13 – Crossing Class Boundaries
Most of my formative years were spent in segregated black communities where our immediate neighbors were from diverse class backgrounds. Some folks were poor—just barely getting by and making ends meet. They lived in tiny railroad shacks and kept them neat and tidy. Then there were the working-class families like ours, with lots of hungry mouths to feed, so that even if fathers had good jobs like working in the coal mines, it could still be hard sometimes to make ends meet. If the women in these families worked they did service jobs—housecleaning, cooking, or working now and then in the tobacco fields or on the loosening floor. The lovely freshly painted houses in our neighborhood usually belonged to middle-class folks and the rare person with lots of money. They were schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, and undertakers.
If anyone suffered economic hardship in that world somebody knew and ways were found to share—to meet needs. In that small segregated world it was hard to keep secrets. At school teachers paid attention and they knew if a child was in need. At church everyone saw you. And if all else failed somebody would come by your house and see about you. Not (p143) all neighborhoods in the town were like ours; it was a place where folks knew each other’s business and often did not hesitate to put their nose in it if need be.
Our family was big, six girls, one boy, mom, and dad. Dad worked various jobs but the one he held for most of his adult life was as a janitor at the local post office. He began working this job when racial discrimination was still the norm, and white folks thought they were doing no wrong when they paid white workers a fair wage and black workers far less for doing the same job. Laws forbidding unfair practices changed this practice for those employees who worked for the state but continued in all cases where there was no system of checks and balances.
Even though dad worked hard, in our household there was never enough money because there were so many of us. Yet we never lacked the basic necessities of life. Mama cooked delicious food. We always had clean clothes. And even though the old house we lived in was expensive to heat and often cold in winter, we had shelter. We did not think about class. We thought about race. The boundaries of class could be crossed. At times class-based conflict surfaced, often over the desires middle-class schoolteachers had for their working- class and poor students that differed from parental desires. No matter our class we all lived in the same segregated world. We knew each other and we tried to live in community.
When I chose to attend a “fancy” college rather than a state school close to home, I was compelled to confront class differences in new and different ways. Like many working-class parents, my folks were often wary of the new ideas I brought into their lives from ideas learned at school or from books. They were afraid these fancy ideas like the fancy schools I wanted to attend would ruin me for living in the real world. At the time I did not understand that they were also afraid of me becoming a different person— someone who did not speak their language, hold on to their beliefs and their ways. They were working people. To them a good life was one where you worked hard, created a family, worshiped God, had the occasional good time, and lived day to day.
(p144) Even though I wanted to attend fancy schools, like the working class and poor around me, I shared these beliefs. I was not afraid to work hard. I just wanted to work in the world of ideas. That was hard for working people to understand. To them it made sense if you wanted to be a teacher because schoolteachers earned a decent living and were respected. Beyond that they could see no practical use for the learning one would get in a fancy school.
I suppose the first major class conflict of my life was my decision about where to go to college. It would have been easier for my family had I chosen to go to a state college near home where I might be awarded a full scholarship, where dorms were cheap, and required books could be checked out of libraries. I wanted to go to a fancy private college. And since my folks did not talk openly about money matters or speak freely of their fears that I would leave home and become a stranger to the world of my growing, I did not realistically consider what it would be like to cross the boundaries of class, to be the working- class girl attending the rich school. No wonder my parents feared for me and my fate. They could see what I could not see.
Against the will of my parents I decided to attend a fancy college far away from home. To attend this school I needed scholarships and loans. I had to work to buy books and there would be no coming home for the holidays because it required excess money we did not have. I wanted to attend this school because I had been told by a favorite teacher that it was a place for serious thinkers, where ideas were taken seriously. This teacher, an anti-racist white liberal who came from an upper- class background, did not talk to me about the issue of class.
It did not take long for me to understand that crossing class boundaries was not easy. My class values were not the same as my college peers’. I resented their assumptions about the poor arid working class. I did not find black bourgeois elites to be any more aware of my world than their white counterparts. The few friends I made whether black or white usually came from a (p145) similar class background. Like me they worked; they had loans, scholarships. Publicly and at school I mingled with everybody, learning about different class values. Privately, in my home, whether dormitory room or cheap apartment, I nurtured the values I had been raised to believe in. I wanted to show my family and community of origin that I could go out into the world and be among more privileged class people without assimilating, without losing touch with the ground of my being.
