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Can we stop saying ‘white privilege’ so often?

Middle-class activists often don’t see that their version of anti-racism can be classist

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A white woman protester at a Boston, Massachussetts, Black Lives Matter protest in December 2014, after prosecutors decide not to charge Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold in July 2014. Photo: Alex Klavens via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The recent surge of anti-racist activism and consciousness-raising in the US has been thrilling to see and to participate in. I feel hope that racism will diminish in the near future.

But I found in my research that the way most social justice organisations have done diversity work and advocated for anti-racism is infused with professional middle-class culture. And that’s alienating a lot of potential working-class and poor supporters of all races. 

At the 2016 White Privilege Conference, I gave the following keynote address in which I talked about how different class-inclusive anti-racism would look: 

First, definitions: What is racism? I think that we would agree that it’s too limited when you just call it bigotry and hate. That’s the mainstream frame, what you see in the US mainstream media. 

I think we share the goal of changing that frame and adding all the institutional kinds of racism that are missing from the bigotry frame. And often social change involves frame shifts: You are trying to get the general public to adopt a new frame. 

So, who currently holds the institutionalised white supremacy frame? 

Well, I have some bad news for you. 

I coded all mentions of race and racism at 37 progressive group meetings and in 61 interviews with activists, and I found that it was by far the most likely that professional, middle-class activists were the ones bringing up the institutionalised white supremacy frame. 

And the working-class people – and remember, these are activists, not the general public – used a lot of different frames, but the most common was that mainstream bigotry frame. And only a quarter of the working-class people would use the institutionalised white supremacy frame, and it tended to be working-class leaders and the most politically experienced working-class activists. 

Mentions of the institutionalised racism frame by rank-and-file working-class and poor group members were almost non-existent. 

University people

So why do you think this is happening? Okay, how is the institutionalised white supremacy frame being spread? Sometimes through anti-racist gatherings like the White Privilege Conference. But mostly people are learning it at university, and in particular at universities where there are critical race theory professors. 

In my research, that is where people said they learned it; I saw few signs that we have reached past the academic gated community. 

I ran into two working-class activists who had gone to the workshops of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. So that group teaches the institutionalised racism frame outside academia, and so does the White Privilege Conference, and I know they’re not the only ones. There are groups that are doing some reaching across the class divide, but not enough to have it reach most working-class and poor people. 

And, worse, when the professional middle-class activists tried to promote the institutionalised racism frame during the meetings observed in my study, it often backfired and alienated people. And one way that it backfired was the language that they used. 

My former boss Meizhu Lui, the former executive director of United for a Fair Economy, had been a hospital cafeteria worker. She had a lot of experience talking politics with working-class and working-poor union members. 

So when we started working on the project that became The Color of Wealth book, she said to me and the three women of colour who are the other co-authors: ‘We will have no jargon. This is going to be in everyday language. Of course, we have to introduce some complicated things about policy, but we will explain them clearly and use everyday vocabulary.’

So we toned down the rhetoric and did not use the words ‘hegemony’ or ‘imperialism,’ for example.

If you go to Class Action’s online bookstore (www.classism.org/store) and get The Color of Wealth, you will see that the term ‘white supremacy’ doesn’t occur in there. 

And I will tell you this: The term ‘white privilege’ also does not appear in the book. 

Uh, oh. Yes, I said something risky to say at the White Privilege Conference: ‘Did she just say that?’ Yeah, I just said that. 

Find new language

Clearly that phrase works to mobilise some communities, because look, this conference has been growing every year. 

So why would you not say ‘white privilege’? Why not say it in The Color of Wealth? 

Not just because it’s jargon in general, but also because ‘privilege’ sounds luxurious and elite. 

So if you hear a white working-class or poor person say, ‘I don’t have privilege,’ are they denying the realities of racism? Maybe. Probe and maybe you will find out they are, but maybe they are not, maybe they are just accurately describing their white working-class reality. 

So I have a challenge for you all. Think of someone who has helped you this week. Like a bus driver, cabdriver, hotel worker, or somebody who served you food or cleaned your hotel room. And you say you are here for a conference, and the person says to you: ‘Oh, what’s the conference about?’ 

“If we draw on working-class activists’ traditions and cultural strengths, we are going to build bigger groups and bigger movements with a stronger unity among us.” 

I want you to have an imaginary conversation in your head where you answer the person, and say what the conference is about without using the word ‘privilege’ or ‘supremacy,’ or any other terms not in everyday vocabulary.
(I was silent for about 30 seconds to let the audience have their imaginary conversations. Why don’t you reading this try it too?)

