By Linda Stout
When I first became involved in social justice movements in the 70’s, classism was a major barrier to people like me. As a low-income, rural woman, I found that when I joined the social justice movements of my time… the peace, women’s, and environmental movements, I lost my voice. People just assumed if you were part of these movements, you had a college education, spoke with “accepted” grammar, and looked like their idea of a “leader.” Without any of that, I was often ignored and overlooked. People would make reference to those stupid southerners, white trash, and trailer trash, meaning people like myself.
It was only from the women who were in the civil rights movement, often critical of the classism and sexism within that movement, that I found a home, a place of acceptance.
Septima Clark, a well-known civil rights activist, often referred to as the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, had taken me under her wing. She had instructed me to listen to people in my community which was overwhelmingly African American. When we had put a proposal together based on what I had heard and learned, she instructed me to attend the NAACP meeting in Charleston SC to present what we had learned. I came back to her after the first meeting and said, “No one paid attention to me! I don’t think they liked me! I was the youngest and only white person there.” She looked at me and smiled, almost pityingly, saying “Well of course they didn’t! Now, next time you go back….”
I went back to the meeting three times before someone asked me why I was there. I told them I had a proposal in regards to transportation in the projects that Mrs. Clark had helped me with. They immediately welcomed me and asked me to present. I learned a valuable lesson of what it took to start to build trust. And from that first step, went on with many others to create a victorious campaign. If I had not continued to keep going back after the first rejection, I would never have become an organizer with an understanding of building power.
Through these kinds of experiences, I began to find my voice, my power, and started Piedmont Peace Project, a multi-racial, poor people’s organization. As we began to find our voices, we became a symbol of how organizations could create successful social change. Poor people’s voices had a powerful message and we found power through organizing, the media and the ballot box.
After doing this work for 10 years, I decided to write a book called Bridging the Class Divide to help folks like me as well as middle class people understand the effects of classism.
The social messages on television, in newspapers and magazines that projected an image of poor people as stupid, dirty, unsophisticated, was often reflected within the middle class progressive movements. We were silenced not only by people’s prejudices, but in how meetings were run, trainings were conducted, and leaders were chosen. The result was always feeling like I was not good enough, not smart enough.
Let me explain what I mean.
When explaining how cultural and class differences can work to divide people, unless we are aware of them, I was reminded of an experience I had when I first started training in the Northeast with peace activists. When asking people for guidelines and agreements for their meetings people indicated a rule of “no interruptions.”
I was surprised by that and let people know that where I came from, we interrupted constantly, often talking over each other. Not just a “Southern” thing, some of the low income people in the group indicated that they talked that way in their own community as well, but had felt silenced by the standing rule that was defined as polite of “not interrupting.”
A rule that had been created by the dominant culture with the idea of being respectful had in fact had the opposite affect – to silence other participants. That certainly was not what people who thought that was the way to act had in mind. However, without having a conversation and trying to figure out how to respect both cultures, one group had been silenced.
I talk about “invisible walls” as a way to explain the difference in class backgrounds. The barriers faced by most low income people are invisible to middle and upper class folks. They assume everyone can move forward as they can, and don’t see the barriers faced by those of us who come from different class backgrounds.
Like racism, classism is most often invisible to those standing in privilege. It takes work to understand privilege but is something we must all work on.
I was so pleased to hear David Hogg and other Parkland High School shooting survivor, acknowledging their white privilege and using it to ensure that other marginalized voices were heard at the March for Our Lives in D.C. and around the world this past weekend.
Both seeing these young people and the work many people are doing to bring classism to the forefront of people’s awareness gives me great hope for the future.
We need to dedicate ourselves to overcoming this division among us. As Fannie Lou Hamer says, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
We must begin to work together and to listen to each other in order to realize our visions.
It is the only way we will win. It is the only way to create revolutionary change.