To anyone who grew up white and poor, the new-age political theory of ‘white privilege’ is as baffling as it is galling.
While it is true that black and coloured people disproportionately fall into the working and welfare class brackets, the fact remains that many white people also live in poverty. This is not to discount the systemic injustices perpetrated by capitalism and colonialism against black, coloured and indigenous people. But rather to point out that white people are very capable of being underprivileged and the amount of white people in such a position is not novel.
In the United Kingdom, millions of white people live in deprived communities comprised of public housing towers and tenements. It’s a similar story in Australia where hundreds of thousands of white Australians find themselves in prison and public housing ghettoes. The United States, too, has millions of white people living in poverty, many of whom have fallen prey to a surging opiate epidemic, unemployment (due to the offshoring of jobs), and housing foreclosures.
“A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe on both the left and the right,” writes Alec MacGillis for The Atlantic in The Original Underclass, as if middle and upper middle class media and political elites have the power discount the living conditions of those further down the class pyramid.
Middle class academics might be tempted to make the point that a black or coloured person living in poverty is even more disadvantaged than their white counterpart, and this is likely to be true, depending on a range of variables (mental and physical health of their caregiver, for one).
Comparing levels of privilege among the impoverished is a bizarre and redundant exercise, as you’ll find out if you read the following vignettes. To put it simply, there is no privilege in poverty and assigning privilege on the basis of skin colour alone, without taking into account class, is a false and harmful assumption.
Inner City Sydney
SPORTING face tatts, a gold chain and a Polo cap pulled down hard over his face, Luke Greig — better known as gutter rapper Skeaz “Skeamo” Lauren — cuts a jumpy figure as he makes his way through this inner-city Sydney pub.
You can’t blame him. Just four weeks out of prison and minutes off a urine drug test at a local courthouse, he’s only beginning his transition to life on the outside.
“This time it sorta kicked me in the arse. For me not to be go back there, I gotta change my ways, I gotta turn right,” he says, adding, “I’m sick of going to jail — I’m sick of six-minute phone calls, I’m sick of one-hour visits, I’m sick of f**ken being told what you can do and can’t do, I’m sick of wearing green.”
At 35, Skeamo has spent two-thirds of his life grappling with drug addiction, criminality and stints in prison. In between, he’s also managed to foster the musical genre known as gutter rap, a uniquely raw and Australian version of hip hop born out of the nation’s burgeoning public housing ghettos.
“It’s not gangster rap. It’s the life that we’ve lived, that I’ve lived, you know what I mean,” he says.
“A lot of people can’t take me because of the realness I guess — ‘this c**t is a piece of sh*t ra-ra-ra’. You’re entitled to your opinion, but as you said, I am an elder statesman in this game, I have been doing this a long time, and I’m not rapping about barbecues and f**ken flowers ‘everything is sweet’ — ’cos life is not sweet, not my life anyway,” he says.
Skeamo, who grew up in public housing in Hurstville, in south Sydney, was 13 when his mother was consumed by heroin addiction.
“Early life was pretty rough, know what I mean,” he says.
“Being at a young age, you sorta didn’t understand … You’re wondering what have I done wrong as a kid? What have we done wrong for her to be doing that? Like, we’re meant to be kids.
“We’re meant to have loving parents there,” he says. “Your parents are meant to take you to school, pick you up from school, have your lunches ready, take you out for dinner, know what I mean? That stuff didn’t happen so we got thinking, is it us? There’s no one there to say it’s not your fault,” he says.
In the absence of adequate role models and family connections, Skeamo gravitated towards the kind of people who could give him purpose.
“You’d see (older criminals) in bundles, you know, fresh gear — Polo, Lacoste, fresh shoes, gold chains, Tag watches — and you’re very impressionable when you’re younger. You don’t have the love and support you’re meant to have at home, so you go looking for it elsewhere,” he says.
The pain of his childhood often manifested in anger, violence and criminal activity. The tattoo on his torso, “Sydney Searchers,” is a brazen reference to the break-and-enter crew he used to be a part of.
“You hate the world, you’re dirty on everyone because you’re upset and you’re angry with what’s at home, and you’re a kid [so] you don’t know how to deal with your anger, you don’t know how to cope, you don’t know how to fix it. You got someone looking at you wrong, you take it out on someone else,” he says.
Drugs became a way to “numb” the pain. He first tried heroin as a 16-year-old and was smoking ice by his twenties.
“It numbs ya. It blocks out everything. Things will f**k up and then you’ll have a smoke and everything is fine. You don’t give a f**k,” he says.
Central Coast, NSW
THE signs of poverty are immediate and in your face.
The first car we pass on our way into these forgotten towns has had its petrol cap pried off by someone attempting to siphon fuel. It is the first of several vehicles we’ll see today that have received the treatment.
“They run out of petrol in their own cars so Commodores are the easiest ones to walk past and just go pop,” explains Damien, 19, from the nearby public housing estate.
“It’s something someone should have pulled over and seen, but as I said before you turn a blind eye to that stuff you get left alone, they get left alone, you don’t cop no damage to your car,” he says.
