Reporter's Notebook

Stories of Intraracial Prejudice
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Readers discuss the slights they’ve experienced within racial and ethnic groups, rather than between them. (For a complementary series, see “Your Stories of Racism” compiled here.) If you have your own perspective to share, please send us a note:

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Alec MacGillis’s essay “The Original Underclass” absorbs two new books—White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. This reader can relate to Vance:

I have relatives who live in conditions very close to the ones described here. I live in the heart of Appalachia, and not much has changed since the 1960s. Clothing factories and knitting mills were “good” employers that paid a decent wage. But then NAFTA and other incentives to move jobs to Mexico and China shut them all down. Now it’s fast food or retail for these folks, or welfare, drug dealing and the like. Even the scholarship programs for poor white kids disappeared. They’re just trying to survive in a world that doesn’t recognize them.

Gina also appreciates the “insightful article” from MacGillis:

Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania myself, I can say that things seemed to take a turn from bad to much worse when heroin and meth started coming in. That was a factor of poverty and also of criminal justice strategies that imported hard criminals from the cities to rural areas in an attempt to rehabilitate them. They just set up shop in the new areas and recruited the locals. All along the bus routes from New York City to upstate New York and Pennsylvania, those little towns that used to be leafy and peaceful now look like the worst dregs of New Jersey. The only hope these areas have seen in recent years is from fracking.

The Drug War and zero tolerance on sex offender crimes (like teenagers sleeping with teenagers) leave people with criminal records and no way to get out from under. It’s the same process as the inner city. It is also well noted that in many parts of the country, resentment of working people towards social programs isn’t as racial as it might be in the South. Where I come from, the welfare queens are all white. I think part of the despair we’re seeing is shame at the loss of self-reliance, and there is no way forward.

This next reader has mixed feelings—between his sympathy for struggling white Southerners and his resentment over their pockets of racism:

I grew up in a small town in Texas. I’m an immigrant (and brown) and in the technical professions. But I went to high school with these folks. They’re my compatriots. And country means something to me. U.S. citizen means something to me. It is with that in mind that I write the following.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Alec MacGillis reviews two new books for his essay “The Original Underclass”: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Both books center on long-standing stigmas directed at poor and working-class white Americans, their plight in an increasingly postindustrial U.S. economy, and their loss of cultural capital.

Many readers of MacGillis’s piece are venting their frustration over what they see as condescension from white elites toward downscale whites, especially that their skin color presumes a bigoted and thus immoral character unless proven otherwise. Here’s reader Matt, who is tired of poor whites being told to “check their privilege”:

There is so much racial resentment in the discussion of the white working class that is projected onto them. Critics of struggling whites who support Trump will say, “It isn’t that they are suffering economically; it’s that whites are no longer an all-powerful monolith”—even though these are poor whites who have never had power. It’s like you don’t want to hear them, and then instead of listening to their actual issues, you pretend they are racist to ignore their actual opinions.

Another reader—“a white man living paycheck to paycheck”—expands on the view shared by Matt:

There’s a feeling that no one actually cares about us. We get lumped in with “the man,” but we’re not Rockefellers nor Trumps. We’re struggling to make ends meet. Problems that used to be confined to minority communities are now in ours. Our traditional structures have been derided and destroyed by the elite and nothing is given to replace them. We feel helpless against a tide of cultural changes that don’t take our thoughts or considerations seriously.

I think that most of us would acknowledge that minorities have it rough, but at least someone seems to care about them.

An African American reader, Marcus, relates to Allene and the kinds of intraracial slights she’s experienced—but he’s not going to let it hold him back:

I, to, have experienced similar precepts from others, during various stages in my life, and concerning different traits of my being. And because of that, I learned early on to be confident of self—of who I am, who I know myself to be, and the TYPE of man I am. Absolutely no one, who isn’t you, can define what it is to be and how to be you.

Coming up in my hood, I’d get poked about the way I talked and how I sound. I’d get the “You tryin’a sound white” or “You think you smart/smarter than...You think you’re better than...everybody!” While I don’t get the “sound white” any longer, I do get the “better than...” comparison.

Does it bother me? In a way, I guess it kinda does. But better yet still, do I ALLOW IT to bother me? Definitely not. And that’s simply be cause I know me, myself.

