I didn’t know about class when I first started working as an organizer. I had never thought about it as a category, though I had been taught to be ashamed of being poor. I figured that somehow, it was our fault the way we had to live.
A Pivotal Conversation
I remember going to a Midwest Academy training weekend in the mid-80s with another organizer and friend, Ron Charity. On the last day, the African American participants protested the training. They described how racist and dis-empowering the experience had been for them (I am glad to say the Midwest Academy has since changed).
Flying back home, I told Ron that I had experienced many of the things the African American participants had talked about but I understood that, as a white person, I shouldn’t have been feeling that way. Ron looked at me with a smile and asked, “Linda, what class do you think you are?” He had to explain what class was to me. I immediately answered, “Middle class.” Ron laughed and replied, “Let me get this straight.
“Your office is in your single wide trailer where you live with your mother. The other office has an answering machine hooked up to a truck battery, because there’s no electricity. And you grew up with no running water or bathroom. That’s not middle class!”
Hiding in Plain Sight
I struggled with that for several months. I had hidden from everyone that I had grown up in poverty. I received a full scholarship for college that covered everything my first year, but my second year, we were told we would have to move to another residence hall. It cost $500 more than my scholarship. When I asked how I was supposed to pay that, the college said your parents will have to cover it.
When I went home, my father and I hit every loan company we could find. But because my father had no equity (the trailer we lived in was too old and was of no value), we were turned down. So, I dropped out of college and went to work in the textile mills. I felt I had been a failure. Afterwards, I learned that my parents felt the shame even more deeply.
Later, my mother tried to hide the fact that we had been poor, even though we still lived in a single wide trailer and she was on Medicaid. We now had water and a bathroom, and much more space than the tiny camping trailer in which I’d grown up – that seemed like riches to me!
But Mother struggled with the embarrassment she felt about how we had lived. She was a voracious reader and had learned to “pass,” because she knew so much about everything. She would say, “Your Daddy and I tried to be good parents.” I constantly tried to tell her she shouldn’t be ashamed – they were incredibly loving, amazing parents and they weren’t at fault. But she felt that humiliation profoundly, especially when my book, Bridging the Class Divide, was published. Mother carried that shame till the day she died – and nothing I could say would make her feel differently.
A Shift in Identity
But I’m jumping ahead. After the Midwest Academy, I went to Nicaragua to learn from organizers of the Revolution. I witnessed extreme poverty. Many were living in conditions like my own childhood. But to my surprise, they were extremely proud people who understood and talked openly about these conditions being a problem of the past government! It was a life-changing moment for me.
When I returned home, I said, “I’m coming out of the closet as a poor person!!!” With my friend and fellow organizer and mentor, Cathy Howell, I spent hours talking about class. I learned about the internalized oppression I carried. It was only then that I felt like I was freed from the incredible shame and blame I bore.
Yet, like for my mother, it wasn’t that easy. It has been a constant battle to overcome the endless messaging that I internalized, both within the progressive movement and outside, that I wasn’t smart enough, good enough or deserving enough. I spent years fighting these feelings. Even today if something is said, I can go back to that place in a second!
Moving On From Here
I will write more about class in my next few blogs and how it affected us at the Piedmont Peace Project as a poor and low-income organization. I will also offer tips for middle class folks on how to avoid the pitfalls of classism.
Stick with me. There is a way to manage internalized oppression and feelings of inadequacy.
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