Wednesday, August 29, 2012

about "parallel lives: a different race, a different class"

In 2007, many social justice warriors wrote posts for International Blog Against Racism Week. None of them mentioned class. I thought that was like describing a bicycle as if it only had one pedal, so I wrote this:
parallel lives: a different race, a different class

If you changed my race, but not my class, this would probably be my life:

My parents would not have been from small towns in northern Minnesota. Mom's parents owned a drugstore, and Dad's parents owned a small farm. Making them black in that time would probably make me a southerner or a westerner. (The north had middle-class black neighborhoods in its cities then, but few black farm-owners.)

I was born on an army base in 1955. Truman desegregated the army in '48, so Dad would've still been drafted.

Dad would probably still start Dog Land and get involved in civil rights, but instead of going to an all-white public school from kindergarten to fifth grade, I would have gone to a black one that had far fewer financial resources.

Instead of being called a nigger-lover, I would've been called a nigger.

I would've been beaten by bigots because of my skin, which I couldn't have changed, instead of my long hair, which I could have changed, but didn't.

Life would've been harder on me, but my parents would've done for me what middle-class black families of the time did for their children, and when the opportunity for me to go to the Choate School came, I would've gone.

I would've listened to more funk and less rock.

I would've still read Malcolm X and protested the Vietnam War.

I would've still wanted to become a writer.

I don't know if I would've met and fallen in love with Emma, but I think I would've; there were interracial couples at Beloit College.

I don't know if I would've become a fantasy writer, but I think I would've; I had Delany for inspiration.

Whether I would be more concerned with race and less concerned with class today, I don't know.

But I do know this: in the broadest strokes, my life would not have changed greatly if I had been born black instead of white. For someone born a few years earlier, a change of race would've made enormous differences, but I was born as the racial realities of the US were changing profoundly.

But what if I'd been born white and poor? My father wouldn't have had the opportunity to start a new business in a new land.

I would've only gone to public schools, and I might not have gone to college.

I might've had to join the army to support my family.

I never would've met Emma.

I might never have become a writer.

My life would be so different that it's impossible to imagine it paralleling the one I've lived. It's nice to think that because I'm reasonably bright, I would've risen out of my class. But the percentage of people who move outside their class in the US is tiny, smaller even than it is in the UK. To imagine that I would be an exception calls for imagining that I would be one of the very few for whom luck and hard work result in success.
That post got hundreds of comments, and the conversation rambled across many blogs. A few days later, I added a postscript:
When I wrote this, I made some assumptions that I didn't realize—oh, sneaky subconscious!—and some assumptions that I failed to realize other people would miss because I didn't spell them out. For example, I never meant to suggest that was the only life I could've had if you only changed my race. I know something that some fans of alternate history actually call (I blush repeating this) Will Shetterly’s rule: There are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories.

Some of you will undoubtedly think the life I posited is implausible. I don't; I think it's the most conservative version of my altered life. Here's where my sneaky subconscious comes in: I do believe that most Americans don't realize what a great role class plays in their lives. So when I was thinking about an alternate life, I was thinking about the one in which a change of race but not a change of class still gave me a life that in its broadest strokes was still remarkably like my life. In the multiverse of "Will grows up black," that is only one of an infinite number of possible lives.

Many people have pointed to some of the other likely lives that I glossed over when I said simply, "Life would've been harder on me." The latest one came from nigita, who pointed out a change that I had never considered: "And even if you were somehow able to transcend all these things, odds are good that if you stood out academically, you'd be under enormous pressure to do something with your life so that you could be a credit to your race." It's definitely true that in many of my infinite alternate lives, I would've become the lawyer that my father had hoped I would be. So, apologies for not realizing that I really needed to say something like the above at the beginning of my thought experiment. Stupid subconscious.
In 2009, two of Sparkymonster's examples in "Will Shetterly: Do Not Engage" came from the discussion on the original LiveJournal post of "parallel lives: a different race, a different class" in 2007. Here's more context from the original comments:

• Jonquil, a white American woman, brought up the taxi test:

jonquil: "What happens, among other things, is that you can't get a taxi in Manhattan in the rain."

willshetterly: "I wish someone would do a taxi test with a middle class black and a "trailer trash" white. For those who want to play the oppression hierarchy game, the result would be interesting. And while I'm not denying that there are racist taxi drivers, getting a taxi in Manhattan in the rain is an art form for anyone. As a young man, I tended to give up, cover my head with a newspaper if one was handy, and walk. Whether taxi drivers were prejudiced against me because I was a young man, I don't know, but I do know that I didn't look like someone who would give them a great tip."

jonquil: "The whole point of the taxi test is that black people are, on a day to day basis, treated differently than white people in identifiable ways. It isn't about the taxi drivers. It's about the taxi customers."

willshetterly: "Aren't the drivers making the choice?"

jonquil: "Are we talking about what happens when we change class but leave race constant, or are we talking about whether taxi drivers are Bad People?"

willshetterly: "...if you make me black, I'll run into racists. Not denying. Would having trouble getting a cab change my life in its broader outlines? Definitely denying. I survived not getting picked up because I was a kid. I would survive not being picked up because I was black. And I have to admit the taxi test smells of class bigotry to me."

