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Of Privilege and Prejudice
A few years ago I got into a heated debate with an extended family member. I don't recall how the topic came up, but lots of alcohol had been ingested and I think she finally got up the cojones to ask me about my decidedly liberal tendencies. The subject was the U.S. "welfare" system.

I explained that I felt fortunate to have my brain, education, and upbringing and that I saw nothing wrong with paying a bit more in taxes to help those not so fortunate. My, (I thought) relatively reasonable opinions, brought forth a spew of vitriol against "those people." "Those people" on welfare. The words were so forceful that spittle sprayed my face. In the interests of keeping our vacation somewhat peaceful, I walked away. But I was very disturbed.

Over the last few years I've returned to this exchange in my thoughts and wondered what it was about my relative's views that I found so unnerving. After all, I usually have no problem shunting off the views of hateful people without a second thought. Now, I think my unease arose from a sense that we weren't just talking about welfare. We were talking about a whole world view.

What was left unsaid, but implied, by my relative, is that "those people" are somehow different. They aren't white. They aren't middle class. They don't work hard. They have children they can't support. They aren't us.

They bring poverty and misfortune on themselves.


Now, I know you're all thinking "Oh, she's going to talk about welfare in the U.S. OK, let's just get through this post." But no, I'm not. I'd like to take a look at the broader picture. Because this "us" and "them" mentality isn't limited to class and race wars within the U.S. It's not simply used to bolster a "have" and "have not" system of economics. Rather, some people use this view to internally validate an entirely isolationist view of the world. After all, if people unfortunate enough to have been born into poverty, or in another country, speaking a different language, or with a different religion, just aren't as good as "us," it makes everything so much easier.

It makes it easier to turn the TV channel when you see conflict in the Middle East on the evening news. It makes it easier to buy a People magazine instead of the newspaper when the headline about genocide in Darfur is screaming at you. And yes, it makes it easier to walk by that obviously mentally ill pan handler, keeping your eyes averted at all times. Those people aren't like you, like me, like "us." And hence, their suffering is not our problem.

I fear that I am making some of my regular readers uncomfortable with this diatribe. I can almost feel you pulling away. So I feel as if I must clarify my views even further. This is not a diatribe against fiscal conservatism or even Republicans. Republican does not = racist. I know many compassionate people who have dedicated their lives to helping others and who believe that social welfare is simply not the role of our government. This I can respect. What I cannot respect are those who turn a blind eye (regardless of political persuasion) and simply say "It's not my problem." Because it is your problem. As a resident of this Earth, as one of the privileged simply by happy accident of birth, it is your problem.

It's "our" problem and we all need to open our eyes and see.

This post is part of Julie's latest roundtable discussion. Our topic for this week was quite broad - "accident of birth." I'm sure others have tackled this topic of privilege with more clarity and erudition, but this is a post that's been brewing for quite some time and I had to let it out.

In other news, I finally got off my tushy and put something up on my review site. I put up my submission for the new PBN Blog Blast for Sk*rt, "What Are You Hiding Under Your Skirt?" Go check it out! And vote for my post.

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Blogger Julie Pippert said...

Oh you did NOT push me away with this; rather, you pulled me in.

Interestingly, as you'll see tomorrow, I touched on this same point. Using a Melville quote. Ironically. Damn that college professor!

Speaking of college, I studied Alexis de Toqueville extensively, even in my Russian class. Don't ask.

Anyway, we all know de Toqueville is one of th emost frequently quoted sources/experts on democracy.

And once he said something along the lines of (and my memory is fuzzy, never was good at memorization) 'for democracy to succeed the wealth must not rise but rather must shift.'

The idea is that the have mores (to misquote cecilieaux...who wrote very eloquently about this only this week) cannot continue to so blatantly outpace the haves and have nots. Or ultimately, democracy will fall like the Roman empire.

Ummm okay shutting up.

Obviously, good post. Got me thinking and talking.

Blogger Julie Pippert said...

A HA! Could not help myself..found the quote:

What is the most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class.
Alexis De Tocqueville

I believe it is an obligation of privilege to share and assist.

