How Not To Be Classist: A Short List
So after my post about gatekeeping, I started discussing the classist implications of nose-thumbing at people who do not fit your geeky defininitions.
After meandering around for a bit, I’ve decided to compile this handy list of things I have seen happen that need to stop happening. These are all solid, real world examples that I am talking about, and there is very little theory or discussions of class cultural issues (which are vast and fascinating).
This post is U.S. centric. I apologize, but if you have universal healthcare, I hate you and I am jealous and you can just deal. So there.
If you would like to add anything to this list, feel free.
1. Don’t call an ambulance or emergency 911 unless directed to do so. Contrary to popular belief, and ambulance ride is not just a little courtesy extended by the hospital. Ambulance rides run anywhere from $400 to $1000 plus mileage and materials used. That can be devastating for a family that does not have insurance or one that lives paycheck to paycheck.
How not to be classist: Ask the person (if they are capable of speech) what they want to do, or offer your services free of charge, even to strangers. Factor class into your risk-reduction. A person who had her arm torn off in a thresher cannot drive herself to the hospital safely, and it’s possible that she could hurt or kill others if allowed to drive–this is a bigger devastation than a thousand dollar medical bil, so drive them to the hospital yourself or call an ambulance. A person who broke her ankle at a skating rink can answer your questions about the best way she wants to proceed and you should not call 911 and just assume she has insurance.
2. Don’t act like cars and gasoline grow on trees. Even if you think you’re “on the way,” chances are that the driver won’t drive directly past your house on the way home and will be using their time and money to pick you up and drop you off. This is especially the case if you’ve invited someone out but then expect them to drive a long distance or play designated driver. Gasoline is often one of the easier ways that people can budget, because it’s very simple to make it stretch; you just don’t go anywhere except work. It’s also one of the more expensive necessities if you don’t live near public transportation.
How not to be classist: Offer money to the the person who is driving, even if it’s only 5 dollars. If you don’t have a car and regularly ride with someone else, offer to split the insurance costs with them, if you can. Do not assume they are in a better situation than you are because they own a car. Do not assume that the person in the car is made of money–if you ask them to drive you somewhere (even in an emergency), it’s possible they won’t have enough gas to get to work at the end of the week. It’s better to have someone turn down your 5 dollars than to have them thinking that you’re an entitled jackass.
3. Don’t decide what is a luxury for other people. I see this a lot on tumblrs that are really angry at the Occupy movement. “How poor can you be if you have X?” Substitute a latte, a cell phone, clothes, free time, a tent, a car, a salad, or anything else you want for X. It’s the assumption that if you have the money for a latte (did you ever notice that it’s always a latte, and it’s a never a good old, American cup o’ joe!), then you don’t need help or you are not drowning that is classist, and it plays into the notion of the Deserving Poor.
How not to be classist: Mind. Your. Own. Business. I have no idea where people got the idea that only the rich deserve coffee, but there you have it. Being poor, protesting, or having a low paying job does not mean that you must live life austerly and you must put every last dime into a savings account until you reach the magical class status where everyone looks at you and says, “Yes, you have sufficient money to have a cappucino.” Poor people are not, in fact, cloister nuns and they do not deserve to do nothing but work until they die. I would eat ramen every night of the week and drive absolutely nowhere if it meant that I could enjoy my first hour of work with a cup of coffee and raw sugar, and there is nothing about my class status or my job that makes me more or less deserving of having it. And you are invited to run your finances absolutely any way that you might see fit (privately or publicly).
In fact, if anyone who said this opened their spending up to scrutiny, they would probably die of embarrassment. Did you really need all those dresses? Why did you buy the luxury car, when you could have bought a compact car and put money into a savings account? You’re not really making enough money for that salon trip, are you? Why are you doing this wasteful nonsense instead of bettering your situation? Did you buy name brand food? The idea that the poor don’t deserve a new pair of jeans really doesn’t have much to do with the poor, it’s about telling everyone else how fantastic of a person you think you are for doing everything correctly.
If anyone would like to refute this, you are more than welcome to submit to me your monthly reciepts for publication and perusal (with all identifying information removed, of course), along with a general description of your lifestyle and where you would like to see yourself in 5 years.
Don’t worry. I’ll wait.
4. Do not assume that someone has a “good” job. At a party I was at recently, someone asked me what my mother did for a living, and I said that she was an administrative assistant. They then asked me whether she was the head of all the secretaries or something, and we got to have a very awkward moment where I explained that she was not (therefore revealing my class status and upbringing, which is one of the things that I don’t like to discuss until I’m sure the person I’m talking to isn’t going to say something stupid and hurtful. Too late, in this case!). Or rather, I got to have that very awkward moment caused by someone else.
How not to be classist: Don’t assume that people have money or come from money. Don’t assume that no one you know was raised by a janitor or a waitress or a cashier or a grandparent on disability. Also, do not act like poverty is some kind of novelty living situation (oh wow, you lived in a trailer/section 8 housing/a studio apartment? What was THAT like?). Try to think about whether what you are saying denegrates their life or their job. Be aware that other people may not have had your life and that your expectations are hurtful.
5. If you run a business or are a large company, try to figure out how the “bottom line” affects the lives of your employees. This recently happened when my job moved offices from a less-expensive (cost-of-living-wise), convenient area to a remote, incredibly expensive area in order to cut down on costs (we post about 200 million dollars of revenue per quarter; you do the math). A number of employees were left with a job that they could not afford to have on the salary they were making (and these were people with master’s degrees, welcome to the new job market). They could not afford the gas to get to the new office, and could not afford to move closer due to the housing price spike. This left us with a really angry office culture, and changed a job that they all loved to one that they couldn’t afford to have.
