Race, Class and White People’s Beach Houses: On Talking to Privileged People About Privilege

feature image via shutterstock

[This article was inspired by my participation in a talk back following a staged reading of Sarah Schulman’s “Roe V Wade.” It was watching white folks talk about class issues that prompted this piece and the knowledge that Schulman continues to be the catalyst for these conversations inspired me to submit it for publication.]

If It Takes Comparing Beach Houses: A Message to White Feminists on Acknowledging Class to Talk About Race

The first spring break my freshman year of high school, my friend Cynthia* invited me to spend the week with her and her family in Nags Head, North Carolina at their beach house in the Outer Banks. I’d never known anyone whose family owned a “summer home” before. My parents had just moved me into our new home so I could attend the local arts high school and I quietly discovered that many of the upper class kids in my new suburban neighborhood owned multiple pieces of property purely for activities like golfing, skiing and tanning. I joked that our house, a three bedroom rambler not far from Cynthia’s, was our “every season” home, instead of quietly confessing how my mom and step-dad had to request mortgage payments from our in-laws as a wedding gift in order for us to move out of our apartment and into our first and only house.

Cynthia’s family spent years pooling money to own their beach house — her mother working summers at a camp for special needs kids in addition to her school year job and her father pulling extra hours at his construction job — just so they could join the upper echelon of their rich, white peers. Cynthia added just how much longer it took for them to raise enough funds to install an elevator in the house so her wheel chair bound grandmother could join the family each year.

“My parents worked their asses off for that house,” she said, “Not all of us were born with silver spoons, like some people.”

I knew Cynthia was talking about Margaret. The Blakes owned a beach house in the same Nags Head resort development as Cynthia’s and they spent every summer of their childhood walking down to the water, shopping at the kitschy, overpriced ocean front stores and pretending to like each other. They were the kind of friends that had to be because their mothers were. Cynthia and Margaret’s mothers met in college, before Margaret’s mother ended up marrying and soon divorcing one of the owners of the largest meat packing companies in the country. She had since remarried some hot shot professor who could afford to support Margaret and her two brothers, not only through his inheritance, but with a tenured position at a prestigious university in downtown DC. I wasn’t sure what these mothers had in common aside from their history and the birth of their youngest daughters but it was clear that after marriages and babies, their relationship had evolved into one ups-(wo)menship — whose husbands, children, houses, cars where better than the other.

So the Linstrums became part of the Outer Banks fold when they purchased their summer home and Cynthia invited me. This was a big deal in the group of girls I hung out with, one of whom was Margaret. Not surprisingly, her family was spending their break at their beach house too and I assumed hers was most likely bigger and fancier, like everything else she owned. If I was going to spare myself from having a story-less spring break, I knew I had to take Cynthia up on her offer. I knew Margaret would never formally invite me to her beach house. That wasn’t her style, especially when she took after her mother whose nose was too high in the air to even offer you a glass of water.

I was happy to accompany Cynthia to the beach, if not only to stay in a place with a hot tub. I accepted the invitation after reminding myself that my face would probably be the only Black one I would see for the entirety of my spring break. I didn’t tell Cynthia that since I had already learned by then that she wouldn’t understand it.

After an excruciatingly hot six-hour drive with Cynthia and her family, her father pulled their beat-up mini-van into the driveway of a humble, cedar wood two-story beach house with a wrap-around porch and a backyard of sand. It was the same size as her “everyday” home, with beach and Linstrum family trinkets lining the walls and a kitchen/living room/den area centered by a wooden table worn from years of evening meals. My room was on the second floor next to Cynthia’s and we could both step out on the porch from our sliding glass doors and look out at the ocean.

I had not yet fully grasped the comfort-ability of money until I stared out at the neighboring houses, mansion sized wonders that lined the beach, houses that were big enough for Cynthia’s to fit inside several times over. These homes defined wealth, all three to five stories with every amenity imaginable to a summer’s worth of expensive bliss. Even though Cynthia’s house paled in comparison, it still stood amongst them overlooking the expanse of the sea that glistened and roared at their collective feet.

It took three days for Margaret to call and invite us over to visit her house. Cynthia and I were fine with playing the waiting game, knowing we would be required to spend time with her as per family friend tradition. So when she invited us to come by and go into town with her, we rolled our eyes, said yes and asked Cynthia’s license-holding sister to make the five minute drive over to Margaret’s part of the neighborhood. Her sister begrudgingly agreed, rolling her eyes as if it were contagious, and drove us over. The car stopped in front of a bright blue four-story home with white trim, each floor lined with decks connected by a flight of stairs above the entryway of the house. The first deck spilled over the side yard where the Blake family pool, hot tub and outdoor shower overlooked the ocean view. The window of the fourth floor had its own private balcony, reminding me of Romeo’s lamenting Juliet, as if the house itself fell out of some modern version of families feuding for power.

The class tension between Margaret and Cynthia was almost palpable. You could see it in their posture, Cynthia’s eyes downcast as we toured the interior of the house, tiptoeing past the crystal glass vases on almost every table top. A set of china plates in an antique display case lined the entryway and a fabergé egg sat proudly on the mini grand in the living room no one was allowed to sit at. Margaret’s mother was on a business call having tea and finger sandwiches on one of the decks outside, so we filed through the foyer to the sitting room designated for house guests. Margaret was showing me her step-father’s antique ship models carefully placed on wall shelves, oblivious to the fact that I was more fascinated to discover that white people actually had such time-consuming hobbies like building tiny, detailed boats. Cynthia stuffed her face with extra finger sandwiches, bored to tears, as if she’d heard the story of the Blake’s prize model yacht one hundred and fifty times.

