Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What's a Liberal to Do?

I've been thinking a lot about the bubble quiz responses I saw here and on the NPR site. I've been thinking about responding, and hesitating, and thinking, and hesitating. I'm learning. I've learned a lot in the past say 5 years from some initiatives on campus and from my colleagues. I've had two colleagues who've been especially instrumental in my learning, and I'm most grateful to them. But I have a lot to learn, and I expect in five years to look back and see real change from now, as I look back now and see real change from then. And I look forward to that. But it does make responding uncomfortable because I for sure don't have all the answers, and some of the answers I do have just aren't good enough.

On the other hand, I think it's important to respond here on my blog where I put up the link. One of the main reasons I think it's important to respond is that I imagine most of you are a lot like me in some ways: you're probably liberal (some more, some less), probably college educated or with a graduate degree, most are female (I think). And I'm pretty sure most of you are white, US born, with a job (though for those adjuncting or in grad school, it's not the job you're aiming for). And most of you want to promote social justice, to end racism, to make the world a better place.

Even though I'm sure what I have to say won't be good enough in some ways, and even though I expect to get schooled, I'm going to respond. Schooling is good for me, after all. Being challenged is good for me, as I think it's good for my students, even though it's uncomfortable.

Here goes:

When I look at the responses both here and at the NPR site, I see some common threads. 1) There's a thread of "yes, but I" followed by some specific point about why one or another question doesn't apply to the responder. 2) There's a thread of "this is a bogus test." 3) There's a thread of "so doing stuff that 'those people' do is good?" ("Those people" are "white trash" in some comments over at NPR)

I'm sure the test isn't perfect, but in some ways my concerns aren't with the test, but with the responses because they tend to come from a space of defensiveness, a space of "competitive victimization" sometimes, and from an attitude of "white guilt" and/or class guilt.

First, there's nothing wrong or right about any of the behaviors or status stuff on the test. There's nothing about living in a small town, working on a factory floor, watching popular movies, etc that is right or wrong. The test is trying to look at stuff most people in the US experience, and asking takers to identify their own relationship to those experiences.

But it sure feels like those are right and wrong answers, doesn't it? I sure wanted to get points for having had a job that sometimes involved walking on a factory floor, though it didn't involve doing the factory labor there (and even though my family members owned the factory and I was employed there as a part-time receptionist largely because I am a family member).

The test is saying, most working class US people have these experiences; if you don't share many of these experiences, then you're probably not much aware of the experiences of most working class US people. The next point is what the test didn't say outright: If you're not much aware of the experiences of most working class US people, then you may think you're aware, and think you share these experiences, and will behave in such a way that adversely affects those who do share these experiences. That is, you may think you understand working class experiences, but you may vote or act in ways that harm working class people.

That next step is where I think those of us who scored low (did you notice how many people reported their scores or not? And a pattern? I did.) felt defensive, and often expressed our white or class guilt. That's also where some of us played competitive victimization, that "yes, you had it bad, but I also had it bad" move we see so often.

That defensiveness, that guilt, and especially that competitive victimization, none of that does anything to work for social justice.

So we white liberal folks can look at our scores and make excuses, or we can look at our scores and think about what our bubble tells us. And if we do that, we can step up and work for social justice. I think we mostly want social justice, but we don't want to feel guilty about our privileges. We want the world to see that we, too, are Trayvon Martin (to use only the latest tag), by which we mean, we're also victims.

I have to say, I'm not Trayvon Martin. I'm sorry he was killed, and I hope the grand jury will look at all the evidence and act for justice, but I'm not Trayvon Martin because no middle-aged, upper-middle class white woman is going to be subject to the sort of structural violence that a young Black man is subject to. I will not be wearing a hoodie and pretending that my wearing a hoodie does anything to work towards social justice.

