Growing up as a middle-class white kid, I thought everyone was like me. Books and TV narrated my experiences, my neighbourhood and schools shared my family’s values, and I saw myself reflected in the faces of my friends and teachers. We rarely worried about money; I saw doctors on the regular, ate nutritious meals, went on family road trips, and took lessons to cultivate supposedly latent talents. I had it good. The “world” seemed like a pretty friendly, albeit homogenous, place, and I felt like I belonged. Oh, to be young again.
I think it’s time to rip off those rose-tinted glasses. Class mobility is a hard and cold fact in my family history. Growing up blue-collar meant my dad paid and worked his way through his undergraduate and professional degrees. In keeping with the white-collar-migration trend, he’s recently made the move from middle class to upper-middle class. Along the way, he made sure to pound all the skills and values into me that would guarantee my success in the race to the top. What’s more, he pays for my food, my rent, my education, my health care, my clothes, and my train tickets. I have class privilege seeping out of my pores. His wealth is my safety net and the reason I can write for The Daily.
Pumping out a column every couple of weeks for a newspaper connected to one of Canada’s most prestigious universities is a move toward gaining and consolidating class privilege. Five years of paying to read, write, think, and learn has culminated in the publishing of my opinions. Reckon that. My voice and perspectives are considered valuable enough to be put on such a platform. This has less to do with my own merit, and more to do with luck of the draw. In other words, this is privilege in action.
Cozying up to Montreal’s political scenes and the subcultures they overlap with has boggled my mind about class status. While capitalism taught me that poverty is shameful, the kids on these scenes wear it like an accessory. Discounted and stolen clothes, dumpstered food, cheap rent, squatting, and free activities are one thing. But glorifying being broke while fronting like you grew up working class or poor is another.
Treating class marginality as “hip” is reactionary politics. Despite being a by-product of dissent, it fundamentally misunderstands how power works. The ability to couple the trappings of class alterity with a hushing up of wealth stems from class privilege. This sort of phony downward mobility is not cool, let alone radical.
Messed-up manifestations aside, a lot of the beliefs that underpin the “opting-out” of one’s class positioning contain kernels of hope. The conviction that there is something wrong with the lifestyles and values of the middle, upper-middle, and owning classes is heartening. At the very least, this attitude signifies a departure from the mentality that locates the ills of capitalism in those without privilege. By signalling a move away from blaming poverty on the supposed laziness, incompetence, and stupidity of the poor, it motions us toward a critique of materialism, consumerism, the cult of upward mobility, and the hoarding of wealth.
Unfortunately, much of the appropriation of class oppression that goes down often does come from a more critical and politicized place – whether it’s feigning class solidarity by acting like you don’t have resources, trying to understand poverty by “living it,” hiding wealth out of some weird notion of respect, or fighting the devaluation of the poor simply by living “poverty” proudly. Part of what it means to have class privilege is to abstract from and dismiss the lived realities of those without it. This type of me-centric philosophy that purports to be fighting classism is dehumanizing and unproductive.
Capitalism and the class stratification it produces and depends on are wrong, immoral, bad, and every other negative modifier you can think of. Class privilege and classism are sustained by a system that sees the instability, financial insecurity, and struggles of the poor and working class as the sometimes unfortunate, but mostly justifiable, side-effect of an otherwise well-functioning economic structure. Apparently, the expendability of billions of lives around the world is a small price to pay for the top 10 per cent owning 85 per cent of the world’s wealth.
If we’re going to have any hope of opposing and fighting this deleterious system, an analysis of class privilege is vital. To start, class privilege is definitely not something you can just throw out like a chewed-up wad of gum. Approaches that treat it like it’s disposable ignore the fact that privilege has more to do with effects than with intentions. You can still be, do, and benefit from something you oppose.
Class privilege is about way more than just the money in your pocket, the clothes on your back, what you eat, or how you live. It’s about your family’s wealth: their assets, the inheritance you’re entitled to, and the income and education of your ’rents. It’s about your education, the vocabulary you use and understand, your skills, and the various safety nets that will save your ass when your downward mobility doesn’t pan out. It means being part of the dominant culture that defines what is considered normal, moral, acceptable, credible, and legitimate knowledge. It means thinking you’re naturally more intelligent, creative, and talented than the majority of people. It means being over-empowered because entire classes of people are powerless. It means thinking class privilege doesn’t exist and being able to disavow it on a whim.
In the interwoven radical and subcultural scenes, the shame projected onto poverty by mainstream society has shifted to a shame around wealth and the aping of poverty. Class oppression isn’t chic; it’s fucked up. Challenge one of capitalism’s main dictates – break the taboo that keeps class inequality hidden. Demystify and own up to your class privilege.
Lisa M writes in this space every week. Tell her what you think of downward mobility: firstname.lastname@example.org.