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A Third Lens: Why Awareness of Class Cultures Can Strengthen Movements for Social Change

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Posted on May 22, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

We tend to conflate especially race and class with each other, often assuming people of color are poor, or that whites are middle or upper class. Leondar-Wright, who regularly conducts workshops on class, finds that well-educated people of color and poor whites are the two groups most grateful for her analysis. Of course there is a strong connection between historically discriminated groups and poverty, but it is a correlation, not a rule.

Bringing a class analysis to our understanding of privilege can help make sense of a broad range of experiences. For example, in the recent essay by Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” which went viral, a class analysis would have proven the young man wrong. Leondar-Wright characterized his position as “absurdly defensive about his male privilege and his white privilege.

“But,” she said, “it doesn’t seem to even occur to him to check his class privilege. From the laudatory bootstraps story he tells about his noble immigrant grandparents and parents, it seems likely that they were highly educated and carried cultural capital with them into the U.S.”

Although there have been some excellent rebuttals to Fortgang’s essay, such as this one and this one, Leondar-Wright was disappointed, noting, “it says something about the sad state of American class consciousness today that no Princeton progressives provoked him with questions about his class background.”

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What is laudable about Leondar-Wright’s analysis is that acknowledging class does not mean we ought to de-emphasize the crucial racial and gender analyses of our interactions with one another. In fact, she acknowledges in her book that “looking through the class lens can add context and complexity. ... The three lenses [of race, gender and class] are not three alternatives, three competing interpretations of a given situation, but three interwoven strands.”

Leondar-Wright asks, “If class culture differences were named and understood, what new solutions to voluntary group troubles would be possible?” Indeed, since reading her book “Missing Class,” that is a question I have found myself asking about the conflicts I have personally witnessed in many settings of political organizing—including in the failed attempt to organize a community space all those years ago.


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