Here's what I will do, and here's what I hope you are doing:

1) Get educated. Notice I didn't say "educate yourself"? I don't think white folks can really educate themselves about racism, nor do I think middle and upper-middle class folks can educate ourselves about classism. I need to listen to what other people say, and keep my mouth more closed than open in these discussions. (Insert ironic look at self for typing this long screed.)

I need to listen when someone talks about how difficult it is to "make it" on an adjunct salary. I need to listen when people of color tell me about experiencing racism. I need to listen. And if I open my mouth, I should not deny the reality of their experiences or make excuses for how things are.

After listening, I can read and further my education. I found Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria helpful.

2) Recognize Privilege. When I look around, and I see that I'm on third base metaphorically, I need to recognize that I didn't hit a triple. I started out on third base. It's uncomfortable, though, because I did work hard to "get where I am" and I want people to recognize and respect my hard work. But I have to recognize that all the hard work I did would have counted for very little if I hadn't had opportunities afforded by my parents, the racism in society, social structures, and so on. And those opportunities aren't available to most people. Yes, a few people have more privilege than I do. BFD. My privilege gave me opportunties not available to the vast majority of people, and in comparison, my hard work means not so much.

In recognizing my privilege, I can try not to assume that everyone has the same privilege. And I can try to not be a jerk about that. I can try to work justly with students who weren't raised to expect to go to college or to know how to behave in college, for example.

3) Think Structurally. Injustice is structural in our society, and we can best change it by working to change structures. And that's damned hard. Yes, it's great to feed people by donating or volunteering at a local food bank. But it's more lasting to work on changing social structures.

In big things, I don't know where to begin. I don't. I don't know how we're going to make sure that every child in the world has food every day, and shelter. I don't know how we're going to make sure that every human being's rights are respected, and that they're treated with dignity and respect.

But I do know that at my school, I can do some stuff.

I can work on making my syllabi and classes anti-racist and anti-classist. I can talk about social justice in my classes, analyze racism, show how our social structures come through in the literature I love and teach. I can love Shakespeare while recognizing the cultural power that very name has, and not be defensive about loving Shakespeare. And I have to know that deconstructing that power doesn't actually diminish it, not really.

I can use my voice as a faculty member to ask questions about how our structures can help all students succeed, and not only middle class white students. I can ask how our structures make it easier for middle class white students to get in and come to my school, and how we can change those structures to welcome more diverse students and promote their success.

I can listen to my colleagues, learn from them, and support them, especially the ones who work more directly for social justice. I can follow the leadership of people who have more experience and different experiences than I do.

But no, I don't need to suddenly watch TV more, go to more movies, eat at the local franchise of chain restaurant. I do need to recognize that I'm making choices to do and not do some things, and that my choices may put me in a bubble.

I do know that I have a lot to learn, and hope that you're going to teach me in the discussion I hope ensues.


  1. I *don't* think the test says a thing about black America. That could be my Charles Murray bias... he did, after all, write one of the worst examples in the second half of the 20th century of misuse of statistics to prove a racist point. And based on the interviews I've heard recently, I don't think he's changed much.

    I *do* think it says something about the white class spectrum, or at least the white class spectrum that I have had some experience with.

    I also think that most people who are lower SES and white would be perfectly happy making a heck of a lot more money and having more choices and opportunities. Even if it means they'd be more OC than SF. At least, DH's rural relatives and neighbors seem pretty impressed by his fancy degree and his ability to do things. He's made good. They want their own kids to have opportunities as well. So do we.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking couple of posts. I did kind of get the feeling reading the original NPR article comments that if you wanted a higher score, then you probably deserved the lower one. We are really really glad for the opportunities we are enjoying now.

    Another thing I did think of... DH and I never had the luxury of turning an opportunity down. I had the luxury of having more opportunities growing up than DH. Our children will be able to say no to opportunities because other ones will come along. And that's pretty amazing. I want there to be more opportunities for everyone.

  2. I tried to respond to your last post, and I think I couldn't adequately prove I wasn't a robot. We'll see if I can manage this time.

