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

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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.

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