Class, Race and and the Suffering We Don’t See


Asians as a group are better educated, healthier and wealthier than any other racial group in America. But it would be super racist to assert the position that they don’t face racism and not just because we think all Asians are good at math but also because it’s ridiculous to treat them as one unified, monolithic group. There is a great deal of diversity even among those we identify as Asian in America, and a wide variety of experience. Being Chinese and Hmong are two different things, with two different histories and demographics. The Hmong, who come from Vietnam and are political refugees because they helped the US during the Vietnam War, have no written language but a rich oral history and culture. They don’t enjoy the same advantages and demographic well being as the “Asians” the statistic that I started with proclaims applies to all Asians. And using that statistic as a blanket way of understanding what it means to be Asian in America renders the significant portion of the population that we identify as Asian but deviates from the norm invisible. It makes it nearly impossible for us to address the serious challenges the Asian kids I grew up with faced, most of whom were Hmong or Vietnamese. But even within the significant and longer term Chinese residents in California the statistic that Asians are better off hides many of my Stanford friends who grew up in deeply impoverished homes in the heart of urban areas like Oakland. So the statistic that Asians tend to do better than other groups doesn’t illuminate much about what it means to be Asian in America and renders the people who need the most visibility and voice invisible and silenced. From my perspective this makes that statistic basically useless.

Sometimes overarching frameworks, and clean statistics can provide a useful starting point for understanding humanity, which is so diverse and beautiful that it’s basically impossible to know all of it. But sometimes the statistics and the narratives are constructions, used both for “good” and “bad” purposes, and sometimes they are true but not particularly useful. The easily quantifiable and central narratives are rarely reflective of the day to day lives of the majority of human beings. Those statistics mean nothing to the people who are actually living in reality. If you read only those kinds of statistics you will know nothing about what it really means to be a human in the world. This is why I am usually intensely interested about what happens in the margins, in the places that statisticians don’t go and that the mainstream narrative wants to hide. The mainstream world rarely exists, it’s merely the world that those with power want you to see, but even when it does exist it is a small percentage of the population and easy to find. It will tell you nothing about the majority of the world and what it means to be human in it. For this reason, I feel that much of the present “activist” movement that happens on college campuses is currently blinding itself. It is more important to prove a worldview or theory than it is to grapple with reality. Small examples are often extrapolated to be applied where they have no real meaning.

Let’s talk about beliefs and why their logical conclusions matter. Information disseminates in complex ways, but one of the ways it disseminates is from the intellectual elite to the “masses” or just the general population if you can’t stomach the term. What is said on college campuses is often distortedly repeated by normal people in their day to day lives. Therefore, in the example I gave above, if that statistic is the only statistic that gets repeated then the people who vote, who set policy, and who construct and disseminate mass culture are going to create a universe where people believe that “all Asians are rich” and then you will be stuck like some of my good friends having to constantly explain your existence to people if you are Asian and poor. You will not receive essential services and you will not be represented in culture. For poor Asian people, that’s a pretty serious problem, even if they are the minority and it’s a much more serious problem for poor Asian people, who are marginalized by race and class, than it will be for rich Asian people, although they will also receive some advantages and disadvantages from the system. But in any case, no one will really know what it means to be “Asian” in America because all “Asian” people will have been reduced to a single statistic, with those who deviate from the norm being erased entirely. Whenever I think about cultural beliefs like this I try to answer a few key questions: who benefits from this? Who loses? How much suffering or privilege does this cause? Those are questions we should ask ourselves for pretty much all cultural beliefs and practices. So I’m going to encourage you to think about them through the rest of this.

My freshman year of college, I was nervous. People at Stanford were wealthier beyond what I could ever imagine. I had never seen houses like the ones I saw at the Stanford send off (this is a regional party hosted by alums to “welcome you in the Stanford community, they are held at mansions). I spoke differently. They knew. During Admit weekend, whether by design or accident, I was placed in a dorm with someone from my rival high school, she was the admit from Grant school district (yes, we get one a year for the whole district of five high schools) in her year, she figured out where I was from and freaked out, introducing me to one of the kids from the other poor district. She was Asian, he was Mexican and I was white. This gave me a false sense of security and place in the world. Anyway, during the portion where we were supposed to introduce ourselves during orientation one of the black girls mentioned she was from the Bronx, and I mistakenly asked her if she went to a bad school like I did. She was offended and understandably so, it was a bad assumption to assume because she was black and from the Bronx that she went to a bad high school like me. She wasn’t even working class, like the majority of black people on campus, but even if she was, most of the working class kids on campus had involved family members or lived in urban areas where they had access to good schools. I was the weirdo and I shouldn’t have applied my situation to her. It’s offensive and we can see that. It’s offensive to do to Asians, it’s offensive to do to black people, or really to anyone else. Because it ignores the fact that humans are more complex than statistics. We can all see this, right?

