I’m middle class. As in going-to-private-school-and-being-part-of-a-chapel-choir middle class. I sang for the Queen once. She was nice, I guess.
I’m also British-Nigerian, the child of Nigerian immigrants. My middle class-ness is not necessarily performed in the same way as it might be by a white English middle class person. If we think of class as being more than how much you or your parents earn, but instead as a series of acts that can be performed or knowledge one holds, then I don’t quite meet the requirements for traditional membership. I tend to find my values align more closely with working class black families, rather than middle class white ones. But I am still technically middle class.
This is relevant because a while back, I wrote a personal essay, “Why I Became That Annoying Black Guy On Your Newsfeed”. I wrote it because I was constantly talking about the issue of race, and it was making some of my friends and acquaintances uncomfortable. My aim wasn’t necessarily to lessen their discomfort. When it comes to unlearning unconscious racism, or any oppressive behaviour, discomfort is a sign of growth, and something to embrace. I simply wanted to explain why I was so vocal. Why a lifetime of experiences in a black body had brought me to a place in which I could no longer be silent.
The response was wonderful. It was read by more people than I had ever expected. I heard back from people saying that it deeply resonated with them, people who felt their eyes had been opened, people who now wanted to share their own stories. But then there was this.
Maybe the tweet was written only to derail the topic. It’s certainly a favourite tactic of white supremacy, but either way, an interesting point was raised. One that I didn’t touch on in the essay. The ideas of privilege, and intersectionality.
It’s through the lens of intersectionality that our critique of power structures becomes nuanced, transforming topics that are sometimes drawn in broad strokes into something more complex. It’s from this complexity that they become useful, providing us with better guides for subverting oppressive power structures in the real world, rather than just in the abstract.
Being middle class may not stop the police from unceremoniously stopping me “for a chat”, but it will often lead to them sending me on my merry way once they hear me speak in crisp RP. My very non-English name means many employers will instinctively put my application into the “no” pile, but my parents’ wealth has meant that I have always had a safety net to fall back on, and the best education to bolster my chances.
To acknowledge this advantage is not to invalidate the effects of racism. It makes racism no less destructive. It does not change the fact that it is a system of oppression that is foundational to our society, and that it disadvantages me. But scrutinising the ways in which I am privileged allows me to have a more complex understanding of how power works in society. Uncovering the points at which the lines of oppressive power structures intersect means you’re able to break them at their most vulnerable – in those spaces where marginalised groups realise they are more powerful in concert.
To put all of this very simply – and to paraphrase Flavia Dzodan – anti-racist work doesn’t mean shit unless it’s intersectional. And I’m looking mainly at black men. Traditionally, we haven’t been great at this. In fact, it would be fair to say that we (and I’m saying “we”without caveat. If anyone throws a “not all men” my way, we’re going to have words) gleefully contribute to the oppression of women, especially black women.
I could explain to you some of the ways in which we do this, and reasons why, but Zoé Samudzi – a scholar, currently completing a PhD in Medical Sociology at the University of San Francisco – has already done so with greater insight than I could muster, so I’ll just go ahead and link you to a thread of her tweets. I’ll be right here when you get back.
For those of you who did come back, we are not free if our sisters, our mothers, our friends, and our partners are not free. I don’t mean to suggest that women derive value from their relationships to men, but anti-racism work that doesn’t battle sexism, misogyny, and specifically misogynoir, is not doing its job. Similarly, if it does not aim to eradicate ableism, transphobia, wealth inequality, and homophobia, it is incomplete. To borrow the words of another who, again, has said it more eloquently than I:
And this is the work. More so than any protest or demonstration. Unlearning what we have been taught since day one, scrutinising our own privilege, and listening.
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Folarin can never quite decide if he loves or loathes writing about himself in the third person, but he’s prepared to put his complicated feelings to one side for the sake of expediency. Folarin works as a creative copywriter, but has a wondering pen that sees him attempt essays, short stories, and comics, too. You can catch him making bad jokes on Twitter. @BellatorRex.