San Remo, Wyong and Delmar are suburbs less than ninety minutes north of Sydney on the NSW Central Coast. We’ve journeyed here precisely because of these suburb’s proximity to Sydney, where some of the richest people in the country reside.
Within moments of exiting our car my photographer, while scrolling through photos on his viewfinder, is threatened by a man “Watch out with that camera or I’ll put it somewhere you won’t like,” he says. The man is with a child, who can be no older than eight, and they take off running up the street.
“Everyone’s a crack head. It’s just f**ken ice. Everyone is on ice,” explains Blackie, 48, a nearby resident in San Remo.
A perfect storm of unemployment, low incomes and little to no opportunity has resulted in the proliferation of methamphetamine (ice) addicts and dealers in the area, he says. Of the four children he has fathered, he says, two have become ice addicts.
“All these young kids, they’re all f**ked. Their parents are blowing their money on drugs, they gotta hit neighbourhood centres up for money and s**t, they’re bludging off everyone, it’s just a vicious cycle. They’ll get their one week (welfare cheque) and blow it on drugs and harass every bastard for that week and bludge money, and the kids go to school with nothing. They look like f**ken scabs. It’s terrible,” he says.
Violence and crime is a natural consequence.
“The coppers have been up this street, f**ken, three or four times in the last couple days,” he says, pointing out the houses where they’ve been.
“There were like 20 coppers over here the other day. Some bloke doing road rage, apparently he had warrants and s**t like that. Up the street some bloke, up the top here, he’s done something wrong and they’ve taken him away in cuffs. This is all in the one day, before lunch,” he laughs.
One of the more surreal aspects of these suburbs are their proximity to the mansions lining the Central Coast, in suburbs like Avoca, Killcare and Terrigal. There you’ll find some of the richest people in the country on weekend escapes in their holiday homes.
Teneal can only dream of stable housing. The 21-year-old former ice-addict is outside the Salvation Army’s Oasis youth centre in Wyong, just south of San Remo, when we find her.
She blames high unemployment and a lack of opportunities for most of the area’s problems.
“I’ve wanted to find work my whole life. Finding work is the hardest. There’s nothing really around here,” she says, adding, “When it comes to activities and events for youth there are none, and they wonder why our youth are turning out so bad.
“If they gave them something to actually do with their lives they wouldn’t be so horrible. There wouldn’t be as many of us on the streets as there is. We’ve just been shown no better,” she says.
Teneal dreamt of becoming a midwife, but an assault conviction she received ended that. Now she has her sights set on becoming a veterinarian, if only she could see a way out of her current situation.
“I would do anything to get out of here. I would also give anything to see this place change as well. There are so many kids with so much potential that don’t do nothing with it,” she says.
Another local doing her best to support young people in the area is ‘Nan’ (aka Sharon), 56, whose housing commission flat in nearby Delmar has become a refuge of sorts for up to ten youths between the ages 17 and their late 20s. She is quick to tell me none of them stay overnight. Only her partner does, who suffers from dementia and for whom she is the primary carer.
“They’re all just in a complicated situation in their household with their families so they come here,” she says. Nan also blames the of lack of employment opportunities for the area’s problems.
“Work is the hardest. It’s so hard to get a job around here,” she says.
“There’s nothing here for them to do and I think that’s what the main problem is … They get frustrated, they feel unworthy, they feel unwanted, they feel judged,” she says.
This flows into all manner of social ills, she says.
“There’s a lot of people on ice … violence all around, yelling, screaming, smashing things, doing burnouts,” she says.
During the interview Nan leaves to fetch me a glass of water. It’s full of solid white flecks and I’m reluctant to drink it. She becomes embarrassed and apologetic at this, but it’s not her fault, I tell her.
Nan tells me her dream is for “everyone to be happy, and just get on, and compromise, work together.”
“That’s what you need. You gotta work together otherwise you’re not gonna accomplish anything in life. You’re just gonna be in your rut and you won’t move forward,” she says.
“Where I grew up the life expectancy is such that at 34 I’m already halfway through my life. That makes me very, very angry,” begins Scottish housing scheme product and award winning author, Darren Mcgarvey.
“The big problem that I’ve got is that that anger, which is a form of stress, and all of the things that I will do to try and nullify it or manage it, that is what shortens my life. So, right at the core of me is a very obvious sense of injustice and a very, very difficult conundrum. Because there is the sense of what is right and what is wrong and there is what is,” he says.
“For me, growing up in Pollock, in Glasgow, in a chaotic alcoholic home, it was almost destiny that in my twenties – despite the fact that I witnessed so many horrific things giving me very good intellectual reasons for not picking up a drink, let alone become an alcoholic – that is exactly what happened. And running parallel to all that was that deep sense of injustice, that anger: why should some of you live 20 years longer than me? Pour me a drink. Ultimately, in order for me to find sobriety I had to do something that people like me are told we should never do. I had to stop for a minute, take breath, and stop getting angry.”
Watch the full interview below.