Talking About Race And Class Not Easy, But Not Impossible
Cord Jefferson (formerly of GOOD, now West coast editor for Gawker) writes powerfully and accessibly about a lot of things, but especially, and uniquely, about race. We spoke over Gchat a few weeks ago about how he does money, and we also talked about race, wealth, and class, in Cord’s life and in America.
Logan Sachon: I’m wondering what you think of the “firstworldproblems” twitter hashtag.
Cord Jefferson: That one’s strange, because on the one hand, it’s nice to see people acknowledging that they have it much better than others, and being grateful for that. But, like, if you know that you sound like some rich person whining about bullshit—which is what that hashtag represents—then why do it? It seems like a copout to me. A way of alleviating guilt for having a lot of stuff that’s become a punchline.
LS: I was always uncomfortable with it but wasn’t sure why, and then I saw the iterations of it that were saying the same things, but had changed it to “whitepeopleproblems.” And I realized that it was this same stupid dichotomy: WE are like this, and THEY are like that. Not all white people are rich, not all rich people are white, and not all Americans live in the first world.
CMJ: Absolutely. If we want to get into the problematic racial dynamics of things like that, I’d point directly at “Stuff White People Like,” which I actually think was kind of funny. I thought that that site (and the resulting book) were spot on in their descriptions of what peopled like and why they like it. But I took issue with the idea that upper middle class, educated white people are vastly different from, say, upper middle class, educated blacks or Latinos. White people don’t love craft brews and Premier League soccer—wealthier Americans do, and it doesn’t matter their race.
LS: Oh but don’t you know “they don’t count”? (I’m scared to push enter here because I want it to be very clear this is sarcasm.) (TALKING ABOUT RACE AND CLASS.)
CMJ: Hahahahahaah. I get the sarcasm. And I agree. The tricky interplay of race and class in America is a supremely sick and twisted thing.
LS: So I grew up in Virginia, in Norfolk, arguably the South depending on who you’re talking to, and it wasn’t until college that I really, really understood that the middle class and upper middle class black families I knew were not outliers. And I think a lot of that was just like, the place I grew up, where income and race do overlap in a pretty substantial way, but that assumption didn’t happen in a vacuum.
CMJ: Well, it’s interesting, because in some ways, they are outliers. For instance, studies show that wealthy minorities tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than equally wealthy or even poorer whites. They don’t leave their minority neighborhoods when they get money, which is fascinating and certainly influences wealthy black families’ cultural realities. Some highlights from those studies:
• “Separate translates to unequal even for the most successful black and Hispanic minorities,” says sociologist John Logan, director of US2010 Project at Brown University, which studies trends in American society.
• “Blacks are segregated and even affluent blacks are pretty segregated,” he said.
• “African Americans who really succeeded live in neighborhoods where people around them have not succeeded to the same extent.”
That said, a whole lot of middle to upper class black families, as you said, are not outliers.
LS: I’m trying and failing right now to look up what percent of upper middle class Americans are people of color.
CMJ: It is a very small amount. I mean, have you ever seen the stats on white wealth vs. black wealth?
LS: I guess that’s what I’m looking for.
CMJ: It’s shocking. Median wealth for white households is $113,000. Blacks, less than $6,000.
LS: With wealth being defined as “assets minus debts.” And that is median, so it’s not like Mitt Romney is screwing up the data. Wow.
CMJ: It’s very sad. And the thing about wealth is that it’s so hereditary. Jackasses like to say, “Everyone has the same opportunities to get rich.” And that is barely true. When you’re raised in a house in which your parents have investments and retirement plans and financial planners and the like, you are just so much better prepared to accumulate wealth than someone who doesn’t even have a savings account. And the opportunities only build after that.
For instance, I went to a nice college where I made good friends with a lot of people who are now very professionally successful. And this year I just hopped in on a round of funding for my friend’s company. There are things like that that just happen in certain parts of the world and not others, and they totally skew this idea that everyone has the same chance to get rich.
LS: And yet, almost everyone you’d ask would describe themselves as the “middle class.”
