There seems to be an elephant in the room when we are discussing the issue of classism. This elephant is so large, and so huge, that the overwhelming majority of us believe that it is actually partaking in the discussion. That it is a member of the debate, and so we pay little attention to it. I feel it is about time that this elephant was confronted.
The elephant of which I speak, is that of capitalism. The system that seems to control our lives, where stocks rise and fall, prices fluctuate and economic growth is the measure of a flourishing society. Capitalism is where products are designed, marketed and sold to generate income and create profit.
Do not misinterpret what I am saying, capitalism is not the cause of classism, but it does perpetuate it. Just as the Jim Crow laws in the USA did not create racism, they perpetuated it. A white man did not become racist because he followed the laws that stated he could not use the same toilet facilities as a black man. Though not the creator, the law continues to promote the immoral and unethical divides and distinctions between humans.
I feel that classism suffers from a very similar predicament. Capitalism has not created this huge divide between people, as there will always be those who are financially better off than others. However, capitalism has reinforced the feelings that within society some people deserve to be treated better because of their wealth and/or status.
Now I am not talking about the different options at the local supermarket. I mean if people want to buy more expensive dried pasta, or more expensive ice-cream, then that is entirely up to them. There is no line in the supermarket for the wealthier customers, they do not receive a better looking and more well-equipped trolley. I don’t see these examples as classism, I see them as choice.
However, when the service is the same, and you are both receiving the same product then I believe that classism becomes an issue. The most obvious examples to me, and one that we all experience on a fairly regular basis, are to do with transport. Not individual transport, i.e. the choice of car you drive – because again that is an individual choice – but a form of community transport, or group transport. Whereby all the passengers are using the same vehicle, that has the same facilities and are heading to the same destination, yet some passengers are treated better than others.
I was travelling from London to South Wales on a train not so long ago, and though I was fortunate enough to have a seat, there were many people that had to stand. For those that don’t know London to South Wales is about a five hour journey. At one point during the journey I went towards the rear of the train to purchase a drink from the bar. I bustled past people in the aisles, I clambered over students sitting on their luggage and when I reached the bar I saw the first class cabin.
Though there was a large number of people forced to stand, the first class cabin was only half full. I was shocked and frustrated to see that these seats were not being offered to those who were standing. Class is so ingrained in society that the mere fact there was a sign saying “First Class” was enough to prevent people asking to be seated. They must have seen the free chairs, glanced at the sign and then come to the conclusion that they were not worthy of being in there.
The same is true of air travel. Those of us who aren’t in first class have to walk through an area of the cabin that is far superior to the area where we later take a seat. It as if we are being teased and taunted, and if that weren’t bad enough, there is then a curtain pulled across separating first class from the rest of the plane. What does this curtain represent? Surely it represents nothing more than the physical manifestation of a society and a system whereby people are divided, and some are given priority over others.
Even the fact that first class exists tells us something of the society in which we live. It shows the huge effort that is needed in order to eliminate classism. Its existence shows that not only does capitalism allow classism to exist, it actually benefits from it. For capitalism, the elimination of classism would be considered a bad thing, because that would force businesses to treat all their customers equally.
The former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, once said “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation“.