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Rethinking “Classism”

October 1, 2010

Friends, I am running around all day today, but wanted to share a half-formed thought that’s been germinating for the last few days.

What the hell is “classism” supposed to mean?

Seriously though.  I know it’s a fixture in the litany of “isms”: sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, colorism, etc.

But isn’t the notion of “discrimination on the basis of social class” a little . . . redundant?

Don’t the existence of social classes already imply discrimination?

Like, oh, it’s okay that you remain lower-class, as long as I don’t make fun of you for being lower-class, or exclude you entirely from my middle- or upper-class institutions.

. . . ?

Does classism boil down to cultural chauvinism, and not much more?  That’s the impression one might get from the “Classism” section (nestled between the “Racism” section and the “Homophobia/Heterosexism” sections — there’s that familiar chorus, again) in famous U.S. feminist Jessica Valenti’s book, Full Frontal Feminism.  I’ll quote it in its entirety.

Classism

I’ll tell you a little story about something that made me acutely aware of classism—it was the craziest wake-up call ever.  I went to a public high school in New York that tested students for entry (it was kind of a dorky math and science school).  The majority of my friends in high school were Jewish gals from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They had awesome apartments and college-educated parents who were professors, artists, judges, and so on.  I grew up in Long Island City, Queens, which at the time was not considered the best neighborhood in the world.  My parents grew up in Queens and Brooklyn, got married when they were still teenagers, and never went to college.

But hey, it was all good to me.  My friends were my friends, and we were all the same.  Then one day, after a couple of my girlfriends spent some time at my house after school, one of them remarked, “Your mom is so cute!  Her accent sounds so . . . uneducated!”  They all laughed.  I don’t think she meant it to be cruel, or even realized what she was saying.  But after that moment, it was difficult to be around my high school friends.  I had this overwhelming feeling of not belonging.  I didn’t know if they were laughing at my potty-mouthed jokes because I was funny, or because I was playing up the Italian Queens girl stereotype.  I wondered, when they told me they didn’t like something I was wearing, whether it was because of a difference in taste, or because they thought I looked “trashy.”

Later, in college (at a private Southern university—I lasted a year before transferring back to New York), I would try to tone down the behavior I thought marked me as “lower class.”  I tried to drop cursing so much, the Queens accent slowly disappeared, and I continued to hang out with kids who went to boarding schools and to pretend I knew what the hell “summering” was.  But you can’t pass for long.  I would later realize that a lot of the hellishly sexist experiences I went through in college were completely tied up with classism.  I was called a slut not only because I had the gall to sleep with a guy I was dating, but because I dressed differently, talked differently (no matter how I tried to hide it), and was seen as the trashy Queens girl on scholarship.

So I know this is a little more personal than academic, but hey—the personal is political, right?

I understand that the experience of class stratification manifests partly in moralized judgments, ridicule, vitriol, and warped denial of other people’s humanity.  This is the flavor of class ideology.  But what about the structure?

Perhaps classism is not the real problem.

Perhaps CLASSES are the problem.

From Wikipedia:

The most basic class distinction is between the powerful and the powerless.[1][2] Social classes with a great deal of power are usually viewed as “the elites” within their own societies. Various social and political theories propose that social classes with greater power attempt to cement their own ranking above the lower classes in the hierarchy to the detriment of the society overall. By contrast, conservatives and structural functionalists have presented class difference as intrinsic to the structure of any society and to that extent ineradicable.

What do you think?  Classes, ineradicable?  So we should swell the middle class as much as possible, knowing there will always be people systematically and categorically deprived of equal power because of their economic and social standing?

Reality is weird, people.  Very weird.

Meantime, happy Friday!  And here is a lovely song for you.  See y’all on Monday.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 5:56 pm

    I like what you said about classes being the problem too, not just class prejudice.
    I’m part of Class Action, whose mission is to eradicate classism, and I just wanted you to know that by our definition BOTH aspects are classism – the structural/instititutional forces that create enormous inequalities between poor and super-rich; and the disrespect dumped on working-class and poor people, the attitudes that they have less human worth, less intelligence, etc.
    So even though you framed your post as arguing with the idea of classism, in fact it sounds like you’re singing the same song as us anti-classists!

  2. October 4, 2010 3:55 am

    I have felt classism before, only inside High School. Kids would flash their money in your face, when someone had the latest technology they were instantly cool, when you have something other than an iPod, you were nothing. The pressure to be rich was just intoxicating, I hated it. I never had money when I was going up, both my parents are Mainers, with Maine accents, no college education, when I was in school I took my friends over to my parents house, someone always mentioned their accent to me. Which was annoying.

  3. October 4, 2010 7:41 pm

    Hi Betsy and Heather! Thanks for stopping by.

    Betsy, I’m interested in the Class Action organization. How do y’all define classes? (i.e. in terms of income level, or relationship to the means of production in society?) Is the goal to swell the middle-class as much as possible, worldwide, while shrinking the super-rich and the poor populations, as well as the gap between them? How does capitalism fit into the analysis and program for action? What are y’all’s mechanisms for acting? I’d love to hear more. :)

    Heather, I certainly hear you. From what I can see, we humans harm each other through our words in many ways, usually coming from a place of fundamental, repressed insecurity (and thus needing to mock or subtly put down others in order to secure our own sense of self). Sometimes this harm takes the form of making fun of others, or creating social hierarchies, based on consumerism, education snobbery, the way people dress, what kinds of sports they like, physical cleanliness, and all kinds of things related to family background and income.