    I really appreciate both of these posts. There are aspects of the survey that are weird, and the commenters who say it doesn't address race and only focuses on one particular bubble. But you're taking it in a great way -- to reflect on your own privilege and your own experiences and where they diverge from others.

    I definitely have aspects of being in a bubble, but I also see how easy it would be to fully wall myself up in that bubble (and that's something I think only the most privileged of us can really say). And that terrifies me. And your posts are a gentle reminder that that's not such a good thing.

  3. My score was mid-range, I think, in part because I grew up in the south and pay attention to NASCAR among other things. I was in a small town where if we hung out with only our class, we'd have no friends, so growing up, at least, I crossed the class divide often.

    I am always trying to check myself in regard to things like eating organic or going to farmer's markets. I know it sounds pretentious to many of my relatives. I love the ideas you've presented here. I only wish that the other side, the ones that score high, would do more--and I agree that structures could change to increase the likelihood that they can and will--to get out of their own bubble.

    Example: my brother-in-law is a doctor, which, in theory, should put him in the same bubble I'm in, but he's chosen political views and a lifestyle that keeps him in his own bubble despite having the means to access education and activities that many of us in the bubble pursue and enjoy. He goes to auto races regularly. He eats canned food, take out, fast food, stuff out of the supermarket quickie cookbooks. Though he could afford a BMW or other luxury car, that wouldn't be American, so he drives a GM. He used to have a pickup truck. He lives in a city and even travels with his family. He's even left the country before, but the experiences he has on those trips only reassure him that he should mingle only with "his own kind." The way he talks about those trips--even to another state--just indicate how foreign he thinks these other places are.

    Maybe the point of the book (which I haven't read) is that the walls between classes are getting higher, so that one tends to stay within the cultural (if not the financial) confines of those walls and also, not let others in. I think my brother in law would say that he feels unwelcome and uncomfortable among people who drink wine, discuss books, and eat organic. He feels his lifestyle is looked down upon by them. And of course, the reverse is often true for me. And I know I've been guilty of looking down on people who use Velveeta regularly, despite my resorting to it more than once.

    It's a fascinating topic, and I think we all do well to at least be aware that class is more than just about money, and that we are all probably guilty of creating our own bubbles.

  4. I really appreciate your reflective thoughts on this. Whatever any of us score on the test, it makes more sense to accept that we all live in some sort of bubble and interrogate what that means, to us and to those around us.

    I wasn't too surprised with my place on the bubble of privilege (46, if I remember correctly). When I was answering the questions, I could clearly see how my working class upbringing in the South influenced my responses. And maybe that upbringing keeps me somewhat grounded when I'm surrounded by others who do live in their own bubble. It isn't natural for me to think in terms of organic foods or bottled water or art-house movies. I go to the farmer's market because the veggies actually taste like veggies; bottled water is a waste of money; and I love popular culture in my movies and television shows.

    There are differences between what I used to do/think and what I do/think now, though (may I never fish again). Like you said in your earlier post, many of us - with our parents' blessing - are trying to change our status for "the better" and, in doing so, we alter our understanding of and interactions with privilege. I don't want to lose my admittedly limited understanding of class and privilege, but I will admit that I'm glad I've been able to leave many aspects of my working class background behind.

  5. Yes, yes, and yes... My biggest problem with the survey was that it seemed to point to a certain idea that you have to have a certain lifestyle to understand your privileges or not.

    At my institution, the emphasis on social justice is high, but it is usually done either by helping in a soup kitchen or by having a service learning experience that replicates the life of those they are working with (or for, according to who you ask). I've always told them that while those are valuable experience, you do not need to become somebody you are not to try to help and bring change.

    I give them two examples: a) workers-run factories in Argentina, where the most successful ones have been the ones that were able to establish connections with professionals that helped them with legal issues, accounting issues, etc...

    b) the fact that I can think of many ways I could work for social justice. However, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity is not one of them. I am clumsy and non-visual, therefore I would be an obstacle in any work that involves manual labor.

