Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Class Status and Racism

I posted last week about the discussion group, and I felt like posting again this evening.  As you may recall, we're discussion class issues, in conjunction with reading bell hooks' book Where We Stand: Class Matters.  Tonight was an interesting discussion.

A person of color came this time, who hasn't been in the group before (I think she was out of town).  It changed the dynamics a lot.  (There's another person of color who's come the whole time, but most of us are white women.)

So, this first timer was talking about how she doesn't get proper class respect from some staff people on campus.

Now, as a white woman, I've learned that I don't experience racism as a person of color does, and I also know that as a middle class person, I'm probably missing a lot of what happens in terms of class disrespect towards other people, too.   So when a person of color tells me s/he's experienced racism, I listen, and I don't respond by saying it didn't happen or that they didn't interpret what happened accurately.  And I try to do the same with class disrespect, too.

But it struck me how very much she was arguing that staff folks should respect her for her class status, and how she talked about their interactions.  She said, for example, that when she "orders" someone to do something, they should do it and not question it.  I'm interested in how she used "orders," here, because it's not something I usually hear someone say.  I don't "order" my students to do X or Y, nor do I "order" the handyman, the roofers, staff people or whatever.  I tend to use "ask."  And when I ask a staff person, I don't tend to be upset if s/he asks a question about it or makes a suggestion to do something a different way.

Another white woman was also talking about how irritated she was that someone didn't show her proper respect as a tenure track person and thought she was an adjunct.

I tried to ask something (carefully worded) about how we were being defensive about our class positions, and that the book really wanted us to question the ways we uphold status and privilege through class, but I didn't get it out right and/or it didn't get taken up.

Another white colleague was trying to ask something that was ignored, so I did the feminist strategy of looking intently at her and (when a pause came up) asking her to repeat her question because I hadn't quite understood what she was getting at.  And then I understood, and it was a really good question, though I didn't have an answer, but then the first timer mis-recognized it (in the, is it Lacanian or Derridean sense, of meaningful mis-recognizing?) and went elsewhere with it.

It's so difficult, sometimes, to think about what was happening. 

I'm guessing the first timer thinks I'm rude, racist, whatever for going back and asking the white colleague to repeat.

Maybe she thinks I'm rude, racist, whatever because I wasn't paying her proper attention?

I'd like to think I'm not racist, or even rude, but I breathe racism along with the rest of the culture, and I don't want to lie to myself about that.

I can't tease out how much of my response to the first timer has to do with me being racist or with me reacting to her personality.

I'm also trying to think about how I expect my own class status to be respected.  For example, the adjunct thing.  Why should I be treated more respectfully than another person based on my job?  based on my degree?  Maybe respect isn't the word?  I mean, on some level, we should all be treating everyone with respect.  But if my job is to do X, and their job is to do Y, then asking for Y shouldn't be a sign of disrespect or a power play.   And my doing X isn't a sign of disrespect.

And yet, I can't say there's no racism on this campus (I've heard stories from every person of color I know here), or that the first timer hasn't experienced racism and disrespect.  But I also felt a sense of disrespect based on class coming from the first timer towards the staff people.   I don't know that one disrespect trumps the other, or outweighs it.

Unfortunately, while I've enjoyed talking with the group about bell hooks' book, and I've enjoyed much of the reading, I don't have a sense the hooks has as many strategies for changing things as I'd like.  I want strategies for change, still.  But not too hard, because I also want to protect my privilege, of course.  :|


  1. Ok, I am really not qualified to give an informed opinion.... However, something is resonating. My institution has a real problem retaining African American faculty. As a liberal arts place, teaching evaluations matter a lot. If you are a TT assistant professors, bad evaluations will kill your options. I don't think iy's outright racism from the students, but there is a reason why it happens. My theory is that as mostly white, middle class suburban kids, they are not used to seeing an African American in a position of authority. And it comes out in the evaluations.