• nicked_metal, a white Australian man, brought up self-esteem:

nicked_metal: "We seem to agree that if you had not had a choice about exposing yourself to victimization, that the outcomes for your self-esteem would have been hard to predict. If the outcomes for your self-esteem would have been hard to predict, how can you predict the outcome of your life in general with such confidence? Do you not believe that self-esteem is a determining factor in life outcomes?"

willshetterly: "I know an awful lot of blacks who don't have self-esteem problems, or at least, don't have greater self-esteem problems than any other insecure artist. Do you know many middle-class blacks with self-esteem problems?"

• sandersyager, who described herself as "a middle class, college educated black woman" from "a moderately expensive private Quaker institution" "who also identifies as queer" inspired the OJ Simpson comment:

sandersyager: "A nigger is a nigger is a nigger is a nigger. It doesn't matter if you're Michael Jordan, millionaire, or Michael Jones, the kid across the street in the projects. When you're out at night, today, in 2007, you worry if you're going to get pulled over and survive it. You worry if you're going to get turned away from a job because your skin is too dark, too yellow, and anything in between. You will, in most places, struggle in school because teachers will assume you are not as bright, and you will be the first placed in special ed and the last in honors track courses. You will be encouraged to think about the community college and Harvard? Forget it. You will time and time again be asked if you play basketball, if you sing. Not if you know physics, speak Japanese or travelled outside the US. You will know racism, and you will know classism, and you will see both perpetuated by a system that DOES NOT separate them but uses poor whites to carry out a mission that protects wealth through pitting them against poor blacks, and teaches them that The Minority is the one taking their opportunities away. You would not have the charmed little life you described above. Yes, many of those things would have been possible, but you missed all the little bumps in the road that you, as a white person, will never and have never experienced. Your arrogance later in stating your mission as the eradication of class, and pretending that class and race are not inextricably linked is misguided and insulting, as well as being one of the reasons that social movements continue to fail. You're right that there is enough wealth for people to live comfortably, were it dispersed fairly, but one of the key factors there is the use of race in determining who is worthy. Wealth, in the US at least, was built in past decades through treating people of color as property, and continues through the systems that mean a higher percentage of POC hold minimum wages jobs than college degrees, and that also disadvantages poor whites in through the same means."

willshetterly: "I completely agree that racism has been a tool of capitalism since the slave trade became a matter of rich Africans selling poor Africans to rich Europeans. But a nigger is not always a nigger: OJ Simpson got off because he was rich, even though comparable cases involving poor whites resulted in quick convictions. I agree about the bumps you describe; as I said in the post, my life would've been harder if I'd been black. We'll have to disagree about whether class and race are inextricably linked. There are plenty of monoracial cultures where class thrives."

sandersyager: "You cite the guilty white liberal's favorite counter example, OJ Simpson, but you have to understand that he does not represent the majority of African Americans in the legal system, any more than the Teflon Don represents all whites. While his class status certainly played a role, having access to more resources will always have an impact on the outcome, Simpson is, frankly, an anomaly in terms of African Americans in the justice system. ... I think everyone has the ability to claim personal power, but in order to do that, we have to stop parsing identities and causes and issues as if one matters more than the other. I do not believe your approach levels the grounds of oppression. In fact, I believe it raises one area of contention above others. This approach is what causes people to leave parts of their identities outside their work for social justice, it is what allows GLBTQ groups to ignore racism by saying that by erasing homophobia, everyone will be equal. It's what enables those working against racism to say that if we fix discrimination based on race, everyone will be equal. It is this approach that pushes other issues, other vital identities, off of the table. It is this approach that pushes people like me out of the room and out of the movements that should be seeking to benefit everyone but fail to make the critical connections between oppressions."

willshetterly: "That is where we disagree. You think the "isms" are equal and independent; I believe hierarchy lies at the heart of them all. I agree that "we have to stop parsing identities and causes and issues as if one matters more than the other," but I think the way we do that is by addressing hierarchy itself. Which doesn't instantly end the other isms, but it leaves them without any outside support. Of course OJ is an anomaly in the experience of African Americans. The point is that he's not an anomaly in the experience of the rich. By becoming rich, he becomes green, not black. As for pity and helplessness, I don't mean to imply that helplessness is a permanent state. But if you think everyone's capable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, well, we have to disagree again. You can't fish without a fishing pole. (Uh, not the perfect metaphor from a vegetarian, but it's late, so I'll let it go.) Those of us who succeed do so because we were helped by our societies; there's no such thing as a selfmade man or woman. But how we keep from pushing anyone out of the room? It's tough. Conservative capitalists have it easy: they unite to keep their power. Until the rest of us find a way to be allies, the capitalists will keep winning."