But oh my you have to read cecilieaux's post about this: almsgiving or tips

Here's the rough link:


Blogger flutter said...

I am glad you posted this. I tend to shy away from political posts over at my place because I don't express myself too well. You did an excellent job. Must be the lawyer thing. :)

Blogger Alpha DogMa said...

With respect to the first part of the post: I do not understand people who think "those people" are always "those people." That mentality presupposes that no one can ever work their way out a bad predicament or lifestyle or an accident afterbirth can lead someone to temporarily require social assistance.

Great post. I love this 'call to arms.'

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

You're so right, AD! I have a follow up post for some point in the future about what the "average" person on public assistance looks like.

Julie - Thanks for the link! And love the quotes. If only I'd taken a Russian class! LOL!

Flutter - Thank you. I shy away from them because I have a number of readers who don't share my views, I think. But hell, it's MY blog, right?

Blogger niobe said...

Absolutely. It's your blog and I'd certainly hope that your readers would be open to different points of view even if they don't necessarily agree with them.

I'd love to see your follow up post on the "average" public assistance recipient, partly because it was my (perhaps incorrect) impression that public assistance has been substantially cut back and often has substantial work requirements and strict eligibility limitations.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Yes, Niobe, you're right. That was actually part of the discussion I had with my oh-so-dear relative. But even before the cut backs, the average "welfare recipient" in no way resembled the stereotype.

Blogger bubandpie said...

I was thinking about this a couple of days ago after reading a newspaper article about the Bono-edited issue of Vanity Fair on Africa. The columnist's argument was that the issue presented an unrealistically optimistic portrait of the continent and that a more honest approach would be to highlight the hopelessness of places like Zimbabwe.

Part of the idea seemed to be to focus international outrage at Mugabe, but underlying that was a disturbing implication that Africa is a hopeless situation and ought to be abandoned - that we need to stop throwing good money after bad and just let the continent die.

I don't even know what to say in response to that - it's just so wrong.

Blogger Jenn said...

I went to a college that leaned further left than right, and often the conversation in our political science classes included the welfare discussion.

I was always surprised at the divide; there seemed to be such distinct impressions of the average welfare recipient--but the irony of it was that those with the strongest biases against it were the ones that wore $800 jackets and slipped into their BMW's after class.

How could they possibly understand the struggle of affording money to buy milk?

They had these ideas, based on no more than what perhaps they had once read of welfare--and it scared me then, as it does today, that they were likely the future leaders of our country.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Oh, goodness, B&P. I don't really know what to say either. Unfortunately, I've heard others say similar things too. I just don't know how anyone can accept that sort of suffering. I just can't wrap my brain around the idea of doing nothing.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Jenn - Yes, I've heard and had similar discussions with people of privilege who really have no idea. Some people live in a little bubble. The irony is that some of the same people arguing that they shouldn't have to pay for welfare, point to the alleged sense of entitlement that it creates. I always think, hmmm, yeah, no feeling of entitlement are coming from YOU at all!

Blogger slouching mom said...

Well, you pulled me in, but you were already preaching to the choir in my case...

When someone starts in with "those people," my skin crawls. We are all descendants of Lucy the neanderthal, right? Or something like that. So who are "those people"?


Blogger Adrienne said...


I was one of "those people." When my parents divorced, my mother and I eventually found our way to food stamps. And we certainly did nothing to "deserve" our circumstance. No one ever does.

The people moaning and screaming about "those people" don't see (or don't want to see) the invisible helping hand - the accident of the right birth into the right family at the right time - that played no small part in getting them to their current economic state. It's ridiculous to pat yourself on the back for being born to the right family - and it's just as ridiculous to discriminate against someone for being born to the "wrong" one.

For those of us who are luckier than most, it is our duty as human beings to take care of our brothers and sisters. End of story.

Blogger jen said...

oh, friend. we would get along at a dinner table just fine.

just fine. great way of tackling this. it IS our problem. We are Us. no one is free when others are oppressed.

Blogger thailandchani said...

