Friday, September 09, 2005

The Rubix Cube of Racism and Classism

I've been reading posts all over the uublogosphere about GA, racism, and classism. It has been fascinating, and sometimes frustrating to read statements made out of opinion, belief, and what people imagined might have happened at GA that would mean it wasn't about racism. I didn't post anything in reply: first because of that whole distracting wedding thing, then because it's time to open the RE program and that means bzillions of hours over 4 weeks.

But this morning I decided to not go into the office till later, to give my eyes a break from the computer, and my hands a break from collating, but, just for a sec, I thought I'd pop online and see what was up.

I read a few blogs, followed some commenters and links, and now, here I am, not cleaning the bathroom or making bread, but responding, writ large, to these conversations that seem to say classism and privelege, not racism, is the problem, and people are being distracted by a focus on racism.

I start, like any good feminist, with my own experience.

When I grew up, a white fundamentalist, working-class farmer kid in the mountains of NY just south of Canada, my whiteness seemed irrelevant.

What was relevant was that we didn't have any money.

I wore other people's used clothes (sometime I'll blog about the first day of 7th grade when Janine, the nastiest girl in class, pointed out loudly that my carefully pressed new shirt said "to Janine from Gramma" on the collar tag,) I ate what we grew, which meant a lot of canned green beans and tomatoes, stir fried in a thousand different ways with eggs or hot dogs. I was the kid in the lunch room who begged other kids for their Tunaboats. "Are you going to eat that?"

My dad was a farmer and a pharmacist. The first, and only, member of his family to go to college, he became a pharmacist because they couldn't afford to send him to medical school which was what he wanted to do. He worked his way through college and was in the Reserve. The little money a pharmacist made at a prison in the 60's- 70's went into the farm; land and self-sustenance being the fall-back safety net for both of my parents families, generations of Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts dirt farmer people. My one grandfather sold shoes door to door and raised chickens, the other was a PartsMan at a Ford Dealership working than less than minimum wage, who tended an amazing and giant backyard garden that fed them.

My dad got up at 5 every morning to feed and water cows and chickens, then worked 7-3 at the prison, then came home to work the farm. Most of his vacation each year was taken in early spring so we could pick rocks that had risen in the fields over the winter, and then later in summer so we could get the hay in. When we did go on vacation, it was camping at a state site, bringing with us our green beans and tomatoes, eggs, and hot dogs. Once, he saved up forever to take us on a week long trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country. In one year he bought a used pickup-bed camper, and a couple of years later he'd saved up enough for us to take the week and drive there.

My understanding of racism was theoretical and far away. For my middle-school years my favorite imaginary game was "raise an army and go rescue South Africa" for g-d's sake.

My experience of class and classism in America has been a journey - I left that mountain home; went to college; lived in a collective while being an activist and working at the 7-11; went to seminary; made the ethical decision to make it clear by the work/volunteer experience I left on my resume that I was a lesbian, and oops! didn't get a professional job out of Seminary. Of 75 resumes I sent out in response to job ads for which I was qualified, I got one interview, and got this 1/2 time live-in job at a college. Couldn't pay college/grad school loans, couldn't get those root canals (thanks Will for that great touchstone), defaulted on the loans. After a year, they hired me full-time, but still, it wasn't a job that payed enough. I loved working with college students, and I was good at it. I taught january term classes in fundamentalisms and liberation theologies and such, and generally tried to keep my head above the water that was filling in the financial rut I was in.

After several years, I found a 3/4 time job working at an agency as a staff educator and foster parent trainer. It was for less money but I was actually learning something I knew would be useful in the future. I wanted to learn how to be a great stand-up trainer on someone elses' dime.

Finally I fell into this job at the UU. I was at an Exodus International conference doing research about the ex-gays when my friend Karen called me there and told me that the UU was hiring, but that I'd have to move fast. It was the first time that knowing someone had benefitted me. I applied, competed, and got hired as an acting DRE. A year later they hired me permanently, and after a few years moved up to the UUA's mid-level salary for a congregaton my size. Of course, I'm still 100,000 in default (are you "in debt" if you're in default?)

