Yesterday afternoon I went looking for people to talk to about the radio story I’m working on; one conversation in particular stuck with me. It started off ordinarily enough, with me asking a vendor about her work and her pleasantly sharing information about herself. It wasn’t long though before she got angry and railed against me.
The back and forth she said/I said don’t matter so much as the foundation for her antipathy. This woman, I’ll call her Elise, became aggressive and hostile because she believed the questions I was asking represented my own opinions, which she thought threatened her livelihood. She pegged me for an uppity, uncaring person, out to take all I could for myself and use people however I pleased on the way. She spoke vehemently against my education abroad – her one correct assumption – and exclaimed that I would make millions while she would receive nothing for our exchange. I tried to explain that I was playing devil’s advocate, that I was working basically for free, but she couldn’t hear me.
A wall of tension grew higher the longer we spoke, but still I tried to gently prod her and find out more about her position. I focused on not taking her barbs personally, and deflecting them back at the amorphous ‘them’ where they belonged. Thankfully by the end of our conversation I had eased her concerns and we parted on good terms.
I’ve interviewed all sorts of people, but never before sensed class as such a large obstacle to finding common ground. Our General Election is days away, so I couldn’t help but think about how a more politically based conversation between us might go – not well. I lamented the fact that Elise couldn’t relate to me because of the kind of life and prospects she thought I had. How do politicians do it? I’ve heard it said that appealing to the masses is a skill, but walking away from our conversation I wished I could have some of that magic. What could I have done differently? How could I have helped her feel at ease? I wanted to email my professors and ask them about difficult interviews they’ve done, and whether they had any advice.
Despite a hugely cosmopolitan history, including boatloads of political and religious refugees and 200 years of tourism, most Bahamians are black. There is a racial divide, acknowledged and frequently discussed; exploited, in fact, for political gain. Our class divisions, on the other hand, go by unremarked. Elise was angry at me because she believed my opportunities had twisted my mindset against her flourishing. It didn’t matter that we were both black.
Class seems like a far more ornery thing to fight than race. It emerges from the very systems that run our society. At least with race we can represent scientifically the fact that skin colour is among the shallowest biological signifiers. With class, either you have the money for particular schools or health care, or you don’t. Either you can afford to comfortably fit your family into a home, or you can’t.
The simplest take-away from our conversation is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about strangers and their intentions, but the result of that in this case points to a much larger issue. I don’t think there’s an easy answer; this is the subject many philosophers and economists devote their lives to after all. But I felt a poisonous negativity, a deep dislike and distrust of me based on nothing other than my background, and it was both hurtful and unproductive.