Everyone in activist circles today knows that we mess up sometimes. All of us have faults and oversights, and sometimes these oversights can be harmful for those we’re trying to help. We’ve all been trying to become more intersectional, in terms of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and national origin, but many young activists like myself have a noticeable blind spot: class.
Activist circles, especially on college campuses and on social media, can lean whiter and wealthier. While activists themselves come from many different backgrounds, often the wealthy, white activists end up with larger platforms and leadership positions.
First off, let’s talk about our progressive memes. I’m never against poking fun at racists, sexists, and homophobes. They need to be held accountable, and humor is a great means of doing so. However, I do take issue with the portrayal of all bigots as poor, Southern people. You know the stereotypical image of a bigot; a redneck, wearing shabby denim and plaid, often unwashed and missing a few teeth, and living in a rundown trailer. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is classist. Sure, plenty of low-income rural White people are racist, but so are wealthy politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. So are many of the middle-class white “liberals” in our own communities.
Oftentimes, our humor doesn’t so much poke fun at the bigotry, but at the poverty of these individuals. The butt of the joke isn’t necessarily that someone is a bigot, but that they live in a trailer park and are overweight. I fail to see what’s so “woke” about making fun of someone’s economic circumstances or personal appearance. Plenty of intelligent, open-minded, and progressive people live in trailer parks and rural towns. Plenty of racists and bigots are skinny, pretty, and rich. We shouldn’t associate appearances with morality. It’s incorrect, and downright offensive.
Often the wealthy, white activists end up with larger platforms and leadership positions.
We also need to consider the way that performative activism harms low-income communities. In order to be “woke,” according to white progressives, we need to shop sustainably, eat organically, and read political theory. The problem is, not everyone can afford to do this. Sustainable clothes often cost a lot more money, and many low-income people rely on fast fashion. Fast fashion is an evil industry, but shaming the people who are forced to buy into it doesn’t make you a better person. Organic food is expensive, and many people can’t afford to buy it that often. In fact, many low-income communities are food deserts, where grocery shopping takes a great deal of transportation. Even the emphasis on reading theory is somewhat classist. Not everyone can afford to go to college and get access to such academic writing, or to buy a heap of out-of-print theory books. It’s a privilege to be woke.
The problem is, progressive politics has become more of an aesthetic than a movement, and this aesthetic can only be achieved by upper-middle class college kids or young urban professionals. The standards we have for each other are literally impossible for low-income people to meet. Furthermore, we immediately assume that anyone who presents as working-class is conservative, bigoted, or ignorant. It is so difficult for any low-income person to break into the sphere of progressive politics. We simply don’t make any room for them.
So how do we solve this? First, we need to acknowledge that low-income and working-class people are actually doing the groundwork behind most progressive political movements. We wouldn’t be where we are today without working-class grassroots work. We also need to shift the way we code progressive politics. Being progressive isn’t just about drinking out of a reusable water bottle, and wearing the right brands of clothing. Being progressive can be someone in a trailer park registering their neighbors to vote, or a steelworker starting a union, or people at a local church creating a clothing drive for the needy. Just because they don’t “look” woke, doesn’t mean they aren’t making important contributions. I would go as far to say that people like this should be leading our activist movements; upper-middle-class white people should serve as allies.
We need to acknowledge that low-income and working-class people are actually doing the groundwork behind most progressive political movements.
All of us have oversights, but as activists, it’s our job to try to correct these prejudices and challenge our assumptions. Looking down at low-income people is not a progressive value, and it never will be. It’s time we open up our activism to people of all incomes and economic backgrounds. We need to recognize that they are responsible for some of the most important progressive groundwork. Progressive politics isn’t about what you wear, what you eat, and what products you use. It’s about compassion, dedication, equality, justice, and hard work. Let’s stop focusing on appearances, and start focusing on action.
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