Living among folks from more privileged classes, I learned more about class than I had ever learned in a small segregated neighborhood. Before living among upper-class and rich folks, I had never heard anyone speak contemptuously about poor and working-class people. Casual articulation of negative stereotypes stopped me in my tracks. Not only was I usually a dissenting voice about class, after a while it was just assumed that I would go my way. It was among privileged class folks that I developed both an awareness of the extent to which they are willing to go to protect their class interest and a disrespect for their class values.
Even though I was struggling to acquire an education that would enable me to leave the ranks of the poor and working class, I was more at home in that world than I was in the world I lived in. My political solidarity and allegiance was with working people. I created a lifestyle for myself that mixed aspects of my working-class background with new ideas and habits picked up in a world far removed from that world. I learned different ways to dress, different ways to eat, and new ways to talk and think. I took from those experiences what I wanted and linked them with my home training.
Confident that nothing could separate me from the world of my growing up, I crossed class boundaries with ease and grace. At home with my parents I spoke the language of our world and our ways. At school I learned to keep these ways to myself. I did not fit in and I did want to fit in. At the same time I was coming to understand that this crossing of class boundaries had indeed given me a different sense of self. I (p146) could go home again. I could blend in, but the doors to that world threatened to close whenever I tried to bring new ideas there, to change things there.
Like much of the writing I have done on class, I began this essay by telling family stories again and again, often the same stories in different ways. My ongoing connection to the working- class world of my origin has consistently served as the site of challenge and interrogation for my class values and political allegiances. Affirming and sustaining direct connections to that world continually compels me to think critically about class dynamics in this society. In my twenties it seemed a simple matter to journey between varied class experience. During those years the amount of money I made would have placed me among the ranks of the poor or bottom-level working class. But class is more than money. And the doctorate I was earning was preparation for entering the ranks of the upper-middle class.
My first full-time tenure track teaching job at a fancy school, Yale University, signaled a complete transition in class positionality. I was no longer in limbo, moving back and forth between the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. I was no longer officially a member of the working class. Like many folks from working-class and poor backgrounds, much of my salary went to the debts I had accumulated on the way. Raised by all the tenets of racial uplift to believe that it is the duty of those who get ahead to share their resources with others, especially those less fortunate, I committed myself to giving to the needy a fixed portion of my income.
Although I did not see myself as part of a talented tenth in the way DuBois first used that term, I was among the first generation in my family to go to college and the only one of us then to finish a doctorate. It had been a journey full of personal hardship and struggle. And I knew that I would never have finished without the ongoing support of the working class world I had come from. These connections were my strength. The values I had been raised to believe in sustained me when (p147) everything in the new worlds I entered invalidated me and the world I was coming from. I felt that I had both a debt and a responsibility to that world—to honor it and to remain in solidarity with it despite the change in my class position.
One way to honor this working-class world was to write about it in a way that would shed a more authentic light on our reality. I felt that writing about the constructive values and beliefs of that world would act as an intervention challenging stereotypes. Concurrently, I did not want to become one of those academics from a working-class background who nostalgically fetishized that experience, so I also wrote about the negative aspects of our life. My parents and other folks from that world refused to accept that it was important to write about negative experiences. They did not care how many positive comments were made, they felt betrayed whenever I focused on negative aspects of our lives. Not everyone felt this way, but it was still difficult to face that some of the folks I cared about the most felt I had become a traitorous outsider, looking in and down on the world I had most intimately known.
Ironically, the radical intellectual milieus I circulated in were ones where everyone talked about crossing class boundaries as though it was a simple matter. This was especially the case in feminist and cultural studies circles. To many of my peers from privileged class backgrounds, crossing boundaries often meant slumming or a willingness to go work in a poor community in an exotic foreign land. I was fascinated and oftentimes a bit envious when my white peers talked about their trips to Belize, El Salvador, New Guinea, Ecuador, all over Africa, India, China, and the Middle East; the list could go on. Sometimes these trips were about “eating the other,” about privileged Westerners indulging in ethnic cultural cannibalism. At other times they were about individuals trying to learn about the experiences of people unlike themselves, trying to contribute.