  6. I found the quiz to be very slanted - my family and friends who are more "America mainstream " are there because of deliberate choices to be there - and I am where I am because of my own deliberate choices. I come from a middle class background and my family members and brother in laws include factory workers and union members and nurses. They like nascar and football and Oprah and Denny's and hate reading and tell me they find quiet weekends in the country boring. I like cooking and musical theater, and never watch talk shows (Except sometimes Ellen, notice she is not on the list?) and loathe IHop and most chains.

    Why am I in a bubble and not them? Their bubble is just as impenetrable as mine, if not more. They have as much exposure to me as I to them. TV and the internet provide an equalizing exposure to us all and we CHOOSE what we like.

    Their bubble is just bigger than mine, and they share it with more people. That's all.

  7. This is going to make me sound like a bad parent, but here goes. I know a lot of people want to give their kids "better than" they had growing up. Personally, I don't know if it's ethical to "give" your kids a multitude of opportunities. Doesn't that rob them of the "opportunity" to create opportunities for themselves?

    I don't know... I think about the minimal opportunities I had as a kid, living with working-class alcoholics who never set foot on a college campus -- and I realize that I am who I am today because I wanted more for MYSELF -- not because they wanted more for me. They couldn't have cared less, to be honest.

    I love my kids. Very much. But I'm wary of "giving it all" to them. I'll make sure they don't grow up with alcoholics, but I don't want them to get through life entirely unscathed. That sounds terrible. I just want them to have the "opportunity" to build some character -- and, to me, that means they need to have an occasional difficulty.

    Now, that said, you don't have to be a Shakespeare scholar to know that people who have privilege often have big problems. ("Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.") It's not impossible to have character just because you have privilege. You just have different experiences that might insulate you -- bubble-like.

    Heck, my kids are white men. They'll have PLENTY of privilege without me handing them some more.

  8. I disagree that all bubbles are the same. Everyone may, to some degree, live in a bubble of some type. And it's annoying when other people don't make an effort to understand where you're coming from or make assumptions about you because of what you look like or what you do with your free time.

    But some "bubbles" come with huge amounts of power and privilege, including power over others who may make different "choices." And yes, we all make choices, but we don't all have the same choices to make or the same access to those choices. And that does tilt the balance on the consequences of choosing to live in your bubble or not.

    (Fie upon this quiet life: I think you raise really difficult questions about how to do right by your children, and the dangers of "giving them everything.")

  9. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. And I know that in ways I live in a bubble -- I live alone, I work 60 hours or so a week. I have a more than sufficient income. But my awareness of the world around me is not defined by whether I had a job on the factory floor (I worked as a secretary for years) or drive a pickup truck. I understand my privilege, and I work to extend my world. As a humanist, I reject the notion that my ability to understand an experience is limited by the extent to which I share it. In fact, I'd argue that the purpose of education is to create and stimulate critically informed empathic understanding.

    I grew up in a bookish family with little money. But I grew up in New York City, so my world was definitely urban: I worked as a secretary, not in a factory. So I know about making do, and stretching my money. One of my stepsons and his wife are on food stamps, and my mother lives on her social security. I go to church with a varied group of people, and know that my financial situation is very different from theirs. (One of my friends from church will sell me Avon cosmetics.)

    I think a feature of modern America is that more people live in bubbles of various kinds (though, as one commenter on the NPR site noted, parents with school age children usually have much broader contacts). Evangelicals will only hang out with other evangelicals, liberals with liberals, conservatives with conservatives. We are often segregated by age, politics, race as well as class. As a church-going leftie, I cross a few divisions, but I admit that I don't hang out much with the right to life crowd.

    So a survey like this draws attention to distinctions, but I'm not sure they are the most important ones. It seems to me it is more important to find places for civic and civil conversation than for me to go to movies where I'd spend most of my time under the seat. So if I get out, I want to get to places where the real conversations can take place.

