Social Class Differentials, The One Percent, and 'Favela Rising'


Yesterday, while lounging around on what turned out to be a lazy day off, I caught an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, which I usually never watch. The topic of discussion was Class in America; which can dissolve into a heated discussion, because no one really likes to discuss class, race, or the presumptions people believe about others and how those erroneous opinions are used to stereotype others and perpetuate class hierarchies. 
People tend to judge who they deem to be lower-class based on their diction, how they look, their skin color, whether their nails are clean or dirty, and how bad their teeth are; or at least, these were some of the qualifiers Oprah's audience members used to determine someone's social standing. 
One woman posited  that when she saw an obese person, she considered them to be at the lower rung of the economic ladder. This same woman also said that she grew up in a working class farming community and how most of the farmers had filthy nails, and this is why she equates dirty nails with lower class people. Filmmaker and heir to the Johnson & Johnson corporation, Jamie Johnson filmed a documentary called The One Percent, which details the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor and the one percent being those who control about 40% of the wealth in America
During the show segment, Jamie explained how his father had never been comfortable with discussing money. In fact, his father was downright indignant during one clip that was shown, and abruptly ended the conversation. This type of evasive behavior-- reluctance to discuss family wealth perhaps stems from the discomfort of having to unpack one's privilege and not have to acknowledge issues like how systemic inequality works to marginalize and disenfranchise the poor... particularly Black and brown people. I also found it troubling (albeit unsurprising) when an economist pointed out the shrinking middle-class and the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor; a realization that slapped the masses in the face during and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the clusterfuck that ensued during the storm's aftermath. 
Seems no matter how much the working class work towards upward social mobility, it’s still hard to make ends meet and it develops into a cycle of living pay check to pay check, just one faulty step ahead of having the rug snatched out from under your feet. Not seeing the fruits of hard labor coupled with being oppressed in various other ways, is a depressing reality for many. One Black man from Chicago, whose story was also featured during the course of the show, said that he qualifies as being part of the working class and that he viewed those with money as being snooty and dismissive, and how most of them don’t even acknowledge his humanity or presence. One show guest's... a woman .. story also stood out to me. She relayed that she earned her living as a cocktail waitress at a high-end restaurant, where most of the clientele is wealthy. She said that most of her work evenings were spent having people look down their noses at her and snapping their fingers at her, addressing her as "Hey! Can you come over here!" She also said that most of the restaurant patrons assumed she was in school and was just working at the restaurant to earn some pocket change, only to appear chagrined and somewhat condescending upon learning that the restaurant was, in fact, her full-time job. 
Outside the restaurant’s uniform, she said she dressed really nice and trendy, wore and carried a pair of counterfeit Gucci shades and purse (which most people assumed to be the real deal), kept immaculately manicure hands, cute shoes, and drove a BMW (which she said was a gift). She said that people on the street, outside the realm of her workplace, assumed she was snooty and had a lot of money, never considering that she was also a struggling member of the working class. This woman’s story resonated with me because I live that experience everyday except, according to those taking inventory, I'm a black woman who speaks in a way they deem to be 'proper', sometimes enjoy cultural activities mostly ascribed to white people, and reside downtown; and I navigate this experience at various intersections... particularly race, gender, and class. 
Most people assume I make a lot of money because of where I live and how I dress when really, I'm fumbling towards a sustaining my livelihood working at a non-profit organization where I'm woefully underpaid, whose staff is predominantly white, and where my white female co-workers are favored over me for promotions and opportunities to flex their creative muscles. Unlike working-class white women, the chance to move forward often eludes me, and I'm expected to be overly conscientious about 'my place' on the social, racial, and class hierarchy lest I'm unceremoniously fired as a way to 'put me back in my place' for being 'too smart' (read: too uppity). 
My place of employment grants me access to (mostly-white) one-percenters and, to be frank, they’re even ruder and more dismissive of and condescending to me, just for my existing in this skin. They often express surprise that I convey an air of  intelligence, make sure to tell me how "articulate" I sound and seem bemused that I've had the opportunity to travel abroad. 
People who stereotype someone’s class based on race, appearance and something as superficial as dirty nails, are ignoramuses who willfully refuse to recognize their own privilege and how they consistently operate to marginalize others. Some of the most uncouth, inarticulate,  ill-mannered people I've had the displeasure of meeting just happen to have a lot of money. Additionally, some of the most educated, well-traveled, most articulate, and cultured people whose company I've enjoyed, don't have a lot of money and barely live above the poverty line. That being said, I saw a delightful documentary called Favela Rising.
Favela Rising is about a pro-active group called AfroReggae, who do a lot in their communities to educate and  help keep younger people (and corrupt police officers) from destroying themselves and their favelas via the arts, music, and dance. Think Rize, but with more depth of character and insight. Anderson Sa, the primary focus of the documentary, initiates a lot of community outreach programs, primarily in Brazil and worldwide, helping raise awareness. This is a clear example of people taking back control of their communities and stories, and presenting themselves in a positive light. It's definitely worth checking out! 

