Classism: The Proverbial Elephant in the State Room
Do you look at people of Walmart and think, “Hey I’ve seen that lady downtown?” Do you see a poorly dressed person on the street and think that redneck is going nowhere? Then you just like me, my friend are guilty of classism and judging others based on their economic class.
The concept of classism in America, let alone West Virginia, is a huge taboo. A true elephant in the room, we ignore that large object and walk around it to something else. We like to think that the American Dream of being able to rise above one’s situation and be anything is in the power of every person no matter who you are and that we all have an equal playing field. We ignore the idea that the money we grew up with gives us advantages or the lack of disadvantages. The truth is we are all dealt a hand based on our background from day one and it can impact who we are.
Let us look at the concept of Classism and understand it perhaps better, Webster’s dictionary defines classism as, “Prejudice or discrimination based on class” – class being then defined as, “a group sharing the same economic or social status the working class, social rank; especially: high social rank, the classes as opposed to the masses, high quality.”
So, what does that mean to us as Americans and West Virginians?
Well to begin with we have to acknowledge that whether we like it or not America has to a degree a class system. We have lower class poor, working class poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, the elite and the 1 percent. All of these people have a social rank perceived by themselves and others. Our neighborhoods and jobs are divided into these same social ranks, as well as our clothing, and even our public education.
Sadly we have to look at classism as a factor in our lives, we are judged and do judge people as to where they come in on the great food chain of class. The simplest example of this is how we respond to a homeless individual, many people will walk by and act as if they do not exist, or they will mock them for their plight, then some will pity or seek to do charity. Very few or none will walk up to or approach the homeless individual on the same level as themselves. This shows how we as a group tend to respond to the lowest rung of the social later. A second example is how we look at peoples verbal speaking skills, a person that speaks in a more rural way is often seen as less intelligent even if that is not the case.
Here in the Eastern Panhandle we can see the divide of class displayed with greater contrast than other places. We have communities full of Washington, D.C., office commuters, with lovely gates or clean well-kept lawns, then 10 or 15 minutes down the road we have a degrading trailer with rust, housing a grandmother raising her grandchild on disability because the mother has gone to prison for heroin. This is our very real world.
I can count myself fortunate enough to be in a position I recognize as an upper middle class white woman, with this position I lose most class judgement. My education as a child allows me to generally speak well, my clothing is generally clean, I have food on my table and can afford to drive my car. Many in our own backyard cannot do so, and we judge them for it. We wonder how that lady in the trailer can afford to buy those kids toys but not have a car yet, when she may be receiving those toys through charity and spending all her extra money on a taxi to take her to work to feed her family.
The largest problem with classism is – unlike racism, gender discrimination or sexism – we do not have an established dialogue beginning for it. There is somewhere here a little hope for West Virginia and America as a whole. If we can acknowledge our own prejudices and our classism and then begin to avoid them, or work to challenge them even if just in a small conversation with friends then we can really see it.
Let’s not allow this elephant to stand in the room any longer. We need to except our reality of classism and change it.