Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Few Quick Thoughts on Class

At my UW class on homelessness, I always ask the students whether they sometimes think of homeless people as being sort of a different species. Not quite human. And I raise my own hand. And then they all do too. Class in America, I think, is a lot like race in that people hold a lot of unexamined assumptions and oppressive notions on the subject. We don't talk about it, so wrong ideas thrive in the dark and pop out to surprise us when we least expect them.

It's in the water. We're better off admitting it. Race, in some ways, is easier, because there's at least a fairly well defined set of concepts and a terminology that's largely accepted. The taboos around discussing class are often better hidden. Anti-racist trainers, for example, are relatively easy to find. But clarity on class is much harder to come by.

I had the opportunity to interview Class Matters author Betsey Leondar-Wright once and asked her why this was. She answered that for most anti-racist trainers, doing work for corporations and government is their bread and butter, and that these clients rarely want to deal with class. And so, we lack an agreed upon language, and when, for example, homeless and middle-class people come together to work in common, the interactions can be freighted with weirdness.

When I first came across Leondar-Wright's Class Matters: Cross-class alliance building for middle-class activists, a wished I could have gone back in a time machine 15 years with this book in hand. Over the course of organizing three different homeless empowerment programs, I made just about every mistake I could. My problem wasn't in building rapport or being respectful. While I've made some strides in this area, I've always felt more at ease with poor people than with the middle-class. My problem was more about negating my own power and judgment in order to "empower" those I was organizing. This repeatedly led to bad things, but my learning curve was painfully slow.

I eventually figured out that power itself was value-neutral. It was what you did with it, or didn't, that really mattered.

Anyway, there's nothing about any of this that's easy, which is why we tend to think about working with homeless people in an either/or fashion. Either we support and empower homeless people who are taking the lead and acting on their own, or we do things for them. Working with homeless people across class, with all of us respectfully bringing our own assets and experiences to the table, is a much more complicated, interesting, and powerful way of doing things.

Labels don't interest me that much. I've sat through two-hour discussions of whether the term houseless is preferable to homeless, or whether we should say those without homes instead, and these are the discussions that people have when they have little hope of changing anything that matters.

I'm happy to respect anyone's sensitivities, but that kind of stuff makes me want to slit my wrists.

We've spent the last six months at Real Change working through Class Matters and discussing it at staff meetings. We've defined our terminology and talked about identity politics. We've discussed our class backgrounds and examined some of our assumptions. We've acted out little plays for each other about the ways in which working and middle-class culture collide, and the various ways that we might avoid acting like idiots. And in the end, we've barely scratched the surface of a very deep, loaded subject.

I think we have, though, learned some humility, and that a little respect goes a very long way. And we're learning to not think so much in terms of "we" and "them," but more in terms of "us." And that's a pretty good place from which to begin.

For those who are interested in this work, Betsey's book is an excellent place to begin. Another website that has some great resource links is Class Action. "We raise awareness, facilitate cross-class dialogue, support cross-class alliances, and work with others to promote economic justice." Click on the image at the top of this story for something brilliant from The Onion.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

Great discussion of a vital issue!

You said: "I eventually figured out that power itself was value-neutral. It was what you did with it, or didn't, that really mattered."

Could you please elucidate this a little, in the context of your "long learning curve"? Perhaps you could give an example of how you got bogged down by class issues, and how you transcended the problem to find success.

I look forward to seeing more on this!

--David B.

Tim Harris said...

Thanks for that. I'm working my way forward toward those days in my biography project. It just got up to the early Boston period, and I decided to drop back and fill in up through the teen years because I have a Boston trip coming up in another month or two where I'm hoping to uncover some source material. But here's something I wrote last March that gets to the gist of it. This deals with that period as well.