would have thought that I, someone who comes from the
Forbes' list of richest families, would be welcomed into
the heart of a family living in the housing projects of
Queens? From the outside we look
like clichés of America's
"top" and "bottom," never supposed to mix, like oil and
water. But our common faith has enabled our friendship
met Beatrice two years ago through our church. I gave
her rides to Bible study, and pretty soon she invited
me into her home. I started to drop by each Sunday, getting
to know her three kids and their grandpa and cousins.
"Where's your family?" Beatrice once asked. When I explained
my parents and siblings were in Indiana--and
she could see with her own eyes that I'm a middle-aged
woman with no husband or kids--she said, "Oh, you can
be a part of our family!"
that's how it's been. When I go to their house, Beatrice's
little boy Charlie runs to greet me, calling "Auntie Mary!"
Beatrice invited me to come with them to Asbury
Park on vacation, fourteen of us
in three motel rooms. Beatrice's whole family also came
to my fiftieth birthday celebration, crowding into my
sky-lit artist's loft along with dozens of my relatives
and other friends.
Beatrice and I were born into very different circumstances,
we both believe that God calls us to be bringers of love
and justice into the world. I am continually moved by
the depth of Beatrice's faith despite the hardships in
her life. About a year ago her cousin was wrongly accused
of murder, and now each month we visit him in prison together.
Beatrice trusts that something good will eventually come
out of this terrible situation. Her faith inspires me
to face society's problems squarely without losing hope--and
to work for greater justice in the world.
used to keep a second apartment in Washington,
take vacations in Montana,
and buy lots of unnecessary clothes. Gradually those things
have fallen away--maybe because my heart is filled now
by God and a sense of community; maybe because I have
more perspective, knowing that the people I'm most intimate
with have more pressing needs. This year, in addition
to my gifts to other organizations, I am giving substantially
to the church and to a special church fund for people
who lose a job, get behind on rent, or have other urgent
needs. Not a soul knows how much I give besides the Treasurer.
and I talk all the time about our jobs, our friendships,
and how to live a life of faith, but we have never talked
about my financial situation. Maybe she thinks I earn
good money at my job. Who knows? Once her niece asked
me for a loan to help her start a business distributing
Amway products. Because I know and trust this shy young
woman, I easily said yes. A few weeks later I wrote her
a letter asking whether she would accept it as a gift.
fantasize about someday giving Beatrice and her family
$30,000 to use for a downpayment on a house. (Beatrice's
younger kids have not been allowed to play outside since
a friend was shot on their street last summer.) Maybe
I could give it through the church so they wouldn't know
where the money came from. Or maybe I would just say,
"Here. This was given to me, and I want you to have it."
As simple as that.
- anonymous author
To Raise My Children
because my years at Microsoft put me in a whole new financial
league, I don't want the children I plan to have growing
up out of touch with how most people live. Many of the
people I worked with at Microsoft grew up upper-middle
class. They tended to ignore, or not even know, the history
of privilege in this country that gives some people advantages
and leaves others with little hope. Over and over again,
I heard "blame the victim" comments from my workmates
such as "Why can't those people just get off welfare?"
As a black woman, I found this talk pretty hard to take.
want my kids to know and respect people like their grandmother--a single, church-going woman who made her money as a
domestic, cleaning houses for white people in New
Jersey. This affects how I choose
to live. Although I can afford to live in a big house
in the suburbs, my partner Jill and I live in a working-class
neighborhood where I've lived for six years--and we intend
to stay until all our kids are grown. And while we want
to give our kids the academic advantages of private schools,
we've decided to send them to public schools starting
in the third grade so they can have a diverse social world.
Finally, although I could afford not to work, I decided
to found and direct a foundation in Washington state to
help young people of color gain enough access to computer
technology to prepare them for the competitive job market.
sometimes think that the way I grew up prepared me to
deal with new-found wealth better than several of my former
colleagues who grew up with more money. Some of them toy
with the idea of not working anymore, or seeking more
wealth, or living lavishly. These options are not attractive
to me. From day one, my mom taught me to live simply and
give back to the community.
since my financial luck at Microsoft, I have become close
friends with several people who grew up wealthy and are
very aware and compassionate. Such contacts have been
helpful to my work and personally valuable to me. My new
friends can relate to aspects of my life that are hard
for my old friends and neighbors to understand fully.
worry a little that some of the folks in my neighborhood
will want me to give or loan them money. I've lent money
to friends a couple of times, when they were in real need
and I felt confident they would pay me back. Yet I don't
want to do this on a regular basis; I would rather donate
my money to organizations serving the community than risk
having money come between me and my friends.
hasn't been as much a problem as I feared. News of my
good fortune has even made its way back to my old neighborhood
in New Jersey.
