Race and class are two identities that exist in tandem, one never really trumping the other. What are the ways they intersect, diverge, conflict? What happens when our internal race/class state differs from an external race/class assignment -- and what factors go into forming internal/external states in the first place? This panel will look at the realities of how we exist within and negotiate race and class without privileging either concept.The panelists were Chris Wrdnrd, Eileen Gunn, Saladin Ahmed, and Nisi Shawl. There was no moderator for this panel.
The first panel took a while to get going because there was no moderator. Moderation duties were handled by Nisi Shawl, who was also one of the originators for the panel.
Saladin Ahmed is a fantasy writer, with his works set in the medieval Middle East (as opposed to medieval Europe). Lots of reviewers notice that, but they don’t notice what to him is just as important: his protagonists are street people, rather than the royalty of medieval European fantasy.
Eileen Gunn said she doesn’t know what class she’s in. Someone from the audience called out “If you don’t know, you’re probably middle class.”
Chris Wrdnrd introduced herself as another panel originator, and said that the impetus for the panel came out of a “Class Basics” panel in WisCon 34. Chris also said that the intersection of race and class provides a point of conflict because class can be externally assigned that’s different than the felt class.
Eileen said this is especially prevalent in the business world: corporate status assigns class. That is, a manager might feel she is working class, but the corporate hierarchy assigns her the status of upper class.
Saladin said his class assignment depends on context: How he’s dressed, how his hair is cut, whether he’s with his wife and children, or even different groups of friends. Nisi asked if he thought he contributed to these different assignments by “code switching,” but I don’t recall his answer. Saladin continued to say that he’s gone from being poor from having grown up in an immigrant enclave in a factory town to being poor because he’s in an MFA poetry program.
Chris mentioned that because her boss thought she was middle class (she has a middle class office job), he made class-based jokes in her presence. If she’d been black, he’d have never made race-based jokes in her presence. She said he “slinked” back to his office that day.
Nisi described an Ann Arbor city councilmember being arrested for driving while black.
There was a comment from the audience from a woman who brought a black boyfriend home to her upper class, white family. She was asked “Does your black boyfriend know how to operate a microwave?”
Saladin said he wanted to play devil’s advocate to the happy alliances. He talked about Henry Louis Gates being arrested in 2009. Saladin said Gates’ attitude was a mixture of “of course that happened, I’m a black man in America” and “How dare you.” Saladin was commenting on Gates’s arrogance. Eileen pointed out that no one gets to be a Harvard professor without a fair amount of arrogance. Saladin also mentioned a Sikh friend being mistaken for a Muslim. Nisi mentioned Samuel R. Delany once being furious at being called a “dirty kike.”
Saladin mentioned that race is a simpler construct than class in the US, that there are four boxes, and everyone is fit into one of them. But there’s little or no talk about class, and even though most talk about race is not done very well, it’s at least done.
Mary Kay Kare (audience member) said that the idea that race is a simpler construct than class is US-centric.
We ignore class distinctions – someone has money, someone is race.
An audience member said that UK people talk much more about class than US. That a person’s class can be pinpointed by accents and mannerisms.
One class marker in the US is where people keep their trash can: under the sink, they’re middle or upper class. Out in the kitchen, they’re working class.
Karen (audience member) said that class signals can usually be hard to pick up, but race/gender can sometimes be assumed (although assumed erroneously).
David Emerson (audience member) said that Barbara Jensen did her master’s degree on class, and she says that there are internal differences between working and middle classes, and that even after crossing classes one still carries the internal markers.
Saladin asked how permeable is class? He quoted a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying “I’m not a rich man, I’m a poor man with money.”
Nisi said she once got asked the question “Where are you from?” And answered “Kalamazoo.” The person was very surprised Nisi wasn’t from India (this was someone on an airplane).
Isabel (audience member) said she was welfare poor growing up, but could talk white. She said her family knew she would become white. And she, indeed, did go to college and marry a rich white man.
Kate (audience member) said that class is permeable, but across generations. That is, her parents are working class, and she was raised in a working class household. But she’s middle class, even though she feels she still has many internal markers for working class.
An audience member described her experience in Virginia: If you’re lower class white, but can perform services for upper class whites, they will respect you and invite you into their homes to perform the service. She said that when someone from her home county moved into her new area, and told the people she was working for that she was actually black, they stopped inviting her to work in their homes.
Chris asked: Why is it that some people want to make it all about class? Saladin asked, Why is it always derailment when people try to bring up class when talking about race? Nisi said one doesn’t trump the other. Audience member says that white people feel uncomfortable talking about race so they want to talk about class.
Karen (audience member) asked where are people having good conversations? Nisi answered: sf conventions.
That ended the panel.
I still feel middle class even though I’m crossing class downward. I felt middle class even when getting welfare in the 80s, because I would read library books sitting in the welfare office, and could handle the forms and processes.
If class is permeable across generations, what will happen to the children of the people who are being eroded out of the middle class by the great wealth shift we’ve been experiencing? With more equitably distributed wealth, and more jobs that paid better-than-living wages, it was possible for parents to leave their children economically better off than they had been.
One problem that happens in discussions of race is when a white person says that economic status is more important than race – there are middle class blacks, after all. I disagree with this. A successful black person might be a keynote speaker for a national organization, but still be mistaken for a valet or maid. And there are no class equivalents to “driving while black” or “shopping while black.”
But the ultimate point is not to say that “my lower class white experience is worse than your middle class black experience” – that’s one-downsmanship. The point is to use these experiences to find commonality – which is where Intersectionalism and the next panel come in.