Shelly Cohen and Tracey “Katmondu” Williams both participated in a workshop that Real Change recently co-sponsored on the intersection of class and race. Both Shelly and Tracey were raised in middle-class families; both made what they admit to as “bad decisions;” both independently shared with me that they were “taught not to see skin color;” both are now Real Change vendors and both are struggling to make ends meet. And yet, when we did an exercise at the workshop that grouped people on a spectrum according to their relative privilege, Shelly was near the middle of the room, whereas Tracey was at the far back. Oh, and did I mention one glaring point of difference between them? Shelly is white; Tracey is black.
Shelly told me that he did not realize — until hearing people from less advantaged backgrounds speak after the privilege line exercise — just how different his outlook was from others in the room. Some of those people said that they knew growing up that their past would predict their future. Shelly said, “That just wasn’t my reality. I grew up knowing that only I can determine my future.” He also knew that even though he did not retain his middle-class status, he always had his family to fall back on. And he felt comfortable at the training because of his upbringing.
For Tracey, the workshop confirmed what he had learned over a lifetime. When someone from a privileged background shared that she was taught not to talk to black people because it looked bad, he said it reinforced the racism he often experiences in Seattle. “Here we are in King County, and we don’t stand for any of the values that he [Martin Luther King Jr.] stood for.” Like Shelly, Tracey came from a middle-class family and lost his status because of “bad decisions.”
But here’s the difference. When Shelly lost his status, he never lost the belief that one day he could overcome his circumstances and regain the life he had.
When Tracey lost his status, he knew he was always going to struggle. He redefined what success meant. “I wanted the American Dream, but once I became homeless, the American Dream became survival,” Tracey said. “For a big pot of people like me, all we want to do is stay warm, stay dry, eat.”
So there you have it.
It sure isn’t easy for Shelly. He’s looked down upon frequently and has been called “scumbag” and told to get a real job more times than he can recall. But his background, plus the Jewish values with which he was raised, makes it possible for him to greet every person that passes him with a smile and an optimistic call: “Make it a greater day!” which is Shelly’s signature line.
When Tracey sells the paper, he’s quiet. He told me, “The less I say, the more I get noticed.” If Tracey speaks to people, they either render him invisible or they act intimidated. He has a double stigma: He is poor and he is black. He says that if he were a dentist, people would talk to him because he would be a man of authority. But being a poor black male is a guarantee that people will treat you like a thug.
While Shelly felt comfortable at a workshop like this with mostly middle-class norms, Tracey felt more isolated. He would sit alone at breaks until someone would approach him and attempt to make conversation. It was sometimes uncomfortable, but he said he made a couple of friends and for that he was grateful.
Without a doubt, our class backgrounds are foundational in how we move through life, despite the often-changing nature of our financial circumstances.
But our racial identities are equally formative, and the combination of the two — class and race — can be the difference, when we hit hard times, between believing we will persevere and achieve our goals or simply lowering our expectations.