The distance between us … and them!

The other day, I saw a billboard that reached out and slapped me across the face in a very figurative way. An enormous billboard for a domestic violence campaign asserted, “Sally is not one of THEM, she is one of US”.

I also heard the radio commercial version of this campaign, encouraging listeners to empathize with a woman who had experienced intimate partner violence. Because the fictional abused and homeless woman had a “professional” job and a home prior to leaving her abusive partner, she was declared “one of us”(which I infer from her photograph and vignette to mean white, middle class and in a heterosexual relationship).

My initial reaction was probably not the reaction sponsors had intended. Of course, there really isn’t time in the seconds marketing has to capture human attention to explain the nuances of the “us and them” dichotomy. There certainly wasn’t time or space on the billboard to explain what exactly the campaign meant by “us” and “them”. I am sure the organization didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but I think it can be very breezy and carefree to throw around  “us and them” language if you are on the “us” side of the equation.

I later discussed the campaign with an activist group I belong to. Some of the women in my group thought that the ad was simply trying to get potential donors to be able to relate to the issue so they would give money to the cause and that the message meant what happened to Sally could happen to any woman. If this was the actual intent of the campaign, it made me wonder, “Do we need these class characteristics as markers to be able to relate to, empathize or care about the fictional Sally?” Shouldn’t we care about helping her even if she isn’t just like “us”?

Discussing the slogan and the campaign with others helped me understand alternate perspectives. I am still disappointed that the women’s organization that sponsored the campaign didn’t think about the possible classist undertones that could be represented by the “us/them” dichotomy, especially since Sally represents characteristics that are usually associated with privilege; white and middle class.

Well, if the purpose of the billboard was to capture my attention, it worked! Not only did the campaign message abruptly snap me in to class consciousness, it made me think more deeply about the implications of the “us vs. them” distinction and how classism can create and contribute to the separation between people with more and less privilege.  If you are in fact, “one of us” you don’t have to give a second thought about what it means to be one of “them”. It seems there is a big chunk of classism that involves ostracizing people thereafter known as “them” and placing “them” on the outside.

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