Crossing Class Divides for Allies | Friday Keynote | WPC-14


Notes & Copyright

Keynote: Crossing Class Divides for Allies

Speaker: Betsy Leondar-Wright | Friday, April 12, 2013

Leondar-Wright is a professional middle-class ally against classism. Starts speech out with a slideshow illustrating class bias. First slide is an image of a flyer in MA — has a back-view picture of a slovenly, fat man in a too-short shirt and ill-fitting pants with his butt crack and belly hanging out. He’s wearing a baseball cap, has whiskers, and has a piece of grass/ straw hanging out his mouth. The text says, “Don’t let the rednecks ruin our schools and cripple our library.”

Leondar-Wright states that white working class men get a bad rap from liberals and progressives. She says liberal voters tend to blame our social issues on white working class men because of the very small (but loud!) subset who vote conservative/ tea party/ republican, and hold racist, sexist views. She reminds us that they are a subset, though, and a small one at that, and that there are many potential social justice allies among the working class.

Though white, working class men are stereotyped as racist or bigoted, they are in fact more likely to have diverse workplaces than middle class professionals are. Furthermore, white professionals in positions of power are the ones who have the ability to perpetuate institutional racism/ sexism/ classism, not working class men.

Leondar-Wright talked about the language of classism; how people insult or compliment each other by referring to class. Insults include calling or comparing someone to a redneck, low-life, white trash, or trailer trash. We often compliment someone by saying they are/ did something classy or are a class act.

On, they have a contest for the most classist comment of the year, and we might be surprised by how often liberals/ progressives win. In 2004, the most classist comments were chosen when a Halliburton truck driver was detained in Iraq. The liberals and progressives blew up news stories and comment threads attacking the trucker for working for Halliburton. Many blamed the trucker, saying it was his own fault for “choosing” to work for Halliburton and stating that if he was beheaded or tortured it would serve him right. The trucker was working for Halliburton because his wife needed surgery and it was the only good-paying job he could find — this didn’t matter to the libs/progs, who felt he should have quit and that he’d brought his misfortune upon himself by working for such a company.

 Levels of classism

  1. Cultural
  2. Interpersonal
  3. Institutional

Leondar-Wright points out that classism is the insult that justifies the injury. Blaming the victim for their economic state. She says income inequality is growing while class mobility is shrinking. People born into working class families are more likely to still be working class when they die. She laid some statistics down on us.

Faces of Poverty

  • 13% of whites live in poverty.
  • 35% of blacks live in poverty.

 Number of families born into poverty in 2011

  • Whites > 4 million in poverty (most poor families are white, because the population in the US is still predominantly white)
  • Blacks < 2 million in poverty
  • Latinos < 2 million in poverty

[Personal Note: The percentage of poverty/ impact of poverty is higher for the populations of color because there are fewer people of color per capita in the US. Basically, imagine a sample population of 3,000 people. If 2,000 of the population are white, 500 are black, and 500 are Hispanic, the ratios of poverty would be 260 white people (out of 2,000) living in poverty, 175 black people (out of 500) and 175 Latino people (out of 500) living in poverty. There’s a lower percentage of whites in poverty, but a higher population density to draw from — the disparate impact of communities of color increases the percentage of PoC living in poverty.] 

Education is supposed to be how we level the playing field; it’s supposed to be the key to mobility. It is not. Schools are funded through property taxes, which means poorer kids get poorer schools, and wealthy kids get better schools. Elite and private colleges admit more students from the top 2% of wealth in this country than from the bottom 50%. At four year colleges with no class affirmative action policy, poorer applicants of all races get NO lift relative to the more affluent applicants.

Racial affirmative action slots are filled with elite foreign students of color or students of color from wealthy families. Working class students — both of color and white — are routinely discriminated against.

For example, legacy admissions. Legacy admissions are blatant classism. Children of alumni make up 1 – 25% of the student body at selective colleges. This is more than the amount of students allowed in from racial affirmative action, athletic scholarships, and geographic admissions combined.

Leondar-Wright urges us to look into the legacy policy at our colleges and make it a scandal if one exists. If legacy admissions were abolished, there would be many open slots.

Leondar-Wright says that just as reaching a world w/o classism requires eliminating racism, uprooting racism requires tackling class and classism. Says our default culture is the middle class culture, and this creates bias in our organizations to their very bones. Middle class professionals run the non-profits, are placed on boards, run businesses, are the management and supervisors, and hold the power: These are college educated middle class people who run things. People with high school diplomas or Associate of Arts degrees are made support staff, with little or no input into the policies and voice of the organization. If a working class voice is wanted or needed, they are often brought on as unpaid advisors. The middle class professionals say, “We want to hear your voice,” and bring them on as unpaid support.

This practice is defended by claiming that college education confers certain skills that are needed. She allows this may be true in some cases, but asks why we don’t train people within our organizations, instead of requiring them to have a degree.

Leondar-Wright points out that approaches to eradicating racism are often infused with professional middle class culture. For instance, the language we use in talking about racism.

Racism frame: Bigotry.

The implied cause of bigotry is prejudice, discrimination, and hate that is caused by institutionalized white supremacy.

The implied solution is increased education and awareness.

She points out that it’s saturated in the language introduced in college classes. The working class is discriminated against as being white supremacists. Anti-racist activists use language that alienates and discriminates against the working class by implicitly and explicitly blaming them for the perpetuation of racism and discrimination.

