Andrew Smiler speculates about how, when, and why social class can trump racism and sexism.
You may have seen stories about three white undergraduates who filed discrimination charges against their African-American professor because she devoted some time in her Introduction to Communications course to teach about structural racism. In Katie McDonough’s description of the incident, she describes the students as frustrated, feeling attacked, and becoming defensive because this topic appears in course after course.
Most of the responses I’ve seen have talked about white (and male) privilege, like this piece from a somewhat frustrated Olivia Cole. To really understand what’s going on here, I think we need to take a closer look at who these guys are. Or, probably are. As far as I can tell, they haven’t been named publicly. That means I’m going to rely heavily on the averages and assume they’re typical members of their groups.
As community college students, the odds say that neither of their parents graduated from a 4 year college. It’s distinctly possible that neither of their parents received any type of formal education beyond high school. Given that we’re talking about white guys, the odds are pretty good that at least one, if not both, of their parents are high school graduates. As long as they’re typical in this way, then their parents probably work in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs that don’t pay very well. There’s some chance that one or both parents are particularly good with their hands and ended up in a field that pays well, like plumbing, but that’d be the minority of such families.
In other words, these guys probably grew up in a working class family, possibly one that lived a middle-class life but possibly one that lived paycheck to paycheck and had no savings. There’s also a reasonable chance they grew up near or below the poverty line, especially if they lost a parent to death or divorce. Because their parents didn’t have desk jobs, there’s a greater likelihood that one or both will have experienced some type of disabling workplace accident.
Now I’d like you to imagine that you’re this boy. Maybe you’re growing up near the poverty line, maybe you’re struggling to qualify as and stay in the middle class. Or lower middle class.
Your family doesn’t have much in the way of extra money, so you’ve probably had a part-time job during the school year since you were legally old enough to work. Decades of research tells us that kids who work at least 10 hours per week have poorer grades than their peers who don’t work, and grades continue to take a hit as the hours worked increases. So let’s assume a C average. Possibly straight Cs, possibly some combination of Bs, Cs, and Ds. You may have even failed a course at some point.
Summer definitely meant full time employment.
College probably wasn’t the primary thing on your post-high school radar. In fact, it may not have been on the radar at all. If it was on the radar, odds are you—or one of your siblings—would be the first one in your family to graduate from a 4 year school.
Cost would be a major factor, needless to say. Merit scholarships based on grades clearly weren’t going to happen, so the options are paying out of pocket, taking out loans, or getting grants. Although there are all sorts of grants, there are a large number of grants that are reserved for historically marginalized groups, particularly girls and non-Whites. At some point, you’d have probably been told that there aren’t any scholarships reserved for White boys like you. Your mom may have even qualified for micro-credit or other such things that your dad wasn’t eligible for because she was a woman.
As an American teen, you’d have grown up hearing about and learning about people of color and you’d probably understand that “race” = “color.” In school, you’d learn the simple definition of racism: discrimination against a group of people based on their skin color. You probably didn’t have structured conversations about white culture, acknowledge the things that make white culture unique, or talk about how white culture differs from mainstream American culture. As a result, you’d believe that race and ethnicity are primarily about other people, not you. But you’d understand the principle that people should not be treated differently based on their skin color.
You’d have had similar experiences regarding sexism. You’d have learned that “gender” = “female” (and possibly trans). You’d have learned that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their gender and you may have had special sections in your textbooks that highlighted famous women, but never special sections about famous men. As a result, you’d believe that gender is about other people, not you, and you’d understand that people shouldn’t be treated differently based on their genitalia.
On average, the less educated an individual is, the more likely he is to be racist and sexist (as well as homophobic, but that’s not relevant to this story). You’ve probably heard at least one male relative—your father, an uncle, a brother, or a cousin—go off about a job he “should have” gotten but didn’t because a non-White man or a woman got because of equal employment laws. For convenience, we’ll call him uncle Bob. To you, it probably doesn’t really matter if the person who got “Uncle Bob’s job” was actually more qualified (and you’ve got no way to know). Uncle Bob is family, he’s sitting in your living room, and he’s very upset.
As a white male, you’d have been told that you benefitted from centuries of discrimination against blacks and women. But as a white guy born in 1993—assuming these guys are 20 years old—your low financial status prevents you from seeing most of those benefits.
