Class & My Identity as a Woman of African Descent

Class was a confusing issue for me.  Despite that, I never doubted for a moment that my race intersected with my class in a profound way.

I experience class through the many different lenses of my identity.  I am a Black Woman of Afro-Caribbean descent from Brooklyn New York. Class has been racialized in American society to draw less attention to the issue of class, very purposefully in fact (Bacon’s Rebellion is a valid example), where race trumps class and has often confused people about how to identify class indicators.

For example, as a Black girl going to a private school on the upper west side of Manhattan, many well-intentioned people, including White teachers, thought I was poor. Despite the fact that I dressed like the middle-class White kids there, their assumption that my family lacked resources was based simply on my ethnicity and racial identity.  Somehow over our country’s history, being poor was seen as the “authentic” Black experience.  My family is lower-middle class and working-class so I did not take it as an insult—in fact, at the time, I thought it was true that I was impoverished.  “You are what you eat!” as they say, and so as a typical black child in America, I ate up what was fed to me through mainstream culture, music, news, and so on, accepting stereotypes and messaging about Black communities, especially that all Black people were poor. I could not imagine that the stability that my family had meant that we were not impoverished. Poverty and high-need in communities like mine was all I saw on the nightly news, and my reality did not include playing with one of the Huxtable children, which further confirmed the stereotypes of my people in my young mind.

The crazy thing is that although I was perceived one way by my peers and teachers at the Private High School, my neighbors thought the opposite. I grew up in a mixed-class Black West Indian neighborhood. The Red-Lining of African-American and West Indian communities in New York City in the 20th century has resulted in Black communities being “racially” homogenous but economically diverse; where impoverished families and working class to upper-middle class Black families usually live side by side, do not talk openly about their own salary and wages to their neighbors.  I may not have been seen as rich by my neighbors, but I certainly was perceived as being of another, more affluent class because of my unfamiliar “white” clothing choices, the way I spoke (like a Jewish “valley girl”) and the types of jobs I held while in High School and College. The neighborhood kids I had played with when we were all children would see me walking home from these corporate and professional jobs appearing different from them—by attending my Private High School, I was afforded opportunities my neighbors did not have access to, such as cushy paid internships I held as a teen to my acceptance and out-of-state move to an elite Liberal Arts College where I received my BA.

My race has intersected with my class in a profound way, which I would argue is the case for many People of Color in America. My identity as a Woman of African descent, specifically, has implications for my health and my life, which I gratefully choose to be knowledgeable about. Indicators of class, such as our housing, cars, speech and so on, do not exist in a vacuum, but interact with our other identities and the communities we grow up in.

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