Classism and the politics of “making it” on Black Twitter

From hustle culture to $200 dates, Black Twitter's most divisive debates boil down to class disparity.

Maxine McCann
ByJulian Kimble

Way back in January 2020 — before a global health crisis and lethal police violence against Black people set the world ablaze — the rapper Lil Boosie made a bold fashion statement seated courtside at an Atlanta Hawks game.

The Louisiana native was wearing a sweatshirt featuring the Greek letters for Kappa Alpha Psi, the historic Black fraternity — an organization to which he did not belong. The images set off a mini-controversy as they spread across Twitter. To some members of Black Greek-letter organizations, Boosie’s decision to wear letters he hadn’t earned through pledging was a major transgression, an assault on hard-won prestige. But among the Black social media users outside the orbit of Black Greek life — including Boosie himself — the apoplexy was funny, if not confusing. How can y’all care this much about some damn letters?

Like many social media tempests, it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared. But the incident was another example of the socioeconomic divides that animate numerous controversies within Black Twitter. The conversation around America’s wealth gap usually focuses on the vast economic gulf between white people and Black people. But less attention is paid to the growing distance between high-earning Black people and those who are less well-off.

A 2016 New York Times article on “Black America and the Class Divide” noted the percentage of Black people making at least $75,000 more than doubled to 21% between 1970 and 2014, while the percentage making at least $100,000 nearly quadrupled to 13%. Meanwhile, the percentage making below $15,000 declined by four points, to 22%, during the same period. The people at the bottom have mostly remained there, as confirmed by the most recent U.S. Census report examining income and poverty. And while Black people with means are more likely to live near poor people than similarly situated whites, it doesn’t mean they’re having discussions about money and values with their neighbors who are less fortunate.

Enter Black Twitter, with its frank discussions that occasionally skew high-minded and trivial. Pew Research Center first revealed that Black people over-index on Twitter back in 2009, making it a platform in which Black users are hyper-visible and where their concerns also set the agenda. (“#BlackLivesMatter,” “#OscarsSoWhite,” and other viral hashtags were coined and popularized there.) Among the more evergreen debates on Black Twitter: Salaries. Is a $200 date actually expensive? Where’s your passport? Whether dinner with Jay-Z would be more helpful than $500,000, as if a hypothetical conversation is guaranteed to be life-changing.

Other discussions involve “middle class” as being synonymous with “corny,” and “broke” being conflated with “poor.” When examined within the framework of Black Twitter, these debates often boil down to differences in class. There’s always the chance of friction in a micro-community when you have people who are fighting for upward mobility engaging with those who may be further removed from that concern. And when you add factors such as money, value, and success — and the ability to demonstrate it — the friction only increases as class strife rises to the surface.

Part of the reason Twitter has emerged as the preferred platform for these discussions is its infrastructure. In contrast with Facebook and Instagram, where interactions are largely driven by preexisting relationships, Twitter allows users to all talk at once. However, stratifications exist within a space like Twitter because it also allows users to curate their timelines — even though they’re still guided by algorithmic interactions. As a result, anyone’s individual feed can mirror the homogeneity of their social circle and the loudest (or most active) voices rise to the top.

Everyone agrees that “Black people are not a monolith” until they’re confronted with a perspective or offhand joke that flies in the face of their ideals. Tension can emerge when different Black experiences collide — a dynamic that’s widened over the last half-century. The Civil Rights Movement was a fight for equality, but what transpired afterwards was an expansion of the Black middle class during the 1970s and 1980s that left many behind.

According to Dr. Meredith Clark, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies, the concept of having “made it” is imperative to many Black people. These discussions about Black people becoming more upwardly mobile, she adds, have become more nuanced.

“You’ve got a group of people who are left behind. But technology has flattened things so we have this conversation about how things are working out for those left behind at the same time as we’re having conversations about how it’s working out for people who were in the Black middle class,” Clark says.

Certain interactions between those who are succeeding and those who are unable to climb the ladder can trigger superiority and inferiority complexes that manifest as two-way class resentment. As Black people have acquired more material wealth, the goalposts have moved to the point where access has become another gauge by which privilege is measured. This is how something like the ability to travel becomes a status symbol.

Travel remains a point of contention on Black Twitter because it’s not something everyone has access to. Although travel is not a revolutionary act, it’s a privilege that may not be feasible for the lower middle class, working poor, or poor. Victoria M. Walker, a senior reporter for the travel site The Points Guy, believes the subject has become divisive because people at the forefront of the Black travel community who aren’t middle or working-class aim to assert control over a space they believe is exclusive to them.