So, if we can all see this, then why is it ok to do this to poor white people? People actually believe, including the majority of the “smartest people in the world” that there are no poor white people or that poor white poverty isn’t somehow as terrible as poverty anywhere else. I would be more ok with this if 10 percent of the poor were white but the majority of poor people are white. Disproportionality matters, and is important and it tells us when there are social constructs like racism but poverty doesn’t exist in theory land. All people in poverty are suffering and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else to say, nonwhite people are more likely to be poor AND the majority of poor people are white because both are statistically true and neither will tell you what it actually means to be poor in this country. Just as it matters that black men are more likely to be shot by police AND also white people make up the majority of police deaths. The majority of the poor are white but only 25 percent of Stanford’s working class undergraduates are white. That is important but you’d have to be an idiot to make the argument that it somehow proves that racism doesn’t exist AND it also tells us that maybe we should look out for the three percent of the campus that is isolated and needs help. It also tells us that our belief that white people aren’t poor is rendering invisible and drowning a marginalized piece of our country. Stanford isn’t refusing to admit more poor white kids, there are just so few of them in the applicant pool and that statistic demonstrates that we have a cultural construct that is denying equal opportunity, just as the disproportionate number of black people in poverty demonstrates that we have a cultural construct that denies people equal opportunity. Facts have contexts and consequences and statistics are only as good as you use them and are only one piece of the way we can represent our shared humanity. We have a tendency these days to bow to numbers as if they are the end all to be all. I was once on a job interview for a history teacher position when I said that part of my job was to get the kids to perform on tests AND also to help them be good citizens. My interviewer was like: “how can you measure that? We only work off data here!” To which, I said: “it’s all data, I use all of the information at my disposal to assess teaching, learning and the experience in my classroom. But more importantly, poverty is poverty. Poverty is brutal and cruel and will shape your experience, your opportunities, you community, your education more than any other factor. Rich black kids will face discrimination but they have more in common with the rich white kids they grow up around than they do with poor black kids.

I remember as an undergraduate getting in trouble during a meeting because I wanted one non-community member student to sit on a four person first generation college student (first generation is a euphemism that elite institutions use as a proxy for poor) panel. That student could have been white or middle eastern or simply not identified with the community centers because the community centers weren’t serving every first gen kid on campus. The head of the Asian community center told me that it wasn’t allowed because kids of color experience different things than people who are first gen students who are white, which is true. In fact, every community experiences being first gen differently, being Asian isn’t the same thing as being black. Each group has a unique history and challenges. Asian people are actually more likely to grow up with more wealth than white people but who cares? We weren’t talking about rich Asian people, we were talking about poor Asian people, just as we weren’t talking about rich white people. I would often sit in focus groups and point out that I had grown up in the same or worse a neighborhood as the Hispanic and black kids. I considered them my neighbors and partners because I grew up in a community that has class solidarity because it’s universally poor and diverse. Not every community is like this, so my experience might be different from others but that’s ok because it’s the specifics and particularities that matter, that shape our experience and lives and those can’t be captured in statistics.

Poverty is brutal and ruthless and for every dead or hungry kid, prostituted girl, and drug addict, is a life that matters. It’s a life that we should be protecting and alleviating the suffering of without forcing them to fight for basic human dignity like an intellectual bum fight. My senior year a good friend of mine was working on a campaign to stop Arizona’s harsh immigration laws and sent an email inviting others to join; the response she got back was horrifying. A young man who is probably lower middle class by national standards but poor by Stanford standards and white sent her a racist diatribe. Now, make no mistake about it, that was stupid simply because it was racist. But what pissed me off most was that he was too blind to see that we are all in the same struggle and that those people are in our neighborhoods being oppressed by the same forces poor white people are oppressed by. For too much of American history the working classes have allowed ourselves to be divided and conquered.

