The Reading: Race vs. Class
”By now you’ve noticed that I am….a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), from a family with plenty of socio-economic advantage. I worry that some white readers will quickly conclude: This story has nothing to do with me. My family wasn’t wealthy or WASPy.”
Ah-ha! Looks like we might be getting to that place I wanted to find. It’s not so much that I think this story “has nothing to do with me.” My challenge lies elsewhere. I can absolutely see many layers of privilege in my life today. But those privileges are a direct contrast to life in my childhood. They are about money and class – not about color.
In examining this topic, I am often advised to take it back down to the roots – to look at how my childhood privilege shaped my life. While I am able to do this for my adulthood, I am thoroughly unable to find that hook into ‘privilege’ in my childhood.
People talk about how the fact of “being white” impacts interactions with law enforcement – and I remember my first encounter with a police officer: the day Detective Nakamura (the one who eventually sent my brother to a reform-school camp in another state) stood at our front door and threatened to call Child Services and have me taken away.
They trot out the “you can go into a store without being followed by store security” and I remember the security guy at Kmart following me around. At JC Penny, Sears – same thing. And the cashier at the 7-11 near my house, the one we lived in for third grade. Forty years later, even though I can afford it, I still don’t shop at Macy’s – because I can’t spend more than about five minutes in the store without getting twitchy looking for the person who is going to throw me out.
The author describes a situation in which a highly regarded black scholar is mistaken for the ‘help’ and handed someone’s coat check, saying that she has never heard of that happening to a white person. As a white woman in technology, I have been assumed to be the clerical staff, the coffee girl, the cleaning staff – in fact, the only thing I have never automatically been assumed to be was a technician. (It has been different since I rose to a leadership role. While I am clearly still an “outsider” – wrong language, wrong clothes, wrong manners, wrong attitude, wrong belief, wrong charity connection, wrong hobby – I am no longer mistaken for the custodial staff.)
These things that they say are indicators of racial bias are things I have been on the wrong side of based not on color but on gender and class (all that ‘knowing the right word or phrase’ and ‘having the right hobbies or manners’ stuff is deeply rooted in “never having been in the environment most of these folks assume as the default”).
(Interestingly, on the day I sat down to write this, a news site I read posted an article about how class makes a difference in the workplace – access to certain jobs, access to promotions and opportunities. I read along, nodding my head at nearly every paragraph.)
“I’ve often heard people debate the entangled relationship between race and class. “Which one is the real issue?” people ask…I’ve wondered myself how much my socioeconomic advantage versus my skin color advantage shaped my life and skewed my worldview. I’ve come to believe it’s not an either/or issue. Both are real, and both matter. Trying to determine which one is the “real” issue does a disservice to both…Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the person experiencing it.”
Well, I disagree a little with that last statement – though I understand and support the sentiment behind it. To me, they are both “real” issues.
The author goes on to discuss the interrelationship in terms of “intersectionality” – the place where multiple types of oppression overlap or meet. And this, I think, is the spot where my own experience makes me see the world differently. I don’t know if that difference is right or wrong – it’s just the way the world has appeared in my eyes.
To me, these were never separate things. What my childhood taught me is the division of the world into “haves” and “have-nots” – class. The “other stuff,” it seemed to me, is just the tools that “haves” use to make sure they stay where they are, and most people can’t join them.
Skin color is a nice, easy way to lump people together. So racism is a terrific way to sweep a whole group of people into the lower classes en masse, and maintain the class/control system.
Once you have dumped all the black people into that waste-bin of society, and made some rules to make it near-impossible to climb out, then you make a bin for the brown people.
And if there are still too many people that might have a chance to ruin your fun, then you look for other ways – education, customs and etiquette, expensive and visibly-branded clothes – to identify the folks who could “pass” as worthy just based on appearance, and shove them off the ledge, too.
So my experience wasn’t “whether you’re in the bin” but “which bin you got shoved into.” And when people ask me to look for and find the innate advantages I received from “not being in the bin with the black people,” the best response I can come up with is “my dumpster didn’t look cleaner or less rusty than theirs.”
“An element of class you’ll notice in my story is the persistent sense of needing to “help” and “fix.” These characteristics are considered by many to be trademarks of the dominant class.
Yeah, I totally have this. In my case, I have to wonder if it is a ‘dominant culture’ attribute. I don’t negate that it is one, overall – it just doesn’t seem to have been a cultural absorption for me.
