Pretense, Putdowns, and Missing Identities in Activists’ Class Talk

Click here to read Class Action Program Director Betsy Leondar-Wright’s article from the August 2013 issue of Humanity & Society: Pretense, Putdowns and Missing Class Talk

Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Betsy discussing the article: Leondar-Wright Humanity & Society Podcast

Article Abstract

Americans are noted for not talking about social class. Does the same hold true for progressive group members? A study of 25 U.S. social movement organizations found that two class categories of progressive activists avoided explicit talk of class and, when asked about class identity, resisted the question or garbled their answers. First, lifelong working-class and poor activists (those lacking college degrees and professional/managerial jobs in both the current and the prior generation) were less likely to use conventional class terms. Second, voluntarily downwardly mobile activists (college graduates raised by professional parents who had chosen to work part-time jobs or no jobs to free up time for activism or to enact environmental or antimaterialist values) tended to equate themselves with involuntarily low-income people, misrecognizing their higher cultural capital. In the absence of clear, open class identities within activist groups, distorted class talk filled the vacuum. Falsely posing as working class sometimes conferred status. References to class and race privilege were sometimes used as insults. When the bottom half of the 99 percent do not name their class identity, and when some class-privileged activists deny their cultural capital, such missing class identities may harm the development of group cohesion in social movement groups.


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