I’m conducting a funeral tomorrow. Another poor white person who died sooner than they should have. Don’t send me any condolences or words of praise for what a good friend I am for doing this. It’s my best friend’s dad and she didn’t know him. She describes learning how much she looked like him, she just now saw a picture. No condolences are needed because this is old hat for me by now. It’s not the first time I’ve conducted this service, though it will be the first time in an AA trailer in Arizona, but I can’t imagine it’ll be much different from a Hof Brau in Sacramento. The working classes are funny like that. Seems like no matter the time or place we all hold some things in common. A resignation towards death binds us together.
When you want to say you love someone you don’t say you’ll die for them, you say you’d kill for them. Death is ever present, and we’ve stared it in the face before. Because we know what violence feels like, we also understand how violence maims your soul and makes you less human. We understand the sacrifice to your soul and honor. When you are poor all you have is your soul and honor. For that we will fight fiercely.
But do you know what we fight most fiercely for? Each other. I will happily tolerate abuse perpetrated against me, but come for someone I love and you won’t survive the encounter. I’m ruthless and brutal for the people. I’ve been fighting against monsters for as long as I know. What can they threaten me with that I haven’t already endured? Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. So I wasn’t scared when Trump got elected. I did the same thing my people have done throughout history and I woke up the next morning and got to work.
Trump is nothing new to us. We’ve been going to work with racist, sexist, classist bosses since the dawn of time. The next time someone tells me they shouldn’t have to talk to those people, I really hope they are organizing a waitressing union, because unless they are, it all sounds sort of ridiculous. Going to school and hearing hurtful stuff is not new to me. I had elementary school teachers call me trash and keep me out of advanced classes. I’ve watched other colleagues do that. I’ve healed the children you all failed to protect. Kids like my middle schoolers who weren’t terrified when they saw the images of Emmett Till. “It’s cool Ms. C., I saw my uncle get shot.” This is what we’ve been putting 11 years old through. And they’ve endured things you can’t even imagine. They endured it and still maintain joy. My working class friends laugh more than my rich friends. I can’t tell sometimes whether it is madness or not, but goddamn it is a beautiful madness.
I carry the hatred of both sides that I’ve inherited from a lifetime of oppression. I know that the same leftists now that point the finger at working class whites are the same ones that told me I shouldn’t be upset about my cousin’s death because as a poor person, his life wasn’t worth much. And the folks on the right? You think we haven’t seen men like Trump before? Did you think that 13 year old he raped and who had been trafficked was rich? So, much of the hysteria seems sort of ridiculous to me. You didn’t know this country had problems before this election? What kind of magical fantasy land are you living in and why aren’t you sharing? I’m seeing so many people talk about how they shouldn’t have to talk to anyone they disagree with. I didn’t know we had the option. I thought we were just supposed to say “yes, sir” to the boss while secretly plotting over dinner. The left is scrabbling right now to understand what has gone wrong. They can’t figure out why so many people stayed home and didn’t want to vote for them. They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong with their messaging and besides that, everyone who challenges them is just dumb.
I think about their reluctance to deal with dissent when I think about the millions of people that died during Mao’s Great Leap Forward because no one wanted to deviate from the party line and explain that the poor were dying in mass. Worst famine in human history. My aversion to that rhetoric comes from knowing history, but it also comes from knowing that I can’t doing anything alone. That this country is at its best when we all stand together for the common good. You learn about the common good when you are poor. If you are unwilling to engage with your community, you literally starve.
I had to go to Ross to buy a plain black dress for this funeral. I’ve shopped there my whole life. For those who have not had the pleasure, Ross is a department store for the working classes. I looked around at how diverse the store was. The Russian family in front of us, my gay Asian checkout clerk, the Hispanic man running security. Shoppers across the rainbow. But I knew this about the working classes, the ways we’ve always defied the norms and intermarried. I remember how shocked I was when I got to Stanford and saw so few interracial couples. I don’t have enough space to list all the times my family members have married someone who isn’t the same color or ethnicity as us. But many of us don’t identify by colors, many of us identify with a class struggle that we’ve felt in on together.
My high school used to have race riots. Together, with the leaders of the black community, we prevented that from happening in my four years there. I did it while spending holidays talking to my conservative grandmother and finding common ground with her beliefs. I grew up thinking this was completely normal. I lean so heavily on those skills when I speak, and I know it’s that skill that we need most.
It seems funny to me that I saw people saying they can’t be expected to engage with the Trump folks because they are still experiencing grief. I think about how I conducted my grandmother’s funeral and went back to Stanford and took my midterms without anyone close to me even knowing I was gone. I didn’t have the luxury of not going to work after death and neither does the rest of the working classes. The poor have never had a President that came from their roots and continued to love them while in power, so waking up to a President that hates us as much as Trump does, feels the same way waking up in this country every other day does. Except we know that if his power goes unchecked that it is us he will come for. All those kids at Ivy League institutions who didn’t go to class the next morning are completely safe because of who their parents are, and every time they fail to acknowledge that and fail to take that power and privilege and use it for the working classes is a time they are continuing to corroborate in our oppression. And that folks, is why the working classes hates the left so much. We hate the right too, but appreciate that “at least they are honest.” The explanation for why the movement in the 60s was ground to halt that I was raised with, is that the college students started spitting on soldiers. They started demonizing the working classes. That’s how you get Nixon’s. That’s how you get Trump’s.
And so now we enter another cycle, one which I have warned was coming. One which, as I wrote in my last final for Stanford, “as in all things in history, it’s the peasants who get screwed.”
I see so many people pointing the fingers outside themselves, calling everyone but themselves racists. But I have to let you in on a real secret, I know very few people from Stanford that I don’t consider at least closet bigots. And I also know from experience and the exit poll data that it was my rich friend’s parents that actually elected Trump. I know how easy it is for them to talk the talk. I’ve watched them change their minds with the times, and I’m sure many of them will have a conservative reawakening soon as it becomes socially acceptable to do so.
I think I speak for the working classes everywhere when I say we’ve had enough of talk. The only thing I’m interested in now is action. The only people I trust now are the people who have been down for the people the entire time. The only people I want fighting alongside me are the ones I know won’t waver in the face of danger.
Because I know who they are coming to oppress. It’ll be us.
So, before you put us on the front line, please have the decency to think about your message. Love us enough to plan appropriately. Take on the leadership to protect your own people. Good leaders don’t put their vulnerable people in harm’s way over their feels. Good leaders volunteer for things that aren’t their responsibility. Good leaders have no idea why people keep telling them they are a good person for doing the right thing because they know that it is just what is has to be done.
You are right that you shouldn’t have to do this. You are right that you shouldn’t have to engage people you find hateful. You are right that we shouldn’t have to demand or ask for our rights. You are right that we shouldn’t have to turn the other cheek. You are right that a lot of people in this country believe some incredibly dangerous stuff.
But I don’t want to be right anymore. I want to win.
I have to win.
I have to win because if I don’t, I know the consequences for our loss will fall on the shoulders of people I love.
And that is the only cause I’ve ever been willing to kill for. People will fight more fiercely out of love than they ever could over hate. I know this too, from years and years of taking on fights that weren’t my own. You don’t know pain and leadership until the day you volunteer to take the blows that were designed for someone else. You don’t know love until the day you realize watching people get beat is more painful than taking the beating yourself.
I must have been four.