  10. Sarabeth10:37 AM

    My sense of the test was that it was very, very white. Poor or working-class black or Latino Americans would have scored much like white professionals. Which makes me suspicious of it, in much the way that I am suspicious of Murray's larger body of work. I think it wants to claim an authenticity, and therefore a privileged ethical stance, for a particular brand of middle-class whiteness that is about region and religion much more than it is about race or class.

    I mean, I'm from the South. Rich people watch NASCAR in my hometown, and shoot guns. I've got nothing against either activity, and I appreciate the larger point that crossing cultural boundaries is important, and that liberal folk should not demonize the way that conservatives understand the world. But those people are not more "real Americans" than I am, or than the working-class black people in my current Northern city are. And the test seems premised at making those kinds of judgments.

  11. Fie: The opportunities I want to give my kid are challenges. And he won't have to leave home at age 15 like his dad did in order to get the heck out of Dodge. We're not living in Dodge, we're living in a college town, and that's ok with me.

    Most people don't leave DH's home town, and the drug use rates (mostly meth) and teen pregnancy rates are high. Many don't know much about why college might be important, the schools aren't great, and fewer people than should end up going to schools.

    Most of the companies have left the town, unemployment is high, and so on. More people would benefit from a second chance, I think, than would benefit from having to fight against their disadvantages. It takes a special personality to succeed because of disadvantages. Most people will do better with extra opportunities. They'd live longer too, given the correlates with health, stress, obesity, smoking etc.

    The opportunities we want to give his relatives are the ability to go to community college (since the oldest screwed up her freshman and sophomore year and isn't state school eligible) and then a 4 year if they do well. We want to give the oldest a second chance she wouldn't have on her own.

  12. nicoleandmaggie - It's wonderful that you can help your DH's relatives escape their situation. I hope that it works out. :)

  13. Anonymous10:45 AM

    I just want to say that this is great! Sharing it with my other bubble-bound friends.

  14. Hi, I came over via the link at @Nicoleandmaggie's. I'd vaguely heard about the bubble test but not taken it before, so I went and took it, and yes, it pegged me exactly right- a first generation upper middle class although my parents were really middle class, not working class (a teacher and a librarian). I don't feel a lot of angst about my class bubble, although I do wish I had better ideas for how to make class less of a "trap" in America- i.e., to give our society the class mobility we think it has but that we've actually set up impediments to prevent.

    This is an interesting post, and I'm not sure I have much to add to the discussion. I was struck by the importance of TV and movies in the quiz- I don't really watch either, although I guess the fact that when I DO watch anything it is either Colbert or a British mystery places me squarely in a bubble. And I was amused by the fact that frequenting what I consider "standard American restaurant chains" with our kids counts as an anti-bubble thing. We go to them because they are reliably fast and good with kids. I guess the fact that we recognize that the food isn't the best actually "undoes" the bubble-busting aspect of that.

    I do worry sometimes about my kids. We have the resources to give them so many opportunities, and we choose to do that quite a bit because honestly, who wouldn't want their kids to have the best possible chance at success? But I worry that they will grow up ignorant of their privilege, because it will be shared by all of their friends. As they get older, we will want to take some steps to open their eyes to this issue, but I haven't figured out yet what those steps might be.

  15. I agree with Nicole and Maggie....it seemed like it was only concerned about the white working class. Which seemed incredibly racist of the test itself.

    I enjoyed taking the test, but it's just a test. This can't define or determine who you are. I scored a 58, so it assumed I was on the ascent. Which couldn't be more false. I grew up very privileged, but the economy plus life's circumstances have left me in a very different place. I'm not angry about it. I still aspire to be comfortable in my finances again, but I'm enjoying life now, too. I think it assumed a very American assumption: that mobility can only be upward as time moves forward. But my own little microcosm proves the assumption false.

  16. Anonymous5:58 PM

    Isn't his project about white people, though? I mean the book this is coming from? I don't think interrogating whiteness is racist.