Whatever the motivation, these experiences might someday serve as the cultural capital evoked to justify a lack of (p148) accountability toward the “different and disenfranchised” in one’s own nation, town, community. Like a charity one has donated capital to and need never give again because the proof of generosity was already on record, their one-time contribution could take the place of any ongoing constructive confrontation with class politics in the United States. The starving in a foreign country are always more interesting than the starving who speak your language who might want to eat at your table, find shelter in your house, or share your job.
I found and find it difficult, though never impossible, to move back and forth among different classes. As I began to make more money and gain recognition as a feminist thinker and cultural critic, the money I earned became a source of conflict between me and members of my family and friends. Even though I had held different ideas from family and friends for years, when it came to making money, we were all struggling. By my mid- thirties, I was no longer struggling and my income was growing. The fact that I was single and had no children made it easier for me to pay debts and live cheaply in ways that family and friends could not. While I wanted to share economic resources with them, I also wanted to share knowledge, to share information about how we might all change our lives for the better.
Since I was not a flashy dresser or big spender in any highly visible way, less economically privileged peers often did not see me as a success. To them I was unconventional or weird. Once, my brother, who left the ranks of the middle class by overspending and substance abuse, came to visit me in my New York City flat and expressed shock that it was small and not very fancy. He shared: “I thought you had made it to the big time.” And wanted to know: “Why are you living like this?” I explained that I lived a simple but to my way of thinking luxurious life so that I would have more to share with others. Still it was only when I concretely showed him the finances, how much I made, how it was spent (paying my expenses and helping others with rent, education, bills, etc.) that he began to realistically understand my perspective.
(p149) Like many lower-class and poor folk, he had an unrealistic sense of what one could actually do with money. This lack of awareness stems in part from the reality that credit and extended indebtedness allows so many people to consume beyond their means and create lifestyles that they cannot afford. I once did a workshop with a group of middle- and upper-middle-class professional black women on money and how we use it and was astonished to find that the vast majority of them were living so far beyond their means that they were just a pay check away from having nothing. Folks who do not have economic privilege and have never had it often assume that they can measure someone’s economic worth by material objects. They do not see the indebtedness that may be bolstering what appears on the surface to be a lifestyle one could create only with class privilege and affluence.
Indeed, black folk with some degree of class privilege often create a lifestyle that has the appearance of prosperity (big house, new car, fancy clothes) though they may be suffering economic distress because of assuming responsibility for less-fortunate family members while still striving to appear on top of it all. Studies show that most middle-income black folks with a sizable income give a measure of that income to help extended family and kin. It is not the giving that undermines their finances but their desire to have an expensive lifestyle as well as excess funds to help others. Stress and conflict over money may undermine the relationships that they hope to maintain and strengthen by sharing resources.
The more money I made, the more needy individuals came seeking financial help. Difficulties began to arise when frustrations about having their material needs met and my response to those frustrations prevented us from attending to the overall emotional needs of any positive relationship.And it was evident that the politics of shame around being needy made it impossible for some individuals to not feel “looked down” upon for desiring assistance even if they were not actually being looked down upon.
(p150) Money is so often used as a way to coercively assert power over others that it can easily become an arena of conflict, setting up hierarchies that were not previously present. Like many folks in my position, I often confront needy individuals who see my willingness to share as a weakness and who become exploitative. And there are times when I am scammed and misused (for example, a student says that they need money to finish school—you give the money—and they drop out, pocketing the refund, etc.).Any effort to not ally oneself with the existing structure of class elitism, to share resources, will necessarily meet with conflicts and casualties because many underprivileged folks share the predatory capitalist values often associated solely with the affluent. Often consciousness-raising has to take place with those who lack material privilege so that old models of guilt-tripping and exploiting progressive individuals who are working to live differently are not deployed.
All too often the affluent want to share using the old models of philanthropy and patronage that support giving while protecting one’s class interest. This kind of giving rarely intervenes on or challenges the structures of economic class exploitation. Concurrently, affluent individuals who care about those who suffer the brunt of an unjust economic system often lose heart if their efforts to share are misused. This response can be an act of sabotage and self-indulgence. Politically astute individuals with class privilege have to remain aware that we are working with inadequate models for communalism and social change so that there will necessarily be occasions when the best efforts fail to get the desired outcome.
