Talking about class and privilege is multi-layered and complicated.
A few of us have moved up in class. I certainly have. Even if the whole family has moved up in class, people most often still carry into their adult lives the early feelings of inadequacy and shame I’ve described. People of color deal with both classism and racism, confronting emotional and physical attacks every day. Then add in the effect of generations of poverty and slavery for most African Americans.
At one of our Progressive Communicators Network retreats, we always had a Saturday night storytelling session. They were usually entertaining, funny stories. I remember when Ludovic Blaine, who often led this part of our weekend, started with a story he called, “Driving While Black.” He told it in a very humorous way. I found myself laughing, but also crying at how tragic and scary his move across country was, and how he was treated.
Soon almost every person of color told a story about driving that was equally tragic and scary.
As we were about to finish up the stories, a white woman, Celia Alario, stood up and spoke. She told us a story from another side, one of such extreme privilege. Celia was in a van filled with white people smoking pot, and they were stopped by the police for speeding. All they got was a warning.
Thus began many stories of white privilege that evening. I told a story of getting stopped for speeding and only getting a warning. At the same time, the police gave me coupons for free sandwiches at Subway for having my seatbelt on. Even today, years later, some of my friends who know that story just shake their heads at me and say, “Free coupons for speeding!” These revelations were as unbelievable to people of color as the outrageous, sad stories of what happened to people of color were to the white folks.
I have written about storytelling before. It’s so natural for people in the South and people who experience true community to tell stories. It’s part of our culture. But can it be an effective organizing tool?
Stories ARE a powerful way to organize. For those from very different backgrounds, listening to each other’s stories can be life-changing. It is especially useful to break down barriers of class and privilege. In telling stories about our background, people often realize privileges they never thought about.
Stories about ourselves can be difficult and courageous, tragic or funny, but they build deep trust among us. It takes a certain vulnerability and willingness to be honest to tell your story. Then we’re able to talk about the hard stuff.
Until we can tell our own stories of poverty, shame or of privilege, we can’t step into our full power. Doing that together also builds a powerful trust with each other. And a support for when we get triggered and go back to that place of shame and inadequacy.
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