The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life.  We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations.  Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars.  This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.

But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white.  Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity.  If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.

But it isn’t.  And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort.  From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race.  Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture.  The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.”  As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.

That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies.  It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme.  At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe.  A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion.  Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white.  Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.

And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class.   Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary.  At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital.  As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.

None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works.  Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.

Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white.  Why is it so hard?  Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow).  And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity.  These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.

But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose  work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT).  For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT.  Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.

Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.

New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA.   The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields.  We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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34 responses to “The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

  1. Pingback: Tim’s Tips: The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies | Center on Diversity and Community

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  3. Alisa Balestra

    I salute you, Julie Garza-Withers, for your always insightful comments. Although I have long enjoyed WCS conferences, I find them too white (I am white myself) — symptomatic, for me, that we are not quite doing the work we intend. Some of this, of course, comes from pervasive associations of “working-class” with “white” in the media, but much of this also comes from the inability of white academics from the working-class to acknowledge their whiteness (and also their privilege, having moved from working-class origins to the middle-class world of the academy). The last time I attended a WCS conference, I confronted elitism even within our ranks. Denise is right — if we want “multi-cultural” or “multi-ethnic” scholars and teachers to take seriously our charge, then we must create and implement pragmatic solutions. (Case and point: at the first WCS conference I attended, I sat in on a panel with La Raza educators. Estimated number of people in attendance? 5. )

    • My impression is that many academics are sympathetic to issues of race/gender/class/ethnicity/orientation but, are burned-out with the topic and/or fearful of themselves being marginalized by too strong an association with the marginalized. While I would hope that others (and I) would always be courageous and fearless, it is probably utopian to expect that to always occur.

  4. Readers may be interested in the article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” at http://www.jeffreybperry.net (top left) and also in (“Cultural Logic,” 2010) at
    http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/2010.html . Harrison and Allen were anti-white supremacist working class intellectuals and activists and two of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers on race and class.

  5. Julie Withers

    This discussion has clearly moved away from the original focus and question: the whiteness of working class studies and why more people of color aren’t involved. Reading some of these comments is the data I need for the answer. This has turned into a typical academic pissing contest, something I am finding typical when whites are asked to look at whiteness…keep it intellectual, keep it safe.

    • And what do you find when bourgie folks of any hue are asked to look at class?

      • Julie Garza-Withers

        When I’m working with people of color around class I find that we talk about class. I can’t say that I know a bunch of wealthy folks of every “hue” (academic speak, a substitute for the reality: skin color); I know a lot of middle and upper class white people, including many like me who have been economically mobile…moving from working class, to middle class, and beyond.

        I can say however, in my experiences with academics of color (as a prof and a diversity trainer) class is not met with the same defensiveness, deflection, and denial from people of color that I see from whites when we try to talk about whiteness. Of course, I can’t know what a person is thinking but I’ve yet to hear what I’m reading here. There seems to be some fear from people of color that I’m going to try to compare class experiences to racial/ethnic experiences but once I alleviate that fear, it seems to open up the conversation to looking at class and how it affects and intersects with the experiences of people of color. I teach three fantastic books that relate to this: “Women without class” by Bettie; “Black Picket Fences” by McCoy; and “Unequal childhoods” by Lareau. All look at race/ethnicity, class, and white privilege…what’s important is that class privilege is discussed alongside race/ethnicity…it’s too nuanced for many aging white academics but students get it, which is all that matters. Young adults of color get the class argument very well, probably better than boomers and Gen Xers who were socialized to dichotomous thinking.

      • Julie Garza-Withers

        And anyway, that’s not what the author is asking, she is asking the white people in working class studies why more people of color are not involved in our organization, it’s a simple question.

      • Apologies if this is a duplicate comment, but something went wrong on my previous attempt to leave this:

        Ms. Garza-Withers, do you hear your arrogance when you say things like, “it’s too nuanced for many aging white academics but students get it”? Yes, students are very impressionable; that’s why indoctrination is best done with the young. However, the gap between “getting it” and being right is as wide as the gap between Hitler Youth and Albert Einstein.

        Out of curiosity, do you think Rev. Thandeka, Adolph Reed Jr., and Winkfield Twyman are aging white academics? It’s cute to present criticism of Critical Race Theory as being racially motivated, but really, it ain’t that simple–not even within the ivory tower.

