Coming Out As Working Class
I came out as someone brought up working class in a statewide Freeze convention in the early 1980s. As a gay man, I use the phrase “came out” intentionally. The norm in the U.S. Campaign for a Nuclear Freeze was to believe that the higher a person’s class and status, the more value they brought to the movement.
Almost every peace group I knew was excited when it recruited a doctor or professor or business executive — to them it meant that the group was attracting opinion leaders who, in turn, would be able to persuade the country that it should turn away from the arms race. That was the prevailing theory of social change, and it fit class society like a glove.
In my convention keynote speech I finally spoke out, partly moved by curiosity. What would happen if I not only urged the peace movement to ally itself with organized labor but also acknowledged my personal background?
During the next few days a number of people caught up with me and came out as working class too. Each of them said that they never told members of the Freeze campaign about their upbringing. Some of them said they gritted their teeth when they heard disparaging remarks from their fellow activists about people of their class, but they cared so much about the issue that they were willing to stay in the campaign.
For the Freeze, a downside of classism was losing the full contribution that the campaign could receive from its members, including the working class characteristics that people still in the closet about their class identity were hiding. Another downside was having less capacity for making alliances with working class groups, like neighborhood associations and unions. Sociologist Betsy Leondar-Wright’s study found that the more successful U.S. social movements have been those that crossed the class divide; single-class movements tended to be less successful.
Strategies for crossing the divide
The good news for many groups that believe their members are all middle class is that, as in the peace movement, there are probably members who are holding back. Classism is more powerful (and more subtle) than most middle class activists realize. Activist groups can grow by changing their internal culture to encourage members who were brought up working class to be who they fully are. A creative group will think of many ways to do that:
- movie nights in which films with working class themes and heroes are included along with other movies of political interest;
- a diversity workshop in which the facilitator is asked to emphasize class, and asked to avoid the old-fashioned, shame-and-blame approach but instead to use the transformative approach of direct education;
- recruit union members (in more than token numbers);
- create a study group on class and together read books like Coalitions Across the Class Divide: Lessons from the Labor, Peace, and Environmental Movements by activist-sociologist Fred Rose;
- make sharing food a part of your organization culture (but don’t do that before you read Betsy Leondar-Wright’s Class Matters, or else you could be digging yourselves deeper into classism!);
- make the connections to class in your internal discussions and your external messaging.
None of this is easy. I remember, for instance, that the loudest voices in the antiwar movement at the time emphasized the horrors of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and the police repression of demonstrations at home, which seemed to make the movement stronger in certain circles. But neither was helpful in building a cross-class movement. What a relief it was, then, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967. King said that the bombs that were being dropped over Vietnam were falling in American cities. That’s when working class black people joined demonstrations in larger numbers.
Supporting members who were brought up working class
One reason why the Movement for a New Society (MNS) was able to combine prefigurative work with direct action, analytic writing with a musical culture, community organizing with personal growth, was because it freed up its working class members to bring their full contribution. (For a fuller story, see Andrew Cornell’s Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society.)
The MNS collective Men Against Patriarchy held a number of conferences and workshops to put the infant anti-sexist men’s movement on the map. We were a collective so we didn’t make assumptions about who would be the “starring” facilitators or play other roles in pulling off a successful gathering. Volunteers came forward, and the work got done.
It took a while before we noticed that two of the men far more consistently than the others volunteered to be registrar and logistics coordinator. Then we made the connection: They were brought up working class. At our next meeting others of us took those jobs, nudging and encouraging them to leave their comfort zones and take upfront “leadership” roles, which they had actually wanted to do.
Anyone tempted to minimize how big an issue class can be should read Linda Stout’s powerful book, Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing. Linda grew up in North Carolina in a home with no indoor water or plumbing. Her dad was a tenant farmer, a 12th-generation Quaker who later became a mill worker. Other kids were told not to play with her because she was “white trash.”
Linda started the Piedmont Peace Project in North Carolina and built it into a strong multi-racial, multi-issue organization. Linda is one of the smartest and most talented organizers I’ve known, but in her book she is very honest about how hard it was to show her gifts in the larger, classist social change movement. She acknowledges the importance of cross-class support.
“Inclusive strategizing” brings both external and internal elements to a campaign to free it from classist sludge and liberate people from all the classes to make their full contribution. This is a key element: to assist working class people to acknowledge who they are, and free them to express their power.