I wanted to discuss intersectionality in conjunction with writing class difference because class itself is dependent on so much more than just wealth. A person’s education, occupation, social interactions, and cultural tastes, ranging from music to food, are also greatly influenced by their race and ethnicity, among other factors.

Consequently, I’ll first talk a little bit about intersectionality. Then I’ll conclude with how to approach writing poor or working class characters.

Intersectionality

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw explained that there is a “tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,” when the truth is that gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc. intersect to form an individual’s experience that goes beyond any given category. In addition, the overlap of these categories creates the potential for compounded discrimination. Black women, for example, are marginalized twice over: first, by sexism; second, by racism (this is often called misogynoir). A queer, disabled, working class Black woman experiences even greater systemic oppression. Learn more about Crenshaw (and listen to her explain intersectionality) here.

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Image from Writing the Other: http://writingtheother.com/intersectionlaity-and-characterization/

When writing characters that belong to more than one marginalized identity, it’s important to understand the intersectional space they occupy. This is particularly true of writing about the working class. In the U.S., “working class” tends to be synonymous with “whiteness,” but as I mentioned in an earlier post, this is simply not the case. Moreover, because this assumption exists, when promises of social mobility fall flat, working class disappointment is readily channeled into racism. Ijeoma Oluo writes,

Our country’s entire social, political, and economic system is built off of the promise that poor and working class whites would always get more than everyone else — that they deserved more than everyone else. When the profits of white supremacy prove to be meager, because capitalism will always send the spoils to the top few, the anger of being cheated out of their just rewards is easily funneled into racist hate.

There is no single experience of poverty, and the position occupied by a poor person of color in particular is extremely fraught, not just because of their compounded discrimination but also the blame placed on minorities for the aforementioned failings of capitalism and white supremacy–blame that sometimes comes attached with violence. Consequently, writing about poverty from an outsider’s position is a very delicate matter.

Writing Poverty

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t write about poor characters. I stand by the belief that all people, especially children, deserve to see a reflection of themselves in the stories they read. But the way we portray poverty in fiction can perpetuate ideas that harm real people. We absolutely cannot romanticize or whitewash it. And we can’t dehumanize or misrepresent those who experience it.

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Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times | https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/27/us/harvey-pictures-hurricane-storm.html

Nowhere are the stakes more sharply illustrated than in the recent flooding in Houston. Poor people are much more likely to suffer from natural disasters than the wealthy because they lack the resources to rebuild their homes and replace their belongings, or even to evacuate their homes in the first place. We have to remember that poverty has deadly, real world consequences.

As with every topic we’ve discussed in this series, research is key. Talk to people who have experienced poverty and especially people who experience the same types of marginalizations as your character(s). Don’t assume you understand what it’s like to be poor. Butch Dalisay argues, “Poverty needs to be defamiliarized, and especially so, because we think we already know it, when we might not.”

Finally, remember that impoverished characters are complete human beings with complex lives and goals, just like anyone else. Dalisay writes,

The poor are about more than their poverty. Poverty is awful and dehumanizing, but it’s what people do and how they act at a given disadvantage that I find interesting and even inspiring as a person and as an author, not the overwhelming odds themselves.

The following resources may be useful:

“Writing Black Characters Dealing with the Culture of Poverty” by Jason Evans

“Poverty in Fiction” by Butch Dalisay

“In America, Only the Rich Can Afford to Write about Poverty” by Barbara Ehrenreich

“We Just Feel Like We Don’t Belong Here Anymore” by Becca Andrews (what it’s like to be a working class person of color)

“Nobody’s Sidekick: Intersectionality in Protagonists” by S.L. Huang

Books about Intersectional Identities

Call to Action

April Hathcock explains, “Intersectionality means that you can be a person with privilege and a person who is oppressed all at the same time.” Straight, white women, for example, are both privileged and oppressed. (All women experience oppression, but white women do not experience the same oppression as women of color. And straight women do not experience the same oppression as queer women.) She argues in her essay, “Sometimes, Intersectionality Means You STFU,” that because not all experiences (i.e. of womanhood) are equal, being a good ally means knowing when it’s your time to speak, and when it’s not. (Read the entire essay.)

To this end, I would suggest that you evaluate the position you occupy in society. What kinds of privilege do you hold? Being mindful of your privilege will prevent you from stepping into spaces where you don’t belong. Rather than add your voice to conversations where it isn’t needed, you can boost the voices that are. As Erin Stewart writes in “Broadening Feminism[s]“, “Not all women are the same…[and] the feminist movement cannot be understood as something that helps women unless it helps all women.” If you’re a white woman, don’t erase the differences between your experience and that of a Black woman. Instead, be quiet and listen.

Finally, if you’re able, I’d encourage you to donate to relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Previous Posts

Intro: Improving Representation in Literature

January: Understanding Identity and Representation

February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure

March: Writing Race and Ethnicity

April: Writing Gender

May: Writing Sexuality

June: Writing Disability

July: Writing Body Diversity

August: Writing Class Difference/ Intersectionality