Class-inclusive anti-racism?

IssueApril - May 2017
Feature by Betsy Leondar-Wright
Betsy Leondar-Wright. Photo: Rodgerrodger via Wikimedia

I’ve been asked a question that I can’t answer, and I wonder if you, the reader, can help answer it.

The most common forms of anti-racist consciousness-raising practised on the left today – workshops; special sessions to talk about internal race dynamics; book discussions; instantly ‘calling out’ oppressive comments; and hammering out statements of ideological commitment, all using specialised terms such as ‘white supremacy’ – are not well-received by every progressive activist.

And it’s not just white people resistant to looking at racism who have negative reactions.

In my research on 25 varied social movement organisations (SMOs) in five states in the US, I found a class correlation with who disliked, non-cooperated with, or was befuddled by those typical anti-racist practices, which were always initiated and led by college-educated activists: it was disproportionately lifelong working-class and poor activists (of all races) for whom those modes didn’t work.

When I presented this class-bias critique of anti-racism processes at ‘Diversity Ironies’ workshops, based on my book Missing Class, participants were frustrated that I was pointing out a problem but not a solution. How would anti-racism infused with working-class culture be different from the common practices of today? They were hungry for recommendations of best practices.

This question is just about anti-racism consciousness-raising and education efforts, not about organising strategy.

Walk not talk

One form of anti-racism is not controversial: public acts of solidarity, such as the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. If it was clear that particular people of colour were being harmed, and that grassroots community groups wanted their allies to support them, then no activist in my study, of any class, race or movement tradition, opposed joining pickets and demonstrations, raising money, or any other form of tangible solidarity with people of colour targeted by racism.

A working-class value on action over words explains some activists’ acceptance of active solidarity against external racism.

But is outward-focused anti-racist solidarity perhaps enough? I don’t think so.

The mainstream anti-bigotry pro-tolerance frame, which I heard disproportionately from working-class and poor activists, leaves out some crucial pieces of the history of institutionalised racism, necessary for a comprehensive push for a society based on equity and justice. And some of the aversion to discussion of internal race dynamics was heard where such discussion was in fact sorely needed: in union-sponsored groups with predominantly white leadership and racially diverse memberships.

All progressive groups need consciousness-raising about societal racism and discussions of their intra-group composition, power dynamics and culture.

After decades of people of colour taking most of the leadership against racism, recently more white anti-racists have stepped up to the task in the US.

The annual White Privilege Conference has influenced many white progressives to follow in the footsteps of Chris Crass, Paul Gorski, Debby Irving, Paul Kivel, Becky Thompson, Mark Warren, Tim Wise, and other white anti-racism educators. I mean no criticism of this new wave of white anti-racist educators when I point out that they are highly-educated professionals, and in many cases come from class-privileged backgrounds. That’s my class identity too, and they are inspiring role models for me. And winning racial justice will require all hands on deck.

Class culture

But the cultural style common in ‘diversity work’ in US social movement organisations (SMOs) distinctively fits the professional-middle-class cultural traits I found in my research, whatever the race of the facilitators and educators. In the 25 groups I studied for Missing Class, as well as in the class-diverse organisations I have participated in over the last 30 years, I’ve seen a clear class association with certain approaches to anti-racism.

First, workshops (particularly those using a certain stylised form of interactive group processes) are a familiar activity in the repertoire only of groups with a university-educated majority. When low-income community groups have held anti-racism workshops, they have sometimes been suggested or required by funders, and almost always the trainers have been university-educated, different from most members’ class.

Second, I have seen only university-educated-majority groups set civility ground rules ahead of time to fend off oppressive behavior.

Third, I have seen only white university-educated-majority groups spend group time hammering out statements of principles and ideology.

“Working-class speech is typically more concrete and colourful – a preference, not just a habit”

And fourth, only in university-educated-majority groups have I heard the finger-pointing denunciations of wrong vocabulary and ignorant bias commonly called ‘calling out’.

These four activities are the everyday repertoire of anti-racism consciousness-raising – and rarely are they recognised as class-culturally specific.

Other social scientists have also found class bias in work against ‘isms’. Jane Ward, in Respectably Queer, found that professional ‘diversity expertise’ trumped personal experience of racism in LGBT organisations.

Sharon Kurtz, in Workplace Identities, describes how the unions at Columbia University had a ‘do it, don’t talk about it’ approach to advocating for marginalised subgroups of members, such as women and racial minorities, in need of affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies. Union leaders advocated framing all ‘isms’ only in terms of ‘workers’ rights’.

And working-class-background radical educator George Lakey claims in Facilitating Group Learning that the ‘calling out culture’ (immediate dressing down in front of the whole group of a person making an oppressive comment) comes from elite colleges training upper-middle-class students to sit in critical judgment of others.

I also found in my research that race-related vocabulary varied by class.

College-educated activists, in line with their typically more abstract speech, tended to use more general and diversity-encompassing racial terms, such as ‘people of colour’ and ‘Latinos’, while working-class activists of all races tended to refer to Latinos and Asian Americans as their more specific nationalities, such as ‘Mexican’ and ‘Chinese’. They also stuck to ‘Black’ instead of ‘African American’.

The terms associated with the institutionalised white supremacy frame, such as ‘white privilege’, were heard almost entirely from college-educated activists. Jargon is a turn-off to many working-class and poor activists, not just because of unfamiliarity with in-group and academic terms, but also because working-class speech is typically more concrete and colourful – a preference, not just a habit. Also, some radical working-class outlaws suspect middle-class activists of being ‘all talk, no walk’ elitists.

You see my point. Virtually everything about how anti-racism education happens in SMOs today is so infused with professional-middle-class activist culture that it is often alienating or at least unfamiliar to working-class and poor activists.


This class bias poses a dilemma for progressive activists. Anti-racism education and internal race dynamics discussions must be done, and done well, by SMOs of all types, if we hope to build movements that can actually win social justice.

Currently anti-racist work is often done in a class-exclusionary way. It’s important to find an alternative way to do it that would make more sense to working-class people – or even better, more effective forms of anti-racism that would draw on working-class cultural strengths and work more powerfully for everyone. I wish I could picture this alternative way, but to be honest, I can’t.

I can foresee the day when we will bring to ‘Diversity Ironies’ workshops a handout with field-tested best practices for class-inclusive anti-racism. But for now, all I can give workshop participants is this rough list of suggestions from Class Action’s preliminary discussions:

What would working-class-inclusive anti-racism look like?

  • Integrate racism-talk into working meetings, not only in workshops & special sessions; seize teachable moments;
  • Use everyday language, not jargon;
  • Emphasise discrimination in wider society, not only within group culture;
  • Focus on public action with outcomes benefiting particular people of colour;
  • Be attentive to preserving unity of group; frame anti-racism in the larger context of shared goals and solidarity;
  • Tell human stories before generalising; invite participants to share their own race and class stories;
  • Do ongoing community-building, both before and after controversial or potentially divisive discussions;
  • Remember that responding to racist incidents is the whole group’s responsibility (instead of a facilitator or supervisor being in charge of ‘correcting’ the ‘offender’); avoid finger-pointing, talking down from a critic’s seat of judgment;
  • Be conflict-friendly and emotion-friendly;
  • Experiment. Make mistakes. There are no formulas or rules. Know that it will get messy. Keep going.

It’s exciting for me to link academic research to community-based knowledge creation. To improve the practices of social movement practitioners, this praxis of reflection and field-testing can be as fruitful as ethnography. With activists, trainers and scholars working together, we can find answers to this challenging question.

Topics: Class