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March 2013

Classism Does NOT “Go Both Ways”

Yesterday I wrote a post titled Black Shaming of Black Consumerism. I discussed how internalized White supremacist thought and classism shapes the thinking of some Black people who are “middle class” who police Black consumerism among the poor, and worse, applaud the exact same motivations and actions by Whites who engage in consumerist behavior—behavior that is embedded into American culture itself—meaning that it impacts Americans at large. Consumerism is not “pathological” for Blacks and “just being American”  (where the label “American” is being used as a badge of honor, not a pejorative) for Whites.

A poor person can insult and harbor prejudice towards wealthy people. They can be biased against them and prefer to be around people of their own socioeconomic class (though access to the spaces that the wealthy occupy is often denied, so the reaction to avoid them may be a defense mechanism in reaction to this exclusion in the first place). They, however, CANNOT oppress wealthy people via classism.

This is no different from a Black person saying something mean about someone White and being accused of “reverse racism,” which does not exist as a system of oppression. In this case, fact-oriented or even prejudicial thoughts, especially in RESPONSE to centuries of oppression and existing oppression do not form a system of oppression themselves. Further, a Black person who rejects White supremacy is NOT engaging in “reverse racism.” “Reverse racism,” “heterophobia,” “misandry” and yes “class warfare” (when used by those with the actual oppressive power to be classist in the first place) are FALSE systems of oppression. They are the labels that truly reveal that people with the power to oppress engage in false equivalence quite often. They are suggesting that those who critique oppression are being oppressive to them (though the oppressed cannot oppress them) by not silently allowing the oppression to continue. 

Thus, when a poor or even a “middle-class” person critiques wealthy people in the United States, they are not engaging in classism that “goes both ways.” This does not exist. Insults can go both ways. Oppression, CANNOT. Further, viewing this as an equal plane of critique ignores the role of power. We cannot ignore power or view it solely as a tiny facet that barely surfaces. In a country with gross income and wealth inequality, by class and race (which intersect; one cannot be examined exclusively without the other), wealth which is BUILT on the backs of the very people who critique it, power cannot be examined as the “only” (and thereby small) difference between critiques of the wealthy and critiques of the poor.

The difference here is critiques which reinforce oppression of already marginalized people and critiques which do not. If a Black person in the middle class polices and shames a Black person who is poor, they are not solely engaged in critique. They are also actively engaged in oppression. Poor people are unfairly targeted by every major institution (ideological and/or “real,” as in occupying physical space) that exists. Thus, middle class people attacking them are reinforcing the status quo and become a part of the forces that oppress them in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. This is not solely about bias towards those in the middle class and prejudice against the poor. This is about learned thoughts and behaviors of systems of oppression against the poor and engaging in them to reinforce kyriarchy. Black people who may be able to pay their bills and have class privilege still face racism, sexism, homophobia and other manifestations of oppression, and as I mentioned in the initial post, have internalized White supremacist thought regarding class; they are effectively engaging in classism that is oppression, against poor Blacks. They are oppressed people who have a position of privilege over other oppressed people, and are reinforcing kyriarchy, through their critiques meant to shame. This is key. This is not solely about being “mean” anymore. (Many of the critiques that I’ve seen middle class Black people hurl at poor Black people are ones Whites have for decades. Further, many poor Black people ALSO shame other poor Black people through identification with the oppressor, while having no real power to oppress those who are poor with them.)

People who are against the shaming of the poor but critique wealthy people are not having it “both ways.” Critique of the wealthy can be based on fact or prejudice, true. Such critique cannot oppress the wealthy nor does it fall in line with any existing system of oppression against the wealthy since no such system exists. No one has ever been pepper sprayed, physically assaulted or arrested for critiquing the poor. Why? Poor shaming and classism uphold kyriarchy by blaming economic status solely on personal character versus questioning the classist, sexist and racist system of capitalism that creates inequality and cannot thrive without it. However, try critiquing the rich. You won’t oppress them. But do it in a platform such as Occupy (which as a movement is NOT without its faults, I do not assert this, and I mentioned this before) and watch the reaction. Questioning wealth and how it is formulated via exploitative labor and a long legacy of imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism and classism is anti-oppression. Conversely, insulting the poor becomes oppressive as it reinforces existing anti-poor hierarchies and norms proliferated through the law, the media—society itself. These criticisms CANNOT be equalized as having the same impact EVEN if the exact same words are used in both cases—even if both involve a certain amount of prejudice or bias.

I CANNOT minimize or ignore the role of power in oppression. When it comes to class, the meritocratic myth that goodness, intelligence, fairness and hard work are what create wealth would be laughable if its manifestations were not so painful and devastating. I cannot pretend that me questioning why Wall Street, Madison Avenue, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the highest ranks of the military, CEO lists and the Fortune 500 most wealthy list are incredibly White and male (while ignoring their racist, sexist, and classist histories) is “equal” to me rejecting the critiques and shaming of the Black poor by Whites or by other Blacks who internalized White supremacist thoughts and engage in classism, thereby upholding the status quo. Critiques which reinforce oppression cannot be viewed as the same as critiques which challenge oppression.

We are not in a politically neutral society with everyone on an equal playing field with equal access such that when someone questions income inequality as a key manifestation and source of oppression, they are just being “jealous” of the rich. This is a tool of the oppressor—the myth that questioning kyriarchal manifestations of capitalism itself—let alone income and consumerism among the rich—is no different from the shaming and policing of the poor through classism, which is not just a critique, but an act of oppression. The burden of the poor to both accept classism from the middle class/wealthy AND not question the fact that wealth is primarily created from their labor which is exploited as well as a long legacy of imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism and classism is the essence of capitalism in a kyriarchal society. 

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