How Can I Believe in White Privilege When I’m So Poor?

By David Valdes

Your Other Dad says one kind of privilege doesn’t guarantee another.

Photo Credit/Brett Sayles

“Dear Other Dad —

I grew up on welfare — still am. My parents have been out of work for a year. I don’t even know if I’ll go to college and if I don’t then I’m in this town forever. So I hate hearing about white privilege. How am I supposed to feel about that? Everyone I know is white and I don’t see much privilege.

— Teddy”

Hi Teddy —

I hear your frustration and anxiety clearly — and I can relate to it from my own youth. I was raised on welfare; when my mom, brother, and I were not living with my retired factory-worker grandparents, we lived in HUD housing. We wore almost entirely second-hand clothes and got by on Food Stamps. College was not remotely a given and, even when I did get there, there was pressure to come back home and work to support the family as soon as I was done.

When I was your age, I would have laughed you out of town if you had told me that I was privileged, despite the whiteness of my skin. (I am white Cuban-American.) But that’s because I didn’t yet understand what privilege actually means.

Some say the word “privilege” with a tone of judgment, implying undeserved good fortune, something that you’re not experiencing. But that isn’t what the word means. As a noun, “privilege” simply describes a benefit that comes from a certain set of conditions; as a verb, to privilege something means to treat it favorably. There is no inherent goodness or badness in the term, despite what you might think.

And there are different kinds of privilege, not always interchangeable. Having one kind of privilege doesn’t guarantee having another and having access to any kind doesn’t always translate into a life that looks like what you imagined “privileged” should.

Your question combines two different things: racial privilege and economic (class) privilege. In America, there can be real overlap between the two, but also wide gaps, which you’re experiencing firsthand. When you say you don’t see much privilege in your life, you mean you don’t see the economic version. When you’re just scraping by and your future feels hamstrung, it’s fair to resist being labeled as privileged — at least, it’s fair to resist the idea of having class privilege.

But white privilege isn’t primarily class-based. At its root, white privilege only means that, as part of the majority populace, you are statistically less likely to experience hardship or danger simply because of the color of your skin. The privilege here is a lower risk of harm. That means that your racial identity is measurably less likely to be a detrimental factor in a traffic stop, a doctor’s office, or a classroom, than if you were Black or brown. That is white privilege in its passive form: you don’t have to do anything to earn it and you may go about your day not thinking about your race in any of those settings.

Do a passive privilege check: Look back across your life to see how many times whiteness has imperiled you in some way. If you cannot think of many incidences, then you have experienced white privilege in its most basic form, even without realizing it. (Not realizing is part of what makes it a privilege.)

The active version of white privilege is when whiteness yields specific advantages and opportunities (such as in the corporate world, for instance). Sometimes the passive and active versions of privilege go hand in hand, and sometimes they do not; when they don’t, class is almost always the culprit. Your personal lack of economic privilege might well mean you never experience the active advantages of whiteness firsthand.

Moreover, because everyone else around you — prosperous and poor alike — is also white, you see no evidence that race makes a difference. But not having seen a pattern yourself doesn’t mean it’s a myth; it means only that it hasn’t applied to you yet.

When anyone assumes that all white people are enjoying active economic privilege, it only further obscures how many people in America are struggling financially. Politicians love to trumpet the needs of the middle class, but speak less often of poverty, as if recognizing the existence of poor people is too off-brand for people selling the American dream. The wealth gap is exacerbated by the way our culture mythologizes people who “make it big.” We treat their successes as personal triumphs, even as the government affords them protections and favors that aren’t available to everyone living “small.” And that only keeps the cycle going.

Understanding this doesn’t change the fact that things are hard for you; you can’t eat knowledge or pay for college with it. I feel for you; there is nothing to do but keep leaning forward, looking for opportunities and new ways to take care of yourself and your family.

Having started my life in your situation, I am writing to you now from a time when two things have changed: I am financially more stable and I have enough experience to recognize the ways being white-skinned did contribute to that fact over time. My color allowed me better treatment from certain teachers, opened doors to conversations in certain professional settings, and got me taken seriously more quickly than some of my peers. Yes, I still have student loan debt and work multiple jobs, so it’s not effortless, but my path continues to be made easier because how I look is never going to get me followed in a store, denied a loan, or doubted by a medical professional.

Like me, I hope you will come to understand the kind of white privilege you have, without feeling defensive; it’s a fact, not a personal failing. The best you (or anyone) can do is to make sure you don’t exploit this privilege in ways which harm others who don’t share it. At the same time, I hope your family will find ways to reach more economic security and that, if you do, you’ll always advocate for your others who have not.

We don’t need to be divided by the privileges we have and the ones we lack; we need to be united in trying to level the playing field for all of us.

This piece originally appeared in Medium.

David Valdes is a Cuban-American playwright and author. He’s written about family, race, and LGBTQ issues for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and HuffPost. Send your questions to