    What I wonder, though, is why my own education on “classism” (which mirrors the kind demonstrated in Valenti’s book) focused exclusively on these differences and tensions among people of different income levels, rather than their different, hierarchical relationships to the means of production (in other words, owners and bourgeoisie versus workers and the underclass). This latter differentiation is what I (currently) understand to be the root of class divisions. Or at least the most important and fundamental types of class divisions.

    On average, the upper class/ruling class/capitalist class is rich because they have historically stolen, and now own, the means of production. (The means of production being huge areas of land, mines, natural resources, factories, labs, companies, maybe financial capital but honestly I’m not sure about that, etc.) They have private and public armies to defend their ownership. And the ownership itself entitles them to collect surplus value, or profit. (As this cartoon illustrates.)

    And on average, the working class and underclass is poor because in order to survive they must work, and suffer varying degrees of exploitation, by serving the means of production (literally “earning a living”).

    To my mind, this kind of material hierarchy operates on a more profound level than mere income differentials and attendant cultural clout.

    Again, I don’t want to discount the lived pain of prejudice and human cruelty based on different income levels. But I think that the reason these forms of cruelty persist so strongly is not because of a classist belief system that operates in a vacuum (and is fixable by enlightened social education alone—like, If only we taught people not to be so classist). Instead, I think they tend to reflect structural, material truths about who owns stuff, and who doesn’t.

    Like I say, though, my own understanding of this is highly imperfect and evolving. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts, and from others, too.

    Thanks again!

    katie

  4. October 5, 2010 6:27 am

    Hi Katie,
    I really like what you wrote back to me and Heather. (Can’t see the cartoon, though.)
    Have you read Eric Olin Wright’s books? You sound like him – the bottom line is exploitation. Makes a good case.
    At Class Action we try to keep the door open for people with lots of different thoughts about class. Our rough definitions are here: http://www.classism.org/wp/about-class/class-definitions. And our vision of a world without classism is on our home page: http://www.classism.org. HOW you get there people have varied opinions about, but we can agree on the vision. All our activities (workshops, publications, support groups (like for first-generation college students), web stuff) are to get people putting on a “classism lens” on the world around them and inspiring them to act to change it.
    Hope you’ll stay in touch.
    Betssy

  5. sasha permalink
    October 6, 2010 4:41 pm

    Hey betsy!

    Your workshops and writings intend to inspire people to put on a “classism lens” and inspire them to change the world. Thats great, but my question is: who?
    As working class people, should we focus on convincing our exploiters to “put on a classism” lens and stop exploiting us, or should we focus on building our power as working class people? If we are serious about the latter, it is also important to challenge the idea of where power in society lies. As Kloncke said, because of our “relationship to the means of production” working class people hold a different kind of power than celebrities, politicians, and bureaucrats. Because we are the essential step in the accumulation of capital we hold the ultimate power shut this system down and supplant it with something else.

    A writing comes to mind about a 1974 wildcat (unendorsed) strike at a Dodge auto plant in Detroit:

    “We don’t intend this publication to perpetuate the process wherein ‘authorities’ or ‘experts’ tell others what reality consists of. This is done daily in the media and works to keep us in the status of passive observers of our lives while the rich, the famous and popstars are projected as the ‘important’ people and the real actors of history and the creators of events.

    This time it was different. Events were shaped and determined by those who usually are only spectators. The principal author of this pamphlet recorded and photographed events as they happened to him and others during those four days. The rest of us were interested in the wildcat and read several things about the role of unions, talked among ourselves a lot and finally produced what you are holding.

    We are not a ‘political’ group. We are not trying to ‘organize’ anyone into a political party or “movement.” We are not trying to exhort others to greater heights of activity. We, two auto workers, a printer, a student, a teamster, a secretary, and two unemployed, want to do the same thing in our lives as the Dodge Truck strikers did in theirs: free ourselves from the tyranny of the workplace; stop being forced to sell our labor to others; stop others from having control over our lives.

    But four days is no good. It only whets the appetite for what is possible. What can be done for four days can be done permanently. We want to live our lives for ourselves. We are Millard Berry, Ralph Franklin, Alan Franklin, Cathy Kauflin, Marilyn Werbe, Richard Wieske, Peter Werbe.”
    http://libcom.org/history/wildcat-dodge-truck-june-1974

    The accumulation of capital on the one hand means the accumulation on the other hand of human suffering, misery, alienation; the destruction of worlds. Personally, I am not interested in moralistic appeals to the capitalist class–a class who’s existence means the perpetuation of this system. Instead, I’m much more interested in building the power of working class people to take control of our surroundings & run it in the interests of all of us (instead of individuals who exploit us). I agree with Kloncke when they said this can’t be done by “enlightened social education” alone.

    much love,
    -s

  6. October 14, 2010 12:10 pm

    Hi Sasha,
    I agree with both you and Kloncke about organizing working-class people to hold real power, not just educating to enlighten.
    But that emphasis leaves it confusing about what middle-class and owning-class people should do to lessen inequality and classism. Hanging around watching working-class people do all the work doesn’t seem right! Speaking for myself (as a middle-class person), I think giving wake-up calls to myself and other people with more privilege and figuring out ways to be allies to working-class organizing is a crucial role. That’s how I see my involvement with Class Action and the blog (www.classism.org/blog).
    And I can tell you that workshops and publications and blog entries get much more persuasive when there are working-class people willing to share their stories and ideas to a mixed-class audience. I can see why working-class and poor people choose not to play that role but want to work only with their class kindred spirits, but I’m glad that in fact their priorities vary.
    Does that make sense?
    Betsy
    P.S. I know Peter Werbe, one of the authors you quoted – great guy!

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