Saturday, May 19, 2012

a few things

1. I didn't say, and have never said,  that "it's not about race," or any such thing. That's an offensive statement. Of course it's about race, and it's about sex, and it's about sexual orientation. It's just also about class, and many other things that need to be attended to.

2. Achieving social justice is not a zero sum game. Saying "so you were inspired by a post about white straight men's privilege to talk about white straight men's problems?", and playing other cute games of critical footsie, suggests that these are either/or problems. As I said in that post, I truly believe, on a practical and theoretical level, that these problems can only be meaningfully addressed together. I am completely uninterested in trying to rank some sort of hierarchy of suffering. It's theoretically useless, and politically ruinous. Setting black people against queer people against gay people against poor people against Jewish people, etc., is exactly the method of status quo power. And it is a game that guarantee that all of them lose.

3. You have to understand: an awful lot of good people have never been substantially exposed to poverty in their lives. For them, poverty lives in fleeting moments at the street corner and on the subway. I'll never forget the most clarifying, depressing day I ever had of reading and thinking about education. That was the day I realized that so many of the people who argue about education policy on the national stage literally have never been exposed to educational failure. By that I mean that they have all the demographic advantages that contribute to educational success, went to private elementary schools and elite high schools and Ivy League colleges, and never experienced seeing someone else struggling and failing at school. After I really grokked that, so many things made sense, and so much of my hopes for a better discourse on education died.

It's the same with poverty. Many of them simply can't comprehend that pain, and unlike with racism and sexism and homophobia, there is not nearly the social pressure on them to acknowledge it. (This phenomenon is self-replicating.) So there's a kind of oblivious callousness there, one driven by ignorance more than by malicious intent. I grew up in a town with an elite private college there. The students by and large had, to me, enlightened politics, fiercely opposed to sexism and racism and homophobia. But many of them (and forgive me for painting with a broad brush) simply could not have been more wrongheaded when it came to class. They'd fight against injustice from afar, but wouldn't hesitate to chew out a waiter because their pancakes were too thin. "Townie" is the slur you keep in your pocket after a couple of semesters of cultural studies.

I've been exposed to poverty, professionally, working in a public school and for an inner city YMCA in Chicago and with a literacy program. And to those who simply don't like to hear talk of white people's problems, I can only confess: I take this stuff seriously. White poverty matters to me, and I consider ending it no less a part of our public duty. There is pain out there that I can hardly fathom, with all of the usual baggage and complication that comes with any such entrenched oppression and neglect. Including the tangled web of considering the subaltern and how and why and why not to speak for them.

That's the long and the short of it. I know anyone with a subscription to n+1 and an Internet connection can find ample theoretical trouble with all of this. I just really don't give a shit.

6 comments:

Will Shetterly said...

When I first ran into the folks who sideline discussions of class, I was baffled by their insistance that suggesting anything else might be a greater factor than racism or sexism was a denial of the existence of racism or sexism. Then I found a great short piece by Adolph Reed Jr., The limits of anti-racism. He notes, "Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it."

The people you're encountering have trouble answering Reed. He's a brilliant black leftist, so he can't simply be mocked like, oh, a black or gay or female conservative. Sadly, their solution is to ignore him.

Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

All good points. Point three especially so. It reminds me of something I write about a lot, which is that it seems like the Liberals have abandoned fighting for economic equality, and instead decided to fight for social equality.

That's pretty much the compromise that got Bill Clinton nominated, actually, and I'd say it's worked out OK for Democrats nationally.

But yeah, a lot of liberals--like those students you mention--decided to focus on ensuring that social privilege is fought against but economic privilege is not.

It's particularly troubling to me that, in times past, when Liberals did fight for economic equality, they did not fight very hard for social equality. Most curious.

kilian francis said...

I like Will Shetterly's komments so much that I am getting his novel "Elsewhere." (Seriously.) Full price, too, baby--none of this used stuff for me. (Also seriously.) Nice comments.

sheenyglass said...

Because most of us white liberals live comfortable lives in a capitalist meritocracy, the idea of poverty as a systemic injustice is particularly threatening to our identities.

Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. can be viewed flaws in an imperfectly functioning meritocracy. Poverty, on the other hand, is a direct product of capitalist meritocracy - if there are winners there have to be losers. So racism et al can be fixed (in theory) without seriously undermining white liberal privilege by making the meritocracy more efficient at recognizing "merit". By contrast, addressing class requires us to question merit as a valid basis for the division of society.

Ethan Gach said...

"That was the day I realized that so many of the people who argue about education policy on the national stage literally have never been exposed to educational failure. By that I mean that they have all the demographic advantages that contribute to educational success, went to private elementary schools and elite high schools and Ivy League colleges, and never experienced seeing someone else struggling and failing at school. After I really grokked that, so many things made sense, and so much of my hopes for a better discourse on education died."

It's unfortunate that those who most often go into teaching are those who enjoyed school and succeeded within that system. There imaginations often seem incapable of understanding the institutions failings, or what it's like to be a struggling/failing student within that system, because their love for that system is part of what brought them back to teach in the first place.

Kilian Francis said...

As the middle-class white background was not native to me, I never understood why the concept of race had such a stranglehold on many middle-class white grad students and why they were so blind to issues of class. I read widely in whiteness studies for several years and learned some good stuff from it, but sometimes the theories of skin privileges seemed to have to homogenize whites in order to keep the theory water-tight, when it could have been flexible. Such suggestions were, as mentioned above, seen as attempts to deny that racism exists. The contradictions in antiracist theory never produced a wider understanding of how race intersected with other shaping forces, except maybe gender and sexuality, to some degree. It was odd, studying whiteness, and having to ignore class. The hip, defiant attitude of many whiteness writers ensured that their work would only be read by those who agreed with them--not to whites, so many of whom could benefit from learning the difference between race and ethnicity.