvantage underrepresented communities (McNamee and Miller 2004).
This necessitates more research on the psychology of class. Research shows that there are few, if any, collective moments that allow low-income people to be proud of their identity. They describe a low-income culture as one filled with “betrayal and exit” (Fine and Burns 2003). Furthermore, research shows that this culture is critical in how a student understands their experience in the education system and is another example of “the important individual differences in the way students recognize and make sense of the opportunity structure within schools” (Fine, Burns, Payne, & Torre, 2002; Ostrove, 2003: 684).
This literature demonstrates the need for a psychological understanding of intersectionality of identities for an educational system to be fair and equal for all students, especially students that identify as low-income and white (Ostrove 2003: 690). This essay tries to expand on this finding by giving a first-hand account of my experiences as a low-income white student throughout my academic experience and how the intersection of my identities affected my experience.
Currently, literature on low-income whites demonstrates a complexity of both whiteness and the culture and characteristics associated with low socioeconomic status. With that said, the research supports the need to focus on low-income whites, both psychological and societal perspectives, when studying inequality. Unfortunately, while the research demonstrates a substantial disadvantage to these low-income white students, policy seems to struggle to address the issues discussed in the research.
The Failure of Diversity Awareness and Achievement Gap Interventions:
In practice, educational policies’ goals and structures often fail to meet the needs of poor white students. In this section, I break my discussion into three components: first, a critique of the popular articles and discourse on whiteness and its misunderstanding of low-income whites, an example of structural issues disadvantaging poor whites in education from my own experience as a student, and an example of these same issues of disadvantaging poor whites in education from my experiences as a teacher.
Misconceptions of Whiteness:
In order to narrow in on popular conversations about whiteness, I use a detailed examination of two articles discussing “white privilege.” One such article that is often cited when discussing white privilege is McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In this article, McIntosh claims to address the privileges “unfairly awarded” to “whites.” However, McIntosh’s article is a prime example of the false attribution of wealth to whiteness. In fact, McIntosh explains 26 forms of “white privilege” and of these 26, 13 are clearly dependent on having a privilege class background, not just “whiteness.” For example, McIntosh claims that the following is a representation of white privilege, “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would like to live” (1998:149).
While this 1989 article misunderstands the complexity of whiteness, it is not an outdated misconception. Tim Wise, a popular author of multiple books and articles explaining whiteness and white privilege, explains in his piece, “Collateral Damage,” that poor whites serve as “collateral damage” in the racism towards blacks; their disadvantages reflect the racial “privilege” that whites gain, highlighting that they are just unable to meet those expectations. He explains that in racist affairs, whites have some “blowback effects” which impact the poor white population, but speaks of them as “collateral damage” as if they are unimportant and just a secondary impact of what he implies is a more important issue. While racial inequalities are pervasive throughout American society, misunderstanding of the complexity of whiteness leaves poor whites ostracized from services that would assist in lowering the achievement gap and greater structural inequality throughout the U.S. This misunderstanding of whiteness perpetuates an ever-increasing divide between poor whites and minority communities in which they are forced to compete for resources.
Overall, Tim Wise’s “Collateral Damage” is a perfect reflection of the binary formed with the discussion of privilege. Wise discusses how the representation of blacks as poor in media creates a negative perception of blacks and a more positive reflection of whites, under a theory that being from a lower socioeconomic class is negative. This distinction is classist as it assumes that those from lower classes are “negative and worse;” here, Wise falls victim to the predatory cycle of associating lack of financial and monetary capital with negative attributes. It is not necessarily negative to have less cash, and that only reflects an underlying classist assumption within a capitalistic nation. Furthermore, Wise drastically misunderstands the psychology of identity for low-income whites, as this lack of representation in media for low-income whites is a lack of representation of identity. Often, discussions focus on the positive representation of whites as wealthy; this is not an accurate portrayal of all whites and leaves low-income whites with the need to escape their lower-class identity in order to meet media and social expectations that whites should be wealthy. In fact, very few low-income whites are represented in media. One example is Eminem, who serves as a powerful representation and role model for low-income whites, but is often disregarded as “white trash” and hardly deemed a suitable role model for low-income white students by society.