But I don’t play that game. You can’t tell me who to love, who to mourn, who to help, who to rejoice with, and who my community is. We have to dismantle racism and classism together because they are deeply interconnected. Racism is a system that determines distribution of resources and labor, so is classism. In another place and time we would be talking about different groups who were identified for inequitable distribution, the Irish during England’s industrial revolution, Jewish people in Germany in the 1400s, non-Aztecs living in the Aztec empire. We live in an era and country where race is one of the major factors that has determined who gets resources but it’s just a specific form of a very old oppression. One of the reasons Europe is ahead of us on social benefits is because they talk about class explicitly and the working classes are united. And that’s something I’ll be fighting for everyday for the rest of my life.


How to become revolutionary


We need to have some clarity about our goals. The goal of social justice is to work to end human suffering and ensure equity of opportunity. The goal is not to get a resume boost, or to fulfill some inane rite of passage in college or to get revenge on anyone. If those things are your motivation then you aren’t fighting for social justice. Our responsibility is to be aware of when and where people are going hungry, facing violence, denied opportunity or sick without care. It doesn’t matter what the person looks like, talks like, acts like, or who or what they identify with, if they are suffering our job is to investigate the reasons and try to alleviate it. The vast majority of people on this earth are suffering and sometimes they don’t look, talk, or think the way you expect. That’s because the vast majority of people at elite American universities (the kind that construct culture and knowledge) are not people who have suffered. And I don’t mean in the sense that they don’t look like people that have disproportionately suffered in this country, you have to have actually suffered or been denied access to count. There should be no more taking on experiences that you don’t actually have. If you haven’t suffered or been denied access then you are privileged in this world.
The role of government is to ensure that we can collectively take better care of each other in an organized fashion than we could living on our own. If the government isn’t doing that, it’s not doing it’s job and we should work to reform it. But that doesn’t make government inherently bad, I don’t want to live in a place where there is just chaos and neither do you. So maybe lay off the promotion of anarchy, it’s just stupid.

The most important thing I learned from history is that there are universal lessons that can be drawn to learn about human behavior but that it’s impossible to graph history onto to now. We are not living in the time of slavery or the antebellum south, this isn’t Jim Crow. Injustice now is happening now and we need to deal with the particulars of it, and also to acknowledge and celebrate our successes. To make the claim that nothing has changed is not only stupid, it is also insulting to those who came before you. You don’t need to take a history of injustice and graph it onto another to legitimize it, injustice is injustice and telling the real story of it is sufficient.

History and life experience have taught me how much I can’t know and how much what I read can be wrong. What we learn in classrooms often only reflects the known reality of teachers and those teachers are rarely truly representative of the world. You should be suspicious of all knowledge and quick to listen to others whose experience differs from yours. You have so much to learn and you will for the rest of your life, and if you cut yourself off to knowledge now, cut yourself off from anything that doesn’t reflect your worldview you are going to be blind to a wide portion of the world. We have to all stop rejecting anything that disagrees with us without investigating it but most importantly, we have to stop punishing those in the community who question or think differently than us. When we do that, when we control stories and speakers we don’t like but who come to us from a place of seeking justice, we are no better than the oppressors. I’m not asking you to listen to privileged douchbags who promote Ayn Rand, though you should listen to them so we can effectively counter their arguments, but I’ve seen people and I have personally, been ignored or demeaned in the social justice community because the party line was questioned.

We are exercising our intellectual privilege in a way that is destructive. We need to work to practice what we preach everyday. For me, free speech, maintaining the values of the Enlightenment is the best way to ensure justice. And I’m not Eurocentric about that, as you look through history the strongest societies are those that value reason and truth, if we misuse statistics or intentionally deceive, even when it furthers our cause, it is wrong. And it won’t serve us in the end because it will just give the people who don’t want us to succeed more fodder to challenge us. But also, it just creates an environment where we can’t see what is actually going on because people will be scared to contradict us. It also makes it such that we will miss out on the best ideas and creativity because that only happens in an open environment, and if we are not open minded the creative minds will go elsewhere. It is fundamentally conservative to demand that people stick to the party line.