Not coincidentally, that spring break was the first time I’d ever read a book about poor white people. Before then, I wasn’t even sure if they existed.

After the grand finale of Margaret’s tour, a brief visit to the third floor cigar room, we piled into Cynthia’s sister’s car and drove to town to cruise the tourist shops. The popular Outer Banks spot was a family friendly outdoor mall sporting a combination of clothing, jewelry and souvenir stores, pandering to both beach residents and seasonal visitors. I was too fat to fit into any of the Hollister beachwear Margaret and Cynthia were dying to try on. Whether I wanted to feel bad about my body as Margaret slipped into her bright pink two-piece wasn’t even worth the self-loathing sense that I couldn’t afford to buy any of the clothing anyway.

One thing about me that has not changed since high school aside from the fact that I am still, and now shamelessly, fat, is that no matter how tight I am for money, I can always scrape up enough cash to buy a book.

Lucky for me, both Margaret and Cynthia were book lovers too so we stopped by the one place I knew I could afford: the local bookstore. It was the smallest shop in the mall with a tiny collection of titles in no particular genre and I stumbled across Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.”

I took two straight days of my spring break, laid in my guest room bed and devoured the book. McCourt meagerly survives his poverty stricken childhood in 1930’s Limerick City, Ireland, with an alcoholic father and a mother whose only choice was to turn to the help of the church to feed her three small children. I’d never read about the gritty wasteland of Ireland during the great depression, never heard of another white family living like my grandmother did in the south, with one set of clothes, dumpster food and failing health, and I certainly hadn’t read a book where the main white male character had suffered so much hardship before the age of nineteen. I was definitely learning about the white history of America back at school but none of my teachers were talking about poor, white immigrants. They weren’t talking about the fact that poverty and class affects white people in America too.

As a fifteen year old I didn’t think to question why I’d never heard any discourses on white people affected by poverty. At the time I barely realized how systematically connected race and class are. I didn’t even realize what it really meant to be the only Black face in a wealthy vacation town. I didn’t have the feminist thinking to question gender roles, to be outraged that woman were forced to watch their children suffer because they were socially barred from working. All I knew was that my friends’ families were passively fighting about the size of their beach houses while I was bonding with the story of a poor white Irish kid.

Now here’s the thing about this big beach house vs. little beach house conversation: we are still talking about beach houses. I am still comparing beach houses while a majority of people of color, single women, LGBT couples, war veterans, mentally ill and poor white folks struggle to find sustainable, affordable housing; while cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland and Detroit are flooded with empty, abandoned houses whose stoops are the only things keeping the sleeping homeless upright; while the President and congress continue to battle over how to provide housing security for the shrinking middle class continually threatened by the market crash of ‘08.

I am talking about beach houses because sometimes I think it is the only example that upper class white people can easily understand when talking about issues of class. It’s my hope that those conversations about class will lead to ones about race.

The best race conversations I have had with white people have been with those who understand class, acknowledge their privilege regardless of their experience, and listen. Even if they didn’t understand my Black experience—which I only assure them they never will—they understand what it’s like to be systemically disenfranchised. And they understand that even though they may have grown up poor, they still have privilege based on their white complexion.

They realize that their inability to understand my Black experience is not a free pass to avoid their responsibility in stopping the acts of racism and classism they witness on a daily basis.

The observation of white people actually grappling with ideas of class amongst each other empowers me, but it empowers me even more when I know they’re having the same conversation even when I’m NOT in the room.

Being a white, feminist ally is not about being recognized for one’s good work, being congratulated or receiving an honorarium. It’s about saying what needs to be said without any expectation of recognition, simply because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to stand up for voices missing in the room, the same voices that are easily ignored when they are present. The white allies I trust the most are the ones I know are talking about race not only for the benefit of the people of color in the room but for the benefit of their white peers.

If white folks took the time to talk about class matters in their own communities, then maybe they will start moving one step closer to understanding how racism functions in this country.

If it takes comparing beach houses to get white people to talk about class matters, then I’ll refrain from sighing and rolling my eyes to have the conversation. I will talk beachfront real estate and Abercrombie flip-flops, just to get another white person to think about someone who might not have as much as they do.

It’s a skill I learned after spring break my freshman year: the ability to call white women out on their racist bullshit. It’s something you learn when you have to do it all the time, without warning, even when you don’t want to. I do it until I fool myself into thinking it’s easy.

It’s so easy, even you can do it.

*Cynthia Linstrum and Margaret Blake are pseudonyms

About the authorAshley Young is a black feminist queer dyke; poet, non-fiction writer and teaching artist. She is a non-fiction 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and a 2010 Poetry Fellow for Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation Retreat for Writers of Color. She is the author of a chapter in Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion edited by Virgie Tovar (Seal Press 2012) and her queer feminist prose and poetry has been featured on Elixher.comHer Circle Ezine, Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal and Shuomii Life. Ashley works as an editorial assistant at Riverdale Ave Books and is working on her first novel. She lives in New York City with her partner and family, including a pride of four cats.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Ashley has written 1 articles for us.