When I get letters from my old coaches and teachers, they
write that they are proud of me. Not proud that I've made
a lot of money, but proud that I am using it to help my
community here in Seattle.
They say, "We must have brought you up right."
- anonymous author
I grew up in the same middle-class house hold as my brother,
but as adults our lives took very different turns. I became
a father at seventeen, gave up my expectation of going
to college, moved into my working-class wife's one bedroom
apartment, and found work as a printer to pay my new family's
bills. My brother Shawn, technically my half-brother,
went to college, and ultimately married a wealthy woman.
While I became a blue collar worker, my brother became
a millionaire. This dramatic wealth difference has been
a central theme in our relationship ever since, at least
brother and his wife have been very generous to me. Over
the years, they've given me money for a computer, several
backpack trips, airplane tickets to family gatherings,
and tuition for college. Shawn even asked our Dad to leave
me a larger inheritance than him, and my Dad, in turn,
gave me money to help me pay for my graduate studies.
extra money has been a blessing, yet painful to accept.
I have felt unworthy, envious, and sometimes even resentful.
I've worried whether my brother sees me as a leech or
an incompetent. Once
he called me ungrateful about a gift. Years later, he
complained that a thank you note I had written him was
obsequious. I felt humiliated both times. I've also felt
ashamed about secretly wishing to have even more of his
money. I am the trustee for his children's trusts, so
I know how much he can offer his kids that I can't offer
used to feel judgmental about his use of money. Why isn't
he giving more? Why doesn't he invest his stock portfolio
in socially responsible companies? During the early years
of his being a millionaire, we got into a big fight about
wealth distribution. I had said that I thought there should
not only be a minimum income level, but an upper limit
as well, that the richest people should not be allowed
to have more than, say, ten times what the poorest had.
He took personal offense and we got into a nasty argument.
We both said things we didn't mean. Afterwards, I worried
that our relationship would never recover; we were both
so raw and hurt.
did recover; we love each other too much to let money
come between us. We apologized, and over the years have
talked much more candidly--and kindly--about our financial
situations and feelings about money. This has brought
a new intimacy, more common ground, and a greater ease
about giving and receiving between us.
all the help I've gotten from my family, I've also gained
more humility about the grey areas and complexities of
fairness in an unequal world. Recently, a friend of mine
who wants to enter my doctoral program asked how I can
afford to pay the tuition. When I told him that my family
was paying for it, he blurted out, "I hate you. God, I'm
I like being wealthy. When I was a teenager, I hated feeling
limited by our tight food budget at home. Only one glass
of milk at dinner, then water; two cookies for dessert,
but no more. After my father left, my stepmother complained
even more about how tight money was. By my late 20's,
I felt bad that my friends were passing me by financially.
sense of scarcity dissolved when I married my wife and
later received an inheritance from my maternal grandfather.
Intellectually, I know there are many people far wealthier
than I am, yet all of my friends and family have less
than I do, some a lot less. My basic response has been
to keep the extent of my wealth a secret. My wife and
I have a lovely, but modest house compared to what we
could afford, and I've always worked full-time. When I've
thought of quitting my job to focus on my creative writing,
I've balked in part because my wealth would be obvious
my wife, not being obvious about our money is probably
just traditional "old money" taste and discretion. For
me, I feel a little confused and ashamed, as if I am living
a lie. I also feel badgered by deeper questions: Why should
I have so much when many people I know have so much less?
Why aren't I doing more creative things with my money?
If I felt I were doing a lot of good with my wealth beyond
just endowing my kids with a nice nest egg, I wouldn't
give a damn about other people's disapproval. But I am
not at peace about that yet.
brother Thomas is the only one I've ever talked with in
depth about my feelings about my financial situation.
We laugh about this sometimes. He fancies himself a socialist,
but is a good listener. Even when he disagrees with my
use of wealth, he is loving and loyal. I recently had
a talk with him about our conflicts over money. Looking
back, I think I was sometimes a jerk. At other times,
I think he had his own screwed up feelings about money.
We've come a long way over the years.
felt good about the times I've helped Thomas out financially,
but it is always a question: at what point should I just
live my life and let Thomas, or other family and friends,
live theirs? At what point should I intervene and offer
some financial help? As much as we have talked, I still
don't think my brother and I have yet finished our difficult
dance between guilt and pride.