LM, I think a lot more people share your views than you might realize. And you expressed them so well! Someone was saying on TV last night that we have to get beyond "me" and turn it into "we".

Such a good point. With that change, much of the rest will begin to change on its own.

Thanks for this post.:)



Blogger CPA Mom said...

what a thinking post. much to mull over. especially since reading such similar discussions at Vodkarella and now at Pursuit of Happiness. You ladies all make me think about how fortunate I am. And how I need to treat my fellow man and teach my children the same.

p.s. I voted for you at Sk*rt just now. Awesome!

Blogger Ally said...

Great post! I am always amazed at the sense of entitlement that comes with being born into the class of "haves." There is a tendency to attempt to justify what we/they have via discussing what we/they deserve. Sure, we all make choices, but it sure is easier when there are more options to choose, when one isn't stuck... Thanks for this post.

Anonymous LRH said...

Like Flutter, I avoid politics on my on blog. I just wanted to say I agree with you, LM, and also point out that there's another, more pragmatic reason why "those people" are everyone's problem: It's just good public policy to give the have-nots a leg up. Done carefully, constructively and compassionately, this institutionalized leg up can alleviate all kinds of societal ills like crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, and the underclass. In the long run, it will even help the economy by adding more producers and consumers. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn't always kept those 3 C's in mind with our social programs (and some European countries have done even worse). Planned or executed badly, social programs accomplish the opposite of what they're intended to do. They can also give poorly informed people like your extended family member an excuse to disavow responsibility.

While I greatly respect your opinion, I will have to disagree with some of the points you made.

In no way do I consider myself any better than anyone else. I also believe that there are many people out there who legitimately need our help.

However, if you cannot afford to house, feed, and clothe your first child, you have no business having any more until you can! I think I became jaded after years of seeing the horrific abuse of the system while teaching public school.

It is near impossible to motivate children to better themselves when they see their mom allowed to do nothing, make babies, and collect money. The true tragedy is most of the kids are not benefitting from their parents' aid.

I am all for helping people....but let's make sure they are taking steps to help themselves.

However....I do agree that something needs to be done to help those in need. Also, I know that most of us probably had a middle class upbringing that gave us certain opportunities.

But, sooner or later, people have to take responsibility for their own actions.....regardless of their problems.

*dodging flying objects from all the liberals in the blogosphere*

Blogger Christine said...

I wasn't pushed away at all. I loved this post and kept thinking how true it all is. It isn't "us" and "them" at all. Not. At. All. it is a collective "we." Thanks for this.

Blogger NotSoSage said...

This was an important post. For you to write as much as for others to read, I think, if it's been eating at you all this time.

I think it goes beyond just the accident of birth, though, and also extends to a society that tells certain groups of people that they are no good, no matter what they do. At a certain point, anyone would lose their desire to fight, I think. I don't have enough brain power to elaborate on this, but you've got me thinking, and that's a good thing.

Blogger Mrs. Chicky said...

The ugliness is easy to ignore, but it can not be put off forever. If we don't face these problems they're not going to go away and we all need to realize that.

Thank you.

Blogger Mary-LUE said...

It is a difficult issue to tackle and, I, a complete polito-phobe, think you did it very well.

One dream of mine--an absolute dream--is that there would be a forum for these problems to be addressed where there is true respect and listening going on. I tend to veer away from political discussions because they do seem to so rapidly devolve into that us vs. them attitude. In fact, I actually had a beautiful dream about the political party I would form which would change the world with its politeness and respect in discussing the issues. Alas, I woke up, remembered where I was, and was bitterly disappointed.

Another thought your post made me think about: I was raised by people with lots of prejudices. I cringe sometimes when I think of how people around me talked when I was growing up. And yet, I never actually knew them to refuse help, conversation, anything to "those people" they talked about. It was quite a contradiction.

Blogger Gwen said...

Huh. A few of my classmates and I spent hours talking about this very thing over our reunion weekend. What surprised me is that most of us, regardless of where we began the discussion, ended up in the same place: with the idea that personal responsibility matters but "accidents of birth" matter, too, and that it is the human duty of the have-mores to do something for the have-lesses. The question, then, was which have-lesses we choose to help.