Feminists have long known that the system called Patriarchy does not treat all men equally. The more closely you fit the desired version of masculinity, the more patriarchal benefits you get; the farther you are from that image, the fewer benefits you get. American Patriarchy favors the rich. For white boys growing up near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, their Patriarchal privilege mostly consists of things like not being followed while shopping in nicer stores and not being arrested while waiting for the bus. Those are pretty subtle things to notice; doing so takes a lot of work and effort.
Now imagine that you’re in yet another community college class talking about structural racism. You can hear the professor talking about US history and these hard to see forces, but it doesn’t really fit with the reality of your life or your parents’ lives. Because friendship across social class lines is rare, every family you know is struggling, regardless of their color. In our globalized economy, there aren’t enough American jobs to go around, let alone good paying jobs.
The women in your family—mom, aunts, grandmothers—have always worked, typically in low paying jobs; no man in your family has ever really made enough money to support a non-working spouse. Although your family may have caught a break here or there, nothing related to money, education, or property has ever really come easy. Then there are stories like Uncle Bob’s. And as a member of the lower classes, you’d have been discriminated against because of your financial status.
So you’re sitting in class and the professor is talking about structural racism (or sexism). You decide this is BS and you’ve had enough. Conceptually, you get it: discrimination based on skin color or genitalia is wrong. The laws that encoded that were wrong and needed to be changed. From your vantage point, that’s all history, in the same way the Kennedy assassination is history. None of it seems to have any direct contact with your life, even if your prof says it does.
After class, you talk to a few of your friends and learn they feel the same way. Together, you start to wonder who is speaking up for you. You know about organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women. You know there are all sorts of scholarships and programs for people of color and for girls, but none for whites, boys, or especially white boys.
At some point, you go online. There, you discover some “White Identity” sites and groups; if you read enough of their material—and sometimes that doesn’t take long—you may learn many have roots that trace back to the KKK or neo-Nazis. There’s a reason the Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI tend to categorize these organizations as hate groups.
You might also find websites from the self-labelled “Men’s Rights Movement.” Many of these websites and its leaders are clearly and angrily opposed to women’s progress and women’s rights.
I don’t think any of these things excuse the behavior of these three boys. But after 50 years of race based civil rights work and 40 years of gender based civil rights work, the fact that three white male students see themselves as discriminated against should tell us something. It’s hard to believe they’re the first—or the only—young white men to feel this way.
For me, the take-away is that we need to do more around class-ism or, as it’s now being called, economic inequality. When both the Pope and the President of the United States mention that topic in a two week span, you know it’s important. In the US, we haven’t had meaningful conversations about social class since LBJ launched the “War on Poverty” forty-five years ago.
Some of the statistics are staggering. In the US, the number of well-paying industrial and manufacturing jobs—the kinds of jobs that can lift families without college educations out of poverty—have almost completely moved out of the country over the last 40 years. As automation has increased, we’ve lost both skilled and unskilled jobs. Large numbers of adults aren’t working in the fast food industry for minimum wage because it’s a great job; for them, it’s the only job. Do they really “deserve” minimum wage? Do their kids deserve to live in poverty because their parents have skills that aren’t valued in our corner of the global economy?
Income inequality is a big part of the reason why nearly 1 in 5 American kids is going hungry. In the richest country in the world, 20% of kids are going hungry. What the heck?
Talking and teaching about social class is key here because it interacts—or “intersects”—with racism and sexism to radically change the way people experience and perceive each of these issues. For these three community college students, class trumps the other two. It’s time for us to start hearing their voices, the voices of the barely-making it, the working poor, and the deeply impoverished. We need to hear those voices both with and without regard to their color or gender.
Just as we’ve spent the last several decades checking and discussing our assumptions regarding color and gender, we need to start checking our assumptions about social class. We need to get past the notion that they’re all lazy; you think someone who spends 40 hours a week flipping burgers is lazy? The vast majority of poor and working class people I’ve met embody the American ideals of working hard and trying to lift yourself up by your bootstraps. They know they’re fighting an uphill battle, but because we don’t talk about class and we don’t have advocacy groups working to break down class barriers, the hill doesn’t get any flatter. If anything, it’s getting steeper.
If we really want to end racism (and sexism), it’s time to start talking seriously about class-ism. We’ve left it on the back burner for much too long.
[author addendum: The goal of this essay was to help me – and possibly you, as reader – understand how these guys might thought about the situation. I was not and am not saying that their perspective is correct or somehow trumps the reality of discrimination that people of color have faced and continue to face in the U.S. Rather, it’s about what we -and I include myself because this is some of the work that I do – might have somehow missed or not effectively communicated.]
-photo by Elvert Barnes/flickr