How not to be classist: Think about the people who depend on you as seriously as you think about your own pockets. Everyone deserves to make money, and I’m not going to begrudge a business that makes ethical decisions in order to keep the doors open and keep people employed. If you can’t afford an NYC storefront and you need to move the store to Missoula, that’s terrible but unavoidable (in terms of risk reduction, again, closing all together or outsourcing makes zero jobs. Moving to a cheaper area messes up your employees right now, but maintains some jobs). If you are making your employees miserable in order to cut your own costs for a bigger profit, you don’t deserve good employees. The fact of the matter is that people often say, “Well, just get another job at night, work two jobs, full time! Lazy!” without realizing that killing yourself to survive so that other people might profit from your misery is a really awful thing that we don’t want to encourage. Work ethic is one thing, but by claiming that there is no problem because people can sleep in boxes and work 100 hour weeks, you’re basically saying to everyone around you, “I’m a huge fool who can’t think through the logical conclusions of what I’m saying.”
6. Do not change plans at the last minute or pressure someone to do something that they can’t afford. If your original plan for the evening was going to the movies and getting some pizza (total cost, 20 dollars) and you decide that you want to have a sit down dinner and four hours of arcade time at Dave and Busters, and then tell everyone this information without getting any input…you’re doing something incredibly classist.
How not to be classist: The awesome thing about poor people is that we know what everything costs, so you could ask people for suggestions about what other plans are feasible. When changing plans, try to change them into the same price range. When you don’t, you are either forcing someone to spend beyond their means in order to save you embarassment, or you are forcing them to announce their class status to you, which they might not want to do.
7. Do not annoy people about their diets/Do not say that lentils are cheap/Do not push people into veganism/vegetarianism/organic eating. If you’re railing on someone for not eating the way you have access to, you’re being classist by assuming access and ability.
How not to be classist: I realize that a lot of veganism is activism, and I respect that. I personally think that any moral, thinking human being ought to be vegan. I just am not one. I have a variety of reasons for not going vegan, price being one of the ones near the end of the list. However, what I find more disturbing than anything is how many people will just demand that I explain to them why I am not vegan, which is actually intensely private information. Instead of being prepared to convert, try “Have you ever thought about going vegetarian?” If they say no and don’t continue the conversation, then go about your day. Let it drop. Don’t make people feel bad for not having the space to lead your lifestyle, and if someone is interested, they will come to you later. While it might seem like I have an issue with veganism from this, I don’t, and I fully support people who make a difficult change for the greater good. I have an issue with classist foodies, of which there are many.
Please stop telling people how cheap a pound of beans are. Do you want to eat a bowl of plain beans for dinner every night for a week? Me, either. I know this might be difficult to believe, but building up a stocked kitchen takes money. So does having a kitchen–many apartments do not have stoves; they only have hot plates and microwaves. Many people also do not have cars, which puts them in the position needing to spend an inordinate amount of time walking back and forth to the grocery store buying small amounts that could be easily carried. It’s also a privilege to try food that you may or may not like. You see, when poor people experiment with their diets in ways they aren’t sure they will like, they don’t just go to the magic dinner tree for another dinner if it doesn’t work. They go hungry or they go without something else, like shampoo, in order to replace the food (to this day I am highly resistant to trying to new foods, even though it’s no longer an emergency when I decide that apricot chipotle tastes like throw-up).
Stop, sit down, and read up on the class and race in relation to access to food. The way to deal with this is to realize that not everyone has the access that you have, and that while you might think “Everyone has a grocery store in their city,” what you mean to say is, “Everywhere I have had the privilege of living has had an easily-accessed grocery store.” Anyone in the United States who had access to school and is above the age of 8 has heard at least once that vegetables are good and junk food is bad; instead of assuming that ignorance and laziness are the problems you need to rail against, try fighting for access.
8. Don’t ask for free labor unless you are very close with the person you are asking. This is the one that makes me personally crazy. I am an editor. I have been handed many resumes and cover letters and short stories from people who I don’t know very well, and the classism puts me in the most awkward position ever. When I have refused, even when I explained that I could not afford to turn down a paying job to find the time to edit their screenplay, the person making the demand was always affronted and made me deal with it. I then have two choices–lose sleep or lose money. You’ll notice the person who can’t afford to work for free is the one who loses out there, and that’s classism (so is the assumption that I can fit in your screenplay between my ceramics class and my marathon bonbon eating session).
How not to be classist: People who have jobs that transfer outside of their industry (e.g., editors, mechanics, plumbers, teachers, computer experts) deserve to be paid for their time (everyone deserves to be paid for their expertise, but I don’t have a huge need to call up my scientist friends and ask them to come manipulate things on the molecular level for me. Though now I want to). Don’t ask Little Timmy’s teacher to come to your house at night to tutor Little Timmy for no money. Assume that all people are using their time to make money for basic survival and act accordingly. You have a few solid options for fixing classism here. You can just offer to hire the person if you think that their services are so good or you trust them so much that you wouldn’t want anyone else to do the work. If you have money issues and can’t afford to hire the person, offer a trade, even if the trade is “I will cook you dinner as soon as I get a job.” You could also ask them for advice in the course of a conversation (What’s the best way to find a good mechanic? Do you know any teachers who also tutor at night? Your website is lovely, who made it?). That way they can volunteer their services, ask for pay, or refer you to a friend without having to deal with your classist assumptions.
9. Don’t make your ignorance someone else’s problem. The problem with classism is that instances of it make the victim of your ignorance responsible for the rest of the conversation. Assuming things about class puts the person you are assuming things about in the position of having to correct you, and therefoure out their class status, or having to pay money or make arrangements in order to avoid embarassing themselves and you.
How not to be classist: When you fuck this up (and you will fuck this up. I fuck this up all the time) apologize.