Is Your Class in the Way?

By: N. Jeanne Burns

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A few weeks ago at the YWCA Midtown I sat outside the gate to cool down from my run. I scrolled through Twitter posts about the Dunn trial and read about whites fearing blacks. Then I heard the desk clerk say, “You can only use your driver’s license three times. After the next two times, you won’t be admitted until you get a new YWCA ID.”

I looked up and saw two black women walk toward the locker rooms and I said to the clerk, an older white man I’d seen there before, “Really? That’s the policy?” He nodded yes.

“Because I lost my YWCA ID and got in with my driver’s license for WEEKS and was never challenged.”

“I guess you’re just likeable,” he said.

I was stunned. I surprised myself and went on.

“But I’m white. Those women were black.”

He got flustered, defensive and then said, “I’m offended. I’m not even going to talk to you about this. Not at THIS institution.”

After calming down a bit, he asked for my last name. When I asked why, he said he wanted to see what other privileges I’d been given, as if it were a problem with me personally. I certainly didn’t do anything wrong. Eventually he asked who was on duty when this happened, but since I go every other day, I’ve gotten checked in by many different people. No one person is to blame here, I don’t think.

I see the trust I got over and over again (by people of all races at the YWCA) as integral to the system that demonizes black men by making me as a white woman as trustable. If we can’t talk about race openly, how are we going to undo it? If an institution that I’ve witnessed doing work around race is replicating this system in small ways (and maybe big), what hope do we have for the future of racial justice work Minneapolis?

I also see the problem with talking about race openly. Middle class people avoid conflict and value their own individual place in their work, communities and world over justice.

In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, author Barbara Jensen talks about the language differences between middle and working class people in Chapter 3: Belonging vs. Becoming. She says she found that the two classes used the same language for different purposes:

“The middle class groups used language and discussion to think and argue, to display their individual ability, and to uncover differences of opinion and debate them within the group. The working class groups used language and discussion to find agreement within the group and to connect emotionally with one another.”

And that “…middle class language and culture tend to promote individual achievements and competition between outstanding individuals, or people who ‘stand out.’ Working class language and communities tend to recreate values of social connection, solidarity and mutual aid.”

Yes, in the moment I thought at the YWCA that I could find agreement with staff, find a source of solidarity; I thought that they’d be well-trained in open dialog about race, that they’d understand what I could see.

Now I understand that what I thought was just stating a fact was challenging his individual ability. He then sought to find ways to reaffirm his individuality and uniqueness.

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Barb Jensen’s emphasis in Reading Classes is about the inequality in schools because of some of these differences. But I wonder if social class gets in our way in addressing race and racism. Specifically, if the middle class way of communicating, which is highly valued and rewarded in our schools and organizations and companies, is keeping race and racism a quiet topic of discussion instead of an opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid.

I mess up all the time around race. Recently I posted an article on Facebook about the Minnesota Supreme Court striking down a law that would incarcerate parents who refused to pay court-ordered child and spousal support. I was outraged. But a friend posted a comment reminding me about the “justice” system that unfairly targets men of color and poor people, and how that law has been used unequally. I was embarrassed that I didn’t think about race when I read the article, but I didn’t take her comment personally. She was direct and plain speaking. And I thanked her, remembering that we are on the same side, that we both want justice for families AND for people of color, that it’s not one thing or the other. That we do have a lot in common on the issue. That we are on the same side, even when I fail.

I know a lot of white people who care about race and racism. A lot of those people are middle class.

Is your class getting in your way toward doing something about it?