Race versus class: Identifying the difference

If a person were to receive a letter with the salutation “Hey girl!” and the closing “Kindly,” one would naturally start to make conclusions about the author. One might conjecture from the salutation that the letter is between intimates, though it could equally signify that the author is unaware of appropriate salutations for written communications. The closing “Kindly” would probably trigger a second of cognitive dissonance. “Kindly” has passive aggressive undertones, which is one reason etiquette guides discourage using it. This type of analysis — what sort of person wrote this letter? — relates to social class.

In October 2021, The New York Times’s literary arm, New York Times Magazine, published a story on a multi-year tussle between writers Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. In the process of lawsuits, Dorland’s side subpoenaed Larson’s group chats with other writers in which those who also knew Dorland discussed in frank terms how irritating they found her. As part of a court order to indicate types of research Larson did for her work, her lawyers submitted a list of resources which included a handful of academic research on the subject of “White Savior” complexes. To be fair to Larson, it is important to her short story that one character is Asian-American and the other is Caucasian, so it is logical that Larson would read some sources on the subject, as well as the others submitted which were on topics such as alcoholism or psychological conditions. However, as Larson herself is a mixed-race Asian-American and Dorland is Caucasian, followers of the case latched on to the detail as representative of the underlying problem between the two writers. In my opinion, dragging race into the Dorland-Larson debacle represents a problem of vocabulary: modern society has taken to using political race-based terms to describe issues of social class.

The salutation and closing described in the first paragraph come from an email Dorland wrote to Larson. The author of the New York Times Magazine story on Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson chose to interpret Dorland’s sign off, “kindly,” as a sign of her altruistic mindset.  

To summarize a situation that occurred over several years, Dorland donated a kidney and created a Facebook group as a platform where she talked about her experiences in real time; Larson wrote a short story in which she used elements of some of Dorland’s story; the story won literary accolades; Dorland accused Larson of plagiarism and contacted the Boston Book Festival for promoting the story along with some of Larson’s other work; Larson sued Dorland for tortious interference and the courts found in Larson’s favor; Dorland countersued Larson for copyright violation; the courts ruled for Larson, citing that Larson hadn’t used enough of Dorland’s writings on the topic to qualify remotely as copyright violation; Dorland maintained that Larson had violated her rights and mounted a campaign to discredit Larson within professional literary circles.

Larson is the daughter of educated professionals. Her Caucasian-American father and her Asian-American mother are university professors. That said, her maternal grandparents were working-class immigrants who worked hard for their children’s futures. Dorland had an unstable childhood as the child of itinerant agricultural workers; eventually she ended up in Los Angeles. She obtained two graduate degrees, one from Harvard Divinity School and an MFA from University of Maryland. Given that she took a degree at a top university, one can argue that she had a ticket into the American bourgeois, if not the grands bourgeois. In this way, the American system worked: she was not denied opportunity based on parental background; she was welcomed as an equal within a professional network. In a broad sense, the two women were on a level of some parity: Larson was an established writer, but Dorland was a Harvard graduate.

The decision to project a racial narrative onto the debate was not Larson’s as is evident in the legal documents her lawyers submitted and the story itself. Those who latched onto a racial interpretation of the debacle missed to a great extent that while the story contained a traditional dichotomy, working-class minority woman opposed to a wealthy, though uncultured Caucasian for narrative purposes, the dynamic between the real people was, if anything, reversed. Based on cultural norms from around the world, who would start life higher, the child of a university professor, or the child of an itinerant laborer? In real life, a dynamic that works for fiction can be, and often is, inverted.

In one of the ping pong lawsuits, Dorland sued Larson for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, citing that “Larson abruptly ceased speaking with Ms. Dorland” and had moved to “ostracize Ms. Dorland from their mutual acquaintances in the writing community.” The judge dismissed the IIED suit out of hand. Dorland’s charges were based on an earlier claim that she and Larson had been close personal friends. And this is where class differences start to show up. As a citizen journalist has found, Dorland met Larson around 2007 by dint of attending writing workshops at the arts center where Larson worked, but they were not the close friends Dorland portrayed in her lawsuits. Larson categorically stated via her lawyers that they “were never alone in the same room,” which implies all of the social activities close friends do, e.g. going to restaurants, cafés, or movies together, never occurred. This does not ipso facto mean Dorland lied; rather, the difference can indicate that there was a misunderstanding of proximity. Dorland rubbed shoulders with Larson for around seven years before moving away from Boston; Dorland attended Larson’s partner’s mother’s funeral; according to Dorland’s testimony, Larson attended Dorland’s going away party and presented a “meaningful gift.” Finally, and of more immediate interest to the judiciary, Dorland told Larson about her familial history. Depending on who is asked, this last is interpreted as either a sign of a friendship or as a sign that Dorland was an over-sharer. Both women could be correct in terms of their assessment of their friendship. What could be glancing and low-commitment contact in Larson’s social strata — in the American upper-middle class, one does not attend a goodbye party without a gift and one makes an effort to put some thought into it (after seven years, one should know enough about the recipient to choose an item that won’t trigger allergies and is in a pleasing color; this is simply common courtesy) — might be signs of deep friendship in Dorland’s. The lack of clarity in this is one reason the court ruled that there was no Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

At this point, any racial issues remained part of the fictional short story. However, once the case went public, the racial dynamic took over the narrative in certain quarters. The polemic therefore bore little resemblance to the original problems between Dorland, Larson, and Larson’s friends. The latter two had problems with behaviors which were low-class, though neither Larson nor her friends are people who are likely to use that term. Use of racial language obscures the class issue, which undeniably matches contemporary sensibilities. After all, discussing the case in terms of class — on one side, a woman reveals medical procedures and conducts herself in a manner others might perceive as overly familiar, overly ebullient, while on the other side, a group of more established professionals decry her lack of gravitas, dignitas, or sense of privacy, while possibly sending out a snobbish aura — opens up an uncomfortable recognition of the existence of class divides, something which American society would prefer to ignore.

Throughout all of human history, societies have had acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. These are often cast in terms of upper- or lower-class. This is normal for humans. Attempting to deflect the matter is to ignore a fundamental part of how humans negotiate with each other. Creating a red herring of race issues serves no one. To the contrary, doing so increases problems as questions of conduct take on a political tone. Which is even less helpful as politics are polarizing enough without conflating class differences with political differences. Anecdotally, I know many people from the right and the left who are upper-class in their manners, tastes, activities, and professions, but equally I also know many people from both sides of the aisle who are decidedly lower-class in their behaviors, dress, entertainments, and lifestyle. Confusing political leanings with social class, as some people I know have, is truly not helpful. Having good table manners, dressing correctly, or behaving appropriately with others is not a matter of conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, but if a person has tangled “Conservative” with “polished,” or “slovenly” with “Liberal,” then one will see political boogeymen in every corner of life. 

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