This discussion in popular media is by no means limited to these two articles. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding within the discourse translates into policy and practice. For the next section, I will use an autoethnographical approach to explain my experiences as a student identifying as low-income and white and then as a teacher for a program aimed at narrowing the achievement gap.
I use an autoethnographic narrative to explain my own experiences in the education system in order to give an account of multiple points a poor white student’s academic experience. While the literature gives theoretical foundations for a discussion around structural disadvantages for poor whites, there is little literature that gives specific accounts. Due to conversations about race, such as Tim Wise or McIntosh’s articles, and the silencing of class identities in America, it is crucial to give a voice to a silenced community: low-income whites. While an autoethnographical approach inevitably includes bias of the author, I aim to focus my autoethnography around themes presented by the literature, which are broader and more generalizable than my experiences may be. I begin by giving an overview of my upbringing partnered with the racial make-up of the schools that I attend and then discuss my experiences as a white student.
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At the age of seven, I began living with my grandparents in an area known as “Nutbush.” “Nutbush,” was a low-income, high-minority area in Memphis, TN, and the average “adjusted gross income” in 2004 was $20,905 and the median household income for 2011 was $20,077. The federal poverty guidelines for 2004 set the poverty line at $18,850 for a family of four and 22,030 for a family of five. Thus, many families in my neighborhood were near or below the poverty line. Figure 1 reflects the racial demographics of the sixth grade class at my elementary school for the 2005-2006 academic year, which is the year that I was promoted from 6th grade/elementary school.
Figure 1: Racial Make-Up of my Elementary School- 6th Grade
While the racial make-up of the school was not homogenous, my classmates and I came from similar backgrounds, our legal guardians knew each other, and we had similar cultures. The school’s population primarily consisted of racial minorities, but nearly everyone came from similar class backgrounds. As a result, almost all of my white peers were low-income. While this was the only time that I was enrolled in classes with very few whites, the similarity across class backgrounds and cultures did not make me feel like an outsider, unlike my experiences with wealthier white peers throughout middle and high school.
Despite sharing a similar background with my peers, a great challenge of attending my nearby neighborhood school was the difference between home culture and school culture, similar to Lareau’s work. In my early years of school, I was taught to respect other students. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. On the other hand, growing up around domestic violence, I was taught to fight to defend myself. If someone hits you first, hit him back. At school, punctuality and completing all assignments was a must. Have this paper in by tomorrow at 8 A.M. At home, finishing assignments wasn’t always the priority. I just got home from work and don’t feel like going to the store; turn it in late. Even more challenging than the previous examples was handling with the “parent” aspect of school. If you don’t understand, have your parents help you. It was evident to me before middle school that my parents, as much as they pretended to care, were just unable to help me with academics. I can’t help you with math; I don’t understand it. As I progressed throughout schools, these problems became the norm, and I learned how to get around them: stay after class, call friends, and most importantly, keep home and school life separate.
However, understanding the culture of the community allowed my sixth grade teacher to make a drastic impact on my life: he taught outside of the curriculum. He introduced chess to the entire sixth grade as a game that was culturally relevant to all of the students. For the first time, I, along with many other students, enjoyed learning, especially since this did not seem “school related.” The skills that I learned from chess truly helped me in academics as well as in my home life: think before you act, anticipate the next move, and always think ahead. Once I was able to draw the connection between what I was learning in school and what chess has taught me, I excelled in my academics.
This is a clear example of the benefit of what Ladson-Billings coined “culturally relevant pedagogy” (1994). It is even more critical in understanding the importance of class and culture as opposed to race. Largely due to the efforts of my teachers teaching to a specific culture, I was fortunate enough to excel and continue on to a nearby magnet school. However, I was only one of three from my graduating sixth grade class that continued on to a magnet program, and I was the only low-income white student, despite the fact that race was not considered in admission to the program.
