My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sociologist, Dalton Conley, grew up as a white boy who lived in a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the 1970s and 1980s. In his ‘memoir’, Honky, he has offered the reader a unique lens through which to see the social constructions of race and class and how they intersect, plus also how these classifications offer some groups greater opportunity and privilege than they do for others. This important concept has larger societal implications.
The notion of race was not something of which Dalton was aware during his early years. He wrote that at the age of three, the new ‘sister’ he chose to ‘kidnap’ (the daughter of a family of black separatists) made that clear. Yet as time went by, the constructs of race did become apparent to him.
First he began to notice how he was different from others. He did not always receive the same ‘equal’ treatment that his playmates received. He desired to be part of their group, and to be called ‘nigga’ as the other boys were. He felt to be an outcast because he was never fully included in the neighborhood’s social circles. Dalton learned first hand the stigma of being a ‘minority’, even as he was simultaneously a member of the majority controlling group in the larger society.
When he grew a little older, he became aware of some privileges that certain notions of race can offer. For example, the discipline for misbehavior that he received from teachers and faculty at his school was much more forgiving and lenient than what the other classmates received. Additionally, because he did not belong in the ‘black class’ or the ‘Chinese class’ his family was able to choose which class they preferred for him. Choice is a privilege other students were not offered. Dalton had begun to learn about white-skin privilege. Dalton learned that having white skin offers the privileges of greater leniency in discipline and greater choices in opportunity, too. Yet did he, at that time, actually realize that this reality also necessitates the fact that others live oppressed experiences? Perhaps not fully.
As time passed, choice became understood as a privilege once again, after one of Dalton’s neighborhood friends was shot and paralyzed. At that time, because the social capital he had access to, that of his parent’s connections, he was able to attend an elite school across town, one that predominately consisted of middle-class white students. Here, the different style use of language (including body language) became apparent to him. For example, Dalton’s experience with the power of silence in certain situations gave him a realization of the benefits of certain types of cultural capital. This experience with privileged middle-class white students, attending a privileged middle-class white school, made clear the intersection of class and race and how lives are affected not only by one’s choices, but additionally by other forces which they might not otherwise be able to control, such as family connections (or lack of) and the language one learns and uses. Choice is a privilege that only some groups are offered.
Reading about Conley’s experiences has made the realities of racism (including systemic racism), and how they intersect with class distinctions much more clear to me, a person with white skin. What I have realized is that a child’s socioeconomic status has a major impact in the life opportunities they may receive. A child born into a family that has wealth is offered opportunities of choice, is influenced positively by cultural capital, and benefits from social capital connections. Poverty does not offer much in the way of property, power, or privilege, and children born into poverty do not realize the same choices, cultural capital and social capital benefits that the higher classes enjoy.
This has helped me to understand more deeply such situations as the realities that African-Americans must face today because of their ancestor’s experience of slavery. After their ’emancipation’ the ‘Freedmen’ did not have any wealth, nor power, nor privilege on which they could build. It was as though they were set to run a race, but the other runners had been given a big head start. To this day, the effects of slavery are still apparent in our segregated society where, for the most part, African-Americans are still trying to catch up in this ‘race’. This revelation has made it very clear to me that the U.S.A. is not the meritocracy that so many of us believe it to be. Perhaps it is a meritocracy for only a very select few.
As with Conley, I find it easier to see with a broader and more inclusive lens when I am able to encounter alternate experiences, either through real-life experience, through education, or through media sources, such as film, books, etc. The book Honky has been an eye-opener for me.
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