This post is responding in part to Lee Pera’s excellent, honest, and compassionate piece ‘“Everyone’s Welcome’: The facade of the tiny house movement,” and the conversations her article has provoked. Read it if you haven’t!
I’ve been thinking and writing about the way privilege operates in the tiny house movement for a long time. A few examples of inequality built into the movement can be seen in the simple fact that it requires a lot of money to acquire or build a tiny house, and, in most places, you must own the land where the tiny is parked to be able to live in one at all. Only recently, however, has my scholarship on the movement been explicitly tied to whiteness. I have been thinking about how property acts a form of whiteness, as a manifestation and reinforcement of white privilege (albeit a reinforcement that, just like studs on a house, is often made invisible). Property functioning as an anchor for the shifting social construction of whiteness is nothing new. Claims of white supremacy were used to justify enslaving black people as property, or stealing land from native peoples under the same rationale. Cheryl Harris famously articulated whiteness as property back in 1993 and, in 1998, George Lipsitz developed his now formative idea of the possessive investment in whiteness. Both of these scholars note how whiteness is a form of property-privilege, just like wealth or education, and it is a self-reinforcing one: if a person is white-presenting, statistics have it that a good education, political power, social status, gratifying work, and even the power to shape and narrate their own history is more easily accessed… and, for the tiny house movement in particular, access to decent housing and asset accumulation correlates with a person’s racial category. A person’s “whiteness” was the necessary precondition to owning property. And though who is labeled white has shifted over time, the logic of private property was the foundation for defining who did and did not count as white, and thus who was able to own property. Property made people White and their whiteness confers the right of title. See the circle? A fancy word for that is tautology. Property-White-Property, ad infinitum.
Let’s be clear. All this talk about whiteness does not mean that white people do not experience systemic disadvantage like poverty. In fact, it is central part of whiteness to help white people believe in both the myth of meritocracy (therefor what is due them has been stolen) and that their disadvantages are due to other people, instead of systems of inequality. It functions by telling disaffected white folks that their hardships are due to concerns for “equality” as they appear in affirmative action or identity politics, instead of disadvantages due to structures of capitalism and colonialism that have always been interested in consolidation of power to benefit an elite few. Those elite are mostly white, mostly male, and mostly believe that they have legitimately earned everything they have achieved. Some may have. Whiteness does not mean all white people earn more than their share, or that all white people are treated fairly. Whiteness means that our current political, social, and economic systems have been built on THEFT of labor and land through slavery and genocide. The original beneficiaries of these thefts were white men. They had children, those folks had children, and generational wealth and power are real things – not perfectly systematic things, but systematic things nonetheless, built in to the systems that structure our lives (even the literal structures we live in). Not every person who is a police officer is a bad cop, not all legal codes aim to repeat and protect injustice, but both the police (originally the militia) and the law were originally conceived to secure wealth and power for white men, secure their right to enslave and to dispossess. Those original goals still express themselves. This is why #takeaknee is more offensive to some than a knee in the back of Freddy Grey. This is why “The president of the United States has condemned a football player more harshly than white nationalists. That’s why he’s a white supremacist.” Because the belief that “white people” are superior – white supremacy – is a foundational part of the US nation-state. Sometimes it is bafflingly overt. But sometimes it is insidious. Sometimes it is hidden in building codes or home loan policy – this recent article by Matthew Desmond speaks to these bureaucratic and institutional forms with great detail and clarity. Or, if you’re more in to the football strain of things, Spurs Coach Greg Popovich has something to say here.
Which brings me back to the tiny house movement, and some important conversations that have been happening in the communities to which I belong. The compassionate and committed Lee Pera of Boneyard Studios published this thoughtful and difficult piece on Medium. It has generated a lot of discussion, and a LOT of pushback, anger, and empty attacks. Thankfully, I have witnessed many counter this anger with patient and kind concern. I am really proud of this community for starting some of these difficult discussions about race, and for people interrupting white supremacy in whatever form. Thoughtful talk about race, privilege, whiteness, and justice must happen more and more and more.
I think it’s important that we remember that the tiny house movement, and tiny house communities everywhere, ARE political – we are hoping to work against systems of economic inequality, un-wise, un-fair, and nonsensical regulations and codes, and imagine different ways of living. ALL of that attention to systems, and the critique of systems that we live under, is at the very core of tiny house movement. We are BUILT to pay critical attention to the systems that we live in. It is time to expand the tiny house movement’s critique of economic inequality, capitalism, and corporate wealth to include issues of race. We are ready, we are response-able. Our communities are political. period. And I LOVE that about us.
Image courtesy of Lee Pera and Boneyard Studios