I liked this very much, LM; good on you.

Blogger Busy Momma said...

Great post! This one got to me cuz a good friend of mine just had to go on assistant cuz her husband left her high and dry. She definately isn't someone you would look at and say "yep, she's on welfare!" nor did she WANT to go on welfare. One of the sad things is she didn't want to even go on it becuz in her town the majority of people of welfare aren't on it for a good reason.
Great post, I agree with your views completely and I sadly admit that I am guilty of turning my head.

Blogger Moondance said...

When I lived in New Orleans, I was involved with Dress For Success, and organization that helps women enter into the workplace and get beyond needing public assistance to survive. One of the programs was called "Professional Women's Group". We met once a month for dinner and a speaker, in our business clothes and discussed issues facing working women. There were a lot of topics that might be considered remedial to someone whose parents prepared them for a carer, but were new to some members. but, once they had been around for a few months, you couldn't tell the difference between the women who had recently benn existing on food stamps, and those whose parents had put them through college. There was no "us and "them" - we were all individuals, on a first name basis, We were all "us." It was a Great program, and many of the volunteers felt they got more out of it than the clients!

Anonymous Momish said...

I completely agree with you that the "us" and "them" mentality is just downright wrong. It helps no one and only ignores the important situation that is everyone's responsibility who participates in a society.

However, I lean towards QofM in many respects. I think the welfare system is a crutch and a bad one at that. It removes all responsisbilty from the person themselves. It breaks my heart to see a child go without, but it burns me up to see someone loaded with jewelry, taking on a cell phone, carrying a coach handbag pay for their groceries with a welfare card, then hop in their car.

I am all for helping, but in the vain of helping others help themselves. Self pride is a major issue in this country, especially with the poor and is getting worse and worse. The abuse of welfare is numbing to comprehend. (and too much to go into in one comment)

Overall, I am with you that the attitudes have got to change. But, I think the attitudes needing change are on both ends.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Thanks for all your comments, ladies. I love it that we can have this discussion.

However, I can already see that a follow up post is a definite must for a particular topic I mentioned. I didn't intend for this post to really be about our welfare system, but I see that I do need to write a post about it. Clearly a follow up on the myth of the "welfare queen" is needed.

So, I promise that in the next few weeks I will write a post about the true face of welfare and those who receive it. I think you'll be surprised.

Blogger ExPatSW said...

Thanks, LM. I was just going to post something about welfare myths (as I'm sure you KNEW I would)!

One of the key components of social programs should be (and rarely is) not to 'help people' but to give them the means AND the tools to help themselves. THAT is how to change the world! 'As the proverb says, if you give a man a fish, he can eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you can feed him a lifetime.' Matthew 26:11 (Okay, I know it's a biblical quote but it fits!)

Blogger Gunfighter said...

Hey... what happened to my response?


Perhaps we should just sterilize those people. Yeah... keep them from having more babies, so they won't keep cashing in and getting rich.

What? You mean you didn't know they were getting rich? You must not be watching FOX news.

The sad thing about those statements are that I have actually heard people use them quite seriously.

People like that usually get irritated when I tell them that THEIR families should be sterilized as well... because we all know that larger families place a larger tax burden on the average American worker. Er... you knew that, right?

The sad thing is that most Americans get their news from large news outlets. Said news outlets are usually located in large cities... the face of the poor, as reported in most of our media is the urban poor, which tend to be non-white.

If a television station wants to do a piece about the poor or about public assistance, they aren't going to send a news team out to the rural areas, or on the fringes of the suburbs and filme many of the places where the welfare recipients tend to be white.

Indeed, thats what most welfare recipients look like... white people, but you could never get many of my colleagues to agree with you.

It is an ugly subject. The answers, unfortunately, are generational. Since the answers are generational, politicians don't care enough to do anything about them other than to throw money at the problem, or to rail about how "unfair" it is to "working" people.

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