How to tackle classism... and how not to

IssueFebruary - March 2016
Feature by Betsy Leondar-Wright

For some decades, Betsy Leondar-Wright has been running workshops about classism, for the last dozen years as part of Class Action, a group based in Boston, Massachussetts, in the US.

In an interview with PN, Betsy notes that many of us have a picture we’ve built up from the women’s movement and other such movements: ‘We have a template: there’s a dominant group, there’s a targeted group/an oppressed group, and in Class Action we’re using this template all the time.’ Class Action gets hired using this template: ‘They’ve had their racism workshop, they’ve had their sexism workshop, and now we’ve convinced them, or they’ve come up with the idea on their own, that it’s time to have a classism workshop.’

For some people, this approach is worrying. Betsy observes that some participants get indignant at her workshops, asking: ‘Do you mean, if people just stop using classist language and were nice and respectful to each other, there wouldn’t be a problem with economic inequality?’

To which, Betsy replies: ‘No, of course we’re not saying that. We’re saying that the classist slurs and the classist stereotypes are the insults that justify the injury.’ Whenever you challenge the policies that are widening economic inequality, ‘someone trots out these classist stereotypes about poor people and their own dysfunctional behaviour making them poor – which is completely disprovable! And working-class people just not being as smart as other people.... Completely disprovable, but those stereotypes are trotted out to justify the policies that are causing growing inequality.’

So one reason for working on the cultural side of classism is that ‘we have to debunk the stereotypes’.

Activist Class Cultures

The main reason for working on the cultural side, on ‘class cultures’, is that classism is interfering with our ability to build powerful cross-class movements for social change.

In a talk to the 2013 US White Privilege Conference, Betsy described how in movement after movement that she’d been witness to, ‘even if there were no conflicts or separations, I would see that whatever the class of the starter group was – even in very racially-mixed groups – the class of the people who started the effort, that’s the class they would reach out to, and so it would stay a single class, and it would be smaller than necessary.’

If we are going to build movements big enough to win the transformations we need, we are going to need groups with skills in cross-class coalition-building, and that is something that anti-classism workshops can help with.

It’s why Class Action have created an Activist Class Cultures website. It gives examples of how groups can do their work better by being more class-aware and class-inclusive. When Betsy and her co-researchers asked groups what they could do about low turnout, there was a clear class difference in reactions.

It turned out ‘there was one answer given only by working-class-background activists, that was never once said by a college-educated interviewee from a professional-middle-class background: serve food, or serve more or better food.’

The site goes on: ‘This is a clear example of how simply knowing how activists of other classes do things can strengthen your own social justice efforts.’

Betsy tells me: ‘My perception is that in the movements that are run, as most social justice work is in [the US], even unions and community groups, in things run by professional middle-class college-educated people, there’s tons of classism’ at work.


For people influenced by the Marxist definition of class, Betsy summarises in our interview, ‘class is a relationship between groups of people in society and it’s specifically a relationship of exploitation: someone’s richer because someone’s poorer.’

That definition is clearly not going to be so useful in helping people of different class backgrounds work together in voluntary action groups. There’s rarely straightforward economic exploitation going.

Betsy explains in her book, Missing Class, why she uses French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of class. Bourdieu focused on ‘cultural capital’ as the main driver of class inequalities, and the explanation for how inequalities are reproduced from generation to generation.

By cultural capital, Bourdieu meant formal education, degrees and other credentials, informal knowledge gained from a privileged background, and manners of speaking and acting. Bourdieu also stressed ‘social capital’: social status and who you know.

“Some activists believe that sacrificing time or money for social change removes them from the class system.”

Betsy writes: ‘Because he put cultural capital and social capital on a par with financial capital, Bourdieu’s ideas are especially relevant to mixed-class activist groups, where there is often a narrow range of financial resources but vast inequality in education and social networks.’

In a wonderful chapter on ‘class talk’ that she cut from Missing Class but later published in Humanity and Society, Betsy reports that ‘some activists believe that the very act of sacrificing time or money for social change actually removes them from the class system’.

Bourdieu’s message to his fellow elite French intellectuals and artists was that the gap between themselves and those with less ‘capital’ (including cultural and social capital) was a class difference, while the gap between the artists and the managers was not a class difference, but just a distinction between different types of capital.

Betsy writes that this is ‘similar to what I’m saying to my fellow professional-middle-class (PMC) activists’. PMC activists, even if voluntarily-downwardly-mobile in income terms, are really in the same class bracket as business managers.

That’s not something PMC activists need to be ashamed of, but it’s something they/we need to be aware of (I include myself in this category), and not try to hide.

Being genuine

Betsy recalls ‘horrible’ college-educated sectarian leftist party members, raised in professional families, who she met in the 1970s. They dressed identically in jeans, plaid flannel shirts, and baseball caps, ‘and they’d leave out the fact that they went to Yale’.

‘The awful part was that they would get these fake working-class ways of talking: they would drop their g’s, and they’d use what they thought was working-class slang!’ Betsy doesn’t think class-privileged, college-educated people should follow that path of pretence, but she does want to encourage PMC activists to ‘tune in and recognise the strengths of other people, to become more brief... those of us who went to elite colleges, we end up talking in huge paragraphs!’ (laughs at herself)

She says to PMC activists: ‘You can start to recognise the strengths of the working-class-background people in your group, that they might be really good at connecting with people in a certain neighbourhood or a certain workplace.’

She also expresses the hope ‘that working-class activists who read this book [Missing Class] or who hear me speak [or engage with the Activist Class Cultures website] will become sort of more forgiving: that this person is not a pretentious, boring person. “Oh, that’s the way they were taught to talk... in college! They are probably nice and dedicated, and that’s just the way they were taught to talk.”’

At this point in the interview, Betsy observes that the big question that she and Class Action are trying to investigate, that comes out of this work, is how to do anti-racist training and education in a class-inclusive way.

‘Racism is one of the hottest issues in the US. Every organisation is doing internal soul-searching and racism workshops, which is great. But it’s being done in a really, really class-distorted and middle-class way. Almost all diversity work is run by college-educated professionals in the US. That is our big cutting edge.’

Some of the distortions Betsy identifies are: using jargon; blaming people for not using the right jargon (including ‘calling out’, see opposite); using terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’ that ‘imply that all white people have really cushy lives’; group processes that put people on the spot and require people to speak in a stylised, non-conversational way.

Class Action is now researching what anti-racism consciousness-raising might look like ‘when you draw on working-class and poor people’s activist cultures’. This might be extremely important in helping movements to build cross-race, cross-class coalitions that we need.

This is more proof that a class culture-oriented way of tackling classism has a lot to offer.

Topics: Class, Race