By Sailor Holladay
This article is inspired by my friend Ingrid Chapman at the Catalyst Project. Ingrid asked for my input into the Anna Braden training program, Catalyst’s new anti-racist training program for white activists. Their website can be found at: http://collectiveliberation.org.
I offer my reflections as a participant and facilitator of anti-racist workshops in undergraduate, graduate, and community education settings with the intention of building the leadership of raised poor and working class people, including raised poor and working class white people, within the greater anti-racist movement. As a raised poor white anti-racist, I have had frustrations working in groups dominated by white, middle and owning class people. I offer these thoughts to middle and owning class white anti-racists, to soothe past moments when neither of us knew how to act; with the intention of moving together toward what we want: an end to racism and white supremacy in our lifetime.
I have a desire to protect against marginalized perspectives being tokenized and taken as ‘truth’. Please don’t believe anything I say. I am excited that my thoughts may be of use to you.
First, it is necessary for me to ask myself what my interests are in making class and race distinctions. One might say that the drawing of further distinctions further divides people. Those who hold institutionalized power in the current society have devised distinctions to divide us. This is a strategy from a socio-economic system that requires these divisions to maintain itself. Let us make distinctions with the intention of reunification and social transformation. As we notice the patterns that the oppressive society has instilled into our different socially constructed identities, we begin to heal our hurts so we can use our thinking to end racism and other oppressions.
It is critical that different groups work in solidarity separately as well as with each other. There is a lot of work for white folks to do with other white folks on racism and white supremacy to become better able to work in coalition with people of color. When white folks of various class backgrounds come together, there are often unnamed cultural differences that create challenges. A prevalent assumption made is that everyone is “white middle class”, and “white middle class” culture is taken as the norm, further centering the experience of white, middle class people with an unfortunate consequence of marginalizing the experiences of those in the room from poor and working-class backgrounds.
When building a culturally relevant learning environment, don’t assume that if people don’t identify as middle class, they must be working class. As with any social identity, let people identify their class identity and follow their lead. Speak many options so they may choose to identify with as many, or none, or a class identity they never thought of (e.g. low-income, money-poor, raised poor, poor, poverty class, working class, workers, criminal class, etc). At the least, give the options of “raised poor and working class”.
Contradict the historical and current mythos that only poor and working class white people are racist while holding white people of all class backgrounds accountable to racism and white supremacy. This becomes increasingly possible when we can notice institutional, individual, cultural forms of racism.
There is a history of owning class and middle class white people scapegoating poor and working class whites for racism. This position lacks an analysis of the ways that social institutions controlled by owning class whites play a major role in perpetuating white supremacy. Concurrently, there is a history of poor and working class whites committing acts of racism against people of color in the U.S. We get to hold these complexities as we work against racism and toward the transformation our social histories.
Speak using multiple-issues and multiple-identities while reminding that the focus of this session is unlearning/challenging racism and white supremacy.
As educators, let’s stop assuming raised poor and working class white folks aren’t ‘getting it’ because they’re poor or working class. White folks of all classes ‘don’t get’ racism’ because of the distress of whiteness. It takes time, and we will get it soon.
Don’t assume that all white people have been segregated from people of color. While this is the case for many white people, racial segregation has much to do with economics. Poor and working class whites may have grown up with close connections to people of color.
Encourage all participants, including facilitators, to postpone assumptions about race and class when making statements. Not all black folks have family in prison, not all white folks have access to higher education.
The non-retention of raised poor and working class participants in anti-racist workshops may not be a lack of commitment on their part or our part to anti-racist thought and action, but may be a consequence of economic oppression such as inability to find affordable childcare, limited access to transportation, or working a job that doesn’t allow time off for social justice education or organizing.
Have food! Share food! If you say food will be provided, provide food. Some participants may be counting on that snack as one of their meals for the day. Ask people what they want to eat. Invite, but don’t require people to bring food. Some participants may not be able to afford to bring food to share. Have more options besides hummus and carrot sticks.
Follow through on economic accessibility (free materials, scholarships, transportation) if you offer them. Parcel out the labor (giving rides, bringing food) to reduce the chance that people will burn out or get resentful. Make getting basic needs met a project of the learning community.
Remember the potential for this learning opportunity to be resume building for many participants. In addition to supporting the leadership of the raised poor and working class participants, offer to be a professional reference, offer to write letters of recommendation for future opportunities.
When choosing workshop activities, reflect on how certain activities may reinscribe oppression rather than transform it. When we take two steps back if our parents didn’t go to college, poor people always end up at the back of the Privilege Walk, reifying our social position.
Assume the self-determination of all participants. People are best equipped to think for themselves.
Some additional resources:
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Red Dirt: Growing up Okie
Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia: Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America
bell hooks: Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, and Where We Stand: Class Matters
Myles Horton: We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
Joanna Kadi: Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker
David Roediger: Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
Mab Segrest: Memoir of a Race Traitor
Chip Smith: The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism
Linda Stout: Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing