Savvy Racism

February 2, 2007

Something that I’ve been quietly grappling with for a long time is the common portrayal of working class people as racist. From the work of Lois Weis to Paul Willis to Kirby Moss, working class kid and adults can come across as dull bigots. I’ve bitten my tongue listening to comments at too many conferences about the “false consciousness” of working class students in college classes, evidenced by their resistance to coursework about race.

I’ve long wondered whether middle class kids aren’t just better at masking racism beneath a veneer of politeness and tolerance, or whether middle class students have learned how to play the academic game so that their contributions to deliberations about race are informed by their anticipation of the “right answer”, even if their tolerance is not fully internalized.

So it was with interest that I read a news item in today’s Inside Higher Education about a study suggesting that college students (not, of course, all middle class, but certainly disproportionately middle class) engage in a disturbing amount of racist talk “backstage” even while being polite to students of color in public.

I don’t want to give anyone a pass on racism. That’s not my point. But locating the problem of racism within the working class may make the middle-class feel intellectually and morally superior, but isn’t doing much to solve the long-standing problems race relations on this country.

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