I’m writing this as a distraction from checking in on the election results. It’s mostly directed at educated white liberals who insist on seeing this close election as evidence that 50% of the population are racists. I am arguing for greater compassion and empathy, and meeting people where they are at cuz calling someone a racist on the internet doesn’t actually have a material effect in the world, but shaming and ostracizing a person we decide is racist does. Racial and economic justice are not incompatible – they are inseparable! And unless our imagination stops at inclusion – a few more scholarships, a handful more vouchers – we need to talk more effectively about class and listen more effectively to the ways class is experienced at the intersection of all our identities – no matter who wins this election. I’m not interested in proving a theory, but I welcome thoughtful questions, comments, and discussion.
The first time that I felt my peers exert their invisible class power on me I was twenty years old, but I did not understand it that way when it happened. I had left my small New Jersey hometown with its shitty taunts of “DYKE!!”, affected southern accents, social pregnancy, and exploding drug use a few days after graduating high school. I wasn’t just escaping the boom-and-bust casino economy, but an abusive and highly unstable childhood and adolescence. I was smart enough to go to college, but my bouts of depression, extremely low expectations from my parents and teachers, and fear of going massively into debt at such a young age kept me out. While I didn’t see much use for a university education, I was a curious and critical thinker, devouring books about history and political science before I had any idea that those were departments one might find on a college campus. When I moved to the city and made friends with other poorly-dressed activists, I naively assumed we were all in the same boat. I did not know what “Goddard”, “Wesleyan”, “Oberlin”, or “Sarah Lawrence” meant. Two years into my city life, I fell afoul and did something publicly racist. The details aren’t important, but I can assure you that I was definitely in the wrong, and that I did not know I was wrong because I had not yet learned how or why I was wrong.
I had grown up in a mostly white small town, but the church my family went to three times a week was in the mostly Black small town next door, so the most important institution of my childhood was integrated, if imperfectly. I grew up in the 1980s as a “colorblind” white kid that evolved into a proto-anti-racist by high school after reading The People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me, which gave me some early critical thinking tools that our twenty-year-old text books did not have. After a senior year spent rotating two beds and a couch among my mother, sister, and brother, in a tiny Section 8 apartment in the “bad” part of town, I was thrilled to finally have my own bedroom and friends that “really cared” about the world. When I committed my sin, these “friends” – nearly all of them white – scheduled a fishbowl at a community space, wherein they sat in a circle around me and told me how racist I was. Some of them cried during their testimony because I had hurt them with my racism. Others made art projects and banned me from their collectives because I had made them feel “unsafe”. The ultimate verdict was that I should be re-educated in a “reading group” about my white privilege. The group was very forthcoming about all the many books and articles that needed to be on the reading list – they were so SMART when it came to racism! I humbled myself, read the required readings, and attended the reading group. I waited awkwardly in a collective house that I was banned from for nearly two hours, but nobody else showed up for the discussion. I was already “cancelled” socially, so there was little need for them to breathe the same air as a racist. I should be grateful that this happened in 2000 and not 2020, because I would have been doxxed on top of being excommunicated.
This episode was the most painful thing I had experienced since leaving home, particularly because my childhood made it extremely difficult to love myself or to trust people enough to form safe attachments. The social ostracization affirmed all the dark stories in my heart and I eventually did what I always do when a situation becomes too painful – I leave. I left the neighborhood, the “community”, and activism for a long time. I became a line cook, working the kind of poorly-paid exhausting schedule that precludes a person from thinking all that much about activism. A few years later and 250 miles from my inquisitors, I found myself taking classes at a community college. Having just discovered Sociology as a field of research, I excitedly signed up for a Race and Ethnicity class. Taught by a professor who navigated the US as both a Black man and an immigrant, the class challenged us to remain curious in our discomfort. He expected a lot from each of us that was not about reading the right things or using the correct vocabulary, but about digging into our own ancestral histories and inherited assumptions with new tools and fresh eyes. In that patient context I came to understand what white privilege meant – and it certainly did not mean that having white skin or European heritage was inherently evil. Before taking that class, I had understood racism purely in the negative – that colonialism and slavery were horribly violent historical events that were fought for by some bad racist white people; that the Civil Rights Movement was fought against the leftover racists in the South after the Civil War. I did not have a clear understanding of how we got from Reconstruction to racially segregated islands of poverty and prosperity. I never asked why, and so my default as a white person in a mostly white town – watching the mostly white evening news throughout the height of the War on Drugs – was a paternalistic sympathy for a mysterious “other”.
