Owning Class Folks – Let’s Explore Some Tough Questions

How can we owning class folks who care about enormous horrors going on today initiate a systemic difference by speaking up about the harm that continues in a drastically different manner? For some of us, the origins of today’s enormous inequities are from the source of our wealth. Will you join me in this conversation? Let’s get honest and face some questions and fears about our essential roles in the transformation this celebrating-its-birthday country needs. It’s time to think and act outside the box.

I grew up with the “No Talk Rule,” which I think is in the fabric of a large percentage of owning class families. How about you? Here are the subtitles I was trained with: “Don’t you dare talk about the ugly, unfair, demoralizing, and dysfunctional stuff. Tuck it away, talk around it, press it down where it won’t come out. Keep pretending everything is wonderful. Don’t make us look bad.” I learned to live in a trance. I agree with that recovery movement claim “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Those secrets are well kept in many wealthy families because they can afford to. We see those same coping behaviors out there in the media and corporate America. Try this some time: Google “The no talk rule” and “wealth” or “owning class.” You’ll be amazed by what you find.

About 10 years ago I began deeply looking at my family’s wealth and respected secrets and how they socialized and molded me. I started to ask myself some uncomfortable questions, and to develop a value system about race, class and that ever-widening umbrella of social justice. Our system needs an enormous amount of transformation and healing – so what role do we owning class folks have in healing the system that enriched and trained us?

My inner explorations around wealth and secrets partially sprang from an amazing opportunity I had to respond to the legacy left by my slave trading ancestors. I was in a film called Traces of the Trade about these ancestors, three generations of the DeWolf family, the biggest slave trading family business out of the U.S. One sister and eight of my cousins and I took a journey retracing the slave trade triangle and learning more and more about our history. Then we asked ourselves “What do we do with this legacy?” In the film we discussed our various answers to this question. Some of us who were involved in making this film continue to facilitate discussions about the legacy and what can we do about the gargantuan leftovers of racism and white privilege.

Fortunately other families have explored and continue to reveal more about their slave-owning histories, as well as white and black families’ journeys since slavery. Some have written books, for example “Slaves in the Family” by Edward Ball or “Pearl’s Secret” by Neil Henry. The media is paying attention to blacks and whites connecting around their ancestors’ slavery relationships. Look at CNN’s piece “When kin of slaves and owner meet” by Wayne Drash on May 20, 2010. People Magazine’s June 27 issue had a four page article about descendants of slaves and their owners tracing their roots together, and about the “Coming to the Table” community which supports this process.

Here’s one of my questions as a result of the digging and exploring I’ve done by myself and with some others committed to making a transformative difference in the field of social justice: What are we doing or not doing today that our descendants of the 2100’s will be questioning with shock and disbelief? What does it mean to live our values when we have race and class privilege today? I wish more owning class people were less afraid of talking about this stuff and taking action to motivate and educate fellow owning class folks so a literal movement starts, a real “outside the box” movement around big changes with big money. Do I know exactly what it needs to look like? No, but I think it could start with telling the truth all over the place and including our hearts and spirits more in how we relate.

For starters, let’s learn more stories and truths about race, class, wealth, history, capitalism, and the criminal justice system. Encourage more owning class people to learn from authors like Howard Zinn, James Loewen, James Baldwin, Joy DeGruy, and Michelle Alexander. Help awaken others, as we wake up a bit more ourselves.

Here’s the most important question: What are we afraid of? Fear is in the fabric of how our system operates and how we treat each other. People with money and resources have got to have some guts and take risks, act with integrity, and follow their life callings and vocations in new ways. What actions will start the ripples on the pond and heal and transform our society and our planet?

I urge us all to be more than hopeful that more owning class people who care, in bigger and bigger numbers, will start taking radical actions that will begin to transform our system. I mean way beyond what Bill and Melinda Gates have done and are doing. Let’s acknowledge and thank them for all they have done, but it’s a small beginning. Many assume that owning class people won’t take big risks because they don’t feel they have to, they’ll stay comfortable. They’ll do what they have to to protect their nest eggs and their comfortable retirements.

Please do this: ignite discussions and connect and network with other owning class people who are beyond disturbed by the racism and classism in our system today. Start asking yourself, or asking your friends or colleagues who are owning class, “Are you comfortable remaining comfortable?” “You want to remain comfortable instead of working on healing this country and even the planet?!” How uncomfortable do non-owning-class people have to become before we seriously start to wonder, “What should we do that is radically different and new?” Keep wondering and spread that wonder, would you?