CMJ: Asking if you were raised with money is a hard question to answer, because when you’re a kid you don’t have a real understanding of financial realities. I know we traveled a lot when I was younger and we lived overseas for several years. And then, when we moved back to Tucson, Arizona, we were members of a country club where my mom would play tennis and where I would play racquetball. My parents were also very educated. But, as I said, I lived in Tucson, which doesn’t have a high cost of living at all. If I had been raised in New York City, I’m sure we wouldn’t have had the same kinds of luxuries we had in Arizona.
One funny things is that even though I never ever felt rich, I think I had these kinds of mannerisms about me that caused people in Tucson to think my family was very wealthy. I distinctly remember kids throughout my school days asking how my parents got so rich or calling me a rich kid. But I wasn’t rich, my dad and mom just made me talk to them about books all the time.
I also used to be obsessed with having cool clothes and expensive sneakers, which I think was partially due to an obsession with hip-hop culture.
LS: Go on.
CMJ: I’ve got a lot of conflicted feelings about hip-hop and wealth, which I kinda wrote about in that “Watch the Throne” piece for Gawker.
LS: YES. That’s the one. That was wonderful. Pullquote: “If you’re wondering what Jay and West have done, exactly, to deserve the title of neo-black power icons, the answer appears to be both straightforward and confusing: They’ve gotten rich. Today’s black power, today’s black revolution, seems to be indistinguishable from, say, Donald Trump’s power, the power that comes from being able to possess a lot of stuff.”
CMJ: Thanks. I mean, there was definitely a time in my life when I really wanted to have expensive shoes and wear Phat Farm and Fubu and Polo hats and Coogi sweaters and Timberland boots because all my favorite rappers were doing that. And it was fucked up. I was certainly very materialistic as a teenager. I’m hesitant to blame that all on rap music, because I don’t think it was all due to rap music.
But looking at all the things these guys had certainly didn’t make me feel better about myself. It definitely made me feel unfulfilled, like I wouldn’t be really cool until I had a blinged out watch and a car that costs as much as four years of college. That’s not rap’s fault, and it’s not the responsibility of artists to make people feel good about themselves, but it certainly had an impact on me that wasn’t ideal. That said, I think I got a lot more out of hip-hop than it took from me.
LS: As far as materialism in culture, your hip hop is my, um, everything, but let’s just go with Sex and the City is someone else’s extreme sports mags or whatever. Hip hop gets so much heat for it’s rags-to-mega riches storylines, but I don’t know that there’s any segment of American kids who aren’t exposed to stuff-lust early on.
CMJ: Oh, absolutely. It’s remarkable, and it’s so fucking toxic. Because at that age you are just so unsure of yourself and desperate for some movement to call your own. And so putting Tiffany’s bracelets and Nikes in front of high school kids works like a charm.
Well, did every girl who wanted to be like Charlotte and Samantha at your high school have those Tiffany’s heart necklaces or whatever? Practically EVERY girl at my high school had those. It was madness. And I’m spending like $70 on a bright orange Phat Farm hoodie. I cringe at that thought.
LS: I came to New York with my family when I was in high school and while I was here, my little project was that I got fancy shopping bags from Tiffany and Neiman and all the stores I’d heard of on TV or whatever that I wasn’t too scared to go into … and then I hung them on my wall when I got home. Like ART. Cringe cringe cringe.
CMJ: Oh, man, I feel that. That’s rough. I still love rap music. Especially the stuff I listened to when I was younger. But nowadays I have a harder time listening to the stuff that’s just all about how rich a person is and how many cars they have and how they’ll only fly in private jets. That’s so grotesque to me, and it makes me really sad to think that somewhere there’s a poor black kid who thinks his life is worth less than Jay-Z’s because he’ll never own a Maybach.
There’s this Clipse song called “Door Man,” and in the chorus they say over and over, “You ain’t got money like this.” And I have such a hard time understanding why you’d want to listen to someone say that to you. And this goes back to the tricky thing about race and class. Because if a white banker walked through Manhattan shouting, “You ain’t got money like this!” people would be rightfully horrified. If a rapper does it, people will scream along to the line the club. It’s all so complex and messy.
LS: What if a black banker walked through Manhattan shouting that?