  • Now, the world is complex and we need experts, I happen to be most knowledgeable about class and particularly poor white people and living in multi-cultural suburban ghettos but that doesn’t mean that I believe that the people I am most knowledgeable about and closely tied to deserve anymore help than anyone else whose suffering and I’m not going to sacrifice the well being of others to serve my group. I have a responsibility to fight for injustice without regard for the identity of sufferer. I am not going to take food from one starving group to feed another and if you are making people starve for any reason you are in fact part of the problem. Making other people starve or suffer to benefit your group is not a revolution, it is just more of the same. Real solidarity means that we fight to end suffering and inequity for ALL people.

Ok, but how are we going to do that? We need to do it in an organized fashion because our goal is not to prove how clever we are or that we are super revolutionary but to get those nice people who are just trying to go about their day to care enough to make life difficult for those people who actually have the power to do anything. You don’t do that by burning things down in most cases. Which is also destructive and unhelpful for the children who live in that community. I know because I’ve been that child and I’ve been around those children my whole life. No child has ever been uplifted by violence and no community is built by violence. Violence is traumatizing and I find it ridiculous that a group of adults can say to children, “hey it’s ok, we were mad” as an explanation for mass violence.

You also don’t make things better by inconveniencing, nice, working class people if they or the thing you are disrupting isn’t the problem. If BART is racially segregated then you should protest BART. If you want to protest Caltrain because it’s crazy expressive and it only exists because people in Atherton are racist and classist, then be my guest. If the freeway is part of an apartheid regime and you want to hold it up then have at it. However, if these things have nothing to do with the problem at hand and you are just protesting on them because you are starting the revolution or whatever then you need to stop. In the case of police shootings, police and the communities they think they work for are the problem, so maybe protest outside police stations, or the capital where drug laws are made (and if you aren’t fighting in part to end the war on drugs, you need to stop until you understand why you need to be doing that) or outside Lulelemon or for the love of god, at least have the decency to shut down the 280. We’ve reached this point where we read a little bit about the Civil Right’s movement of the 50s and 60s and copy something and think we are done. But that movement was disciplined and organized and cared about being effective and their audience. When the problem was the buses they protested the buses. When the problem was interstate travel, where they were literally banned from traveling interracially, they protested interstate travel. Right now, the problem is the cops, so maybe we should be focused on getting that message out instead of worrying about what is going to be cool on TV and Twitter.

And let’s get clear about something else. You are not revolutionaries. You are not changing the world with your protest. At best, you are making things a little bit better in your corner of the universe. If you assume anymore than that not only will your precious heart be broken but you will be insulting the people who matter. You will be insulting the community you claim to be fighting for because they’ve been fighting this their whole lives without a choice. You will be insulting the people that quietly do the hard work day in and day out, the stuff you never hear about, that never shows up on Twitter. The people who heal the sick, feed the hungry and educate the children everyday who are never acknowledged and who don’t have time to show up to your protest because they are working. Real social change is hard and takes time and dedication, it means that you have to accept defeat every single day no matter how bad things get and still get up in the morning and try again. Protests can help, and some protests can be wildly effective but even the Montgomery bus boycott took a year of planning and a year of execution. They aren’t really going to change anything overnight and especially when they are aimless and poorly organized and just inconveniencing the people you are supposedly trying to help. Poor people, the kind who are most likely to face police violence ride the BART and drive the 101 and the I-80. They take those modes of transport after long days of feeding people, maybe even the kids at Berkeley and Stanford, and healing the sick, and teaching and keeping the city going while you tell people how cool you are on Twitter. Now all you’ve done is pissed them off, how likely do you think it is that they are going to take you seriously when you walk into their community and talk about revolution? The problem isn’t the people on the 101, the problem is people in rich areas like Atherton, Palo Alto, and the surrounding areas of the Berkeley campus, who day in and day out decide that they would rather have more than any human being could possibly use while other people around them go hungry. And if you learned that, the poor would trust you a lot more and then you could roll up your sleeves and do the hard work everyday to make things a little bit better and plant and tend seeds that will someday, if you are lucky, if they survive the winter and people trying to cut things down, help to really change something. Then, when you are focused solely on ending suffering and ensuring equal opportunity, and you do the hard work every day without hope of reward, and you’ve done it for a long time, then maybe you can call yourself revolutionary.

We have to talk about Class


I’ve had it happen to me a lot. A financially privileged person of color telling me that I know nothing about poverty and oppression. I’m literally living in the hood right now and have my entire life except when I was at Stanford. I feel like rich people lecturing poor disabled people on how they aren’t suffering is basically just good, old fashioned classism.

