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Interview ‘Respectful engagement is how we build solidarity’

BETSY LEONDAR-WRIGHT talks to the Star about class-cultural differences and how they affect progressive moveents

VISITING Britain last month to co-facilitate a workshop organised by Peace News, US activist Betsy Leondar-Wright read two books to prepare: Owen Jones’s Chavs and Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley.

Betsy Leondar-Wright
Betsy Leondar-Wright

Important books in their own right, they were especially pertinent as the workshop explored a topic that is rarely discussed: class and classism in activist groups and organisations. 

An assistant professor of sociology at Lasell College, Leondar-Wright, 62, has spent her adult life exploring this contentious issue, publishing Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures with Cornell University Press in 2014.

“Class-culture differences often hamper movement-building,” she explains in the book’s introduction. These differences often play a role in common organisational problems, she argues, such as low turnout, inactive members, offensive behaviour and certain members dominating discussion.

She tells me about her own elite class background when we meet in a central London hotel. “During my childhood my Dad rose through the ranks on Wall Street… he started out selling bonds and ended up the vice-president of an investment firm,” she explains.

“And my mum was a nurse and stopped working when I was born. So we kind of rose from middle middle-class to quite upper middle-class during my childhood.”

After attending a private school, in 1977 she dropped out of Princeton and joined the radical, nonviolent activist network Movement for a New Society (MNS) and became active in the anti-nuclear movement.

Hugely influential in its time, MNS ran workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. After some members became angry at the classism that existed in the organisation, Leondar-Wright says there was an “internal class revolution” which led to workshops being introduced to deal with classism too.

Having co-facilitated many of those workshops, today Leondar-Wright sits on the board of Boston-based Class Action, an organisation that works to end classism and extreme inequality.

Why have activist groups that have a relatively high degree of awareness of racism and sexism ignored class for so long?

“The US is worse than Britain in how few people have class identities,” she says. “The majority of people if they are asked an open-ended question: ‘What is your class?’ people will say ‘middle class’ who have blue-collar working-class jobs and [so will those] who are very wealthy.

“It’s an absurdity of our culture,” she says about the aversion to using the term “working class.”

Even politicians on the left such as US Senator Bernie Sanders will not say “working class,” she says. “It sounds vaguely Marxist, and they are always on alert to not sound condescending and demeaning towards their voters.”

However, she also believes the left shares some of the blame, with what she calls “voluntary downward mobile” people — progressives who choose not to maximise their income — often obscuring and ignoring their own class privilege.

“So in the mainstream it is something to avoid — to identify as working-class. On the left something to avoid is to identify as class privileged. So between those two we are just a pit of confusion.”

Conducting extensive research on activist groups across the US for her book, Leondar-Wright found “a surprisingly large number of attitudes and behaviours” influenced by class.

“Two that really stick in my mind are language and leadership,” she says. “So language… vocabulary differences, how long or short you speak, humour differences, ways of speaking.”

For example, she found professional middle-class groups used more words but spoke less often, while members of working-class groups talked more briefly but more often.

Fascinatingly, she discovered working-class majority groups laughed on average once every 8.75 minutes, while professional middle-class majority groups only laughed on average once every 15.71 minutes.

She also highlights how university-educated activists are often attached to potentially alienating abstract terms: “They just have to say them. So among my radical friends there are people who have to say ‘white supremacy’ every time race is mentioned… there are people who have to say ‘patriarchy,’ people who have to say ‘capitalism’ and have to say ‘socialism’. Their radical politics are wound up in some word that compacts a whole analysis.”

This is fine as it goes, she says, “but one of the things that I want to persuade people to do is do not use your meaningful abstract word when you don’t have time to unpack it. Use it but don’t start with it. Start with something that connects to the listener.”

On leadership, she found “anti-leadership attitudes strongly correlated with professional middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, in “the movement traditions that were majority working-class, there was just an acceptance that, as long as leaders are accountable, as long as they are acting on the community’s behalf, then it is a good thing. The strength of your leader is a good thing. It gives you more power.”

Though it’s a popular tactic among many progressives today, Leondar-Wright is highly critical of the concept of “calling out” — the “practice of if someone says something in which you detect some sexism or racism or classism you just immediately and loudly denounce them in front of others.

“It’s based on a misunderstanding of what causes change,” she argues. “It leads to people quitting groups and falling into factions and all these things that are not moving towards social justice.”

She paraphrases her MNS colleague George Lakey: “A university education trains you to sit in judgement of others. Professional middle-class dominated movements or elite dominated movements often get this harshness towards each other,” she adds. Calling out, then, often has a nasty element of classism to it.

Instead, Leondar-Wright favours the idea of “calling in,” a concept coined by African-American activists. This involves “moving toward” the oppressive person and empathically engaging with the person and their views, rather than shunning them.

“I think that is really smart. It’s building the strength and the closeness and the solidarity of groups. To me that is a better practice.”

As she was researching her book, the Occupy movement sprang up in the US. Leondar-Wright was a keen supporter, though found it embodied many of the class-based problems she was researching.

“Some Occupy groups had gotten bogged down in group process quarrels and ideological quicksand,” she writes in the book’s conclusion.

Several of her initially enthusiastic friends dropped out of Occupy Boston, she explains, complaining of “long meetings, jargon, eccentric hand signals and a shortage of specific winnable demands.”

Observing a three-hour general assembly meeting, she observed many people of colour and with working-class accents were not fully participating.

“The much-touted horizontal participatory democracy of Occupy… seemed to make space for some process-savvy people’s voices but to shut out others, including some of those personally affected by the financial crisis that triggered the movement.”

Turning to the political upheavals in her own country, Leondar-Wright has been dismayed by the response of many liberals to the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We have these plutocrats and would-be fascists in power,” she says. “We’re panicked about what has happened in Washington, but also panicked and infuriated by the super, super classism among liberals and even some leftists.”

In an article published on the Class Action website earlier this year, she criticises the liberal elite’s focus on the “white working class” and use of classist language such as “stupid,” “crazy,” “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump.

Not only is it inaccurate — the white working class itself is politically diverse and, moreover, 54 per cent of college-educated white men voted for Trump — it’s also deeply unhelpful.

“Respectful engagement with someone offering a different worldview is the context in which people shift their frames,” she writes. “Ideologies morph over time. People change their minds. The people who horrify us, whose votes brought this catastrophe upon our land, they’re regular human beings. We demonise them at our peril.”

With liberal contempt for democracy and the general public seemingly rising after the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain, her fascinating analysis of class and classism is more important than ever. 

As she argues in her book: “In a country with a working-class majority, a mass movement must be built with working-class cultural strengths in its bones,” something which if successfully implemented “could be transformative for future social movements.”

For more on Class Action, visit: classism.org. If you are interested in holding a workshop exploring class and classism in a similar way to Class Action, please contact Milan Rai of Peace News on 07980 748-555 or editorial@peacenews.info.

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