When I have experienced a breakdown of communication and misuse, I use it as an occasion to invent methods of intervention that will work. When sharing resources does not work, it would be simple to refuse to identify with the class-based suffering of those in need and assume a protective stance that would indicate allegiance to privileged-class interests. However, I remain committed to an anti—class elitism vision of solidarity that sees (p151) working things out and processing issues in such a way that bonds across class are strengthened as part of resistance struggle. This has not been a straightforward or an easy task. There is little theoretical or practical work written about how we must behave and what we must do to maintain solidarity in the face of class difference.
The most difficult issues I have had to face in the struggle to help underprivileged comrades create better lives for themselves surface when I challenge the ways widespread acceptance of hedonistic consumerism and its concomitant insistence that one never delay gratification undermines the class power of poor and working-class citizens. Years ago my partner at the time, who was also from a working-class background, and I bought a house. For a year we were overextended financially. When we first moved in we did not have a refrigerator. We had decided we could afford to buy one with cash a few months later and thereby reduce our indebtedness. To many of our working-class friends and family this seemed like a hardship. They did not understand our wanting to stabilize our finances before making another big purchase. Similarly, both our families had difficulty accepting our commitment to driving the same car for years so as not to incur unnecessary indebtedness.
Crossing class boundaries, entering worlds of class privilege, was one way that I learned different attitudes toward money than the ones I was raised with. Among the privileged there was much more information available about how to manage money. Taking this knowledge and sharing with folks without class privilege can be a gesture that provides them with the means to assert more meaningful agency in their financial lives. Through reading self-help books about money I learned the importance of keeping accounts, of knowing how I spent money. When I first shared this with comrades who lacked material privilege they thought it did not pertain to their lives. One of my sisters, who was receiving welfare at the time, could not see the point in using this exercise. In her mind she had no money. I called attention to the fact that she smoked cigarettes, (p152) which cost money. The important point was to know how you spent your money whether or not you had ten, fifty, or five hundred dollars a month. Taking charge by knowing what we spend money on and budgeting our money no matter the amount empowers. It gives a sense of economic agency and lays the groundwork for economic self-sufficiency.
Like many individuals who have come from poor and working-class backgrounds into class privilege, I want to share my life with folks from diverse class backgrounds, and not simply my resources. Oftentimes it is easier to share resources than it is to bring diverse class experiences together. When we do cross the boundaries there is usually a clash in etiquette, values, the way we do things. Since I want my family to have a firsthand knowledge of the work I do, I often invite them to attend conferences where I am lecturing. At one conference I felt my youngest sister, who had joined me, was behaving disrespectfully toward me. A single parent who received state aid and who was aggressively seeking employment but finding it extremely difficult, she was depressed and fearful about her future. I confronted her about her behavior in front of another academic colleague and friend. This offended her. She felt that I had asserted class power to belittle her although she did not use those terms.
While I still felt my critique was justified, I did agree that I had not chosen an appropriate moment to lodge it. I acted from the assumption that we were all mature adults together who could cope with a moment of tension and conflict. I had not considered the dynamics from the perspective of class difference. Since I work hard to not develop ego-centered attachment to my class power and status it is often easy for me to forget that it can be intimidating to others. My brother and I have had the most productive personal class conflicts because he is totally candid about his own class frustrations. Previous states of indebtedness and unemployment have made it difficult for him to gain economic stability even though he works hard. He openly voices his resentment of my class position and we are able to process together.To maintain our (p153) bond, our solidarity, is hard work. Friends from working-class backgrounds where siblings share similar income need not work as hard to maintain connection.
The fear of losing connection has led many an upwardly mobile individual from a poor or working-class background to cease their efforts to change their class status. Among people of color we see that decision to not go forward most intensely around the question of education. In the segregated schools of my growing up, to work hard at ones studies was a source of pride for the race and, though we did not understand it that way, for our class as well. That has now changed. At all educational levels students from working-class backgrounds fear losing touch with peers and family. And that fear often leads to self-sabotage. To intervene on this nonproductive pattern we do need more testimony both in oral traditions and in writing of how working-class and poor folk can remain connected to the communities of our origin even as we work to improve our economic lot. Hollywood dramatized these dimensions of class struggle in the hit movie Good Will Hunting. In the film, the working-class buddy persuades his blonde, blue- eyed “genius” friend to go forward and enter the corporate world and make big money even if he must leave his friends behind. Ironically, since he is supported by his poor and working-class peers there is no logical reason he must leave them behind. After showing audiences the pleasures that can be shared when people cross class boundaries (our poor boy hero has a lover girl from a rich background with a trust fund), the movie offers the age-old message that attaining money, status, and class privilege is the only thing that matters and not loyalty to friends and comrades.