• Starkeymonster, an Ivy League black woman, entered the discussion, quoting me in italics:

Starkeymonster:
I wish someone would do a taxi test with a middle class black and a "trailer trash" white. For those who want to play the oppression hierarchy game, the result would be interesting.  
Michael Moore did with Yaphett Kotto and a poor white man who had an extensive criminal record. The result was..the taxi drivers kept on driving past the black man to pick up the white man. 
Kotto is a reasonably well off, well known black actor. Someone you feel has become "green" and yet, couldn't get a taxi. Every few years there is a huge scandal when a rich or well known black person is unable to get a cab in NYC. Their "greenness" has done jack all for them. When I'm in NYC I consistently have to ask my white friends to hail cabs for me. It's humiliating, degrading and frustrating. 
I am curious to see how you will explain these situations are still all about classism. Also, since you've also stated that racism does not negatively affect the self-esteem of middle class black people, I'd like you to consider how knowing that any white person is more acceptable than you might affect your self-esteem.
willshetterly:
I kind of remember the test, but, much as I love Michael Moore, he's a rich white liberal who'll cheat sometimes. I forget the details. Did the guy look like "trailer trash"? 
And I don't mean to suggest it's all classism, honest. There are racist taxi drivers. No question. 
But as for the last, I've got a hell of a lot of black friends who reject the idea that "any white person is more acceptable than you." My favorite one calls it a manifestation of stupidism, which, I think, sums up the feeling of many. Yes, there are racist idiots out there. And sexist ones. And classist ones. And homophobic ones. They're stupid. That's the important part of the equation. If Condi Rice and Clarence Thomas can screw up both of our lives, I think there's a bigger problem than racism we need to deal with.
Starkeymonster:
Of course OJ is an anomaly in the experience of African Americans. The point is that he's not an anomaly in the experience of the rich. By becoming rich, he becomes green, not black. 
Actually he doesn't. Rich black people face a lot of the same racially based discrimination out in the world that non rich black people face. A classic example would be an utter inability to get a cab to stop in the streets of NYC. Or having people assume their car doesn't belong to them. I'm confident that (pre-murder trial) OJ walking down the street woudl have been recoil in fear and nervousness. 
I'd also point out that class markers on black people are often ignored in favor of the bigger marker of race. Dressed up in my fancy college interview clothes, I had someone mistake me for a homeless person and toss money into the empty cup I was holding in my hand. The person tossing me money ignored the class markers I was displaying and saw "black person with cup" = homeless. This was not an isolated event. I often have people ignoring what I would consider my fairly obvious class markers (in terms of how I talk, how I dress, etc) in favor of what they perceive my class is based on my skin tone. 
I'd also remind you that having Delaney as a role model for writing fantasy would do jack all about the institutionalized racism in the publishing industry (and sci-fi fandom). Look at the dearth of writers who are black. Do you think that is just a random coincidence?
willshetterly:
"Dressed up in my fancy college interview clothes, I had someone mistake me for a homeless person and toss money into the empty cup I was holding in my hand. The person tossing me money ignored the class markers I was displaying and saw "black person with cup" = homeless." 
Yeah, that's stupidism at its purest. What did you do with the money? 
As for the writers, about the time I began paying attention to their race, I was reading Delany and Frank Yerby. They would've told me that I could be a black writer--and they did tell me that I could be a writer.
Starkeymonster:
And I have to admit the taxi test smells of class bigotry to me. 
Seriously, what the fuck? How can what is a clear cut example of people making racially based decisions to deny someone service actually be about class bigotry?
willshetterly:
Racist taxi drivers are racists. But talking as if all taxi drivers are racists is making a class assumption about a specific set of blue collar workers. 
Starkeymonster:
Here are two thoughts. It's a lot easier to say "I'm not racist" than "I'm working on my racism." Also, if I wrote a series of posts which caused large numbers of people to say "holy crap are you being dismissive about racism" to the point where a friend was contacted offline to step in, I would consider that I wasn't as over racism as I thought.
 willshetterly:
Could be. But if I'm the face of racism today, folks really can go home and celebrate, 'cause the race war's on its last legs. The class war? That's getting stronger every day. 
At the time, I didn't know Sparkymonster was fat. See what fat Social Justice Warriors don't know about class markers.

And I really didn't understand that believers in Critical Race Theory work on their racism the way Baptists work on being sinners. But I did grasp that their idea of working on class issues is giving good tips to efficient, happy, and deferential people who serve them.