When I was very young, I was a “gifted” student. Back in the 70s there was a huge rush of ill-conceived programs for kids who scored well on tests. They mostly amounted to “keeping us busy so we wouldn’t get bored.” We’d be taken out of class for an hour or so a day to do something like square dancing or macramé, and then given extra or harder homework. But what I learned from these programs was that the faster you could tick the box, the more time they would leave you alone and let you read something useful in the corner.
When I reached the workforce, I learned that “ticking the boxes” was the skill needed to survive. If you did everything on the checklist, it was harder for people to mess with you. I say that and I believe it, though I do note with irony that my first job ended when the theater manager walked into my projection booth one night and stuck his tongue down my throat. (I was 16.) I objected – and was just “never scheduled for hours” again. Sometimes, even when you finish the checklist, it’s not enough.
What I later learned was that if you made it possible for someone else to tick their boxes, people messed with you less. It wouldn’t keep people like that manager from messing with you – but if other people found you valuable, it might keep him from vengefully eliminating you. Ticking the boxes would let me keep a job. When I accidentally ended up working in computers, “fixing the problem so others could work” was not only the source of my value, it was my checklist.
When that started working in my professional life, I developed a tendency to do it in my personal life as well. So yeah, I’m a fixer – but it wasn’t something I developed as a kid. Rather, it was the evolution that made it possible for me to keep jobs – and eventually, to advance. So, is it that I didn’t develop that ‘as a part of my culture”? Or is it just that, until I entered the workforce, “my culture” didn’t overlap a lot with “the culture of the white people who run things?”
As I began to learn about “antiracism” (as opposed to just “not being a racist”), I learned about the ‘fixer’ element to the racialized environment. I work to dampen that impulse in non-tech-related conversations, and to exercise it in interpersonal situations only when someone is clear that they are coming to me for advice or guidance. No matter where it originates, the impact is the same.
But that feels like a bit of a sham. I’m mitigating a behavior that is seen as “based in dominant culture.” But for me it’s a learned survival behavior. So holding that up as “something I am doing as part of these efforts” feels like a bit of a false flag, since it isn’t my cultural indoctrination I am fighting or breaking away from.
The Study Question
Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director of Class Action, suggests these categories as a way of thinking about class:
Professional Middle Class
How would you characterize your parents’ class?
Dad: Working Class or maybe Lower-Middle Class, by the time I moved to Washington to live with him when I was 16.
Your grandparents class?
Don’t know. I met my father’s mother a couple of times when I was very young but don’t know enough about her life circumstances to assess. My mother’s mother visited us off and on, but I never really saw her in her own home environment. From what I’ve heard, in my Dad’s childhood his parents were poverty-working class. They were migrant laborers, travelling from farm to farm to pick crops in season (his dad did carpentry and woodwork outside of harvest season).
Your class as a child?
Your class now?
Professional Middle Class, on the edges of Upper Middle Class (the author didn’t give definitions for these distinctions, so I am not sure which side of that line I would fall on)
What messages did you get about race in each?
Living in non-white neighborhoods: that white people are bad and should be beaten up
Living in white neighborhoods it was more about classism and the clear knowledge that I didn’t belong
Living in Navy neighborhoods: brown-skinned women were more attractive and wanted (by grown-ups). Other than that, people didn’t talk about your skin – they talked about whether you could do the job, and they could rely on you.
Living with Dad: the occasional reference in conversation, when our next-door-neighbors were over playing cards or whatever, that the neighbors sometimes had to deal with problems from people who didn’t like that they were married (a black man and a white woman). Other than “when there was a problem” to comment on, race wasn’t a subject. It wasn’t avoided – it just wasn’t conversation-worthy. But then, for the most part, the only things that were “conversation worthy” were those things in which Dad could take the position of authority. I learned a lot from him, but it was purely lecture-hall seating. Questioning, disagreeing, or even having an opinion that differed from his in any way was a sure path to getting shouted at, at best.
I moved to live with my dad the summer before my junior year of high school. The first dance I went to at that school was with a Filipino boy. Dad’s only comment was to tease me about the fact that he was even shorter than I was.
So yeah – for me, it was always more about class than about race. But I am hopeful that as I continue to read I will find something that enables me to see the advantages that “just being white” brought into my life from the start.