Many intelligent, sometimes brilliant, young black males end up in prison precisely because they want to make the quick easy money rather than slowly with hard work and effort pull themselves up from the bottom. Their smarts are now being exploited by a booming industry that provides them jobs for little or no wages. They end up doing in prison what they were refusing to do on the outside without reaping minimal reward. In The (p154) Seven Laws of Money, Michael Phillips contends: “About ninety percent of all crimes are committed because of money…and about eighty percent of all people in jail are there because of money related crimes…. Money is a very significant reason for people being in jail,… Maybe one way of stating it is that their aspiration for money and their ability to accumulate it are radically different. People who commit a crime often reach a state where they want money so badly that they are willing to take a higher risk than most other people are.” Of course Phillips, who worked hard to acquire wealth, makes this point using examples of working-class and poor men. However, he does not acknowledge that the values shaping their actions are those appropriated from more affluent individuals, usually white, from more privileged class backgrounds who have been able to make easy money. These attitudes trickle down to the masses through media. And whether true or false they are often passively appropriated.
Like many commentators who write about money, Phillips avoids the issue of economic injustice and makes it appear that anyone who works hard can easily earn money. Even though he acknowledges that the issue for most poor and working-class people is not that they do not make money but that their fantasies of what money can do far exceed reality. It is always troubling to me when I hear individuals with class privilege assert that the poor and working class are unwilling to work hard. I am enraged when I hear black elites talk about how the poor need to learn from those who have made it how to work hard. The truth is that the working class and working poor work hard but the money that they make is not enough to provide them with the means to attain economic self-sufficiency. One of the greatest threats to their economic well-being is the prevailing fantasy that if they work hard, they can attain all that they desire.
Crossing class boundaries I find that many of the working- class and poor people I know spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about the power of money, of what it can do. While this may hold true for middle-class people as well, the (p155) extent to which these fantasies negatively impact on those without privilege is more apparent. Obsessive fantasizing about money to buy things not only creates psychotic lust, it prevents individuals from realistically confronting their economic reality or using the time and energy to constructively respond to the world they live in. Poverty need not mean that people cannot have reading groups, study groups, consciousness-raising groups. Time spent fantasizing might be best spent buying a can of bright paint (if the funds are available) and painting old furniture or just cleaning up.
Using the example of two smart black men who were caught up in easy money fantasies, Phillip writes: “They were such bright and charming people that they could have had a high salary in almost any conventional business. At each point, though they always wanted money instantly, not realizing they would always have gotten more money if they had just been able to wait a little… The main lesson that I could draw from these two men, both skilled, charming, capable people, is that they have such a completely distorted view of what they ‘need’ that there is no way they can function in society. A minor adjustment in their sense of reality would have made them capable of functioning in a useful, viable way.” Given racial discrimination in conventional business, it would no doubt not have been as simple for these two men to succeed as Phillips makes it seem, but they certainly did not need to turn to crime. The fantasy of easy money led them astray.
Sadly, no group should know better than the working class and poor that there is no easy money to be had in this society. And yet the fantasy of easy money coupled with hedonistic consumerism has distorted reality for many people. Dialoguing across class is one of the ways that we can share together a more realistic sense of the limitations of money—of what it can and cannot do. Like the struggle to attain money, to change one’s class position, if you start on the bottom rung, these conversations require courage, a willingness to speak truthfully about class and money that is the first act of resistance challenging and changing class elitism.