She says we also need to lose the college jargon. Language like, “supremacy,” “imperialism”, “hegemony,” “neoliberal,” and “white privilege” are terms learned and predominantly used in college classes. She asks the audience to consider why saying, “white privilege” might be a bad idea when addressing working class and poor people?

Because privilege also means wealth and luxury, and that is the definition most people are familiar with. The concept of privilege as discussed in college classrooms by middle class progressives and liberals is completely different. A white working class person will hear the word “privilege” and think “luxury”, and they are very aware of the lack of luxury in their own lives. To have a middle class college guy telling a working class guy that he’s privileged is just . . . insulting.

She then asked the attendees how we would describe this conference to working class friend without using the words “privilege” or “supremacy,” or any of those types of terms.

[Personal Note: I would say, “It was this thing where a bunch of like-minded people got together to talk about racism and how it effects everyone in society, and to come up with ways that white people and black people can recognize and combat racism as allies.”]

Leondar-Wright points out that as tough as this economy has been for poor white people, it’s been ever harder for people of color. This is a reality the working class white male can relate to.

In college classes, they tell us to take the emotion out of our voice. They tell us to remove personal stories from our writing, and encourage us to use big words and new concepts. Leondar-Wright points out that these are bad communication practices no matter who you’re talking to; they are alienating.

She talks about how in her book, they share personal family stories. For instance, she talks a lot about her dad, a WWII veteran who benefited from the GI Bill, and uses that to segue into talking about how vets of color were excluded from GI bill benefits. She says we need something in this country like that GI Bill again, but this time for everyone.

Language isn’t the only issue, though. It’s also about our practices, how we “do diversity.” There are ways we practice diversity that work well in professional middle class settings, but bomb in working class settings. For instance:

A company held a “Diversity Day” at all their offices and stores. The professional middle class staff loved it, but the low level working class staff groaned at the idea of spending a day just talking about it. They wanted to know why the company needed one dedicated day; why they couldn’t just start doing the right thing. The concept of a diversity day was one brainstormed, proposed, and implemented by white middle class college educated professionals. Working class people often feel that middle class allies spend a lot of time talking and not a lot of time doing.

A certain town had an LGBT group founded by black and white working class gay men. They were representing the LGBT movement in the community. The middle class college educated members of the LGBT community felt that the working class men were not representing the LGBT community well. They said the working class men were unprofessional and made the movement look bad. Ultimately, the working class men were replaced by middle class college-educated white professional who had “diversity skills.” This example highlights how middle class professionals often see working class people as incapable of speaking for themselves or fixing their own problems: they do not believe the people who have the problem possess the skills or knowledge to fix the problem.

She then introduced four typical professional middle class approaches to diversity that bomb with working class people.

Ideological litmus tests.

Ex: A professional middle class group working on a social justice issue wanted to limit membership in the group to people who shared their exact ideological values (for instance, a group of gay atheists insisting any gays in their group also had to be atheists). Working class people are baffled by the intentional exclusion of potential allies.

Over emphasis on racism as internal dynamics.

Ex: Professional middle class people tend to talk about racism problems in the organization or workplace they’re in, rather than on a larger social scale.

More talk than action.

Working class people see the professional middle class allies as having too much of an emphasis on workshops and special sessions to discuss the issues, and too little on actual action.

Ideal of “interrupting” oppression.

The white ideal of interrupting or calling out oppression. The working class says the calling-out culture (which they see as finger pointing) stems from elite educated activists feeling entitled to sit in the seat of judgment and critique other.

This doesn’t mean we should stop calling out oppressive and discriminatory speech, but instead of getting lecture-y, we need to connect and relate. Connect before correct. Use human connections and respect to make your point, don’t talk down to people.

Then she lists some strengths from the working class heroes who are something to be. (song reference is my addition). They show understanding of the action behind how changes happens. They show strength and solidarity.

  • Emphasize discrimination in wider society, not only within group culture — the harms done in society as a whole.
  • Focus on concrete action with outcomes that benefit a particular people of color. Everyone is enthusiastic about concrete action with visible results.
  • Discussions of racism need to be integrated into working meetings, not just special workshops. In a working meeting, introduce brief mentions of oppression or discrimination in everyday language.
  • Be attentive to preserving the unity of the group; form a larger shared context of shared goals and solidarity.
  • If you disagree with someone and call them out, use camaraderie language, ie: “Hey, man, that wasn’t cool. That was actually really messed up. I love ya, but you gotta cut that shit out.”

She finishes her speech by encouraging us to draw on old labor movement activist traditions of brotherhood, friendship, and solidarity — all for one and one for all.

[Personal Note| added 2015: I remember that I had been feeling a vague sense of frustration with the conference until I heard Leondar-Wright’s speech. I walked out of her keynote with tears streaming down my face. It felt raw and personal, like hope and possibility. A speaker at this conference who actually offered an active solution for changing the future together, as brothers and sisters with arms linked together in solidarity. It felt like someone who recognized that classism was the real enemy, and race was a tool being used by the elitists to arbitrarily divide us and pit us one against the other; as it had been since colonial times. She was the first person at the conference who seemed to actually be talking about the effect of classism on race, and it was incredible.]


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