        I’m glad you’ve found anti-racism theorists who did not attack any attempt to bring up class as derailment. I suspect this was in face-to-face discussions, where people are more likely to treat humans as humans.

  6. Perhaps related to this class “versus” race discussion, I wonder if anyone has read David Horowitz on the lack of what he calls academic freedom in largely left disciplines. I regret to say that I agree with his thesis: that by virtue of the restricted scope of reading material and points of view considered, students are being taught “the truth” rather than how to evaluate competing truth claims.

  7. Carol Quirke, SUNY Old Westbury

    It’s ironic that we’re discussing this without acknowledging too much the class makeup of those doing WCS–among not only those of us who are white, but also those of us who are Black and Latino. And, the vast majority of African-Americans and Latinos I meet in the academy are solidly middle-class in background.

  8. Denise A. Narcisse

    Qick Notes:
    Short term: Hold conferences on working class studies at community colleges and/or Historically Black Colleges. Hold conferences in conjunction with Black History month celebrations, celebrations of Hispanic heritage, etc. Invite more guest speakers of color who examine issues from an INTERSECTIONALITY perspective, with an expressed interest in SOCIAL JUSTICE. Long term: Increase the nunber of TENURED faculty of color. Tenure helps “protect” faculty against “backlash” from those who categorize working class studies as a predominately white domain and critical race theory as a predominately non-white one. Denise A. Narcisse, PhD, Faculty Affiliate, YSU Center for Working Class Studies, Writer for Working Class Perspective, and a newly tenured female faculty of color.

  9. Julie Garza-Withers

    I wrote this comment before reading this piece but I feel the same way I did before reading it. Here’s what is thought before: I feel that working class studies as a discipline (saying this before I read the article so my thoughts aren’t influenced) could stand to look at their white privilege as a stand alone thing, not connected to race and ethnicity. Incorporate the intersections after some deep reflection on the enduring whiteness within WCS. I’m multi-ethnic but grew up in white working class culture and identify with that and my ethnic heritage; there is no place for people like me in WCS, it feels either/or. And, in my diversity work at my campus with my white colleagues (many who grew up working class, we’re a community college) I find that people who are white and grew up poor seem to get angry when I remind them of their whiteness.

    Here’s what I think now: My experience with WCS is lovely but it is a white-washed experience. This is all so academic and distant, important in terms of scholarship but if you read and listen to Michelle Alexander she is suggesting we look at our whiteness within our organization. There is a reason that people of color are not there.

    I also strongly recommend reading Berube’s “How gay stays white and what kind of white it stays” to understand how well-meaning groups of white people get stuck by NOT looking at their whiteness. No need to play the who is more oppressed game, simply a need to look at whiteness. It is precisely the privilege of those of us with light skin to ponder the matter; class is obscured in so many ways that race and ethnicity are not. To get this however, means a long, hard look at white privilege.

    • The question CRT folks don’t ask is whether power has more to do with whiteness or wealth. What Martin Luther King said in ’67 is true today: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” There are an awful lot of poor whites who know their whiteness hasn’t helped them. The racist ones think it should’ve. The rest think people who insist power is all about color are unwilling to see the millions of poor white person in this country.

      • Julie Garza-Withers

        When we look at demographics the the wealth gap and its connection to race/ethnicity becomes starkly clear. People of color are disproportionately poorer overall than whites and the wealth gap for people of color is much wider than for whites, including very poor whites. Nevertheless, white poverty persists and upholds and is upheld by the race system in the U.S.
        When we think that power is all about class (money) or all about race/ethnicity (skin color, class, and culture), or all about gender (patriarchy) we miss the point. But is a wonder to watch whiteness defended on the basis that poor whites are ignored. The power elite in the U.S. use this specific message to keep poor whites and poor people of color opposed, segregated, and useful for their puppetry.

      • Yes, CRT favors proportionality in its analysis of power and waves away the powerful people who aren’t white. The nice thing about a class analysis is there are no exceptions: Obama serves his class interests very well. Of course the power elite–white, black, and brown–divides the working class on the basis of race. The CRT response is to ignore the whites who have not benefited from whiteness. The class-based response is to ignore no one in the working class.

        When speaking of bourgie privilege, do not exclude the well-paid folks of all hues who teach that power should be seen in racial rather than class terms.