The culture at my new school was drastically different, as many of my peers came from a more affluent background and a culture in which education was highly prioritized. I learned that going to college was a reality (an expectation for my peers), and I began to prioritize my own studying. However, this gain of social and cultural capital came at the expense of my own understanding and comfort. A disconnection between my home culture and my peers’ cultures created confusion and anxiety. I would often find many of my peers could rely on their parents for assistance with homework while I did not have that privilege. Furthermore, my peers that were from a similar socioeconomic background as me were racial minorities. There were fewer students that shared both my racial and socioeconomic background as before. It was at this point in my educational background that points to the structural factors that are pushing low-income whites out of the education system. While race was not a factor in admission, something else was happening that was keeping low-income whites out of my program. Figure 2 reflects the racial demographics of the seventh graders in my middle school during the 2006-2007 academic year. While the percentage of whites was actually higher in WM (my middle school), the percentage of low-income whites was substantially lower. This demonstrates the importance of also evaluating class when understanding differences across schools.
Figure 2: Racial Demographics of My Middle School-7th Grade
Class, culture, and identity, however, became much better determinants of success in high school. During my freshman year of high school, I was in the midst of familial struggles and I had the unique experience of attending three high schools: one in the same neighborhood as my elementary school (with many of my elementary school peers) (KH), the high school magnet program equivalent to my middle school program (WH), and another high school in a nearby rural area (MH). The racial breakdown for each school can be found in Figure 3 (WH), 4 (KH), and 5 (MH). I use the racial demographics of the ninth graders in each school during the 2008-2009 academic year, because that is the year that I attended each for my ninth grade year.
It’s important to note that the white population, percentage-wise, is almost identical in MH (35%) and WH (36%), but the culture and socioeconomic status of the white population differs drastically. While the white population, percentage-wise, at KH (21%) varies a bit from these two schools, the culture varies substantially. This supports the limitation of evaluating schools racially without taking into account socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the socioeconomic status of these schools were unavailable which is why I’m only able to present racial demographics, and this lack of public information perpetuates the challenges of discussing class and culture. Following the tables, I will continue to address the differences in these white cultures/communities.
Figure 3: Racial Demographics of KH-9th Grade
Figure 4- Racial Demographics of MH-9th Grade
Figure 5: Racial Demographics of WH-9th Grade
This academic year, 2008-2009, particularly demonstrated the complexity of white identities, especially in relation to my own. I attended WH for most of my freshman year and as it was a magnet program that continued on from my middle school, the demographics were quite similar: there were few low-income whites, and I could not identify with most of my peers in terms of both racial and class identity. MH, the nearby rural school, had many other low-income white students. However, our cultures were drastically different. Quite similar to the distinctions between white identities that Morris makes, the whites at this school were often referred to as “Redneck,” whereas my peers normally viewed me as “White Trash.” While literature tends to treat the white identity as equivalent across all whites and middle-class whites as reflection of the entire white population, this could be no further from the truth.
Finally, I attended KH, which was my neighborhood high school for approximately 6 weeks. While this school was the least beneficial for my academic achievement, it was a great realization of identity and privilege. I closely identified with my peers at this high school, but realized that the two years at my middle school had allowed me to grow a very different culture: one that was focused on graduating and pursuing secondary education. In this community, it was clear that neither the students nor the teachers expected the students to continue on to post-secondary education. Success was instead equivalent to graduating high school. The school system cared more about getting children through the system rather than genuinely educating them. Rather than getting substitutes, students were instead sent to the gym when teachers were absent and course work for that day was just not completed nor learned.
The previously mentioned articles discussing white privilege are especially relevant to the education experiences at KH. KH was a neighborhood school and students’ choices to “move” were not a reflection of a racial privilege, and is instead a class privilege. However, none of my peers from this school were encouraged or able to attend an elite university. Resources that ignore the complexity of whiteness directly promote school mentalities like that at KH: to graduate and anything else was too difficult to deal with.
I was fortunate enough to attend a different school and able to transfer, following the cycle of “betrayal and exit” within low-income communities that Fine and Burns describe (2003). Thus, while this school was the school that I identified with most, I was encouraged to leave. In fact, if I wanted to succeed I had to perpetuate the culture of “betrayal” that Fine explains is prevalent in the lower-class community. My academic and future successes were dependent on my ability to leave the school.