14: Living without Class Hierarchy
Most American citizens do not acknowledge the reality of class difference, of class exploitation, and they continue to believe that this is a classless society. What they mean by this is not that citizens do not occupy different class positions, but that these class positions are not fixed. Despite grave injustice and all the barriers that make it practically impossible to change your class position, if you are born on the bottom of this society’s economic totem pole, it is still true that a teeny fraction of that population squeezes and militantly forces their way from the bottom up. And we consider ourselves fortunate, lucky, blessed. Yet from the onset of this book and throughout its pages I have endeavored to frankly share the human costs of class mobility, to identify both the pleasure and the pain of those who come from the bottom closer to the top can feel.
While the amount of money I have made in the last ten years identifies me as upper class, I do not identify with this class positionality even though I often enjoy the class power it affords me. I identify with democratic socialism, with a vision of participatory economics within capitalism that aims to challenge and change class hierarchy. I like that the money I (p157) make, which places me in an economic upper class, can be used in the service of redistribution of wealth, can be used to enhance the economic well-being of others through vigilant practices of giving and sharing.
I have written many books about injustice, about ending race, gender, and class exploitation, but this is the only book I have written that focuses directly on the issue of class. More than any other book I have written, writing it aroused in me intensities of pain that often left me doubled over my writing table, hurting to my heart, weeping. For no matter the class privilege I hold today, for most of my life I have lived as one with the poor and working classes. The class connection and unity I felt in my family of origin and with other poor and struggling folks as I made my way through graduate school and up the economic ladder affords me a constant awareness of class pain, of class yearning, and of the deep grief that is caused by a pervasive sense of class failure many poor and working-class people feel because they do not manage to earn enough, to earn more, to effectively change their economic lives so that they can know well-being.
At times when I have spoken publicly about a family member living in poverty, living for a time without electricity or phone, without enough, audience members stand to attack my privilege. Never do I explain to them that one person with one income giving aid is never enough, that the dilemmas of poor and working-class folks are caused by more than just economics, that class is more than money. I can give money But rarely is money enough. I cannot give instant psychological makeovers. The imprints of a consumer capitalist socialization that teaches us all to spend much and value little, to get as much as we can and give as little as possible (it’s known as scamming) cannot be erased at will. It should be evident that we cannot change class oppression and exploitation without changing the way everyone thinks about getting and giving. Class is much more than money. Until we understand this fact, the notion that problems in all (p158) our lives, but most especially the lives of the indigent and the poor, can be solved by money will continue to serve the interests of a predatory ruling class while rendering the rest of us powerless to create meaningful changes in our lives across class.
In these essays I have hoped to share that the pain of being without enough money to survive adequately or well, that the widening gap between the rich and the poor, causes pain far beyond economic suffering, that it rends and breaks us psychologically, tearing us asunder, denying us the well-being that comes from recognizing our need for community and interdependency. Given the huge gap between those who have a lot, those who have a little, and those who have nothing, it is difficult to understand how citizens of this nation can imagine that ours is still a classless society. However misguided the vision of a classless society is, often embedded inside this notion is the positive understanding that wealth can be shared, that class hierarchy predicated on the assumption that those who have the most materially should rule over the rest need not exist.
Sadly, the grave injustices created by contemporary transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, this ever- widening gap between the rich and the poor, has been the catalyst compelling folks who are economically privileged to consider their class, to think about what they do with money. Many individuals who have economic privilege do not want to use money or reproduce material excess in ways that require the oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization of their fellow citizens. While few of these individuals are rich (it is difficult to create and reproduce wealth without exploiting others), a vast majority have class privilege that provides them/us (I include myself in this category) with any resources to share.
Those among us who are progressive, who are democratic socialists, know that wealth can be redistributed in ways that challenge and change class exploitation and oppression. As individuals we promote and perpetuate this process of redistribution by both unorganized and organized sharing and (p159) giving of resources. In the book Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change, authors Joan Garner, Chuck Collins, and Pam Rogers state in their preface: “Tipping the balance of resources to include more of humanity is an adventurous, thrilling, and worthwhile pursuit. Charity is good, but supporting and creating social change are about power. Power can infuse lives with purpose and dignity. That opens up the possibility of joy. The life of the giver, as well as that of receiver, is transformed.” Folks who are not rich give a greater portion of their resources to those who stand in need than those who have great wealth, who may also give but in ways that reinforce their ruling class power. Their giving is not aimed at redistributing wealth or eliminating class hierarchy.
