It’s important to come to terms with your class privilege and disrupt your assumptions about how your friends from poor and working-class backgrounds relate to money and wealth.
As someone who grew up working-class, my idea of being wealthy was living in a two-story house. The types of extreme wealth I would encounter in adulthood just didn’t exist in the Northwest towns I lived in. Even though my parents had no health insurance or salaried jobs, and I would hear them frequently fighting about money, I thought my family was “middle class.” I would only realize later that how people conceive of the “middle” varies dramatically depending on where they start out.
After accepting an invitation to be the first in my family to attend a (private, elite) four-year college in New England, I was exposed to students who thought they were vaguely “middle class” or “upper middle class” complaining about how their family didn’t qualify for financial aid at a school that, in 2005, cost $45,000 a year—more than my family’s annual income. These students posted Facebook pictures of their European vacations every school break and questioned why I didn’t arrive on campus with my own laptop. I was Dorothy newly arrived in Oz.
Classism looked like scrubbing pots and pans in my dorm’s dining hall, washing and sanitizing the dirty plates of wealthy students who threw their trash everywhere while the poor and working-class kids stayed late on a Sunday night to clean up their mess. In my French class, I frantically struggled to decode which page my professor had just said to turn to, only to realize that because my book was borrowed from the library instead of purchased from the bookstore, I didn’t even have the same version of the book as everyone else. In college, classism became an everyday source of humiliation and rage.
As I’ve become a “class climber,” or at least exposed to increasing levels of cultural capital connected to my education, I’ve had years to think deeply about the varied ways folks with class privilege end up microaggressing those of us from poor and working-class backgrounds, even if they don’t intend to. (Although intent is important, impact is greater than intent!) It’s important to come to terms with your class privilege and disrupt your assumptions about how your friends from poor and working-class backgrounds relate to money and wealth. We can all benefit from being more intentional about how we interact with each other and move through the world.
In that spirit, check out these ten ways you can facilitate better friendships when it comes to issues of class and classism.
Don’t confuse being “broke” or downwardly mobile with being poor or working-class.
It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between being broke and being in perpetual crisis with little to no economic safety net to turn to. Having limited spending money in your 20s and feeling bad about having to borrow money from your parents isn’t the same as being in danger of not being able to pay your rent while simultaneously sending your family of origin money to help out with their bills or having to turn down their frantic requests for help because you can’t afford your own life. Similarly, your decision to reject your family’s conspicuous consumption in favor of a downwardly mobile economic lifestyle may not be one that your poor and working-class friends aspire to, given that it actually seriously sucks to go without material resources growing up.
I call this the Macklemore “Thrift Shop” phenomenon: fetishizing the lives of people without money, talking about how “cool” it is to go thrift shopping as a way to stick it to corporate America, without considering that poor and working-class people often don’t have a choice.
Don’t expect poor and working-class friends to do emotional labor for you around money.
Are you stressed that you didn’t make as much money as you wanted to this month, even though your parents could easily bail you out at any time? It’s probably not a good idea to complain about it to your non-rich friends. And that destination wedding you’re planning? Maybe your friend who is struggling to pay her massive student loan payment doesn’t want to help you decide whether to go for the crab cakes or the kale and quinoa. Seek out your friends with similar economic backgrounds and lean on them as sources of support around these issues—it will save a lot of frustration, resentment, and heartache for your poor and working-class friends.
Don’t make assumptions about people’s relationship to money.
When meeting up with friends who have less money than you, a good rule of thumb is to think about whether you’re asking them to spend above their means in order to hang out. If your invitations to socialize often involve spending more than $10-15 a person, or less depending on geographic context, be more creative in the ideas you think up. You don’t have to eat out at a fancy restaurant to have fun! Similarly, don’t assume that your friends can afford to pay for expensive items up front to be reimbursed later.
Interrogate the messages you’ve absorbed about what it means to be poor and working-class.
All of us, by virtue of living in an exploitative capitalist society, have internalized negative messages about being poor. Poor and working-class people are routinely labeled “lazy” and undeserving, and this stigma is heightened for low-income communities of color who are forced to experience firsthand the ways that classism is racialized.
Under the myth of meritocracy, we are taught that individual effort yields individual success, which completely erases the ways that various groups have differential access to quality education, housing, jobs, nutrition, influential social and professional networks, and more. Read up on these issues, and remember that even if you consider yourself “progressive,” you’re not immune to the insidiousness of classism.
Do something with your resources that benefits people without them.
Learn about the ways that intergenerational wealth perpetuates economic inequality. If you’re a wealthy white person whose family historically profited off of Indigenous genocide and/or Black enslavement (hint: genealogical research will help determine this, but if your family is white, wealthy, and has been in the U.S. for awhile, the likelihood is yes), engage in reparations. Donate your inherited property to an indigenous and/or Black family or community organization. Or, join an organization like Resource Generation, which helps wealthy Americans ages 18-35 transform the world for the better by redistributing their wealth to communities that have been deprived of it.
Don’t tokenize your friends.
Remember that your poor and working-class friends want to be treated as multi-dimensional people whose struggles aren’t props for a pitiable Sarah McLachlan commercial. Avoid othering and patronizing statements like “I don’t know how you do it!” or “you’re so resilient!” Don’t normalize the idea that a wealthy family is the default, because statistically, your family is probably the outlier.
Consider the impact of your words.
Reflect on how your everyday descriptions of your life can come across as jarring and alienating. For example, do you really need to discuss how your dad bought you a condo when you’re talking to someone who is about to be gentrified out of their apartment that they share with three roommates? Examine your privilege relative to the person you’re talking to, which requires introspection, nonjudgmental curiosity, and listening to others. While no one is perfect at this, and we all occasionally say things that inadvertently harm others, making it a conscious practice to think about your words will go a long way in facilitating more empathetic communication.
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Think twice about your social media highlight reel.
If you’re someone who enjoys posting about your multiple vacations to Bali and Italy, consider directly asking your friends on social media whether they would like to opt in to your posts. While everyone is responsible for their own social media consumption, and it’s always an option to unfollow someone on Facebook, it’s also a sign of respect to demonstrate that you’re being thoughtful about how your social media presence may impact your friends who aren’t as economically fortunate as you.
Teach other people with wealthy backgrounds about the items on this list.
Don’t be that person who makes a point of listening and stepping back when interacting with your poor and working-class friends but who then does nothing to challenge your wealthy relative who complains about how poor people love to abuse welfare. Aligning yourself with the cause of economic justice is not a part-time commitment. Classism will never be dismantled unless those with access to wealth step up to dismantle the system of unfair advantage. Awkward but brave conversations with your wealthy loved ones are just the first step.
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Have honest conversations with your friends about how you can best support them.
There may be times when you don’t know what to say, what advice to give, or how to comfort your poor or working-class friend. That is completely normal and to be expected. What’s most important is that you maintain open communication and that your friendship is one based in compassion, honesty, and authenticity. Ask your friend how you can best support them when they’re upset. Offer to do something nice for them. Acknowledge that even though you don’t know what it’s like to be them, you very much care about them and that their happiness means a lot to you.
If you approach your relationship to your friends with tenderness, humility, and a desire for meaningful connection, these tips will act as a gateway to deeper ways of relating. In the process, your friendships will rise to the level of the transformative.
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