However, after transferring back to WH, the path to graduation and college was not simple. Throughout the rest of high school, I often had to “out” myself for being low-income. My counselors wouldn’t reach out to me about opportunities; as a white student in this “optional” program, it was assumed that I came from a wealthier background. There were very few low-income whites, but many low-income minorities. Thus, many of the summer programs and scholarship programs were aimed at racial minorities. Even those programs that were available for any race were resources that the low-income whites in my community never found out about. It was assumed that we were rich, and while many would claim this to be a privilege (one example is the aforementioned Tim Wise article), it proved to be a disadvantage.
Fortunately for me, however, my eleventh grade teacher mentioned a college scholarship program, Questbridge, to the entire class. Interestingly, the onus was then on me to “out” myself as low-income and pursue these limited resources, whereas peers of mine that identified with other demographics were directly contacted about resources specific to them. It is interesting to consider what would have happened had I not been in school that day to hear of the Questbridge opportunity or if my teacher had forgotten to mention it.
While I was incredibly fortunate to be enrolled in a magnet program and to have teachers that directed me to resources (the magnet program and Questbridge), many of my low-income white peers did not have this privilege. In fact, none of my low-income white friends that eventually attended the local neighborhood school continued on to college. Many failed to graduate high school. Furthermore, my low-income white peers that I met within my program failed to stay in the program or continue on to college.
Autoethnographical Experience of the Other Side
It is true that many of my own personal experiences are reflections of many low-income students and not just white low-income students. However, just as I missed many opportunities for academic enrichment due to being a white low-income student, many low-income white students miss similar opportunities. As a teacher intern during the summer of 2013, I found that there were two issues that I felt mildly uncomfortable about: the culture and success of the students and the lack of low-income, white students.
To begin with, the lack of low-income white students reflects the disconnection between research and practice. The well-known, non-profit organization that I interned for has a commitment to assisting in narrowing the achievement gap. However, as I have discussed previously, the research shows that the academic gap is largely related to class-based inequality. Furthermore, the research finds that the achievement gap that is widened during the summer is especially based on class, and the racial academic gap does not increase throughout the summer (Condron 2009; Downey 2004). The program did not recruit based solely on income but instead clearly recruited racial minorities.
Furthermore, the culture of the students really seemed to be a culture committed to academia, which is not the most disadvantaged culture in the American education system. The students’ parents were heavily involved, and the recruiting process was incredibly difficult. The program was clearly pulling from a pool of over-performing minority students, and students that were already excelling in school. This, however, only perpetuates a cycle of disadvantage and failure for the most disadvantaged students. As programs rely heavily on numbers and races, they recruit students that they know will perform well and “look good” for the program; unfortunately, class is not a “look” and the students that are most disadvantaged as a result of these programs are low-income white students. They’re starting at a disadvantage, and then growing even more disadvantaged as summer programs recruit their better performing peers, amplifying the achievement gap that is widened throughout the summer.
One of the most upsetting memories that I have from that summer was the moment that I realized two students were removed from the program because they were unable to get rides to the bus station. I felt angry. I felt hurt. I felt silenced, again. Even as a teacher, I felt the disadvantages of the system and had little control to change its outcomes.
Conclusion: A Call For Policy Change
Low-income white students are being silenced. They face a paradox of receiving a racial privilege partnered with a socioeconomic disadvantage, and this paradox leads to a silenced identity in which low-income whites are expected to just accept whatever privileges they receive and fall victim to a vicious cycle of poverty. My research rejects that misconception. White students are falling behind, and organizations designed to reduce the inequality in the education system need to be more knowledgeable about the low-income white community. These students should no longer be silenced, and the community of low-income whites needs to demand a voice.
I find that research drastically misunderstands the complexity of the white identity and this misconception transfers into the classroom as teachers and students (including low-income white students) expect whites to be middle or upper class. My literature review discusses the challenges of being a low-income student in a society that misunderstands lower socioeconomic status and class backgrounds. American society has created disadvantageous representations of poverty that perpetuates stereotypes of poor people as lazy and “not working hard enough.” In a society that expects whites to be upper class and sees poor as lazy, poor white students are incredibly ostracized. Not only are they poor and can not meet structural and societal expectations of socioeconomic class, they also can not meet the expectation for their white identity as their socioeconomic class impacts their class culture and white culture. Their white identity as low-income white, whether it is “white trash,” “redneck,” or other white identities, is too often ignored by research and this ignorance of whiteness is perpetuated in society. Low-income whites have no out as they are trapped in a cycle of poverty, they have no room to speak as they are silenced, and the education system is further failing them by limiting their resources.
