On being the white person in the WIC office

Yesterday as I parked behind the WIC office, I saw a woman getting out of her car with 3 kids. Not unusual outside the WIC office, but one thing was unusual: she was white.

I’m usually the only white person in the WIC office. Other moms are Hispanic or black. So are the people that work there. Likewise, most of the people living in my income-capped apartment complex are racial minorities, and so were my coworkers when I worked in home health.

So when I saw this woman get out of her car, I thought, “Huh, is she really going to WIC?” She walked past the front entrance, but then backtracked and went in, so I figured it must be her first time going there. Sitting at the desk to get Monkey’s benefits renewed, I overheard (I wasn’t eavesdropping, she was standing right behind me while Monkey played with her kids) why she was there: she wanted to apply to be a peer breastfeeding counselor. I kind of laughed inwardly, not at her, but at the whole situation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me explain it. All of the moms and kids receiving WIC benefits (except for me – pretend I’m not there) are black and Hispanic. The only white mom there is not there to get any kind of help, she’s there to graciously offer her help with breastfeeding, something that she probably was able to keep up for a while due to either a) not working and being supported by her spouse, or b) having a white collar job that allows pumping breaks. She’s not a former WIC recipient who wants to give back; she’s never been on the receiving end of the benefit mill, but she wants to be on the giving end.

When I was a teenager in middle-class white suburbia, I wouldn’t have seen a problem with this. But now I do. I saw in that mom a previous version of myself, wanting to help people but totally clueless about class and race and my own privilege. Except she’s probably at least twenty years older than my teenaged self and still stuck there.

A lot of people are stuck there. I meet them every day. Like me, they are middle class, white, college-educated. But their current financial and living situations are different from mine. They live on the upscale side of town, I live on the side with the box stores and trailer parks. (And police. Lots of police.) They worry about their mortgage, I worry about our monthly heating bill. They can afford to complain about WIC’s paternalistic brand-policing and the fact that they won’t let you buy free-range eggs. (I don’t like it either, but my family needs to eat, so we eat the eggs that WIC pays for and we’re grateful for the help.) They may be aware of these differences in our situations, but they don’t feel the difference; I feel it. And that’s the point. It’s always the less privileged person that most feels the discrepancy, while the more privileged person insists that yes, the discrepancy is there, but it doesn’t really matter.

Breastfeeding counselors and others who work or volunteer at WIC (and other social service programs) should come from the communities they’re serving. Ideally, they’ve gotten help from these programs themselves. Breastfeeding is a sensitive issue. When a married white mom who’s worked in managerial positions gives breastfeeding advice to a Latina single mom who works at Walmart, hurtful things are likely to be said despite the best intentions, because the person giving the advice hasn’t been there and doesn’t get it. And she won’t realize that what she said was hurtful. She won’t even remember saying it. She might know a lot about breastfeeding, but she doesn’t know much about breastfeeding as a single mom who works at Walmart.

Higher Education =/= More Intelligence.

Good Intentions =/= Understanding a Situation.

Being low-income sucks, but I’m grateful for the perspective it’s given me. I also realize that my educational background gives me a better chance of eventually getting into a higher income bracket than my neighbors have, which means that I don’t truly grasp or experience the reality of poverty that they experience. I’m realizing that I’m still that clueless would-be helpful person when it comes to race issues. That’s an area where I need to shut up and listen.

Most of us could stand to do a lot less trying to save and a lot more shutting up and listening in areas where we are privileged.

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