Race and Class in America

By now, you've undoubtedly heard of the situation involving an inner city Philadelphia day camp being turned away a suburban Philadelphia swim club: scores of black and brown kids told they couldn't have a swim after all, even though their group's payment had initially been accepted by the club, as nervous white parents pulled their kids out of the pool and folded their arms while the club's director said something about the city kids changing the "complexion" of the setting. The news stories have overwhelmingly condemned the suburban swim club, its director, and its parents for their hateful reaction to the city kids. Tsk-tsk, all are saying; even in 2009, they sigh, such racism is alive and well.

I haven't actually followed the story as close as most. But I do know that if I was a parent member of that swim club, I probably would've had the same reaction.

Before you think that I've gone off the deep end, let me explain. No matter how enlightened we may think we are, we harbor prejudice and unease towards people different from us. Mix race and class together, and the prejudice and unease quadruples. Add in the fact that these parents considered this swim club "their" place, and you can see why they would have acted with such alarm when "those kids" showed up.

I am certainly not excusing their behavior, or the pitiful responses of the club's director. I'm just admitting that, if I lived in the suburbs, in a largely homogenous neighborhood by race and class, and belonged to a club that was even more homogenous in those ways, I probably would have responded in the same way. And it would have been shame on me, but I'm just telling you that's probably what would've happened if I had put myself in the same situation.

Which is partly why I live in the city and try hard to make sure that groups I'm a part of and circles I run in are diverse from the standpoint of race and class. Because I know that, inside of me, there's probably a fair amount of racism and classism. And, in my mind, there are four things I can do about that taint of hatred and snobbery inside of me:

1) I can deny this is true, and try to pass off as someone who is somehow above racism and classism.

2) I can acknowledge my flaws, but live in a homogenous neighborhood and otherwise associate with others like me, so I don't have to deal directly with these uncomfortable realities.

3) I can pay lip service to being enlightened, and have just enough friends and colleagues different from me that I can say, "See, I know how to relate to people different from me."

4) I can immerse myself in settings that are diverse by race and class, uncomfortable as they may be, both in terms of feeling out of place and sometimes unknowingly offending or being misunderstood by those around me.

Daily, option number four is chosen for me, because of where I live, what I do for a living, and how I spend my discretionary time. And, uncomfortable as it is, I think I am better for it. Better for being made aware of my hidden and not so hidden prejudices and discomforts, that I might change my ways. And better because of the good that there is in diversity, which is to say the awareness and enjoyment of people and perspectives whose differences from me inform me and make my life more interesting.

These choices and experiences are not without their costs. Class divisions are alive and well, even in America circa 2009. Where we send our kids to school, who are neighbors are, where we worship and shop and recreate: more often than not, we sort ourselves by race and class. Sure, we might dabble on the margins, but at the core, we are drawn by a strong magnetic pull to associate with those like us. And when we resist that pull, we find ourselves in situations where we intuitively sense we don't belong. And we begin to wonder if perhaps staying in our comfort zones isn't the more prudent course of action. And so we cocoon ourselves accordingly.

And, when this happens, our minds close, our perspectives shrivel, and we close ourselves to others who are different. If we think of them at all, it is with patronizing pity or self-congratulating vilification. We make ourselves vulnerable to having those feelings of prejudice and unease - which don't go away if we don't deal with them - become exposed in embarrassing and telling ways if we are suddenly confronted with those different from us. Like, say, scores of black and brown kids showing up in our space, hailing from the inner city community we thought we had safely distanced ourselves from.

I don't know what your initial reaction was to the parents at this suburban swim club, or what your opinion of them is now. I would, however, encourage you to ask yourself what you are doing to make sure you don't respond like they did, if a similar situation were to arise in your life.
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