Some of the white people I went to school with defaulted to an actively white supremacist position – their backpacks covered in whiteout Wolfsangels and Sig runes, throwing around the “n-word” at eachother (but always out of earshot from the Black students). I was against those people, naturally, but my correlation of racism with neonazis and hate crimes made it hard for me to take a step back and see the more widespread, more insidious ways that racism continued to unfold in our laws, public policies, health outcomes, media coverage, and even at the level of our consciousness. I would continue to read, listen, and learn about racism in the years that followed, but my point is that until I paid for and took a college class specifically on the topic of race, I did not have the vocabulary or analytic tools to understand what the hell those good non-racist (lol) white people were talking about in the fishbowl. Their performance of white allyship, perfected in the comfort of an expensive liberal arts education, was a shiny hammer in a world full of downwardly-mobile nails. This didn’t mean that I disagreed with their analysis of structural racism and white privilege. It just meant that I came to see them as assholes who would hopefully grow out of their classist and validation-seeking behaviors.
The invisible class privilege exerted by educated white liberals over poor and working class people is real and it is not popular to talk about. Obscured by correct vocabulary, important job titles, a meticulously-curated public persona, and the “class reductionist” trump card, elite liberals (in status, if not in wealth) seek to take class out of the situation because it benefits their careers and allows them to egotistically wield soft power over others. I don’t say this to trash liberals – as much as I love talking shit – but to expose their blind spots as adherents to meritocratic ideology. Their commitment to meritocracy is a huge stumbling block because it is concerned with slow – often symbolic – reforms and a polite status quo. It emphasizes individual success and bootstrapping instead of class-based connection and organizing. It renders collective change impractical – and then impossible. It gaslights us into thinking that we could all be respectable middle class liberals too, if only we worked as hard or were as naturally intelligent as they.
I am reminded of this shitty meme a lot of my friends shared in 2019. It said something along the lines of “I know it’s really hard to believe white privilege exists when you have made so little of yourself in spite of it”. I understood the frustration underlying a statement like that, but I also experienced it as a cheap stab whose main goal was to impart feelings of shame. Most of my middle class white peers assume I’m just like them because I managed to get a Masters Degree and have lived mostly in cities for the last twenty years. But in that process of flattening the “white experience”, the class-determined underlying conditions that disproportionately impact the lives of poor and working class people across the racial spectrum were erased: child abuse, mental illness, sexual assault, violence, low expectations, “maladaptive” coping mechanisms like drug and alcohol use, disability, dead-end service industry jobs, and poor health outcomes. Instead of feeling motivated to take further action in a fight for racial justice that bound me to my neighbors, that meme made me feel ashamed and resentful: fuck these pretentious twats, I thought. As much as the various trauma-informed therapeutic narratives tell us that oppression is not a contest, that people need to be met where they are at, that ideas are toxic (not people), and that people start to heal when they are heard, the typical way middle class liberals go about dealing with working class white subjectivity is anything but. But but but!!!!!!!!!…….
But we have to fight white supremacy! Yeah I hear that and I agree. Who besides the most committed racists want to live under a system of racial apartheid? And no, violent extremism is not the only manifestation of racism. And yes, white people have actively organized to thwart efforts towards civil rights and integration. But there is an enormous field of knowledge related to other people and cultures and history that people typically cannot access without a university education – this includes non-white poor and working class people. Educated liberals are so comfortable with performing their allyship during conference ice-breakers that the fact that anyone might feel alienated by such an activity is lost on them – unpacking their knapsack of privilege becomes a parlor game for the in-group. It reminds me a bit of the whole Qanon “Save the Children” fiasco. Aside from a cynical ploy to boost their own signal, this performance was actually about entrapping their political enemies: anyone who called out this ruse was labeled a pedo-sympathizer, effectively delegitimizing their very legitimate critique. And so it is with the educated liberals and racism: if a person does not engage in the public performance of owning the racists in the comments or if they don’t frame their current understanding with the correct vocabulary, they run the risk of being labeled a racist. And the labeling really isn’t the bad thing (sticks and stones may break my bones…), but the result of the labeling is a bad thing: a racist is forever trapped in that moment, publicly shamed in their ignorance, and given no opportunity to learn and grow. The liberal inquisitor gets to congratulate them self for being so good and right, but where does that leave their racist target who will go on existing after this exchange?