Large numbers of progressive folks with economic privilege genuinely oppose class exploitation and oppression and actively work to challenge and change class elitism. Our activism is not collectively organized under any one rubric so it often is easy for mainstream status quo culture to pretend that we and our activism do not exist. Many folks with economic privilege, whether progressive or not, have begun to critically question consumer capitalism, both the ethic of greed it encourages and the obsession with getting that it rewards. Across race, class, gender, and sexual practice individuals share the obsession with getting. Working in the public school systems, sharing and teaching about justice, I find that the one common yearning children share, whether they are in fancy private schools with small classrooms or huge overcrowded institutions, is the longing to be wealthy. Already they identify with ruling class values, already they are obsessed with getting. No wonder children are viewed as the new consumers, the new market, and by the end of the year 2000 they will have spent more than five hundred billion dollars. These children, like their adult peers, do not link their longing for wealth with uncritical acceptance and support of transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. They simply believe they are longing for the “good life” and that this life has to be bought.
(p160) Increasingly, though, we hear from individual voices that dare to share that economic privilege does not necessarily bring the good life. In many self-help and new age books, folks with privilege are encouraged to be mindful about their relationship to money. Books like Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, remind us of the human costs to pursuing great wealth. Many of the young folks who have acquired great wealth before the age of forty as a result of their work in the field of new technologies willingly testify that they work long hours to make, sustain, and reproduce this wealth. And like those who have acquired wealth or excessive economic privilege before them, they often find when they make time for something other than work that the space is empty, or the culture of getting is all they know, so they make their personal life an extension of their economic life.
In Let’s Develop, social therapist Fred Newman calls attention to the reality that the culture of getting often leads most of us to be “deprived, emotionally disadvantaged, and underdeveloped.” He makes the observation that getting is not necessarily immoral but that “it’s simply that, like cholesterol, in many life situations getting isn’t very good for our emotional health.” The only way to counter the culture of getting is to give. Significantly, Newman shares this powerful insight: “Everyday sexism, racism and the other isms are as much the products of the culture of getting as they are expressions of the way the economy and politics are organized. In the absence of creating a new emotional culture, there doesn’t seem to be much hope of doing a lot about them.” Indeed, concern for their emotional well-being, concern about everyday racism, sexism, and homophobia are often the issues that lead individuals to question the politics of class, to interrogate their relationship to capitalism, to money, to giving. It is no accident that outspoken critiques of race and gender inequities are often silent about class. For class touches us all in the place where we live, whether we are economically advantaged or disadvantaged. Folks without privilege, who are (p161) yearning to have, do not want to be critical of class elitism, and folks with privilege, who want to maintain it at the expense of others, are careful not to talk about ending class hierarchies.
When I use the rubric of transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as the standard by which I measure my own engagement with systems of domination, it is always the politics of class that calls out the deepest challenge. In the space of race and gender I am most likely to stand among those victimized; class is the one place where I have a choice about where I stand. Many folks with economic privilege who remain silent about economic injustice are silent because they do not want to interrogate where they stand. Sadly, all too often they stand in a place that is hypocritical. To challenge racism or sexism or both without linking these systems to economic structures of exploitation and our collective participation in the upholding and maintenance of such structures, however marginal that engagement may be, is ultimately to betray a vision of justice for all. Such hypocrisy has been displayed blatantly by Western feminists from privileged classes (most of whom are white) who deplore sexist mistreatment of women by men, while condoning paying women of color both here and abroad inadequate wages (often to perform the labor that “frees” the privileged to be liberated career women) or supporting the elimination of welfare. The transnational corporate capitalist agenda is gendered and racialized.
All too often the freedom that Western women prize is won at the price of the enslavement of women elsewhere.To deny this fact is to deny the link between global capital and the local capitalist regime which governs our lives. When we remember that women are half of the human race, the poorest citizens on the planet performing approximately two-thirds of the world’s work and earning about one tenth of the worlds income and less than one- hundredth of its property, we face more directly the interconnectedness of race, class, and gender. Early on in feminist movement, revolutionary feminist thinkers critiqued the reformist notion that economic power was synonymous with freedom.
