The Washington Post recently ran a story about workers in a Pennsylvania chicken processing plant who were demoralized because they were in the minority at their jobs. Most of the other workers were Spanish speaking immigrants. There are several comments about being the only “white people,” while the article remains fairly vague about the actual demographic breakdown of the Spanish-speaking workers since native Spanish speakers can be white no matter their country of origin. Mostly, the focus of the article is on a young woman named Heaven, who seems most dissatisfied that her job is socially isolated. In her case, it’s partly because the other workers are speaking Spanish, but it sounds like the nature of her position would be isolating anyway. I have sympathy for a job that feels isolating, but I have no sympathy for white Americans complaining about being ethnic minorities. Because I was one, and it’s frankly pretty dull.
I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C in Prince Georges County, Maryland. We moved out of the area in about 2000, and the census data on the Wikipedia page indicates that in that year the population was 62.7% Black and just a hair over 27% white. Our next door neighbors to either side were immigrants, one family from Ethiopia and the other from China. When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of white, mixed race, or Asian kids in my class each year until my parents sent me to a private middle school because the public school system was… we’ll say “troubled.” This was something most families we knew ended up doing around the middle school or high school years, seeking out private schools or leaving the county. We had friends who were Muslim that sent their kids to the same Catholic middle school I went to to get them out of the public school system. We moved before I started 8th grade to Carroll County, Maryland, which was over 95% white at the time, and I experienced a HEFTY dose of culture shock. Not only had I moved out of the suburban area I’d always known, but the overwhelming whiteness of my new school and town was jarring.
Growing up as one of the few white kids in my class was never isolating. I always had friends in my class. I did have problems when I was young with people pulling at or playing with my hair because it was different. I experienced far worse bullying at the Catholic middle school from other white students. Sometimes people would ask me if I was related to other white students because there were so few of us and I did have to explain to my classmates why I got sunburned and why you could see my veins under my skin. I took some “white girl” verbal jabs, but I took at least as many jabs at my weight, glasses, braces, or other distinguishing features throughout childhood. Kids are kind of assholes and pick on differences. My teachers never treated me with suspicion or underestimated my abilities because I was white. When I watched TV, I saw mostly white people on the screen. When I looked at the pictures of the US Presidents and founding fathers, they were all the same color as me even if my classmates weren’t. I walked around my neighborhood freely, selling Girl Scout cookies and trick or treating with friends. Doors were opened when I knocked on them, people smiled when they saw me. I had no fear that my neighbors would call the cops on me for knocking on their door or setting up a lemonade stand. Being a white minority in a limited geographic or professional area is not the same as actually being a minority and dealing with the prejudice that is leveled at people of color in our society, something that is only clearer to me the older I get. I was different, but my differences never put me at a disadvantage. High school might have been harder for me, but it might not have been. I’d been in a “Talented and Gifted” class in elementary school, and most of those kids ended up in the Science and Tech program at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the crown jewel of the P.G Country school system. If I’d been there, I doubt I would have had any problems at all.
Heaven’s coworkers are looking for the same thing she was; a job that didn’t require higher education that paid decently. It is not their fault that there are few opportunities in the area that meet those standards. Heaven may be frustrated that work briefings are primarily instructed in Spanish with spotty English translation of only the most basic information, but anytime she has to access a service outside the factory she can be confident that she’ll be understood and will understand what’s being said to her. Again, I am sympathetic to someone who feels lonely in an isolating job, I’ve had them before, but the isolation is not the fault of the people she works with. The animosity that Heaven and her boyfriend have developed towards their coworkers is presented as almost a logical reaction to a difficult situation, but it’s far from logical or reasonable. They are all suffering from a lack of opportunities, and trying to make the best life they can.
Since leaving Prince George’s County I’ve also lived in Miami-Dade County and now Washington, D.C, other places that do not have a white majority. I tend to feel more comfortable in diverse settings. Living in Carroll County I was exposed to some of the more insular, reactive, and exclusionary tendencies that arise in majority white areas. I had classmates with confederate flags decorating their cars and occasionally as tattoos on their bodies. The Klan was known to be active in the area. I say this not to imply that I’m somehow “better” for the experience, but to say that if we want to discuss who in this country might be in an intellectual bubble, I don’t think it’s people who casually encounter people from different backgrounds, countries, and languages. Heaven was poorly served by growing up in an overwhelmingly white society prior to her job at the chicken processing plant, she had little to no awareness of how to relate to people of a different background and could not learn the value of developing linguistic skills that might help her make friends with her coworkers. That’s not her fault. But how she adapts to the situation and who she blames for her discomfort is. Social isolation is not the same as systemic racism.
I still have a lot to learn about the racism in our society, and how I can use my privilege to help. I’m far from perfect and I benefit in a million tiny ways that I will never be able to quantify or correct for. But I know for sure that the white minority experience is in no way comparable to the actual minority experience, and pretending otherwise is bullshit.