10 comments

  1. Good post. Its funny but I think all of us are guilty of making assumptions about people based on their apperance. Another black female blooger wrote about having white people make comments on how well she speaks. I think this is a problem for a lot of us. Sometimes African-Americans also make these type of comments. I've had black people tell me that I could not possibly be from the neighorhood that the grew up in because I'm so intelligent and I like to travel.

    Also this is Cassie Johnson's second documentary. He did another documentary titled "Born Rich". A very, very, very good film about the children who come from very wealthy families and how they feel about their family's wealth. Many of those profiled had a lot of issues with the wealth that they stood to inherit. Anyway, thats all for now.

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  2. @Beautyinbaltimore: Yes, I've seen that documentary, "Born Rich"
    I found a couple of the subjects, Cody Franchetti in particular, to be quite obnoxious, elitist, and rude. Unfortunately, no amount of money can buy manners and humility.

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  3. yesterday, while i was waiting to teach that little teenie actress how to fake guitar i overheard her mother complain about taxes. she said, that if you exceed 1 million dollars in giftmoney or even stuff you buy as gifts for someone, you have to pay 50 % taxes on that money. the other things is too, that if you want to give me for example a million dollars, you have to pay taxes on it and I have to pay taxes AS WELL> the governments is fucking nuts man. there is also apparently a death tax. how weird is that. i mean, seriously. it will be abolished in 2009 but you better dont die before then.

    it's the same with being known and money. everybody assumes we are living in a kick ass house now, that my niece was the lead in a movie by terrence malick. fact is, that we still live in a tiny dirty welfare two bedroom apartment and we are six. now we are 8 because my sister's best friend's dad got murdered in santa monica and she and her little son are with us as well.

    my niece hangs out with Leonardo di Caprio since a couple of weeks. she is friends with his friend. his friend is pretty engaged in environmental issues thats how they met (my niece is pretty active, wait, i mean my sister is). Leo has two houses in the hills. Hollywood seems to be in particular a mirror of our schizophrenic society. i bet they feel somewhat generous to have her hang out. you know what i mean? the good deed of the day or sth. okay i am mean but i am just saying.

    meanwhile i am trying to find out what i am here for on this planet.

    i love your writing sweetie, more and more and more

    emeralda/piranha/jay

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  4. @beauty i get that all the time. you speak so well. how patronising.

    great post and great comments. while the notion of class looks set in stone it is quite a relative affair. you subconciously refuse to lump yourself in the same leagues with someone you consider yourself better than. again the phrase "better than" is relative. one man's yardstick.

    as a black and african person in the UK i view myself as outside the class structure. so i earn above a good salary a year does that make me middle class? I've got good ghetto leanings so would my white "middle class" neighbour consider himself in the same leagues as myself. he drinks wine and goes to the theatre while i go to the clubs down brixton. this distinction colours all our conversations and interactions. non-existent.

