Why Bernie Sanders said white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor

The question was asked on Quora recently: Why did Bernie Sanders say white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

The following story may seem unrelated to the question. Bear with me.

The other day I was out (very late) with two girlfriends. One is black, one is white. (I am also white, as you can see from my photo).

We were sitting at an outdoor cafe on a very empty street, very late at night. As we were getting up to leave, my white friend accidentally bumped into a white guy who looked pretty rough around the edges — he had a shaved head, Lonsdale shirt, combat boots, and some fresh scars on his face.

“Woah there, clumsy!” he said, jovially.

We continued our departure, no harm, no foul. Until he caught sight of my black friend.

His eyes locked onto her like a bulldog ready to fight. “Give me some change,” he said to her, “I want to buy a beer.”

“No, sorry,” she and I said in unison. We tried to walk away, but he was blocking our path. He continued to focus his attention on her exclusively, and his tone grew more menacing. “I… want… some… change… to… buy… a… beer.”

“Here, she said. You can have a cigarette instead.” She took a cigarette out of her pack and handed him one.

Eyeing her full pack, he said “Fine, but give me two.”

She relented and passed him another one. He finally moved to the side and we slipped past him. He continued to stare at my friend as if her very presence offended him. (Which I am guessing it did.)

We got to an intersection and looked for a cab to hail. Not three minutes later he was running after us, screaming “HEY! GIVE ME A FUCKING LIGHT!” My friend pretended not to hear as we kept scanning the streets for a cab. He caught up to us and screamed, in her face, “HOW CAN YOU GIVE A GUY A CIGARETTE AND NOT GIVE HIM A FUCKING LIGHT?”

Again, with a grace and composure sourced from who-knows-where, she reached out and lit his cigarette.

That seemed to placate him somewhat, so he sauntered away — still hurling insults in my friend’s direction. We miraculously found a taxi and all three of us made it safely home. My friend hasn’t mentioned the incident since; she didn’t even seem that shaken up. It felt like the incident seemed very commonplace and familiar to her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident in the days since. Being a woman alone on a dark street in the middle of the night is scary. It’s scary to have a man tell you, with his body language, that he will decide when it’s okay for you to walk away. And it’s scary to know that even if he lets you walk away, he might still follow you.

All those things are unfair and shitty and shouldn’t be happening in a civilized society. My god, it’s 2016!

What’s scarier still? Being a black woman alone on a dark street in the middle of the night when a man — dressed in typical white power skinhead* gear — is telling you that he will decide when it’s okay for you to walk away. His ire is directed at you on two fronts: You’re a woman, and you’re black.

So what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders saying white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

Everything. Academics call it the “intersectionality of discrimination” (or oppression). In normal language, it means that yes, it’s awful to be white and poor. It sucks to be discriminated against because you don’t have the right parents, the right table manners, the right clothing, the right connections. It sucks that you can’t afford to go to summer camp or on vacations or have the latest gadgets (or any gadgets). It sucks that you have to use the cheap diaper wipes and your baby gets a rash. It sucks that all you can afford is the Happy Meal — and you know it isn’t healthy. It sucks that when your car breaks down, you have to decide between paying rent and fixing it.

All those things are unfair and shitty and shouldn’t be happening in a civilized society. My god, it’s 2016!

But do you know what’s even worse?

Enduring all those things, plus knowing that upward mobility among your race is limited. (In fact, most black middle class kids are downward mobile.) Your poor white friends are more likely to get offered a helping hand than you are — all because of your color. Schools in your neighborhoods are sub-par. You are more likely to be targeted by debt collectors and thrown into jail if you lapse on payment. You are more likely to be stopped, searched, taseredimprisoned, and shot.

Poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to be understood through a kaleidoscope of experiences (hence “intersectionality”) — and the experience of racism for being black is one that white people can never understand,** just like men can never understand what it’s like to be a target of misogyny and straight people can never truly understand what it’s like to be the target of homophobia.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to be white and poor. And that’s not what Bernie was saying. He said,

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”

The main message — the one I think Bernie was trying to (albeit clumsily) get across — is that when we can try to emphasize with people whose struggles resemble (but don’t exactly mirror) ours, we are on our way to a stronger society.

AC

*I know that “skinhead” originated from a subculture that had nothing to do with racism.

**Unless you’re Rachel Dolezal, lolz

Originally posted on Quora.

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