I would be really interested to hear how that thought experiment went. I’ll bet some of you came up with some really great lines. So email me – at betsy@classism.org – and tell me, and feel free to disagree with me for challenging our shared word. 

On The Color of Wealth book tour we had to do that message crafting a lot. We were talking on radio and to audiences not already convinced of The Color of Wealth analysis of historical white advantages. And I found that in talking to white working-class and poor people, a little empathy went a long way. 

So I would say things like, ‘As rough as this economy has been for white people who have to work for a living, it’s been even harsher for most people of colour.’ And that would connect. Even that little bit of acknowledgement of someone’s experience!

And we had to really change our way of talking. The five co-authors are all people with university degrees. In university, they tell to you take the emotion out of your voice and take the first-person stories out of what you write. And they tell you to use big abstractions – and those are bad communication practices, no matter who your audience is, right?

So some of us need a little communication help. 

Tell stories

We need an infusion of the working-class tradition of making political points by telling stories, to restore our communication ability. 

So we all five put our family stories into the book, into how we told the complicated story of the racial wealth divide. This is something I would say when on book tour: 

‘Because my dad was a World War II–era white veteran, he got to go to college almost for free under the GI Bill and got a really cheap first mortgage. And because of those benefits, he was able to save for my college education and for his own retirement, so when he got old I didn’t have to support him. 

‘But the vets of colour were almost all excluded from those benefits by the regulations of the GI Bill. So then, that generation of black and Latino and Asian and Native American veterans, most of them were forced to be renters in urban or rural areas, shut out of suburban homeownership. 

‘And most of the vets of colour reached high school educations or less. 

‘So then, the generations now in the workforce have had to support, in many cases, the elders in their family, and that has meant less money for the college education and down payments of children and grandchildren, and that’s part of the explanation for the racial wealth gap we see today.’

What we need in this country is something like the GI Bill, only for everyone this time. So reaching across the class divide would mean changing our vocabulary and way of communicating and the stories we tell, but not just about language; it’s about our practices, how we do diversity. 

‘Professionals’

There’s a culture of doing diversity work that’s infused with professional, middle-class, and upper-middle-class culture, and I saw it backfiring with poor and working-class activists.

Someone who has written about this a lot is Jane Ward in her 2008 book, Respectably Queer. Jane Ward studied three LGBTQ groups, but they could be any groups. 

Two of her stories I will tell briefly. First a big social service agency had an annual Diversity Day, and the low-level staff of colour would groan when it was mentioned. ‘Oh, no!’ And one support staff person of colour asked: ‘Why do you have to talk about it so much? Why can’t you just start doing the right thing now?’ And, of course, Diversity Day was planned by a committee, and the committee was multiracial, but it was all university-educated professionals. 

Now an even worse story from Ward’s book, one that takes the cake. 

There was an all-volunteer group that planned Gay Pride parades, and the board of directors was all working-class, and half black and half white. And some of the white professional gays in the community said that this board was unprofessional and tried to replace some of them. 

In the one gay newspaper in the city, someone wrote: ‘These people should be working at 7-Eleven, not representing our community.’ 

“So we all five put our family stories into how we told the complicated story of the racial wealth divide.”

The long-time president of the board was a lower-income African-American gay man, and this new crop of board members said he didn’t have the diversity skills to represent the group to funders and corporate sponsors and politicians of colour and organisations of colour and that a white professional guy did. 

The new white guy had a lot of ‘diversity work’ experience. So they replaced the black working-class guy and made the white diversity professional be the president of the board. 

This is not an unusual story. 

Look who gets paid as diversity consultants. The cultural capital required to get hired to do diversity work for big institutions is cultural capital you learn at elite universities. Which means that the people actually most affected by the problems are not recognised as having any expertise on solving the problems. 

Middle-class mistakes

In my research too, I found four kinds of professional, middle-class cultural approaches that sometimes bombed with the working-class and poor members of these groups. 

One was ideological litmus tests that require you to use certain lingo or believe in certain political analysis. 

For example, in one group, there was a proposal by an Anti-Racist Committee to reject all coalitions with any group that did not share its analysis of institutionalised white supremacy. And the working-class and poor members of the group, among others, said this made no sense and asked: ‘Why make ourselves smaller by rejecting potential allies?’ 

A second professional, middle-class cultural mistake is looking first and foremost inward, having all your examples of racism be inside the group, the internal race dynamics. 

Placing focused attention on an internal critique of the group was often led by professional, middle-class people. Not that you shouldn’t talk about those things, but that should not be the extent of your examples. Working-class and poor people of all races mostly brought up racism in its harshest forms in the wider society. 

And this was connected to the third professional-middle-class pitfall which is: more talk than action. 

