In talking/discussing/debating with a number of people for some time now, I have noted that some of them seem offended/angered and/or defensive when the term middle class white is used to describe a certain perspective. This is problematic for a number of reasons. One being that these people rarely question why it is that they find it offensive, another that it should not be offensive, and a third being that the increasing number of people who identify as middle class indicates the success of the conservative spectrum of mainstream politics (and also the ‘failure’ or succumbing of the left to this rhetoric) to blur class lines to its own ends.
I want to explore the second of these reasons – I will return to/expand on this and the other ‘reasons’ another time.
One reaction I have noticed, often used in a defensive manner, is that people are offended as they were born white/with money and therefore did not choose this. Clearly this is not something we have agency over – just like some people are born into abject poverty or a racial group marginalised by structural relations of society. The term middle class white is not used in a personal manner, rather is the category that one lives in – irrespective of ‘choice’. What it is used to refer to is the perspectives that emanate from such a lived position – often based on the unconscious permeations our mediated existences have on our experiences and outlooks.
We live in a world where to be born white imbues structural advantage. For example, in countries like Australia/Canada/USA with white histories founded as colonist projects our privileged positions emanate from the denial of sovereignty and/or oppression of prior inhabitants. All privilege emanates from this at the base level. Settlement was based on racist notions and these continue to exist today – not just direct and overt racism, it exists at the unconscious level even in the minds of progressive and activist people. Many such societies were founded on explicit paternalism – i.e. missionaries. I would argue that paternalism still dictates how we relate to Aboriginal peoples (in its broadest sense) today. We see them as inferior, backward, primitive – at the least on a subconscious level. This is essential for paternalism. Like children, we feel no only that we can make decisions for them rather we need to make decisions for them.
This is white the term whiteness refers to. It is not an actual indicator of skin colour – people often find it offensive to be ‘stereotyped’ as white, yet do so to a racialised other every day… Further, indicating is malleability and power over, who falls into the ‘category’ white has shifted and changed over time. For example, the Irish in the USA became white, as did the Italians.*
The reference to ‘middle class’ emanates from those who are in a position that they have never experienced living dollar-to-dollar, day-to-day. To have not lived under such conditions – as our self-ascribed leaders have, alongside many of us – is to not be able to understand what it is like. Many academics who write about class also cannot fully understand this, irrespective about how much theory they have read. As an analogy, men cannot know the systematic and day-to-day oppression women face and live with every day as we do not experience it…
What it all boils down to, and more-so for people working towards social change, wanting to live prefiguratively and attempting to challenge oppression, is that we need to continue to work towards becoming aware of the unmarked privilege we not only benefit from but perpetuate in our everyday actions. Intent nor explicit consciousness is not required. That we are a part of it is the problem and something we should want to address. We also need to be clear as to why we are attempting to overcome/address this. In 1992 an Aboriginal activist in Australia issued a challenge. At first it can seem offensive – and I would suggest based on defensiveness:
If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, lets work together
Other than saying guilt as a basis for addressing is implicitly tied to whiteness, and can be deeply bound to paternalism, I will leave reflection on this open to thought… and hopefully constructive comment/criticism.
To return back to the focus of why people are offended by the term ‘middle class white’ we need to remember/note that we do not choose to be born as such. The main point here is that we do have agency in how we live and thus we can be ‘middle class’ and white yet attempt everyday not to reinforce and perpetuate the impacts of whiteness on society at large. For me, alongside speciesism, this is one the of the biggest – perhaps more daunting and an even more deeply and structurally engrained challenge those of us who are trying to embody prefiguration face – both at the personal and inter-person levels??
To briefly address the first reason mentioned at the outset, rather than people rarely questioning why it is that they find it offensive to be labelled as middle class and white: this is a good thing. If something offends us, there is a reason for it. The challenge is to ascertain why. This is often tied to the process of self-change. If it did not get to the core of something we do, nor was something we had a problem with, it would not offend us (I know this is somewhat of a generalisation…). We need to question why it offends us. Then work on resolving this!
I hope this is somewhat clear and provides stimulus for thinking and critical reflection… as always please leave comments and/or send feedback.
These two texts go into detail regarding the Irish and Italian’s became white in The USA::
Gugliemo, T. A. (2004). White on Arrival: Italian’s, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago 1890-1945, Oxford University Press.
Ignatiev, N. (1995). How the Irish Became White. New York, Routledge.