by Jezebel Delilah X
The first time I learned that being perceived as smart and having access to money made me more socially valuable than the children around me, I was about six years old, sitting on my father’s lap, crying about being bullied by my classmates—yet again. My father did his best to lovingly comfort me: he pulled out his bank statement and showed me the tens of thousands of dollars he had in savings.
“Baby,” he said. “Those kids are mean to you because they are jealous. You think their parents got this in the bank? No. Plus, you’re smart. Keep getting those grades and one day you’re going to be the one writing their paychecks, determining how much money they take home to their families, and deciding whether they should have a job or not.”
Translation: my parent’s money differentiated me from the children who bullied me, gave me access to a potential power and ease they’d likely never have, and would eventually justify my exploiting their labor for more money and their livelihood for my whimsy. Further, I learned to associate violence with poverty and goodness with wealth and victimhood.
We already know that’s a damn lie.
Meritocracy is the belief that if you are a good, intelligent, hard-working person, you will succeed in this society and live a happy life. If, on the other hand, you are lazy, bad, and disobedient, you will fail and experience nothing but grief. Meritocracy teaches poor and working class children of color self-hatred and to blame themselves for their family’s struggles and the violence they are consistently assaulted with by this society. It capitalizes on injustice, normalizes inequity, and protects the political and economic mobility of people who exploit the system. It teaches us to perceive oppressors, like police officers and gentrifiers, as potential victims and to empathize with them…even while they kill and rob us.
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Meritocracy has been adopted by communities of color as an anti-racism strategy. We are conditioned to strive towards attaining what we believe our oppressors have in order to prove our value and worthiness. So, we compete with each other at the expense of our collective well-being and the development of an autonomous, non-exploitative economy.
As a child, I couldn’t understand why my classmates had so much animosity toward me. Today, at thirty, I understand entirely too well.
At schools that were 85-90% African American, I was one of the few Black students sitting in honors and advanced placement courses. I was chosen to represent my elementary and junior high school whenever we had prestigious visitors or competitions, to attend special events and field trips. In fifth grade, when I got in fights, I wasn’t called violent; I was cheered on for sticking up for myself. When I brought a weapon to school (after getting jumped too many times in 8th grade), no one called the police like they do to other children of color; they sat me in a counselor’s office and encouraged me to go to therapy. I was offered resources and opportunities that my classmates got to see, smell, and hear me enjoying—but never got to touch or taste, themselves.
That sort of dynamic fuels a resentment that goes far deeper than jealousy; it fosters the fear of not belonging, not having enough, not being worthy of respect, not deserving of goodness. It’s a feeling of displacement, of loneliness, of failure. No one wants to feel that way, and as history has taught us time and time again, people will fight for their equality and dignity. Each time my classmates attacked me, that’s what they were doing: fighting against the injustice I represented to them. I received privileges and affirmations, not fully of my own merit, but because I represented a juxtaposition to the stereotype that was projected onto so many of my classmates. Though there were no white people around, there was still privilege present—class privilege—and I was the one who benefited from it.
As children, we were too young to understand how the system was pitting us against each other. All I knew was that my mostly Black classmates were calling me “oreo” and beating me up because I was smart and spoke “standard academic English.” All they knew was that I talked and behaved differently from them, and got special privileges and public affirmation because of it. All we knew was that I was considered good, they were considered bad, and that our teachers—Black adults—wanted them to be more like me and less like the families and communities from which they emerged. I’d be angry, too.
Class privilege is white privilege’s deceitful little minion. As a middle-classed Black child, I was taught to conflate equality with assimilation, progress with consumption, justice with wealth. The solution to racism was classism.
Let’s be clear, though: I am not protected from racial discrimination in integrated spaces. When I was a new college graduate, the only Black person at my corporate office, and making a ridiculous amount of money, I still earned $10,000 less than my degree-less, white, male colleagues. I’ve had police officers put cuffs on my wrists for riding in a car with three Black and Brown men, at night, in Brentwood, California. My class privilege only works in spaces when I am not competing against white people or non-black, documented citizens.
Still, racism uses Black stories like mine to uphold the myth of meritocracy. My current middle class access has less to do with my intelligence than with the opportunities my parents provided for me early on and the confidence I acquired through repetitive success. My parents have been teaching me how to succeed within the realms of capitalism my entire life. The quality for which I was culturally ostracized—talking “white”—provides me with access to money at the expense of other Black people.
It hurt me, and my classmates, so much as a child. I didn’t know how to address it then. I do now.
Poverty is a complex, intentional form of violence that protects hierarchy and those who benefit from it. As an ally, my job is to reject all forms of injustice, to share the resources bestowed upon me, to intentionally deprogram myself of the elitism I was taught to embrace, to acknowledge that I am not entitled to anything more than any other humyn deserves, to say NO when people attempt to privilege me at the expense of someone else, and to speak up against all the intricacies of oppression.
My job is to give, to listen, to LOVE with my actions, thoughts, and decisions. Intentions are not enough. Compassion is not enough. Empathy is not even enough. And charity is sure as hell not enough. I have no fear of losing my middle class privilege as compared to other black people, because the culture, the language, the socialized behavior—regardless of how much I reeducate myself—will always be a part of me. I know how to play the system if, and when, I choose to. I know how to disrupt the system and get away with it. I am fully aware of the consequences of my behaviors when I choose to be rebellious, and I know that I can be rescued. The tables will never be turned. The tables will always, in some way, work in my favor. It is my job to destroy the table, and the dining room it sits in, so that everyone can have their share of the bounty.
In the esteemed words of Nate Dogg (though queered for my own political agenda): “It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t haaaave none.”
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Jezebel Delilah X is a queer, Black, femme, Faerie Goddess Mermaid Gangsta for the revolution. She uses a combination of performative memoir, theatrical poetry,and feminist storytelling to advance her politix of radical love, socioeconomic justice, anti-racism, and community empowerment.