Responding to Verbal Classism

When I hear a classist put-down, I feel like Derek Zoolander in the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander, tongue-tied and unable to come up with a response until hours or days later.

I know that being a bystander is not enough. I owe it to myself, other listeners, the offensive speaker, and the target of the comment to say something. But my problem is that I am slow with come-backs.

For instance, my high-school friend used to put on a fake southern drawl to impersonate anyone she thought wasn’t smart. She was upper-middle-class, living on the upper west side of Manhattan. I would laugh uneasily at her jokes, feeling guilty and powerless. On my way home, I would think to myself, “What can I say the next time she does that?” I started to plan. The next time she put on her accent, I decided would ask, “Who is that supposed to be?” But she beat me to it.

When I brought it up, she said her mom had already told her she shouldn’t put on that accent with me because it’s racist (I am a Black woman; she’s white and Jewish). Guiltily she said, “My mom says it’s racist — but I’m not making fun of Black people, I’m making fun of poor white people.” (!!!!) I said to her, “That’s still not okay. If you weren’t making fun of people because of their race, why would it be okay to make fun of people with less money than you?” She never imitated a southern accent again. I hope she learned from the experience.

But I feel that because of my awareness of oppression and my work in social justice, I should have said something earlier, to nip it in the bud. What was I afraid of?  If this person was a real friend, why didn’t I feel comfortable enough to tell her when she was being inappropriate?

It is our responsibility to call out ignorance whenever we see it. Yes, it depends on the situation: on New York City public transportation, a stranger ranting out loud may not be able to receive our message without hostility. I seem to be comfortable enough with my brother to shoot him down when he makes offensive remarks, but it’s not easy to do with my grandmother or father.

A few helpful responses I have learned over the years:

  • * “Huh? Can you repeat that? I don’t understand…” It’s sometimes good to let them say their classist or otherwise offensive comments out loud to see how ridiculous they sound.
  • * Don’t laugh. Laughter makes them feel comfortable and makes them think you are comfortable too. I like to use the dead-pan stare.
  • * “Dude, that’s not cool…” or “That ain’t right…”: stating your disapproval.
  • * With a coworker, friend, someone you’ll see again, it’s never too late to bring up the offensive situation again days later to let them know it’s weighing on your mind. “I was thinking about what you said the other day, and I wanted to let you know it was not okay.”

I know I’m not alone in struggling with this process. I accept that I don’t know the answer to everything, but I am learning, and I feel better prepared to handle classist and other comments than I did in the past.

8 Responses

  1. CP

    I’ve experienced the same thing. Because of my education and the nature of my occupation, there is an ssumption I’m at least middle or upper middle class. I have a laid-back personality so a lot of wealthier folks feel comfortable around me and I get shocked all too often by some of the things I hear. Several times on the board of a non-profit org (as long as I’m a volunteer it seems i can gain such positions, if there is income involved, I’ve magically never been qualified to hold a board level or non-assistant type job) I’ve struggled as the lone singular voice speaking on behalf of my neighbors; the “scholarship” crowd. There is a lot of American attitude, especially of late, that reeks of the ole, ‘I worked hard why can’t they’ nonsense. I am always overruled when trying to act favorably on behalf of those who need that org’s services but cannot afford full fare and when given scholarships cannot volunteer to pay in sweat equity because they have to work 3 and 4 jobs each to pay the rent. And always the overruling is accompanied by some poor people are cheaters and freeloaders tripe. It drives me crazy. But I’m the lone new guy. I’ve been here before in my former occupation as a paralegal in law firms that represent big name upper class people. Once I was “found out” as a lower income person (particularly ironic given that was the few years I made enough to live on after repaying mammoth credit card debt used to survive day to day prior to that occupation) I was shocked to find out how my stellar work reviews turned deficient and within months I was unemployed. Speaking up to power, to call them on their classist choices and rank justifications comes with a painful financial price. In the case of my position with this non-profit org, something that has taken me since 2000 to earn, doing a “job” I love and hope to turn into a paying job with a company ultimately, it is really really difficult to speak up. Since the clientele is kids, I feel like I have to keep trying to. And I’m just waiting for the shoe to drop eventually.

  2. Alice Y.

    Thanks for that, Nicole Renee Brown. Helpful! I am one of the tongue-tied people too often, and I also aspire to respond more effectively.

  3. Joanne T.

    My mother taught me that we always need to speak up when we hear offensive jokes or remarks, but she didn’t teach me how to make it easy or comfortable! Also, I find it’s harder, in a way, to figure out how to respond to classist remarks than to racist or sexist or anti-gay ones. I think that’s because more people these days, even if they don’t agree, will understand right away why I think what they said is out of bounds if it was, for example, a racist or ethnic stereotype, because there has been a lot of public discussion about that. Classism hasn’t been discussed in wider society in the same way. So it may be harder for me to explain why I’m offended.

