More Than Money
Issue #17

Cross-Class Relationships

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Children of God

Who 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 to bloom.

I 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!"

And 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.

Although 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.

I 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.

Beatrice 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.

I 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

How To Raise My Children

Just 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Yet, 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.

I 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.

This 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

Two Brothers

Thomas: 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 for me.

My 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.

This 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 mine.

I 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.

We 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.

Given 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 jealous."

Shawn: 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.

This 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 then.

For 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.

My 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.

I've 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

"My Black Mama"

Mae 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.

I 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.

As 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.

Mom 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 of roles.

I 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.

Feelings 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.

When 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.

Having 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'!"

That 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?

Before 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.

When 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 own parents.

Windows on the World

My 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.

The 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.

My 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.

Being 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 Action.

Yet 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.

Currently, 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.

I 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

Two Activists Talk About Class

Editor's Note: This dialogue is adapted with permission from the anthology Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians Write About Class edited by Susan Raffo (Boston: South End Press, 1997).

Sandy: 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.

Bill: 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?

Sandy: 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.

Bill: 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.

Sandy: 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 path.

Bill: 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.

Sandy: 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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