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Holly Fulton has been a communication skills & diversity trainer and a French & ESL teacher in France, California, Massachusetts and Colorado. She gives talks and facilitates discussions after screenings of Traces of the Trade, a documentary film she participated in which addresses the history of the slave trade, white privilege, reparations, and the need for more awareness about our nation’s history. Holly is active in music and theatre, and does volunteer work for Challenge Day, a company that provides high schools across the country with experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression. She does pet partner work in health care settings with her Golden Retriever, Cali. She is on the Community Practice Board of “Coming to the Table,” a national community that addresses healing from the legacy of slavery. She is also on the board of the Attitudinal Healing Connection in Oakland which builds healthy communities with educational programs, workshops, events, and healing circles.

2 Responses

  1. Edward

    I’m glad that you pointed out fear as a systemic motivator. The privilege of wealth is often no privilege at all in a system that needs inequity in order to function. Everyone pays a price (See Michael Lewis’ _The Big Short_ for how even uber-wealthy investors are held hostage by insane manipulation of financial group-think).

    A starting point for people of wealth privilege is honesty, not honesty to others, necessarily, but honesty to themselves. They must be honest about the price they pay for the “No Talk Rule” and “living in a trance.” The price comes out (though not necessarily for everyone) in a list of dysfunctional behaviors, attitudes, and lifestyles that add to the GDP of this country (financial settlements, rehab, shopping therapy, alimony payments, ridiculous overpayment for emblems of status, legal fees, private security, etc.) but subtract from lives worth living. Herman Melville’s Ishmael in _Moby Dick_ says it best: “Who ain’t a slave?”

    This very issue of the price of privilege came up recently elsewhere on the web. In response to Chauncey DeVega’s “The Debits of Whiteness: Of the Tea Party GOP’s Racism and the S & P’s Credit Downgrade of the United States,” Jeffrey Perry draws upon his work with Theodore W. Allen that digs more deeply into the systemic issues of privilege. Perry and Allen frame their arguments in language of “white skin privilege,” “radicalization,”, “racism,” and “white supremacy.” Such language can be a turn-off for many progressives who desire to maintain allegiance focused more toward the center, but that is a serious mistake, as Perry’s and Allen’s underlying arguments speak directly to the privilege of wealth and how it socializes and maintains the status quo.

    Perry’s post:
    Theodore W. Allen originated the “white skin privilege” concept in 1965, co-authored White Blindspot in 1967, and wrote “Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?” (1969), the ground-breaking Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race (1975), the seminal two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997), and many other pieces against white supremacy and “white race” privilege.

    Allen, an ardent opponent of racial oppression and class exploitation, maintained that struggle against white supremacy was central to effort for “democracy, progress, and socialism.” He emphasized that the system of white race privileges was central to how the ruling class maintained social control in the U.S. and to the very invention of the “white race” itself.
    Allen also emphasized that for European-American workers the “white race” privileges are not “benefits,” but that they are “poison,” “ruinous,” a baited hook, to the class interests of working people. He urged ongoing struggle against white supremacy and white privilege as being in the class interest of working people.

    He also stressed, however, that ruling class interests, desirous of both making profit and maintaining social control, would seek to reinforce white race privileges and white supremacist appeals in periods of developing crisis, such as we are witnessing today.

    My response to Perry’s post:
    Jeffrey, thank you for the wonderful response. I was trying to gather my thoughts to articulate a response to DeVega’s article. What struck me about the article and some of the responses is that there is a deeper discussion of race trying to surface and stay on the surface.

    Much too often in the U.S. our attempts to discuss race are futile at best. They are futile because we treat race superficially as a moral value easily pushed aside, discounted, debased, and/or ignored in the American cant, instead of trying to understand the deeper systemic machinations at work, machinations that consume ALL of us (see Michael Lewis’ _The Big Short_ for how even the wealthy investor class is not immune).

    I was going to reference Melville’s _Moby Dick_ as a work that sounds the depths of this American pathology, but now I don’t have to, because you expressed it so perfectly and so clearly: “Allen also emphasized that for European-American workers the “white race” privileges are not “benefits,” but that they are “poison,” “ruinous,” a baited hook, to the class interests of working people. He urged ongoing struggle against white supremacy and white privilege as being in the class interest of working people.”

    “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they live.”-James Baldwin.

    For more on this general topic readers may be interested in Jeffrey B. Perry’s lengthy article, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen On the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (forthcoming later this month online at the Cultural Logic website).
    For more on Theodore W. Allen see http://www.jeffreybperry.net/_

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