In the spring of 2018, I designed and taught a new course: “Whiteness and the Working Class.” As a humanities gen ed and an “Identity and Difference” elective in our new major curriculum, I knew the class roster would be comprised of folks with different levels of familiarity with the language, concepts, and approaches of critical race theory in particular (and of critical theory, more generally). To help introduce the course content, I wrote up, sent out, and on the first day addressed this semi-confessional essay about the general topics: race and class. My “invitation” aspired to set up some key themes and terms by contextualizing them in my own personal story and the social and political atmosphere of the moment, and to drop the curtain a bit on my own thought processes as I prepared the course readings and assignments.
Given the contemporary rhetoric surrounding our electoral politics, the refugee detention camps at our southern border, and the persistent xenophobia and nativism whipped up at the sitting President’s rallies, there is a tragically evergreen quality to this invitation which I proposed to students last year. After revisiting the essay yesterday, I decided to spruce it up and send it out into the world – maybe for the sake of folks engaging with these ideas for the first time, maybe for my own desire/anxiety to simply produce words, or maybe for teachers or instructors thinking about ways to frame these same concepts and issues for their students.
P.S. For the latter I’m very happy to share my syllabus and assignments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year, my youngest brother, Eric, sent off some money and a DNA swab to Ancestry.com, hoping to fill out the branches of our shadowy family tree. As of now, our genealogical story spreads only through my mother’s father’s side of the family, the Schleyers, who emigrated from somewhere in (the confederated states of) Germany and set up shop in Brooklyn, New York in the late nineteenth-century. My mother’s mother was adopted, as was my biological father. Neither know their “stock” — to borrow the proto-racial language of the 18th century — and so our actually known histories go only as far back as 20th-century Queens. Thus the family tree we’d known for all of our lives was, let’s say, trunk-ated. <– Sorry, that’s bad.
I’ll admit, though skeptical of the for-profit pay-for-your-genealogy industry, I was eager to see what Eric’s search turned up. Yet when the results came in I was underwhelmed, or disappointed, maybe. As the screen-captured chart shows, I guess I’m a quarter Irish, some mixture of Scandinavian, British, and Iberian with a smaller amount of vaguely-located “European” genes (with further clicks, the map reveals that some “Germanic” ancestry actually cuts across much of these areas, too). Okay, but what cuisines can I now ironically enjoy? Which ethnic stereotypes can I cosplay? What soccer club do I support during the World Cup? And, most importantly, what am I? The Robbins’ DNA story still cast a discontinuous narrative, in fact, it left our ethnic identity even more uncertain than the family lore of our childhood. But isn’t this just the truth of ethnic identity writ large? Its desire to root human bodies to the national myths of landed property is destined to be riddled with plotholes.
Notice I’ve said nothing yet about “race,” which is, after all, one of the central themes of this course. Another way to render the ethnological results above is to say simply this: I am white. One could respond, well, no, you’re an American of European descent, but – and here’s one major contention of this class – that’s to say the same thing. Whiteness, or, in this case, “being white” (and that’s not the same thing!) is a fiction. The great African American essayist James Baldwin famously called “being white” a “lie” (in an unabashed piece we’ll read later this semester), going even further to claim that “No one was white before he/she came to America.” Race is a fiction, a lie, the ideological cover of European colonialism and the system of human chattel slavery it produced and sustained in the course of its historical life.
I am making the case here – and “Whiteness and the Working Class” turns on this argument – that race and racism are inseparable from and malleable according to the economic conditions of any given historical moment. This is to say, we can’t really talk about “whiteness” as a lived, historical, or cultural phenomenon without thinking about social class. After all, the Schleyers weren’t of the well-to-do German aristocrats. They were peasants and workers, but the “price of the ticket” – as Baldwin so shrewdly identified it – of becoming white in America was to exchange national identity, rootedness in local traditions, for a new kind of racial privilege. That’s the story of European immigration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, and here is the true ancestry of the Robbins family: we became white.
So this course, of “whiteness” and of the “working class,” will sketch the sometimes confusing contours of racialized experience in the United States. After all, a part of being white in America, for me, a child of the 1980s-90s, was the benefit of never really considering what it meant to be white. Whiteness was an absent privilege. My experiences were “normal.” As for social class, my father and mother, construction workers both, managed to move us into the suburbs of “upstate“ New York during the economic boom times of the Clinton era. Our manicured back yard, our Nintendos and Segas, our above-ground pool, our barbecues, our little league caravans – these were all the markers of the American middle class. What it meant to be “working class” had little resonance until my father was periodically laid off and then “let go” following the financial collapse of 2008. As his work grew more precarious, I recognized that class had less to do with income and consumer products than with power, namely, the power to have some stability and, ideally, some say over one’s life and work.