But you are white

I know. Believe me, I know I’m white. I’m the whitest person in my family in outward appearance and I still come from a family that was a victim of eugenics. My whiteness and poorness are not mutually exclusive. I know that’s not what you’ve been told but I’m not even an outlier in my community, my extremely poor, poorer than any community in the Bay Area community is 30 percent white. I’m not in the South, I don’t live in a trailer park and this isn’t Appalachia. My best friend, who grew up in the projects, is also white and her family was better off than mine was and we were from two of the poorest families in the neighborhood. I know this reality is hard to accept and I’m sorry. But it’s true. But how can that be, you might be wondering, since poor whites only existed in America during the 20s (when most of them, including my family, weren’t considered white) and the Dust Bowl. According to my history textbook, after that all white people became at least middle class.

Your history books are stupid and full of lies.

Ok. So let’s for a second remind ourselves that this land was colonized by white people not that long ago. A very specific set of white people, mostly English and mostly French. Mostly people from some of the worst class systems in Europe. Now, when these white people came here they couldn’t survive well, they didn’t know the land, had methods that were suited to Europe and not representative of the flora and fauna of the Americas, were not immune to the diseases of living in the swamps, and had a nasty superiority complex that made the people who were already here unlikely to want to help them. Just so I’m clear about it, at that moment in history, China, whose Chinese name means ‘middle country’ referred to all non-Chinese as barbarians. Every civilization before the modern period thought they were the best and the center of everything because they didn’t have Internet or international trade. The wealthy whites brought over indentured servants and the poor people in their country to serve them. Or what you might call peasants or serfs. A peasant is someone who is forced to work their whole lives on a piece of land they don’t own for a master who does nothing and takes everything that’s produced. Sometimes they are also brutal or sadistic and can beat you or kill you without consequences. Sound familiar? The English also brought over their “criminals” to work for them, also known as the Irish, also known as people who had been imprisoned under a series of rules created to hurt and control poor. Sound familiar? Anyway, the people they colonized were dying in mass and hard to conscript because they knew the land and would just leave, and the people they normally had working for them were dying because they weren’t used to the climate and were from Europe, so they decided to bring Africans over to the Americas. Now Africa and Europe had a long standing “relationship” that involved the selling of slaves, historically prisoners of war were sold into slavery, Europeans were sold to Africans and Africans were sold to Europeans. It was wrong, and stupid because selling people is wrong and stupid. But in this world the people who counted as people were rich men, because women were property too. However, under that form of slavery, it was less brutal than American chattel slavery. Why?

The South reached a point where they had several problems. One of those problems was that black slaves outnumbered the white people in the area. Another problem was that slaves kept running away both to the north and to live with Native American tribes. They had long faced another problem, which was that poor whites often lived with poor blacks. Oh and they wanted more profit. So in order to avoid problems and make more money, slavery became a million times worse than the previous version. And in order to avoid blacks, poor whites, and Native Americans coming together and rebelling while also allowing for a way to order this new world they were colonizing they created racism. Racism allows them to treat poor whites marginally better and cause the different groups they are oppressing to fight each other.

It’s important to remember that our world wasn’t constructed with a blank slate. The people that settled here lived in a world with deeply calcified class systems, and that’s why only property owners could vote at first. The American Revolution was first but it was strictly of revolution of the rich. The French Revolution was far more radical, it was a revolution of the working class. Our revolution was about not being taxed, theirs was about toppling the entire class structure. Feudalism existed in Europe for hundreds of years and the people that founded this nation were raised in feudal societies. Rich white people had been treating their poor white people like slaves for centuries, why would they treat poor people of any other race differently?

We often talk about what Europe has without talking about how Europe got there. The continent has all these protections for workers and people because they had real revolutions that challenged and changed the social order. They also destroyed themselves and had to rebuild. World War Two in Europe was a rebuke of unfettered Capitalism, Racism, Nationalism and Militarism. World War Two in America was understood to be a victory for Capitalism, Racism, Nationalism and Militarism. Europe has universal healthcare and has protests where cops don’t kill people and we are still having arguments over whether or not it’s ok for cops to kill unarmed citizens and whether or not it’s ok to have children who are starving. The American revolution is not complete.