I learned that working-class and poor activists suspect university-educated professional activists of being all talk, that they don’t walk the talk. 

Working-class activists would monitor the group and its leaders, waiting to see if there was going to be some action coming out of all this talk. So, over-relying on long and elaborate special sessions and workshops is a problem. 

Not that there’s something wrong with workshops, but having that be the only place that you talk about racism is a problem, and having an excessive talk-to-action ratio is a problem. 

Calling out

And, fourth, the norm of interrupting others’ speech. You may have that word ‘interrupting’ or the term ‘calling out oppression’ in your vocabulary, in your anti-oppression toolkit. 

I think that it sounds like a one-shot speech act is enough. 

You have spoken, so you have taken care of the problem. 

George Lakey, who is a lifelong working-class activist and author, thinks the calling-out culture of finger-pointing stems from elite, educated people feeling like they’re entitled to sit in the seat of judgment and critique other people. 

Instead of thinking of it as interrupting or calling-out, think of it as digging in. 

Build your relationships not just with people targeted by the oppressive speech, but build a relationship with the offender too, and speak to them humbly like someone who has also said oppressive things in your life, as we all have. 

In Class Action workshops, we say: ‘connect before correct’. Yes, you’ve got to bring it up when someone acts oppressively, but with human connection and respect, focused on long-term change, not just on being right or superior. 

So those were the four ways of doing diversity that I saw infused with downsides of professional, middle-class culture that didn’t go over well with working-class people. Every class culture has strengths, but also limitations, including professional middle-class culture. 

Working-class strengths

By contrast, working-class activist cultures have strengths that we need in order to do anti-racism better. 

Working-class activist cultures understand that change happens through strength in numbers, and strength comes through solidarity and unity. I heard that over and over and over again, from working-class and poor activists of all races. 

So what would a more working-class way be of opposing institutionalised racism? 

There were four approaches I saw that worked well. 

One is to create a story that’s got an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ in which the bad guy is outside of the group. So your first and worst examples of racism are the really, really hurtful examples from the wider society. 

It’s important to start there and not start with or focus primarily on racism inside the group. 

And all the activists I talked with were enthusiastic about concrete action, where the outcomes would benefit particular people of colour. 

Getting out on somebody’s picket line or testifying against police brutality or whatever – nobody of any class criticised that method of being an ally against racism. 

In introducing the institutionalised white supremacy frame at meetings where most people weren’t familiar with it, the brilliant working-class leaders would just weave it into the conversation, like ‘yeah, what the bank did, that’s an example of corporate racism.’ 

So they wouldn’t rely only on special workshops. They would put it into everyday language. 

And last, and maybe most broadly, attentiveness to the unity of the group, understanding that most working-class activists see their strength coming from solidarity. And so, when they talked about dynamics in the group, or how there’s a subset of the group targeted by a certain oppression, working-class leaders would stress how tackling the problem would help the whole group reach its goals. 

The message is that sticking up for the subgroup is going to strengthen the unity and solidarity of the whole group. 

Compared with the superior calling-out behaviour by college-educated activists, I saw a big contrast to how working-class people handled incidents with camaraderie, maybe over beer after the meeting, saying: ‘That was really messed up what you said. I love you, but you got to cut that out.’ It’s just a really different tone from the finger-wagging. 

Building bigger

So to conclude, if we draw on working-class activists’ traditions and cultural strengths, we are going to build bigger groups and bigger movements with a stronger unity among us. 

I am talking about learning from the solidarity ethics of the old labour movement, where people called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ and they said: ‘All for one and one for all.’ 

And I am talking about the old African-American movement tradition, where people feel a sense of linked fate across class; they also call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ and say: ‘We will lift as we climb.’ 

And I am talking about the great community organising tradition, where people in low-income community groups have an ethic of mutual aid and protection toward each other, like a family. 

So when we draw on these working-class activist traditions, we stand together and we say: if anyone messes with any working-class or poor person, they have messed with all of us. 

And if anyone messes with any person of colour, they have messed with all of us. 

And if anyone messes with any immigrant or Muslim or Arab or Jew, they have messed with all of us. 

If they mess with any woman or transgender person or LGBTQ person, or young or old person, they have messed with all of us. 

If they mess with any of us, they have messed with all of us, because we are not leaving anyone behind. 

Because none of us is free until all of us are free. 

This article is part of Peace News’ special ‘White Issue’: https://peacenews.info/node/9810/2650

Betsy Leondar-Wright, a co-founder of the US anti-classism NGO, Class Action, is the author of (among other books) Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures (Cornell University Press, 2014). See our (glowing) review in PN 2572 – 2573. The research Betsy mentions at the start of this article was for Missing Class.

Topics: Race