(p162) In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, I challenged the assumption that paid work would liberate women, calling attention to the fact that when bourgeois white women talked about work as liberating they meant careers. In recent years many of these economically privileged women have abandoned competitive careerism because it did not “liberate” them or enable them to have a balance. Like well-off men they found themselves placing work above all else. When we work too much and are bereft of meaningful time, we overcompen-sate by spending. This is why children and teenagers are the new consumers; they are given economic rewards in place of genuine engagement and connection by parents who are not fully emotionally developed and who lack time.
In her most recent work, feminist thinker Julie Matthaei champions feminist critique of competitive careering. Her essay “Healing Ourselves, Healing Our Economy: Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and the Next Stage of Feminist Economic Transformation” chronicles the shift in feminist thinking about labor. She finds it hopeful that women are bringing a relational ethics of care into the public sphere—one that calls for socially responsible consumption and investment: “These movements urge people to use their purchasing power and investment dollars to pressure firms to be socially responsible—by supporting firms that are ‘green’ (environmentally friendly), family friendly and feminist and anti-racist, uninvolved in military, cigarette or alcohol production, worker-owned, etc. These movements organize consumers and investors to choose on criteria other than simple cost minimization/profit maximization thus supporting the movement for socially responsible entrepreneurship.” Matthaei sees these choices as supporting our “true self-interest in a safe, sustainable, healthy, and just economy and society.”
In order to end oppressive class hierarchy we must think against the grain. Resisting unnecessary consumerism, living simply, and abundantly sharing resources are the easiest ways to begin an economic shift that will ultimately create balance. Job sharing (p163) where a living wage is paid to everyone is another crucial way to address both unemployment and the need to provide parents, female and male, more time to create positive home environments where they can parent effectively. Working to create electoral politics wherein as citizens we can vote for where we want our tax dollars to go, for education or military spending, for aid to the poor and disenfranchised or military spending. Many citizens of this nation would welcome the opportunity to pay their tax dollars for institutional services that redistribute wealth. Our interdependency and care for neighbors and strangers could be highlighted by programs that would allow those with materially plenty to economically support families in need and deduct this money from taxes. Ironically, one can deduct money sent to the poor in other countries but not if we give to those who are desperately needy where we live.
The need for safe affordable housing will be the economic issue that will soon galvanize the American public as the middle- class and lower-middle-class folks increasingly find themselves economically displaced and without access to shelter. Hopefully, they will join with the disenfranchised poor, the homeless, to demand affordable housing. Perhaps the progressive rich will consider buying land and creating not just affordable housing but positive diverse communities that are founded on democratic principles that promote the well-being of everyone. Until such communities abound we will have no evidence to prove that communalism works, that localized democratic government that coexists with the state can improve lives. The time to join together and reimagine our economic futures is now. The time to rethink class, to find out where we stand is now.
I began this book expressing my fear that I did not know enough hard-core economic jargon to talk meaningfully about class. However, my silence, like all our silences about class, easily becomes part of the collusion, part of our acquiescence and participation in unjust economic practices, an unwitting support of class elitism. Most folks I meet in life, and I meet (p164) thousands of strangers while lecturing around the nation, want to cross the boundaries of class to know folks with diverse class experiences. It is this longing that will inspire us to find the ways to end exploitative and oppressive class hierarchies. As I have confessed, crossing class boundaries is no simple journey, even when we are among family and kin who have diverse class backgrounds.
I am thankful to have been raised in this nation by poor rural grandparents who farmed, who were in many ways self- sufficient, by parents who were working class and proud of their capacity to work hard and well. They taught me to honor labor, whether paid or unpaid, to love the poor, to learn from them for all they have to teach us about survival. They taught me that to be poor was no cause for shame, that one’s dignity and integrity of being could never be determined by money, by market values. To love the poor among us, to acknowledge their essential goodness and humanity is a mighty challenge to class hierarchy. Had my grandparents—sharecroppers and farmers—and my parents—maids and janitors—not taught me to look past class, to look past the trappings of money to see the inner self, I might never have learned to value myself and others rightfully. For this shared wisdom, borne of their experiences of enslavement, of indentured servitude, of hard labor in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal south, has helped me not only to know where I stand but to stand firm.
My class allegiance and solidarity will always be with working people, folk of all classes, who see money as useful insomuch as it enhances our well-being. The time will come when wealth will be redistributed, when the workers of the world will once again unite—standing for economic justice—for a world where we can all have enough to live fully and well.