No, classism is not the “new” racism. On being black and middle class.

classism meme

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice..” Martin Luther King

I recently wrote a blog on gentrification (http://girlwiththafro.com/2014/12/07/all-the-rich-white-folk-in-brixton-and-peckham-on-gentrification/) that became semi viral. With it, came the expected comments from well-intentioned (I do try to give the benefit of the doubt), white liberals who told me that it was “not about race, it was about class”. Cue internal groan. I tell ya, if I had a penny….

It’s nice to be a colourblind, white middle class liberal. You get to benefit from the privileges of being white and middle class, while at the same time patting yourself gently on the back in the knowledge that you’re not ‘one of those’ right winging, nose upturned at the poor folk and the black folk, rich white people. So you read your Guardian in the morning, you have a diverse circle of friends who all get along tremendously well and you ‘don’t see colour, because race doesn’t matter’.

Well, unfortunately, it matters to a lot of people. So it not mattering to you is nice, but fairly irrelevant.

I remember a story last year that was splashed across the cover of Tatler magazine. Emma Mcquiston was about to become Britain’s first (to our knowledge, I suppose) black marchioness. I flipped through to read the story, and it relayed accounts of being snubbed by some members of the upper class who were unhappy that a brown face was gracing the aristocracy with its presence. This overt display of racism is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the connection between class and race.

Race and class are inextricably linked. The history of this country  and the United States, in fact, the past four hundred years or so of world history mean that the nature of being black and middle class (or Asian) is completely different to being white and middle class. WIth being black comes the assumption from many, that you are working class, but  being black and middle class does not release you from the stereotypes associated with blackness.

Members of the black middle class are far more likely to have a recent family history of being working class. Not only that, but research in America (more needs to be done in the UK, but there has been similar research with similar results), shows that black families with similar incomes to white middle class families are more likely to live in or in close proximity to poor neighbourhoods, and are therefore more likely to fall victim to the negative outcomes that come from living in those environments. Downward social mobility (i.e. becoming working class despite being brought up in a middle class environment) , is far more likely for blacks than whites. (I’m not entirely comfortable with the term upward/downward mobility, but that’s another post). Essentially, trying to erase race in the discussion of being middle class is in itself a form of racism, as it deliberately ignores the unique interplay between class and race, and completely ignores the experiences of black middle class people. It isn’t just individualised experiences of racism – research shows the systemic differences.

Being black and middle class means being subject to a unique set of racially motivated passive aggressive behaviour that comes from interacting in primarily white, middle class environments. This unfounded idea that black middle class people have “arrived”, and that the only work left to do is help poor blacks reach the levels of their middle class siblings and then everything will be fine, isn’t founded in reality, but rather in a fantastical colourblind society that makes some white liberals feel better. Unfortunately, their primary concern appears to be relieving themselves of the discomfort that comes from admitting the racism that pervades white middle class spaces, as opposed to actually wanting to effect any real change.

Ignoring race and focusing on class alone isn’t possible. And asking black people to do that, yet again, selfishly stifles their voices in order to maintain a status quo. This blog isn’t the place for that.

2 Comments

  1. December 16, 2014 / 5:21 pm

    If we both could get a penny every time classism is said to be the root of the issue as oppose to racism, student loans gone. As you stated, ignoring race and focusing on class is going to lead us nowhere.

  2. James
    December 16, 2014 / 8:07 pm

    If blackness is so intertwined with being working class, doesn’t that mean classism is, in a way, a major root of the problem? If black people had a stereotype of being middle class, do you think there would still be the same racism issues there are today? Obviously there would still be issues with racism– Asian people are the wealthiest racial group in America yet still face racism. But The racism against black people would be more subtle, would it not? Maybe I’m completely misreading your article, but honest question.

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