If a Queer Woman of Color Can Check Her Wealth Privilege, So Can You

Wealth accumulation has its roots in stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives. But you can organize other privileged people with compassion.
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“Hiding my class privilege is directly at odds with my ability to organize meaningfully for social justice.”

Photo by petekarici/Getty Images

Since President Trump took office, hundreds of thousands of people joined social justice movements—many for the first time. There has also been a rise in conversations about “getting your people,” as in, organizing in the communities of privilege where you come from and which is much harder for people with marginalized identities to access.

I most often hear this language applied to White people, and for a long time, as a queer woman of color, I did not think much about where I could be organizing around my privilege. I was organizing in marginalized communities—predominantly among other queer people of color—for racial justice and queer liberation. But I had access to some serious privilege as well: My family is in the top 10 percent.

My mom, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, made most of our family’s wealth through her insurance business. As a 32-year-old, I have access to more than $180,000 in assets, just bought my first home with my parents paying the down payment, and have zero student debt—which also places me solidly in the top 10 percent for people 18–35 years old. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I stumbled upon a copy of Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change by Karen Pittelman and Resource Generation that I considered how I had been avoiding getting my people—progressive young people with wealth and especially young people of color with wealth like me. I had a nagging sense that wealth inequality was at the root of so much violence, but realized that as someone with wealth, I wasn’t doing much, if anything, about it.

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To be clear, most millennials are feeling the heat of unprecedented wealth inequality. However, I and an increasingly small slice of my peers are about to get a whole lot richer. Our generation is in the middle of a $30 trillion wealth transfer—the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in U.S. history.

Hiding my class privilege is directly at odds with my ability to organize meaningfully for social justice.

I’ve seen firsthand how organizing around privilege can build power, connection, and long-term transformation. I have some reflections to share for anyone who wants to get their people with love and rigor:

Love yourself first

Especially all the parts that feel most difficult to love. Any harshness and self-critique I have around my class privilege inevitably gets projected as harshness and critique toward others who remind me of my shortcomings. A practice I use for finding compassion for myself and others is the Buddhist metta (loving kindness) meditation.

Curiosity and non-identification

When hard things come up I try to make space and observe and separate the act from the actor. Greed is rising. Fear is rising. But the person is not a “greedy person” or a “bad person.” This helps me have compassion and curiosity for the causes and conditions of someone’s behavior and to believe in their (and my) inherent ability to transform.

Face the truth

Understand and acknowledge the full scope of harm caused by racialized capitalism and wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation has its roots in stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives. There’s no way we can mitigate the harm we cause, or even begin to repair it, without facing the extent of the impact. Educate yourself, and other wealthy people, on how your personal class and money story is connected to historical events and policies.

Face the truth on a personal level, too

We don’t do anyone any favors when we let harmful patterns continue, like the class-privileged patterns of assuming leadership and control, centering our individual needs over the group, or being flaky and unreliable. Ask for feedback for yourself, and when giving feedback to other privileged people, ground it in your belief in their ability to change.

Align with those who are most harmed

My wealth and class privilege has made me deeply clueless about the lived reality of anyone who doesn’t come from an upper-class background. The work for racial and economic justice must center poor and working-class people’s vision, wisdom, and solutions. Where we donate money and time should back that up, too. Building relationships with people and organizations across class grounds us in the urgency of lives that are at stake, and moves us from the individual to the collective.

Embodiment

Denial, minimization, and intellectualization deeply enable violence and exploitation. We can unlearn our numbness and recover our full range of human expression and emotion by taking a holistic approach to organizing that includes body practices like meditation, somatics, yoga, martial arts, and more.

Head, heart, and hands

A holistic approach to organizing also means engaging people on all levels, from analysis to emotional connection to taking action. Ask class-privileged and wealthy people to join and give unrestricted money to organizations led by the poor and working class, lobby their representatives, and take direct action in the streets.

Both/and

I simultaneously experience privilege and oppression. I organize people who benefit from massive wealth inequality while fighting against the system that made us rich. Make space for the contradiction, complexity, and messiness inherent in this work by practicing “both/and” thinking and not getting stuck trying to find the one “perfect” answer.

Know your limits

Wealthy Chinese people are definitely my people, but I have too much rage against the patriarchy to spend most of my time organizing, say, wealthy Chinese businessmen. I wouldn’t be able to organize this part of my community with curiosity, compassion, and patience. But I can focus on what I know I do well and support others to do work that is beyond my limits.

Capitalism and classism is dehumanizing for all of us and causes deep spiritual, emotional, and psychological harm to wealthy people in the form of fostering fear, isolation, hyper-individualism, dissociation, and a false sense of scarcity. Although it’s not comparable to the material violence waged on poor and working-class people, I know in my bones that wealth accumulation, like any system that confers benefits through exploiting and harming others, erodes our ability to be fully human. It doesn’t have to be this way; people with wealth or class privilege do have a role in social justice movements, but we must confront the histories of our wealth and the harm of present-day wealth inequality.