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.

gentrification

So I went to Brixton the other day with a friend of mine, doing what wannabe hipster folk do – eat spicy caribbean vegan wraps and eat vegan cupcakes after attending a little festival about afro hair. It was cool, it was chill, I felt a little bit cultured.

While on our way to get said vegan cupcakes, we ventured through the farmers market/hipstery restaurant bit. And I like farmers markets and rustic restaurants for all their organic, earthiness and whatnot. However, as I looked around amidst the mexican gourmet, vietnamese street food, and kitsch accessory stalls, I was shocked by the lack of black faces. And the very obvious abundance of white ones. With very obviously middle class accents. Was this Brixton? Had I clicked my size 5 Zara boots and ended up in Kansas aka Hampstead Heath? What was going on?

Real integration isn’t a bad thing. I have no issue with my white next door neighbour being my next door neighbour, even though he told my Dad to his negro face that he votes for UKIP because black folk are lazy and should go back to their country although he lives on one floor of a house the same size of the house that my Dad owns all 4 floors of. Yes, racism is irrational.

What I do have problems with is faux, shady integration. Which is pretty much the dish that black people have been served both here and in the USA for the past 50 years. Faux integration is technical integration with systematic economic segregation that ensures that no real integration actually occurs. I mean, it’s kind of smart really, isn’t it? Give people technical rights, take down the signs that say “no dogs, no Coloureds, no Irish”, but effectively orchestrate systems in terms of education, employment and housing that ensure said dogs/coloureds/Irish/ poor white folk are unable to live, work, dwell, or socialise amongst you.

(ETA: To those of you who read the above paragraph and interpret it as ‘she doesn’t like integration’, I really have nothing I can say apart from to ask you to read the paragraph again. I’ve edited it slightly for clarity but I honestly don’t understand how someone interprets that paragraph as ‘she doesn’t like white people’. Like, really?)

So, in the middle of Brixton, where the population used to be overwhelmingly black and working class, there are whole sections where young white middle class people hang out, but not with any of the people that made the place ‘cool’ and ‘vibrant’ in the first place. Nope, they set up communities of gated flats that locals cannot afford to buy. Local people have been evicted out of flats that they’ve lived in for ages to make room for these people. And social circles aren’t integrated.

I don’t expect rich white people to go out on searches to find working class black people to hang out with in a weird non-organic way, I just think the changes happening in Brixton and Peckham are sadly typical of a society that is very much segregated by class and race across the country and the capital. (As an aside, I think the gentrification  of Brixton, Peckham, Harlem, the relentless promotion of Iggy Azalea and Sam Smith, the rock and roll take over of the 50’s, are all symptoms of the cultural vulturism that seems to be endemic to white middle class culture.)

To be honest, I would be lying if I said that gentrification in my hometown of Catford isn’t something that is slightly appealing to me. I’m not averse to my parent’s house price going up a little bit – for a pair of middle aged home owners, that’s probably a good thing. I’m not against the local Costa coffee that’s popped up down the road. Easy access to a soya hot chocolate is great.

But I need to be unselfish. I need to think about those around me who aren’t as privileged. Who won’t be able to afford to live in the places they’ve called home for many years. Who find a Waitrose popping up to replace the local Lidl. What about them?

There are solutions. Some councils such as Hackney, are working on making sure that local residents benefit from changes, and launching schemes that promote integration, but a lot more needs to be done. Maybe there need to be limitations on new developments, or maybe there need to be agreements made about businesses sponsoring community programs as part of contracts etc. I’m not sure. The real problem is deeper than individual councils though, it’s a nation wide, systematic problem with certain groups having access from birth to privileges that others grapple to get.

What do you guys think? Is gentrification positive? What are the negatives? What can be done?