    • Julie Garza-Withers

      Whiteness abounds…this is why people who study race get frustrated with people who study class. Race is as inclusive as class studies, the race system in the U.S. would not exist without the subjugation and coercion of poor whites, whites are always a part of the race system as are multi-ethnic people like me. Perhaps this is part of the problem…we dichotimize race and class because for those with lighter skin it threatens, it means looking at ways our skin color might have privileged us over others just as poor as we are (were) but with darker skin. Again, if those of us in working class studies deny white privilege (which is hardly mentioned in any of the comments) we ignore the fullness of our own experience in working class white culture within a racialized social system.

      And, regarding the notion that people of color should “reach out” (or as implied, those who study critical race theory), please baby please, we whites have demanded this of people of color for so long that trust is deeply diminished. I’m reminded of my friend Victor Lee Lewis in the film, “The Color of Fear:”
      “What I see from white people, generally, is that they don’t talk about themselves as white people…now what I want to know is what it means to be white…it means never having to admit that to be white means something different than to be a person of color. Ans that there is an experience that you have that is very different from what the experience of people of color is.”

      From this I see that here is no way my rural, white, Christian reality was the same as my Chinese, Buddhist friend raised in the bay area. Yes, we were both working class, there is common ground there. But there is also difference, which is exciting and does not diminish my experience or my friend’s experiences with daily racism. Why is it so hard to look at whiteness in the context of race and class?

  10. Kathy M. Newman

    Thanks Sherry for raising this crucial issue. I think it is an important question, and I’ll be thinking about it as I make my way to Long Island this week!

  11. I worked with organized labor in LA some years back. During those days, one thing seemed consistently true about the people who held positions of authority and leadership. The white people were the ones who were the scholars/consultants. And the non-white people (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc) were the ones who ran the unions (the presidents, chairs, directors, etc).

    Not sure if that was (or is) only true of LA, but I would raise this question: Is it possible that the non-white people leading the labor movement simply haven’t been tasked with leading (or encouraged to lead) its storytelling and analytical functions?

  12. I’m a black tenured labor law professor who for complicated reasons grew up in the white working classes of Boston and Philadelphia. I have a very definite labor/working class orientation and pretty much always have. (I worked as a Teamster-represented line worker & shop steward for about 10 years before attending Harvard Law School). I get the very definite vibe that folks don’t know how to “place” me. Black law professors “do” employment law/critical race studies. White (largely male) law professors “do” traditional labor law (which is essentially an ahistorical law that no longer can be applied because it has been captured by elites). But leaving the erosion of labor law to one side, it is still taught, and I can count on one hand the number of black professors teaching it, I think for reasons that may parallel what is under discussion here. I also find the fact that I continue to have such a difficult time gaining invitations to conferences illuminating. I know how to network and I do it frequently. I really sense that there is discomfort among the white professoriate because I: 1) write without shame from the left and 2) don’t look like them. I have by the way presented a couple of times at WCS and UALE functions – great groups and I plan to return.

  13. Rick Rowlands

    Perhaps it is just a “white” trait to over-examine everything to absurd levels.

    • Rick,

      Forgive if I’ve misunderstood.

      Is it absurd to examine the question of diversity in WCS? If so, how come?

      Roy

    • Julie Garza-Withers

      Is it a white thing to dismiss institutional racism/discrimination as over-analysis?

  14. Oh, and while I don’t share his politics, I like Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr.’s “The Lightness of Critical Race Theory”: http://www.intellectualconservative.com/article4783.html

  15. While I admire your attempt to reach out to CRT believers, I fear the “race first” and the “class first” folks are as divided as the folks in my favorite religious joke: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion

    You might find Adolph Reed Jr.’s take interesting: http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Antiracism.html

    • Julie Garza-Withers

      I appreciate that WCS is FINALLY broaching this topic. Love, A CRT “believer”

      • It would be nice if CRT folks were also willing to reach out. They dismiss people who focus on class as “class reductionists,” though I don’t know of a single person who focuses on class who denies that racism is still a problem. Yet I’ve met many CRT folks who exclude class from the discussion of power in the US and say that attempts to factor in class are derailment.

        One more link for you. The Rev. Thandeka addressed a Unitarian Universalist community a decade ago, but much of what she says in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail” applies to folks with no spiritual concerns: http://archive.uua.org/ga/ga99/238thandeka.html

  16. If there were more Blacks/Latinos/etc in the PhD pipeline, there might be more diversity in the foci of WCS?

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