- anonymous author
came to work for our family when I was two years old,
and she worked for us for sixteen years. My mom was raised
by a nanny in a household where there were several servants,
so for her, having only a housekeeper was progressive.
Mae did everything for our family: she cooked, cleaned,
and did a lot of the childcare.
spent more time with Mae than I spent with my mother.
Mom wasn't a hugger, so I'd go to the kitchen to get my
hugs. One of my earliest memories is of falling down and
scraping my knee. I jumped into Mae's arms; she was the
one I wanted to console me. There was more intimacy with
her than with either of my parents--more hangin' out,
more humor. I had a lot of fun with Mae, and many times
I'd end up in gales of laughter.
a little boy, I ate in the kitchen with her. Then, when
I was seven, I was allowed to have dinner with my parents
in the dining room. Going from the kitchen to the dining
room was a big jump for me, but it wasn't one I was altogether
happy to make. One part of me couldn't wait to be out
in the dining room, but another part of me dreaded it
because of all the rules. I had to have good manners,
and if I put an elbow on the table, sometimes my dad would
lean over and hit it with a spoon.
had a buzzer on the floor, which she used to signal Mae
to come in and serve us or clear the table. I felt uncomfortable
when Mae was serving me, and wished I was back in the
kitchen with her. I felt uncomfortable with that shifting
was always struck by the difference between the relaxed
and friendly way Mae and I communicated, and the stiff
communication between Mae and my parents. She wore a uniform
and said, "Yes, Mrs. Bradfield. Uh huh, Mrs. Bradfield."
Every day, Mae would bring my mom breakfast in bed and
my mom talked to her in a distant, formal way. My mother
was not a woman that exercised her power or wealth comfortably.
She kept the boundaries very firm, thinking this was both
respectful and fair.
were seen as a sign of weakness in my family. As a kid,
if I cried too much, I'd be told, "Don't be so emotional."
I remember Dad saying things like, "Mae's emotional. That's
the way those people are." At the time, I didn't know
consciously that he was way off the mark, but I knew it
intuitively. Mae, God bless her, was emotional, and that
was good. I'm emotional too.
I got a little older, I started feeling sorry for my mother
because I loved Mae so much. So I went out of my way to
be nice to Mom. If I was out in the yard when she came
home from her shopping, I'd go inside and say, "Hi, Mom."
I did it deliberately just to stroke her a little bit
because I was feeling so guilty. Once I'd said "hi," though,
I never quite knew what to say next. So I'd go and hang
out with Mae, getting a cookie and joking around a little.
a black mama has always been an interesting situation
for me. The first time I became aware of any kind of tension
around it for Mae was when I had a part in a school play
when I was twelve. I was going to sing "Swanee River,"
and I was supposed to get painted up as a black guy. Mae
came to school to help out with the play, and she was
asked to paint my face. She was mumbling, "I don't like
this, puttin' black on your face! This is insultin'!"
incident made me uncomfortable about the whole racial
situation. I was white and Mae was black, and blacks worked
for whites. But from my experience of black people, they
had qualities I really admired. So as a kid, I was conflicted
and confused. I was supposed to be a member of the superior
race, but why, then, did I get along better with Mae than
I did with my own parents?
I moved out West, I saw Mae one last time. We went to
Radio City Music Hall, and then I took her out to dinner.
Our visit was just like it had always been: havin' a good
time and doin' our stuff. That never did change.
she finally died, I didn't mourn her deeply. Hers was
a long life. She had no fear of dying and was ready to
go. To this day, I have nothing but the warmest feelings
for Mae and gratitude in my heart. At some soul level,
I was more profoundly connected to her than I was to my
on the World
nuclear family never lived alone in all the years I was
growing up. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we had international
diplomats, street people, poets, artists, intellectuals,
political activists, foreign students, and ex-cons staying
with us. Some just for overnight, some for a few weeks,
and a few--like the three homeless men my mother met in
an urban combat zone--for over two years. One family friend,
an unemployed man with an eighth grade education, was
frequently our extended household's resident philosopher,
keeping us up late at night around the fireplace talking
politics and telling stories.
door of our house was never locked, and while we never
knew how many to expect for supper, there was always enough
food. Even though we had a large home and a carriage house
with an apartment out back, space was sometimes short.
Many nights, I offered my bed to some visitor, and slept
on my blanket in the upstairs hall.
summers were a retreat into more reclusive privilege.