    In that sense the description of class applies beyond the money. cultural leanings apply. so no matter how rich i get in this society, and i intend to take it all, i'll be considered lower class because of my skin colour. perhaps this is different in the US and money exclusively defines one's class. now class in my Nigerian society is another matter.

    sorry for rambling on your post

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  5. Anonymous11:03 PM

    Hey Coffey! Hope you are well! Thanks for this post! It's strange how people look at someone's skin and assume they know all about them by the skin color. My ex-husband for example, when we first started dating, we were in his car and saw on the street a white woman holding hands with a black man and they had a baby with them. He says, "You know, I could never be in a bi-racial relationship. It's just wrong." I had only been with him about a week I guess. So, I said, "Gee, I guess we are gonna have to stop seeing each other huh? You see, I'm half Cherokee. You can drop me at home now." Well, a couple days later he called me up and told me he felt like a huge fool and that I taught him a major lesson in how not to judge people by the color of their skin because it doesn't always tell the true story. I'm white as white can be too! The scotch-irish on the other half took over with the coloring gene in my body. So, he never ever did that again and totally changed his views. At least something good happened! AHAHAHHAH!

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  6. I can attest to the fact that no matter how much the working class grinds, it’s still hard to make ends meet... and it develops into a lifestyle where most of us who rests at the lower rung of the economic scale, live from pay check to pay check


    ditto - and it pisses me off, with my education & stuff I SHOULD be doing *ahem* "better", but it's the norm, I guess (but it doesn't make me feel any better LOL)


    ALSO - re: obifromsouthlondon saying "you speak so well" - I notice that ALL THE TIME from sports announcers - whenever they're talking about a black player, they almost ALWAYS SAY "and he's SO well spoken, too!" like they're SHOCKED. I think they THINK they're paying the player a compliment, but to me it sounds, as obi said, SO patronizing, AS WELL AS HORRIBLY TRANSPARENT. Yeesh. Sometimes it makes me embarrassed as a white person, that THESE people are in a way "speaking" for us. You would HOPE someone with a microphone, broadcasting to millions of people, would have more sense than that. Such is life, I suppose.

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  7. I think I may have seen born rich...is that the one where on of the kids, sues the dude making it halfway through? If so I remember someone saying that if a persons lapel was at a certain height he considered them low-class. The thing that kills me is people don't seem to realize capitalism is a pyramid. You can't be on top unless more people are at the bottom.

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  8. Hi Coffey!

    Man, I don't have much to say here, other than...I'm at the bottom, and I would like to be at the top, too bad, to sad, I'm dirt poor. LOL LOL

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  9. There is no class in "America"; everyone is a trashy whore!

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  10. @obi from south london

    yeah the worst is when you realize that you have some of those weird things internalized yourself . you wonder where that comes from.
    language barrieres are a hot topic though, my friend just told me how he can't really talk to this french girl - a common friend we have - because she doesn't get the jokes. it s a drag.
    so to make my onw little dirty confession: remember when i was oh so in love with David from Zimbabwe??? Well, this guy was SO WELL SPOKEN it knocked me off the socks!!! Dude, his German and his English was so yummy I would have eaten it up if I could. It was fucking sexy. Now why did I get off so much on that? Isn't that totally fucking stupid too, like those people who say 'he is so well spoken'??? well, truth be told, 98 % of the Africans in my country (that is Germany) DON'T speak proper German nor English even after years and years having stayed in that country.
    You know, that's where you start off and that's how you can tell the difference between someone who is ambitious, driven, 'intelligent', flexible and all those things that you would like to see as a quality in your boyfriend or man. you know what I mean? When I go to a country I really strive to learn about the culture, the language etc. And it is very appealing when somebody else does that too.
    So for me it WAS a huge attraction that he was such an exception. And as long as the majority perceives that as an exception people will say 'oh he is so well spoken'. I remember raving about that to my friend. How fucking sexy it is how he speaks English and German in such a beautiful way.
    It doesn't mean that I think that people from Africa or any other continent are generally not able to be well spoke, for Gods sake, in their own language people are most of the time pretty well spoken, but it means that the majority of immigrants/refugees in Germany either don't get the education they deserve or don't really care.

    In America it's a whole different issue though. There it shouldn't be even an issue.

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