Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. -- Pirkei Avot

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Third Way

I do a lot of work around anti-racism, my own internal work as well as doing things that help others gain some understanding of racism and anti-racism work. But I have to admit that I'm constantly adjusting and readjusting the messages I hear in white privilege circles because social class gets glossed over.

First I have to say that I understand why discussions of social class get nixed in workshops about race. It's one of the ways white people have avoided conversations about racism. "But what about class? Doesn't that matter more?" they say. It's an excuse to say you don't have white privilege. Then the conversation about race, racism and white privilege gets hijacked and everyone is talking about class instead.

But after reading Paul Gorski's piece Complicating White Privilege, I realized I could think of several examples of when I've had to work hard to reframe a message or lesson so it fits my own reality and possibly the reality of others who have been poor or working class.

A couple of years ago, I watched with group Episode 3 of Race: The Power of an Illusion called "The House We Live In" that showed one example of institutionalized racism that is invisible in our society, the path to home ownership after WWII. The program talked about how white people were not only given individual preferences in housing, but also how wealthy black neighborhoods were penalized financially only because they were inhabited primarily by African Americans, by being "red lined", deemed too risky for any sort of investment for new home buyers, by the U.S. government.

Real estate practices and federal government regulations directed government-guaranteed loans to white homeowners and kept non-whites out, allowing those once previously considered "not quite white" to blend together and reap the advantages of whiteness, including the accumulation of equity and wealth as their homes increased in value. Those on the other side of the color line were denied the same opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility.

In the documentary, among the benefits of home ownership and that accumulation of home equity was the ability to fund college tuition and bequeath wealth to children.

My white family didn't get any of that, other than the house. Hardly anyone in the neighborhood I grew up in went to college. No one accumulated any kind of wealth. When my parents sold their house in 2001, they got a lot more than they paid for it, but they'd leveraged all their equity to stay out of poverty. I think they got a check for $1,000 when all was said and done, which basically paid for the movers to get their stuff to Florida to the apartment my college-educated brother and doctor sister-in-law bought for them with their own mortgage.

I brought this up in the group and the person facilitating the group said, in a patronizing way, "But you had a house." Then I shut up, remembering the rule about not talking about social class.

I wondered what my mother would think about that part of the documentary. Or my cousins who still live in poverty or barely out of it. I understood our white privilege kept our generation out of poverty, which allowed some of us in my generation to attain more financial stability, but that's not the case for  all of my peers in the neighborhood where I grew up. Some of them are better off than their parents, but most aren't. And it's not true for all my cousins (more true for those much younger than me than those closer to my age).

I wondered how that documentary could speak to them and show them that they have far more in common with African Americans in the same social class than with the likes of Bill Gates and the Koch brothers. How could I help them understand what their white privilege did for them as well as understand how the class system keeps them and their African American peers in a stranglehold of oppression, that those with the most privilege (class, race, gender, sexuality) benefit when they think they are somehow different from people of color?

I've been hoping to find an anti-racist educator with answers to my question to no avail. Even Paul Gorski doesn't have any answers. So I bring them to you, to the collective wisdom of internet users. How do we do this anti-racism and white privilege work in a way that engages poor and working class white people and refuses to buy into the conquer and divide mentality that helps enable race oppression?