Classism on the Left, Intersectionality, and Comedy

7 02 2008

I’ve been finding myself increasingly, and more commonly, frustrated with the prevalence of classism amongst supposed ‘radicals’ or ‘leftists’ or ‘liberals.’ When did we decide that it is okay to employ classist stereotypes about poor (usually white) people in the interest of advancing arguments against homophobia, sexism, and racism? Or, perhaps more accurately, why haven’t we gotten around to loudly and explicitly saying that this isn’t okay?

I generally really like Margaret Cho. She’s funny and vocal in her denunciation of sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, and racism, I think it’s important to support queer women of color in entertainment, and she’s pretty damn good at what she does. I came across a clip on youtube today from her Assassin dvd (I haven’t seen all of it). Now, granted, this is an old show, but not THAT old. The piece is called “These Christian Groups Have Lost Their Minds,” and it is her rant on the inanity of Right-wing, Christian homophobia. For the most part, it’s funny, calls out the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of a lot of the things people were (and are) saying about why gay people are evil, and has a few great lines. But at one point, she slips into throwing out the same old, tired, offensive classist stereotypes. Now, not only is it disappointing because it’s offensive, but it’s also not very original. Really, I expect more of her than lines about how gay people wouldn’t want to live in a trailer park. (Which, of course, is problematic because it makes invisible those queer people who DO live in trailer parks, and it reinforces the urban = good for gays/ rural = bad for gays dichotomy, which isn’t quite so clear cut.) Watching this clip, I was surprised, and disappointed, but it also reminded me just how little we talk about classism.

This isn’t something that’s specific to Margaret Cho, though, and it comes up again and again and again amongst liberals. It seems particularly common to me amongst white liberals, so because in this context Margaret Cho isn’t a relevant example, and because I’m speaking mostly from personal experience, I’m going to leave off from her particular routine.

We (white liberals/progressives) seem to be under the deluded notion that racism, sexism, and homophobia are only problems amongst those “other” white people – the poor, uneducated white folks. This trope has a lot of problems, but I’ll start with a couple of the big ones.

1. It’s not true. We wealthy white folks, even those of us who always vote for a Democrat, are just as much a part of the system as everyone else. We’ve all grown up in an environment of systemic, institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, classism, ableism, etc. We’re not immune from it just because we denounce the more obvious forms it may take. You don’t have to be a member of the KKK to have second guessed your decision to walk on the same side of the street as a black man, and though I wouldn’t say that physical violence and internalized distrust are the SAME, per se, they have the same origin. They all are the results of lessons we’ve heard implicitly and explicitly our whole lives that tell us to fear that which is different, and that those of us who are white are better for it. Maybe you’d never say that outloud, but you live in a society that operates under just those paradigms, and if you’re white, you benefit from it. Whether you live in a rural town in Nebraska or the heart of Seattle, YOU are a benificiary of racism, you most likely perpetuate a system of racial preference (mostly without knowing or recognizing that, as well), and it is just as much YOUR responsibility to confront racism as it is the responsibility of those folks in Nebraska, or rural Ohio. The same goes for sexism, and homophobia and heterosexism. Which leads me to point #2.

2. This myth, that liberal white folks aren’t racist, sexist, homophobic, heterosexist, etc., obscures the extent to which these issues exist in liberal white communities, and lets us liberal white folks off the hook. Voting for Obama doesn’t make me non-racist, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t gotten to where I am at the expense of people of color (from hereon out abbreviated as POC; men of color as MOC and women of color as WOC), and it doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to benefit from racism. Being committed to anti-racism means that I’m going to do what I can to not perpetuate that system, and to break it down wherever possible, but it doesn’t get me out of it.

3. All of these awful isms function together, to keep people down. One of the horrible consequences of economic inequality, classism, and racism, is that it pitts poor white people against poor POC; straight poor people against queer poor people, etc. If you don’t have money to leverage, you use what you have. Sometimes, this means utilizing racism and white privilege, or homophobia and straight privilege to get ahead. But that’s not about being morally inferior, or stupid, that’s about being stuck in a system that discourages coalition-building and in which getting ahead means stepping on the people below you. Now, this doesn’t make racism or homophobia okay, but it needs to be understood in a situational context.

4. Most of the lessons we’ve learned and internalized about the superiority of white people, straight people, men, rich people, etc. haven’t been explicitly taught to us. We pick them up from every aspect of our society and culture, and they are easily accessible and understandable. Because they are so pernicious, it takes a lot to debunk them. And most of the efforst at debunking them take the form of some sort of structured education. Thus, as a result, people with limited access to educational resources also have limited access to learning about how these isms function, why they’re BS, and how to recognize them in our own lives.

I’ve received most of my anti-oppressive education in college. It started with my first term at Evergreen, when Privilege, Power, and Difference by Alan G. Johnson was required reading. Now, of course, this is not the only way to access this information, and to presume that people who don’t go to college don’t know isn’t okay either – but it’s important to keep in mind how out of reach higher education is for a lot of people, and how key it can be to consciousness raising.

I could go on for a while, but the overall point is this:

Class is not a marker of intelligence, morality, or ethics; exercising classism to demonstrate the superiority of a particular sort of liberal political thought is counter-productive and offensive, and if we’re ever going to get anywhere in dismantling systems of oppression, we can’t ignore their intersections. This should be obvious, but it’s really, really not.

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