  2. Anonymous10:32 PM

    The use of the word order is pretty weird, actually. You can't order the staff around. Even I know that and I'm just a lowly adjunct. :)

    That aside, I wonder sometimes about this with respect to a colleague who insists adamantly on being called Dr. instead of Mr. Now, in our context, most teachers are Mr. or Mrs. or Miss (or Ms. if she prefers, though most seem to prefer Miss around here), so it's understandable that kids get it wrong. But to this colleague, it reads as disrespect and he absolutely won't have it. Down to the kids want to shorten his name to a nickname and he won't allow it because it doesn't have Dr. in it.

    It all gets a little awkward in that the kids make that mistake with me all the time and I don't care. I am not invested in the difference in status. I don't care if they don't know or recognize the difference in education between me and Mrs. So-and-So down the hall. there is a difference. Someday they might get it but really, no. I don't care. And I wonder why it is my colleague cares so much about it.

    It's disappointing that you couldn't get people to think about how they uphold and reinforce their own class positions rather than only thinking about ways in which they have felt slighted. It's an important part of the conversation.

  3. Sounds like a difficult but worthwhile conversation that you and your colleagues are having, Bardiac. At least, I assume it's worthwhile, working on the assumption that having the conversations matter, even if nothing gets "fixed," and also working on the assumption that sometimes people have to talk about something for quite awhile before recognition glimmers. I don't know, maybe those assumptions aren't correct!

    I'm struck by the "order" vs. "ask" wording as well, and here's my devil's advocate thought (as someone who also always uses "ask" instead of "order"): do you think that, as middle class, well-educated, white people, we're so used to our own sense of authority that we can mask it a little bit with the fiction that we're really just "asking" folks to do something and that they have every right to consider our request and then say "no," even though that's not really the power dynamic at work? That is, are we essentially "ordering" people to do things but pretending to ourselves and others that this isn't what's going on? And maybe, because we're nice, pleasant, white women, the staff, etc., do tend to do what we ask, but maybe with a person of color they are more likely to push back, and so the pleasant facade of "asking" fades and it becomes more clearly a question of "ordering"? I'm just playing around with this as a possible explanation because, as I said, I'm really struck and put off by that language of "ordering" as well.

  4. Good point, What Now? Thanks.

  5. What Now's point makes a lot of sense to me.

    This also reminds me of some of Lisa Delpit's work on granting students of color access to power. That work is specific to k-12 education, but one of the things she explores is the shifts white teachers need to make in order to communicate effectively with black students to support their academic success. One of those shifts is a shift in language that is much more directive and direct. For instance, kids from middle class white families know that when their parents say something like, "do you think it'd be a good idea to shut the door?", what they really mean is, "shut the door." Kids from other SES groups and kids from some cultural groups may be more accustomed to more authoritative statements from their parents. So, if their teacher makes a request, kids may reasonably code it as a request, whereas teachers really think of it as a demand. Then teachers end up misinterpreting their students as noncompliant.

    So I wonder if perhaps your colleague might be coming from a position in which people in authority are typically more authoritative and direct: hence the word order may be appropriate from her perspective. And like What Now suggested, many times middle class white people may make what are, in essence, orders, but have the implicit authority to couch it as requests.

  6. Just wanted to chime in to say "yes" to WN and albe.

  7. Just to add to this, I'm struck by the ways in which my colleagues moan about not having staff support. There are times when I think my work is that of a *very* expensive secretary, so I get the desire for more staff. But it also reads to me as something about working in a context where you feel as if you're undervalued, and having staff who will do things for you (be your servant?) makes people feel valued.

    Does that make any sense?

    I do recognize that my "ask" is an order, but I try to make it clear when I need it yesterday, and when it's "When you get a chance".

  8. Thanks, all. Albe, that's a great reminder, thank you. And the rest of you, yes.

    I appreciate your helpful comments. They're helping me think things through better.