I'm the epitome of class confusion in the US. Am I middle class because of my education and that fact that I finally have some semblance of job security? Was I working poor as a child even though my father had a professional job? I'm a 43 year old woman who will probably always be a renter, w/ a 5 year old Subaru my parents gave me last year when they downsized from 2 vehicles to 1. I'm working on a Soyo computer running Win 98 on a dial-up connection, and I got my wedding suit at a tagsale. But I own 1,500 books, and two hundred videos, (which sucks, as a renter, because I'm constantly having to pack them again.) Last year I did have a root canal instead of having it pulled because I have dental insurance now. What class am I?

Class is something I can't escape. I don't come from the social world that my upper middle class congregation resides in, I don't have the clothes or social skills that would enable me to blend in, and my personal politics are to the left of most of them. I don't answer the phone b/c it might be a bill collector. Whatever class I am, I cannot escape having to deal with it, I cannot escape the ways my lack of access to money or privelege limits my choices.

So. There might be some who would think that this post is about how challenging classism is. It's not.

It's about how I can never choose whether or not to deal w/ classism in my personal life, b/c it's just the way my life is. People of color have the same experience around racism. If they're poor, it's more difficult, not instead of difficult.

Another story: It's summer and hot. I'm in a car with 5 friends on the way to a picnic. We rock/paper/scissors for the hump in the back seat and I lose. After a while, a police cruiser follows us, we watch with nervousness in the mirror as they talk on the radio, and we compulsively watch our speed, travelling at exactly 55 mph. No more, no less. Then, after a few miles, they pull us over. They tell the women in the front seat to put their hands on the dash, and the three of us in the backseat to get out.

One puts the two men spreadeagled on the front hood of the car, and the other walks me to the back of the car and says, "Are you ok, miss?"

I'm confused. I say, "Yea, what's the problem officer?" not getting it.

He says that the car was suspicious, and he wants to make sure I'm ok.
I still don't get it. "Why are you asking me instead of them?"
As the words come out of my mouth I realize that I'm the only white person. My black friends are suspect.

I wish I could tell you that I hollered at him and reamed him a new one, but I can't, because all I said was "These are my friends."


He says, "I'm just trying to help you here, Miss."

I say, shaking my head incredulously, "I don't need any help, I'm going to a picnic with my friends, what's the deal?"

He calls to his partner to let the guys up, and as they walk back to the car I hear one say, "fuckin' fags."

So how do we pull this apart? Classism, Racism, and Homophobia all had a place in this story, but the core reality is that we weren't pulled over because we were (mostly) poor, or activists, or gay. We were pulled over because one white woman in a car with 5 African American people was a danger signal to these police officers.

Class didn't identify a car as dangerous. Sexual identity didn't identify a car as dangerous. Race did.

Most of the time, racism doesn't go to the gut of my experience like that. I'm a white woman, and my whiteness is what people see first, leaving me something of a blank slate until I open my mouth and my class falls out, or until they watch me walk and my dykeness leaks.

I can never ignore the complexities of classism in my life. Those people we could call "owners," those with privelege and power, do indeed make huge sweeping corporate and governmental decisions that benefit them and hurt poor people. The bankrupcy law changes of the last decade have completely screwed me. I'll be in debt forever and I'll never own a home, lacking a rich relative with an estate.

I could choose to ignore the complexities of racism, because except for occasional circumstances like the above, racism doesn't effect me in the same way as classism does. But people of color can't ignore it.

When I tell this story to white people, they often find it hard to believe -- they often say the types of things I've heard about the incident at GA -- well, it must have been a bad looking car, or maybe you were being loud with the radio and hollering, or maybe it was because you were a woman in between two men. Domestic people of color, particularly African American people, are rarely surprised by this story.

I could choose to ignore the complexities of racism, but I choose not to.

These bankrupcy laws disproportionately effect poor black people because there is a disproportionate percentage of black poor people in our country. It's not as simple as saying their problem is classism and privelege, not racism.

Racism, classism, homophobia -- these aren't different sides of the same coin, they're a freakin rubix cube.

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