Thursday, February 7, 2008

Race, Class and Gender (and Me)

Speculations about how voters are divided and grouped among differences of race, class and gender are currently rampant. I've heard that white working-class voters prefer Senator Clinton, African-Americans prefer Obama, women prefer Clinton, men prefer Obama, Latinos/as prefer Clinton. My guess is that no one will predict who white, heterosexual, middle-class men prefer, because the dominant group rarely gets dissected like the rest of us. I suppose they're the ones with the power to collate the rest of us, but see themselves as individuals. They're not part of a group -- they're independent thinkers! (Of course, many men have a keen awareness not only of all the above, but also their own powerlessness.)

Like many UU congregations, we're grappling with power, privilege and oppression. How do we, in addition to recognizing each human being's inherent worth and dignity, treat everyone with respect and deep compassion? Of course, in order to do that we need to be sensitive to societies' and our own biases and learn a new (old) way of being in community. I believe that Radical Hospitality is the way, but will leave that for another post.

There is hope for the future because change is happening! Anti-racist, anti-oppression initiatives are growing in communities. Young people today seem aware of the issues surrounding oppression and justice. More and more people do not fit into the assigned categories: those of mixed race, folks raised by parents of a different race, transgender people and those who move between different socio-economic classes.

Warning: What follows is my personal story of class fluidity. You may stop reading at any time. I'm white and was raised in a white middle-class suburb of Des Moines until age nine. Suddenly everything changed: my dad lost his job, followed by mortgage foreclosure, separation, and a move to an integrated low-income housing project in the inner city of Des Moines with my mother and three siblings. At that time (1970s), poor families received Medicaid, free school lunch and food stamps. An avid reader, I knew by age 10 that a poor girl had to do well in school and go to college, thanks to Maude Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy series and Emily of Deep Valley.

Working at a fast-food restaurant after high school to scrape up money for college, I realized after a few years that it would be impossible to save enough money. So I went to Iowa State University thanks to student loans and the Pell grant, where 98% of the students were middle class, with two parents at home: a working dad and a stay-at-home mom. Of course, no one could tell that I was different -- I decided not to wear my "Raised On Welfare" sandwich board. Because of white privilege, many people assume that all whites are middle-class.

I graduated from college owing thousands in student loans and found a late 1980's English major Mcjob earning six dollars an hour. Now I'm middle class! I earned a master's degree while working full-time, but what really hauled me back up was falling in love with and marrying a white, middle-class, straight guy followed by deciding not to have children. (Heterosexual and male were absolutes. Yes, I admit it!)


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