This next reader, Orella, is a “bi-racial mom (half black, half Thai)” living in New York City:

I identify with Allene’s note in more ways than one. Hers was a great perspective on us as a people. It is so hard to move forward or to feel any type of unity when we are so judgemental of ourselves.

For example, I recently found a support group for mothers of black children.

A reader in New Orleans responds to the reader who started this whole conversation:

I feel that Allene is conflating two things I’d consider separate. One thing she describes is shadism/colorism, where Black people will judge other Black people based on their relative skin tone, hair texture, nose and lip shape. As a lighter-skinned, loose-curled, Creole Black person, I once met a Black woman who was genuinely astounded that I not only found women darker than me attractive, but that I’d be comfortable introducing a dark-skinned girlfriend to my family. And there are some dark-skinned Black people who reactively resent lighter Black people in return (as you might too, if people who were themselves brown skinned refused to date you because you were only a few shades darker). This same colorist mentality is what leads some Black people to be called “Oreos” for “acting White” (although you also see festivals like Afropunk celebrating “alternative” Black styles.)

AFRO OF THE DAY #1260 pictured: @kiki_kyanamarie #afro #natural #black #hair

A photo posted by AFROPUNK (@afropunk) on

The other thing Allene describe is activists demanding that Black people put Blackness at the forefront of their identity and a very specific interpretation of Blackness at that.

From a reader who grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and went to college in Minneapolis:

My name is Jareesa, and I’d like to respond to the reader letter from Allene on racism in the Black community. As a Black American woman, I don’t share her views at all. I think she’s misguided in her assertion that Black people require others to be Black first, and to conform to a specific form of Blackness in order to be accepted. It’s been my experience that White America—not my fellow Black people—has foisted a caricature of Blackness on me.

Growing up, I was a nerdy kid with glasses who loved to read and was into science—an existence that was foreign to my White classmates, teachers, and their parents. I lived in a racially diverse area, went to racially diverse schools, and did lots of activities—engineering clubs, the Quiz Bowl team, theater club, Japanese club, and more. I wasn’t required to join any of the “Black” clubs, but I did so because I needed that community. I needed to be in spaces where I didn’t have stereotypical judgments from non-Black people, where I could just be myself, and where I never felt that I had to conform to some “standard of Blackness,” whatever that is.

Throughout K-12, my intelligence was questioned, especially when I expressed a desire for a career in engineering. White people were just amazed at how “articulate and well read” I was (and that continues even now, as an adult). I had White people assume I grew up in a single-parent home (I didn’t), or that I had a child in high school (I didn’t), or that I was really good at sports (I wasn’t).

In college, as one of the two Black women in the chemistry program at my state university, I was told by a classmate that I was only there because of affirmative action. Most of my other classmates simply viewed me as some kind of anomaly, as if I had three heads. And so I found sanctuary in the Black Student Union and my school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers—places where I found acceptance, kindred spirits, and people who could relate to the things I was going through.

Sure, I’ve gotten comments about “talking White” from other Black people, but those comments were nowhere near as hurtful as the comments I’ve received from White people in my life. My Black life has been dominated by love and acceptance from other Black people, and acceptance for all of me.

An African American reader, Allene, wants to start a conversation about the “misconceptions about being black in America.” (She also highlights the trailer for a documentary on shadism, Dark Girls, seen above.) Allene writes:

I understand that you all are busy—very busy—with the convention this week, but I have to share with you a very different aspect of being black in America today.

Racism is a thing regardless of how the media handles or mishandles the relationship or the non-existence of a relationship between black and white Americans. So, for the sake of establishing a common ground, let’s accept that racism is a thing.

There is another, rarely examined aspect of what it means to be black in America. Modern-day black activists (hell, a whole lot of black folks in general), require other black people to be BLACK first—that is, to tote around on their bent backs and black shoulders the eons of tortured black history as if that history is a current-day reality while denying who they are as individuals.

Black people desire equal rights, to be sure, but when young black people go to racially-mixed high schools and colleges, exactly why are all black students required to only support black student organizations? Why do some of these same, educated, young black people deny other young black people from the human activity of just being a human being? The worst of this aspect of being a black college student in America is the judgement that happens in those organizations. “You ain’t black enough; why you got pretty hair—your momma or daddy white?"

For the life of me, I cannot understand how black people are so quick to recognize racism as directed towards them from whites, Latinos, Asians, et al, and miss the very real racism that exists within our race from one another.