As you know, we live in interesting times. Against a background of revived civil rights movements for racial and economic justice in America – and its ever-entrenching reactions: a newly intensifying and organized white supremacy alongside ballooning economic inequality – the country now talks about “whiteness” and the “working class” as if those categories, these demographics, were always obvious. Unfortunately, our popular discourse tends to confound these realities, maybe willfully, so I see our class as something of an intervention for the sake of clarity and awareness (and, believe it or not, of ethical conviction.)
The Specter of Trump
Let’s be very clear. This is not a course about Donald Trump or about Republicans or Democrats or how you or I or anyone in this class might have personally voted in the previous Presidential election. At the same time, the demographic reawakening of the “white working class” sparked by Trump’s campaign has – in the country’s popular imagination, at least – cracked open the fault lines along race and class supposedly sutured by the presidency of Barack Obama. We shouldn’t accept this narrative at face value, but rather explore its motivations and its success in the nation’s cultural imagination.
I’ll admit, I have struggled with exactly when and how to approach the most recent election in the course of our semester. It is, I think, an inescapable fact that expressions and experiences of race and class (and gender and ablebodiedness, etc.) largely determined the latest round of electoral politics, and continue to dominate the cultural politics of the country more generally. So while “Whiteness and the Working Class” isn’t a “political” course, in the strict definition of breaking down electoral results or studying policy decisions, it exists within and, quite frankly, as a result of our political atmosphere. We need to be prepared to confront these realities in our class discussions while being unapologetically rigorous and grounded in our critiques and resolutely generous and open in our exchanges.
Speaking Openly about Race and Racism is the Only Way Forward
We all know the now well-worn memes about avoiding uncomfortable political discussions with friends and family during the holidays. But as a result of the omnipresent divisiveness of contemporary political life, that trope’s intensified to such an extent that racial and class politics are always imminent, encroaching into every corner of media and entertainment.
During the holiday break, I visited with family and friends back home, in a majority-white rural locale in upstate New York. My town – located roughly 90 minutes north of Manhattan, an uneven blend of suburban commuter neighborhoods, local farmlands, and precarious ma and pop stores – provided a unique window into our political moment. In my conversations with Trump supporters (and that’s just about everyone I know excepting my immediate family), I recognized two things. First, it was unmistakable that a kind of aggrieved whiteness was being given a brazen political voice. All the seemingly minor, offhand comments that peppered my adolescence — friends’ and family complaints about “Mexicans” taking jobs, about the “reverse racism” of affirmative action, about the danger of “inner cities” and disrespectful young people sporting baggy pants, about the castrating effects of political correctness gone wild — found a vocal champion in Donald Trump.
But I also discovered that my interpretation, i.e., what I was literally seeing and hearing as racist speech, bore little resemblance to their own self-perceptions. For my white friends, – most of them working in low-paid service sector jobs, many struggling with debt and addiction – Obama’s election had proved the relative equality of race relations; instead, it was Black Lives Matter, kneeling football players, immigrants here “illegally,” and a host of other “social justice warriors” who had whipped up racial resentment. Because discussions of race had been, for them, relatively muted, this was proof enough that racism was no longer a potent force in American life — but for the few bad apples, like those “idiots” marching in Charlottesville, who continued to openly insist on the supremacy of whites. If anything, bringing up the slights of Black- or Hispanic- or Asian- or Arab- Americans had in itself reignited racial turmoil, since, all things being equal, it was white people, now shouldering the guilt of a bygone, invisible “privilege,” who were actually discriminated against for their race. This sort of “colorblind racism,” “racism without racists,” as Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls it in a piece we’ll read this term, is another of the key issues we’ll make visible this semester.
What This Class Is and What it Isn’t
I want to close my invitation to all of you with a proposal: let’s talk about race and class honestly, openly, critically, and yes, even personally. As an instructor, I’ve erred in the past by assuring students that any discussion of racism was only structural, oppressive but embodied in systems, in language, in culture, and in ways we can’t always be aware of.
On some level, this is true. But that framing is also misguided. Politics, culture, history – the provinces of this class – can’t help but be personal. To be rigorous doesn’t mean we have to be abstract and impersonal always. In fact, I think we learn more and learn better when dealing with ideas as we experience them in our everyday lives.
But now another warning: though we will interrogate how we make up a much larger network of relationships that are affected by and effect race, racism, class, and exploitation, this doesn’t mean we’ll be throwing a pity party. This class is about recognition, not resignation; about empathy, not commiseration; about ethical testimony and never shallow moralism.
Again the big idea here is that race is a fiction of power. It’s lived and has real material consequences, – as a system of domination and as a language for solidarity – but there’s no biological, historical, or cultural “realness” to the concept of race.
What else to keep in mind? This is not a class that will traffic in stereotypes, though it is deeply concerned with representation. It’s also not – as an increasing number of right-wing media outlets claim – a class about “hating” white people, of which (and this might surprise you) I am. Furthermore, it’s not a class meant to disseminate “radical” leftist propaganda. Our agenda is exploration. The only radical presupposition here is that students can and will think for themselves.