At our family's vacation compound in the country, I played
with cousins on a large estate with a beautiful house,
barns, and orchards. I loved hiking mountain trails, sailing,
fox hunting, dressage, and practicing for the competitive
A circuit horse shows.
largely a conservative clan of inherited wealth, many
of my relatives disapproved of how my family lived during
the rest of the year. Most were shocked that my family
sheltered draft evaders secretly making their way to Canada
and that our phone was possibly tapped because our home
served as branch headquarters for the Committee for Nonviolent
I loved our life. My daily world was vibrant, diverse,
and challenging. The connection between "the haves" and
"the have-nots" was never "out of sight, out of mind."
My family made the connection every day. I was able to
see the world from many angles, and feel the joys and
pains of all the people who came to stay with us.
I'm attending a law school noted for its public service
and progressive politics. It is painful for me to hear
fellow students talk about our criminal justice system
with so little awareness of how oppression is built into
its very guts. Most students are good-hearted, but they
don't have much of a clue about how most people live or
the daily injustices they face.
know that I am still naive, but at least I've experienced
life inside of prisons, known poor people, interacted
with dear friends who practiced voluntary poverty, and
thought about politics deeply. Although I can't claim
great enlightenment, if I had had a "proper" upbringing,
I would probably be wearing the same blinders as my classmates.
I'm thankful I don't.
- anonymous author
Activists Talk About Class
Note: This dialogue is adapted with permission from the
Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians
Write About Class
edited by Susan Raffo (Boston: South
End Press, 1997).
As an AIDS educator, I know that talking in detail about
sex is necessary if we are to protect ourselves and our
lovers from unwanted pregnancy, disease, and infection.
These conversations can be scary, maddening, invasive,
alienating, and embarrassing--just like talking about
wealth. Yet, both conversations can be intimate, inspiring,
and funny too. Our task in this e-mail exchange is to
deepen our ongoing dialogue about dykes, fags, and politics
across the borders of class.
The risk to me in such a discussion is minimal. When I
share my experiences of growing up poor with folks whose
political views are left of center, I often receive unmerited
respect and become someone who cannot be challenged or
contradicted. As patronizing as I find this, I realize
it has its advantages. My question to you, Sandy,
is are you willing to take the risk of talking about being
rich and engage in a public conversation about class with
this poor brown man who loves you?
I see this conversation as part of what a friend of mine
calls "the slow drip drip that leads to changes in thinking."
No matter how politically active I am, I'm still rich
(which provides freedom, power, opportunity, and stability.)
Many only see that. Yet my awareness of oppression and
class differences came early due to the working-class
and poor people I came across in my public school experience.
Most of my friends didn't have swimming pools, private
lessons, ski vacations, or a choice of which car to drive
to the supermarket.
My parents spent most of their growing up years in Hawaii
as agricultural workers. As a kid I worked in the field
too and took great pride in being the best pineapple picker
on the line. Money and class were staples of my family's
discussions. Class and money is to the poor like race
is to people of color--we deal with it because we have
no choice. Not dealing with it is the luxury of those
for whom class does not represent material barriers to
mobility, to enjoyment, to eating, and to paying the rent.
Some rich folks I've spoken with were isolated and discouraged
from playing with anyone unlike themselves. In my family,
we were taught to make friends with whoever crossed our
As I became older, I became increasingly attracted to
theories of class struggle. These gave me hope that poor
people of color would ultimately unite against rich white
people. While I still work hard to end class inequality,
my view has changed some. Finding a queer community made
me more compassionate about the humanity of rich people
and white people. I've fallen in love with white men who
have died of AIDS. I have befriended rich men and women
who share the fear of violence and the humiliation of
the closet. There are those who call me an Uncle Tom for
calling rich, white gay folks my people, but I can't help
myself. We have too much in common, and the burden of
ending oppression is too big. I am now open to allies
and friends wherever I can find them.
What I have come to realize is that the problem is our
economic system, not the individuals who are rich or poor
or working class or middle class. The solution to the
inequality generated by capitalism can only come, of course,
from what we all do with our experiences, from the relationships
we build while struggling for an economy that serves the
interests of all. This isn't easy. I figure that some
people are always going to hate me for having more than
they do. Some people may even have good reason not to
get too close to me because my race and class background
may manifest in a patronizing style, ignorance, or belief
system. Negotiating relationships across such chasms requires
trust, faith, love, and a belief in myself as an individual
who is doing her best.
- anonymous authors
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