    Here are a couple of strategies I’ve learned somewhere or other, that work for me. If the offensive comment takes the form of “Those ________ are so ___________” or “(X group) always do ________”, I might say something like “Really? That hasn’t been my experience.” Another idea for any offensive comment is to say “What you just said makes me uncomfortable” or “…offends me”. It may not be as strong as making a brilliant refutation, but it’s harder for the other person to argue with than if I tried to cite facts, and it lets them know that at least one of their listeners doesn’t approve. Sometimes it leads to discussion, other times not, but either way I’ve made my dissent known.

    I’m thinking about CP’s comment above and realizing that this is probably easier for me, as a middle-class white person, to do, because I’m (relatively) secure in my livelihood. Also, I’ve come to understand, at least it seems to me the case, that middle-class white people have a greater chance of growing up with the attitude that we are entitled to voice our opinions in the outside world and that it’s safe to do so. But that also makes it even more my responsibility — Mom was right!

  4. Tara

    My class background is working class. Because I went to a private college (scholarship) and law school (loans), people usually assume that my class background is middle- or upper-middle class. At this point, my class background is mostly an invisible identity.

    I think that being transparent about my class background is a powerful way to disrupt classism.

    In a class on public school budgets, for example, the professor commented that school paraprofessionals don’t have specialized knowledge or training and that “they get these people off the street.”

    I raised my hand and told the class that my mom is a paraprofessional. She brings considerable expertise to her work. She did not come “off the street.”

    The professor, who was aware of my educational background but not my class background, looked kind of astounded. I think he felt especially attached to his assumptions about me, as, he had previously informed me, his mother attended the same fancy women’s college I attended. He had to recalibrate his assumptions about my family background, class background, education, and status. He looked embarrassed, and I think he understood that his comment was insensitive and classist. After the class, other students told me they were glad I spoke up. They were thinking similar things but hadn’t felt comfortable expressing their thoughts.

    I think that people from working class backgrounds who obtain status through education are in a powerful position to disrupt classist comments–it takes guts but it feels great.

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  6. Michele

    I’m also from a poor-to-working-class background and don’t seem that way to people on first glance, or even to people that know me well. One of the most interesting assumptions that middle- or upper-middle class co-workers or even friends make is to try to inform me about how poor people live, what challenges they face, what it’s like to be poor. It always cracks me up. Dude, I could write the book! When I do finally say something like “Oh yeah, I got the free lunches at school” or “Yeah, my prenatal classes were paid for by Medicaid too” (I work for a non-profit childbirth education program) or “Yeah, my mother didn’t graduate from high school because she had me when she was 17 and has worked 60+ hrs/week ever since to support me and my siblings, and no, she still doesn’t have medical insurance” people always are very taken aback. I hope it gives them pause to think.

  7. Sasha Nyary

    Many years ago I was sitting on Amtrak with some young white college-age men I didn’t know, and one of them said some offensive stuff about blacks. I think it was being naturally good at sports or something. I moved away, and fumed, and pondered what I could say. A couple of hours later we were all getting off at Penn Station and we passed each other in the aisle. He smiled when he saw me. My heart was pounding, but I gave him a big grin in return as we passed and said, good luck with that condition! He gave me a puzzled look and said, what condition? I said, racism! it’s curable!

    Humor often works better than anything.

  8. It’s very helpful to see I’m not alone in these situations. The problem is that when people assume they are among similar company, they feel safe making inappropriate remarks. When you call them out on it, that safety-bubble pops, and not only to they feel embarrassed, but they realize they aren’t safely secured in their own demographic – that an outsider has heard them.

    These people aren’t necessarily bad, they just haven’t taken time to analyze their own prejudice. Almost everyone, from any demographic, begins with some sort of prejudice, but everyone, regardless of demographic, possesses the intellectual capacity to dismantle it if they are brave. As someone above mentioned, classism is a hard one, not only because it isn’t as widely studied or accepted as a form of prejudice, but because there’s this strange myth that poverty is a result of personal laziness or ignorance. That anyone can become wealthy by working hard. I think this is kind of a defensive posture and a way of avoiding acknowledgment of your own advantages.

    This sort of thing makes me really angry. Still, in situations where I’m uncomfortable, I try to approach it calmly. I try to make allies instead of adversaries. Usually, if you question people about what they really mean, i.e. do a little analysis for them, they realize the error on their own.

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