CMJ: Interesting question! I have no idea. As I wrote in that “Watch the Throne” piece: Jay-Z says he believes getting wealthy in a racist society is a revolutionary act, a belief others seemed to agree with in the comments section. If you believe that, maybe you’d give the black banker a pass. I’d probably still think he was an asshole.
LS: I just tried to look up statistics for black bankers in America. The first hit was a link to a banking forum with this question: “Although I have not been in banking that long (4 months), I have yet to see a black banker … Is it a lack of brain power or a lack of opportunity” Which is just … unreal. “Lack of brain power” alskdjfklasjdfjaksdfkajsdkfd
CMJ: Yeah, I mean, I’d expect that. That’s the thing to keep in mind about being black and rich in America: No matter how rich you get, you’re still going to be a nigger to some people. In these upper echelons of society, there’s not a lot of color there, and the beliefs that are in those pockets are just as abhorrent as you’d find at any Klan rally in Alabama.
LS: (I’ve been reading through this thread but I just had to close the tab because I was feeling sick. People are racist and terrible.)
CMJ: One time in college, I went home with a friend to this tony suburb in Connecticut. Full of the sort of gentried WASPs you’d expect. And it was fine and his family was very nice and all that. Then, the next week, he told me that his parents remarked to him how nice and kind I was. There were a few of us staying at his place, but they wanted to point out that it was me who was really nice. And I knew what that was all about.
LS: This is hard. It’s gross that they said that, I totally see that and feel that way now … but I can understand, and I’m sure—and cringe to think—that I have made similar comments in my life. You were probably the first black person in their house, which broke this stereotype they had in their head. But it’s sad that they—we—had those stereotypes to break in the first place.
CMJ: Oh, totally, I understand that a lot. My maternal grandfather was an outright racist who refused to ever meet me, and I don’t begrudge him that. He was raised in a different time, and it sucks that we never spoke, but I feel sad for him, not angry. I just suppose that a chip that’s easy to get on your shoulder if you’re a person of color moving about in these wealthy worlds is that sometimes you just want to be at a place and enjoy yourself.
You don’t want to be an ambassador. You want to be a house guest or a bar patron just like any white person. Y’know?
My father, when I was growing up, told me this a lot: “If you want to make it in America, which has a lot of racism in it, you’re going to have to do two for every white person’s one. That’s not fair, but that’s life.” And that’s something that’s stuck with me throughout my life and career. Playing the black ambassador is part of that. You’re not just a party guest like everyone else; you’re the BLACK party guest. That’s just how it is.
LS: Are there places where you haven’t felt that?
CMJ: Brazil. There is certainly racism in Brazil that entire books have been written about, but it felt less pronounced there than other places.
And I want to make it very clear that I feel like racism has held me back very little in the United States. My mother is white. I’m very light-skinned, which makes a big difference in a society as colorist as America. But Brazil was the first place I’ve been in the world where lots and lots of people look like me.
LS: Is it something you noticed immediately, in the moment, or thought back on later—oh, this is why it felt so comfortable.
CMJ: No, I thought about it the whole time. But, once again, this goes back to the tricky discussion about race and class. Because oftentimes when I travel I feel less self-conscious about my color than in America. In France, for instance, people have a huge problem with African and Arab immigrants. But Black Americans, in my experience, they love. And in Saudi Arabia, where my father lives, I once went into a suit shop with my dad and the tailor immediately came to help me and ignored my dad. When I told him that the man I was with was my father, he was shocked. He’d come to help me because he thought that I was American and that my dad was African, because my dad’s much darker.
LS: When shit like that happens, what you do?
CMJ: It depends. If I think reacting to the situation will have any impact, I’ll say something to the person. But in the case of the tailor, the guy was Pakistani and spoke very poor English. I’m not going to stand there and yell at him in words he’ll barely understand. Same goes for 85-year-old American racists.
If some octogenarian racist were to ever call me a nigger or something, is it really likely that standing there engaging them is going to change their mind about anything? I’ve got way too many beautiful people and things in my life to waste time fighting with assholes in public. I used to do that a lot, but then I went to anger management. Now I’m pretty zen about it. I’ll think about what someone said that I found irritating and then maybe I’ll write about it. Or maybe I’ll go on a motorcycle trip with my friends and forgot that person ever existed.