Felice’s mission of making classism a diversity issue

When Felice Yeskel started graduate school in the 1980s, she was outraged that the Social Issues Training Project at the UMass Education School omitted classism from its curriculum. Every aspiring diversity trainer had to practice facilitating two-day workshops on sexism, racism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism and anti-Semitism – but not classism.

Felice had been severely oppressed as a young lesbian, and she walked around perpetually pissed off at sexism — but looming huge over those experiences of oppression was the disrespect targeted at her working-class family, and the shame she felt, as a scholarship student at a private school, about her differences from the rich kids. So she began advocating in her own inimitable way to add classism to the curriculum.

Cautiously, tentatively, the Education School agreed to try out classism programs, at first just for the grad students themselves. Because their norm was mixed training teams (for example, a sexism workshop would always be co-facilitated by one woman and one man), and because no-one at U Mass except Felice had any experience with classism workshops, Felice recruited me to be her middle-class co-trainer for the first three weekend workshops on classism. “You have to do it,” she would say when she called me up.

It can be hard to find a good role to play in fighting an oppression when you’re on the “up” side of it. For example, so many men were inspired to be anti-sexist allies during the feminist heyday of the 1970s, but most fell by the wayside when it wasn’t clear what they should do, except be yelled at by angry women. The recent efforts to organize white allies is a great step forward on racism, giving us roles we didn’t find in earlier decades. So I consider myself a very lucky professional-middle-class person that I had Felice twisting my arm back then. “You have to co-author this with me,” “you have to co-facilitate this workshop with me”; and “you have to be on the Class Action board”: my focus on class got stronger and stronger over the years in part because Felice was such a persistent organizer. She and I were romantically involved for four years in the 80s, but the amount of arm-twisting really didn’t vary before, during or after that relationship; it didn’t matter whether I was her friend, her lover or her colleague, she still told me I “had to” join her anti-classism work. She’s one of the reasons that fighting classism became my number one passion in life.

Why is there resistance to including classism in diversity work?

Anyone who does diversity work against classism inevitably gets attacked from both the right and the left. From the right, the tired old defenses of the American Dream are heard, as if the US already is the land of equal opportunity for all, instead of just aspiring to be. It takes a certain kind of willful blindness to believe that the most prosperous are the most deserving among us, and that all those in poverty have done something terribly wrong to earn that fate.

The attacks from the left are more thoughtful, calling for a response that opens up “both/and” dialogue. As I understand it, the objection to the “classism” frame is that it risks overlooking the structural causes of and power-struggle solutions to class inequity. If sexism and racism were defeated, we’d still have gender and ethnic differences among us, though they might seem very different than today’s categories; but if classism were eliminated, there would be no super-rich and no chronically poor, or even no classes at all in the neo-Marxist sense of relationships of exploitation. To some progressive thinkers, this makes class fundamentally different than race or gender, which makes sense.

But why would this difference mean that the tools of diversity work (workshops, caucuses, speak-outs) can’t or shouldn’t be applied to classism? Walter Benn Michaels wrote an entire book, The Trouble with Diversity, to belittle the approach that Felice brought to U Mass. Without contacting a single classism trainer, he condemns us all for flattening down class into nothing but prejudice and disrespect. He also condemns the flourishing academic discipline of Working-class Studies, as well as all attempts to build a proud identity among working-class and poor people. But his most sarcastic barbs are pointed at those who treat class as an “ism”:

“So now we’re urged to be more respectful of poor people and to stop thinking of them as victims, since to treat them as victims is condescending – it denies them their ‘agency’.

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And if we can stop thinking of the poor as people who have too little money and start thinking of them instead as people who have too little respect, then it’s our attitude toward the poor, not their poverty, that becomes the problem to be solved, and we can focus our efforts of reform not on getting rid of classes but on getting rid of what we like to call classism. The trick, in other words, is to stop thinking of poverty as a disadvantage, and once you stop thinking of it as a disadvantage then, of course, you no longer need to worry about getting rid of it. More generally, the trick is to think of inequality as a consequence of our prejudices rather than as a consequence of our social system and thus to turn the project of creating a more egalitarian society into the project of getting people (ourselves and, especially, others) to stop being racist, sexist, classist homophobes. This book is an attack on that trick.” (Michaels 2006: 20)

Just to be clear: if there were such a person, a classism trainer who taught only about interpersonal disrespect and advocated only the solutions of changing attitudes, I would vehemently disagree with him or her. Such a wimpy, corporate “prejudice reduction” approach to diversity, which does exist for racism, sexism and homophobia but not for classism, is universally rejected throughout the left.

But anyone who has gone to a single Oppression 101 workshop by a non-corporate facilitator knows that all oppressions have institutional, cultural and interpersonal dimensions, not just classism. Racism workshops cover structural racism; sexism workshops cover structural sexism; of course classism workshops cover structural economic inequalities! And anyone who has spent much time listening to working-class and poor people knows that classist disrespect and stereotyping add much-resented insult to the injuries of material deprivation.

If Michaels had spoken with any actual classism trainers before writing about us, or even Googled “classism” and found Class Action’s website, he would have discovered that in fact we are all his kindred spirits in working to reduce economic inequality. Just look at the track record of Class Action’s board members and trainers! Felice and Chuck Collins co-founded United for a Fair Economy, the national non-profit dedicated to changing the rules of the economy to shrink the wealth gap, where I also worked for 9 years, and where Jerry Koch-Gonzalez was the long-time board president; Jenny Ladd was active in UFE’s Responsible Wealth project. Long-time board member Maynard Seider and former board president Donna Johnson have long histories as labor activists — and on and on. Similar economic justice organizing can also be found in the backgrounds of classism trainers in other networks, such as Southerners on New Ground and Training for Change. Virtually everyone in the US who facilitates classism workshops has also organized for structural changes in the economy.

That’s what I would have told Walter Benn Michaels if he’d bothered to contact me. (A side note: Michaels actually blasted me by name, accusing me of only caring about the racial wealth gap, not the overall wealth gap, another absurd assumption easily dispelled by Googling or calling me. Hey, Walter – pick up the phone!)

In fact, urgency about tackling classism as an ‘ism’ often arises directly from up-close, hands-on experience of economic justice activism. Whenever we push back against entrenched corporate power and rigged economic rules, we encounter some stubborn obstacles: our movements are too small because they start within only one class; it’s hard to organize across class lines. A working-class-led mass movement requires a proud working-class identity, which has become a rarity; and most of us have scant vocabulary to talk about class.

Even when we manage to get people to work together across racial differences, it’s usually within the same class – why? Because too many of us live class-segregated lives. Because so many settled-living working-class and lower-middle-class people look down on the chronically poor as undisciplined and immoral; and because so many professional-middle-class people presume that working-class whites are the worst and only racists, religious reactionary rubes, so dumb that they vote against their own self-interest. The right has an easy time recruiting white working-class people to conservative populist movements, because when their leaders say, “elitist coastal liberals look down on you,” they’re actually correct.

If we only organize and agitate about economic injustice, ignoring the cultural and interpersonal dimensions of classism, we will never win. There is tremendous potential energy for progressive change to be released when class-privileged people face up to their privilege, and when working-class and poor people get space to connect and to speak up, and when dialogue begins across class differences.

That’s what Felice knew. Classism diversity work is not the opposite of organizing for economic justice; it’s actually one of the essential components of it.

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Betsy Leondar-Wright, Class Action’s project director, is the author of Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists and co-author of The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the US Racial Wealth Divide.