What a coincidence! Just a few days after posting the two pieces below about responding to classist comments, I heard a doozy – and I think I responded quicker and better because I’d so recently read Nicole’s and Susan’s advice. But I’m still not sure whether it made any difference.
In water aerobics class, several older white women were deploring the TV show “Jersey Shore,” in particular the female characters’ sexual morality. “They meet a guy at a bar and take him right home!”; “Or two or three guys – at once!”; “They’d do it right there on the bar stool!” “I wish my daughter wouldn’t let my granddaughter see it.”
I told one of them, an Italian-American grandmother whom I often chat with during the weekly class, that I’m from New Jersey, and that that’s not what life in NJ is mostly like. She said in a questioning tone, “It seems like they’re all Italian?” and I answered, “That part is realistic. New Jersey has lots and lots of Italian people.”
She replied, “But those [meaning “Jersey Shore” characters] are low-class Italians. They’re white trash.” My first response, “That seems like a put-down term to me,” got just a baffled look from her, so I tried again: “Some of the Italian Americans in my home town were poor, and they didn’t behave like that.” She made an acknowledging noise like “hmpf” (or maybe “huh?”), and that was the end of the conversation. The water aerobics class ended, and she left the pool without talking with me more. I have no idea whether she understood what I meant, or whether I had stepped on her toes so now she’ll avoid chatting with me in the future. It’s hard to imagine bringing the issue back up at another week’s class.
Still, I’m glad I tried. If I’d said nothing, I would have felt that silent bystander guilt. It was easier because we were already in a one-on-one conversation. If I’d been eavesdropping on strangers and heard them say classist or racist slurs, it would have been harder to butt in.
It also went better because we’ve chatted before and I had already come to like her. “Connect before correct,” as Class Action board president Jerry Koch-Gonzalez has taught me: if she understood my “correction,” she would be more likely to accept it because of our human connection.
What if her comment had been a racial slur instead of a class slur? I think she would have understood my reaction in that case. I imagine how I look in her eyes, and what she probably assumes about my political attitudes. Her guesses would probably be close to the truth on racial attitudes.
My partner and I feel very different from our water aerobics class-mates. Not only are we (as far as we can tell) the only lesbians, and younger than most regulars, and US-born at our majority-immigrant YMCA, but we’re acutely aware of our class difference as well. We have masters degrees; we haven’t heard anyone else mention college. The other women, if they still have jobs, care for retarded people or pre-school children or the elderly, or work as administrative assistants or travel agents. By contrast, my partner and I both work with progressive ideas professionally. These differences tend to separate us socially from the other women in the pool, and keep our conversations superficial.
So from the Italian grandmother’s point of view, it wasn’t just anyone reacting to her “low-class white trash” comment about the “Jersey Shore” characters; it was one of those college-educated lesbians. I wouldn’t expect this particular person to say something racist, but if she had and I’d spoken up, she probably wouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve found that lots of working-class and lower-middle-class white people expect college-educated professionals to be sensitive about how race is mentioned; many walk on eggshells around us, expecting to be criticized for using the wrong term or not being positive enough about every single person of color. Almost everyone in the US has heard of someone being fired for making racist comments on the radio or in a public job. I bet there’s a category in her mind for such reactions during a conversation about race with someone like me.
But speaking up to defend poor people – that was a surprise. My sense was that she had no context for interpreting what I said.
With classism, our society is approximately where we were on sexism and racism in about 1951. We’re living under a cone of silence — one that’s just waiting to be smashed by an organized rebellion.