So as you may or may not know, I just finished up a poetry tour of the East Coast, and a lot of interesting things came up for me while I was out there, and the one I want to talk about today is class within daily life and activism. This trip did what poetry tends to do to me, which is kind of inspire all these big realizations (guess what this post is about!). So, basically, for the tour, we drove out and bummed on couches and stayed with a bunch of super awesome and welcoming people for three weeks while doodling around and getting paid to do our poetry (I KNOW RIGHT). While we did that, I observed a few different things:
#1. I feel more comfortable in places where spilling on the carpet is a-okay because “that’s why it’s brown.”
#2. I feel more comfortable in places where it is automatically assumed it’s okay to put your feet on the couches.
#3. Everyone in Boston is perpetually unhappy, and finding a coffee shop there that isn’t Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts is nearly impossible.
#4. Strangers will surprise you with their kindness.
#5. Strangers will surprise you with their lack of kindness.
#6. Boston driving has no rules, and it’s every person for themselves. I didn’t learn this until later on in the trip, so silly me was still all like: “IF ONLY THERE WAS SOME WAY FOR THAT CAR TO LET ME KNOW ITS INTENT TO MERGE…HMMMM…LIKE MAYBE SOME KIND OF SIGNAL….PERHAPS A BLINKING RED LIGHT?”
#7. Portland, Maine is a beautiful paradise that will some day be populated with all of my probably-never-going-to-happen children.
#8. An ‘espresso’ comes in a tiny cup that makes you feel like a giant, and you’ll feel ripped off the entire time you’re drinking it because you paid four dollars and you thought it was a 16 oz drink but is really the size of a shot glass.
#9. Rich people make me uncomfortable.
Ah, there we go, let’s start there (smooth segue, Ollie). Rich people make me uncomfortable. Being around them, talking to them, interacting with them, all of it. This was a huge realization for me since I normally have to focus most on my queer and trans* identities, and so my class background hardly comes up in conversation, even though it affects how I live almost every aspect of my life. I get it; people don’t like to talk about money. People also don’t like to talk about any sort of privilege they have, and class privilege is seemingly ignored in many of my recent conversations. But it makes a huge difference, and so we should talk about it.
First off, I go to this (awesome) fancy liberal arts college where I have a ridiculously large amount of financial aid. Without financial aid from the school and the state and the federal government and scholarships, there is no way in hell I would ever be able to attend this school in any sort of fantasy land you can imagine. (Fantasy land: unicorns, dragons, chocolate fountain, marshmallow clouds, and still a school that is too expensive for Ollie to attend). People from my socio-economic background simply cannot afford places like this. This school costs per year what our parents make per year. But colleges are institutions that need to make money, so obviously most students aren’t feel-good charity cases like myself. For example, I’m part of the minority because I haven’t been to another country. My family has never bought a brand new vehicle. I’ve never been skiing in Colorado, and I just saw the ocean for the first time (IT WAS SO COOL) on this relatively dirt-cheap trip (we drove and couch-hopped and ate peanut butter sandwiches using the roof of the car as a plate; you can’t really say we were splurging or living in luxury).
Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was great. I didn’t grow up in poverty, and I don’t regret not having the same experiences as the rich kids who go to my college. We always had everything we needed and a few things we wanted. But if you broke one of your toys, you didn’t get a new one. I’m ultimately grateful for this, because it taught me how to take care of my possessions and create (and stick to) a budget. This also means that when my friends at college want to drop $20 on dinner, I have to consider whether or not I should actually be putting that money towards my student loans, which I will pay off by myself, and not because my parents are trying to teach me a lesson about being a ‘real adult’, but because I am an adult, and my safety net is the only safety net I’ve got. There is no vacation home for me to crash in if I can’t make rent. There is no monthly allowance if I waste all of my money and can’t afford groceries. I know that my parents will always do everything they can to support me, and I also know that a large amount of financial support is just not an option. I do not regret this, and I don’t pity myself.
What does bother me, though, is that many upper class people appear to be wholly unaware of how many middle/lower class people live. People who don’t travel out of state for Spring Break. People who shop at thrift stores not because it’s fun but because that’s what they can afford (although personally I think it’s a lot of fun also to rummage through all the clothes). People who can’t afford to shop anywhere other than Wal-Mart. This is especially disturbing because classism shows up all the time in activist circles, which ties into systems of racism. Here’s a super simple break-down for anyone new to this type of conversation, (and this isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but I think it’s a good place to start to get a basic understanding):
#1. Any action that privileges rich people is ultimately racist, because racism/colonialism has led to white people having more monetary wealth than other races, which means that when rich people benefit, white people benefit (and not really much of anyone else). See here: (http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/21/news/economy/wealth-gap-race/).
#2. Any action that privileges white people (and rich people) reduces accessibility to oppressed groups. Let’s do some overly simplified math. This is because wealth = resources, and resources = education, and wealth = whiteness, and so education = whiteness, which means that many lower class/minority groups are being cut out of the conversations about oppression, which further allows dominant groups to hold power. This concept is true for any number of oppressed identities; whoever has the money has the power, and right now, white, heterosexual, cisgender men still have all the money.
#3. Many activist circles (like the majority at my college) are led by rich, educated, white (cisgender) people, who end up talking to a bunch of other rich, educated, white (cisgender) people about how to end oppression. They are well-intentioned, (and I think it’s important here for me to point out my white privilege and my privilege of being educated despite lacking wealth) but these activist circles often end up leaving out the people who need to hear the information the most: oppressed groups. The point of activism is to put power in the hands of the oppressed, and that’s not going to happen if information is only circling within elitist activism circles.
#4. A lot of this has to do with language, and the (in)accessibility of language. (The idea of a ‘standard English’ actually makes most of the language we use racist, as it implies certain dialects are more ‘proper’ than others, which is also tied to whiteness and wealth. ”Writing Centers and the New Racism” is the thing to read if you want more info on that). Since education is tied to race (which is tied to wealth, etc.), activist conversations that don’t use an accessible vocabulary are impractical and near-worthless for actually helping the people they’re trying to help. If you aren’t using words that people have been taught to speak, whatever you spew at them isn’t going to be an effective method of sharing knowledge and giving them power. This is why I try to break my blog posts into simple, easily definable terms so that everyone has equal access to the best of my ability (which is probably not perfect, but do I ever try).
These were the types of conversations I had with myself while I was on tour: Why did my cisgender friend have better access to information about trans* identity than I did growing up? Queer identity? Why didn’t I have the words to talk about myself, while my friend did? Shouldn’t I have had access to information about my own identity? Why didn’t I know about any of these systems of power until I went to college, while some of my (rich) friends were being taught about them in more progressive private schools? Why was I only taught about these things at my predominantly white and wealthy college? Why weren’t other people being taught these things? Why wasn’t this information actually making its way to the people that needed to hear it?
Classism. Wealth. Racism. Transphobia. Sexism. The list goes on.
So how do we fix this? That’s always the question I’m most interested in, and the solution starts where the problem starts: with money. Since wealth = resources and resources = education and education = knowledge and knowledge = power, we need to accomplish activism’s goal of giving power by financially supporting activist groups run by oppressed groups and by using inclusive, accessible language, which then spreads the information that people need to know in order to understand systems of power and how to try and change those systems of power. This information should not be a secret that only the privileged can access.
See? I told you poetry makes me have big realizations.