In order to adequately assist the most underrepresented students and narrow the achievement gap, education policy needs more focus on class-based issues, especially as it relates to low-income whites. While Kahlenberg leads discussions promoting class-based desegregation in early education, there is an ongoing movement in the post-secondary education communities that policy advisors can look towards. Classism is becoming a critical and loud conversation at today’s elite universities (Foster 2015; Speiss 2015).
However, as many universities are finding, issues of classism occur well before higher education, and by the time students arrive at universities, they are already disadvantaged and silenced. This is especially true for low-income white males (Reed 2011). Unless the education system begins to understand the low-income white population, there is little that any university will ever be able to do. The structural and societal issues that follow students throughout their early academic year persist throughout college as well.
For instance, at my elite university, there is no department specifically related to classism. Just this morning, I received an email that invited low-income and first-generation students to a dinner that was hosted by “administrators and faculty of color.” Just as middle-class has become synonymous with white in many articles, I often find that low-income is synonymous with “of color.” Low-income white students that have been silenced throughout their entire educational history only continue to be silenced without the language or ability to fight against the structure to get representation for their limited identity. The fact of the matter is that low-income students, as Reed finds, fail to persevere through college and their existence is easily missed by administration, a mere mirror of what happens throughout American middle and high schools.
It doesn’t matter what happens in our higher education system if we cannot stop this facilitation of discrimination towards low-income students, especially low-income whites in their earlier years of education. Policy must change. We must look out for all
Limitations and Future Direction:
This essay serves as a reflection of first-hand experiences as a low-income white student. However, as an autoethnography, my research is limited in its generalizability. I can only speak from my experience and I can only speak from the experience of being within public schools in Memphis, TN. However, there have been a few other ethnographies that analyze low-income whites, such as the works of Kirby Moss, Michael MacDonald, and even a movie, Rich Hill (Macdonald 1999; Moss 2003; Palermo and Tragos 2014). Further research should continue to work on ethnographical work researching this population in order to gain more generalizable qualitative data.
Research needs to better address the complexity of whiteness, and universities should facilitate more discussions of intersecting identities. As a student at an elite university, I received pushback from my peers, professors, and administration when attempting to analyze low-income white identities. Misrepresentation of whiteness and misunderstanding the white identity has perpetuated a silenced community of low-income whites, and researchers need to fight this silencing.
In terms of education, programs that specifically target low-income students and the most disadvantaged students must be created. Schools need to better document socioeconomic background and culture for their students so that quantitative data can be analyzed at a greater depth, capturing more factors influencing class-based inequality. More scholarship programs, like Questbridge, should be made available for low-income white students. Counselors and teachers need to be educated about intersecting identities and low-income white students. Policy needs to change. The disadvantaged need assistance, and assisting the least disadvantaged is not enough. Policy and education must understand class, culture, and the complexity of all identities in order to repair our broken education system. My summer as a teacher assistant did not ease the achievement gap just as other programs are not efficient. Our society is ignoring the disadvantaged, and it is time for change.
Professor Debs for being a resource throughout the entire writing process.
Yohei and Ana Clare for their recommendations and feedback after my first draft.
Lily Herman for reading my paper and giving support for the topic throughout the entire semester.
Evan Ortiz for my emotional wellbeing.
Mr. Battle for changing my life.
Mrs. Newman for introducing Questbridge and allowing me to be a scholar at Wesleyan today.
Professor Daniel Long for his mentorship the past two years and willingness to always provide feedback and push me to improve.
Mom for being Ma.
Holt for entertainment throughout the writing process and listening to country music with me.
Becca for being there for me and reading my draft.
Amy Cao for being a mentor, allowing me to vent about classism, and for giving me feedback.
Mamaw for feeding me and allowing me to embrace my Redneck culture.
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 The preceding quote reflects the requirements of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and can be found at https://scholarships.gmsp.org/Program/Details/2bfd8f53-40aa-4705-9f8b-d92d972e59df.
 I use initials to keep from using the names of each schools