“Name a country or city [working class] Black people have ruined, according to Twitter: Black people ruined Dubai. Black people ruined Bali. Black ruined Santorini. Black people ruined the Caribbean,” Walker says. “Why is a location ruined by Black people going there? Ultimately, it goes back to class divides. ‘I’m able to go to this place but you are not because I’m middle class, I have PTO, and my boss let me go on vacation — but you are not, because you work a service job, or you’re working class, lower middle class, or poor.” Twitter allows people to publicize these flawed but closely-held beliefs as comments made among friends, going completely unchecked. It’s easy to pass off logical fallacies as scripture when they’re created in a vacuum.

Actress and media personality Amanda Seales sparked ire within Black Twitter in 2017 when she tweeted “If you’re buying Jordans and Nike Suits but you don’t have a PASSPORT, YOU’RE LOSING.” The statement was maligned for being elitist and shortsighted. According to the State Department, there were 143,116,663 valid passports in circulation as of 2020 — less than 45% of the U.S. population holds one that’s valid. Seales later told Essence that the crux of her argument was that you should have a passport if you can afford certain items in abundance, but there are other barriers to acquiring one. As Victoria Walker wrote in a private blog post, some of the obstacles preventing millions of Black people from voting — ”approved” forms of photo identification, for example — can also keep them from obtaining passports. This outlook, like scrutinizing where people travel, is rooted in superiority. And overall, it’s merely another way of regulating other people’s behavior.

Dr. Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, wrote his dissertation about the ways in which Black people use respectability to police each other. Both poor and affluent Black people may find themselves in the same spaces, despite their class differences. A millionaire might get his hair cut at the same barbershop as someone working an hourly wage job; Black people across class lines might attend the same church. The need to regulate each other is reflective of internalized policing — the result of Black people being policed so frequently. That regulation is projected across Twitter, and in real life.

In 2019, Carlotta Outley Brown, principal of James Madison High School in Houston, made headlines after instituting a dress code for parents that banned items including bonnets, leggings, and hair rollers. One woman was prevented from enrolling her daughter in the school because she was wearing a headscarf and t-shirt dress. The guidelines ignited a debate on Twitter, with some admonishing its classism40 percent of the school’s student body is Black and the majority of it is low income — and others applauding Brown’s approach. The glaring reality beneath the surface of this discussion about “proper” attire is the fact that the rule used respectability to adjudicate a Black child’s right to public education.

This issue is bigger than bonnets, as was a similar conversation that comedian and actress Mo’Nique prompted earlier this year. In an IGTV video, she expressed disappointment in seeing so many young Black women wearing bonnets, scarves, slippers, and pajamas at Atlanta’s airport. “When did we lose pride in representing ourselves?” she asked. This was on-brand for Mo’Nique, who hosted the first season of Charm School, VH1’s reality TV take on etiquette lessons. Soon after, she posted a picture that she said was sent to her of a woman wearing a bonnet in an airport, while claiming not to judge (“If this is the BEST YOU CAN DO, NO JUDGMENT DO YOU”), but then proceeding to judge (“However if this is not your BEST, than do BETTER!). Unsurprisingly, both moments sparked discussion across Black Twitter between those who agreed with Mo’Nique and others who found her concerned auntie approach classist and condescending.

Just as respectability can translate as contempt for Black people of a lower class, there’s an aspirational tone that’s become popular on Twitter thanks to some of the Black elite treating it as motivational wisdom. Diddy’s “We all have the same 24 hours,” and Steve Harvey’s “Rich people don’t sleep eight hours a day” are deeply flawed hustle culture mantras that reveal a disconnect between the wealthy and everyone else. And as these messages catch on with people who buy into the lie of meritocracy, the desire to excel can come across as hating the poor. Furthermore, the topic of generational wealth has shown that some wealthy Black people want everyone, even their own kids, to “get it out the mud” as proof of their resolve. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what “generational wealth” means, even though it’s what they claim to have wanted to create for their families.

“You’ve got people who have never been poor and have preferences for nicer things. They’re not exposed to someone of a lower socioeconomic class, and so they disparage them,” Clark says. “Then you’ve got the strivers who have been poor and because they made it, they have judgement for those who haven’t.”

Even the concept of “Black Excellence” has proven to be controversial. Although it can be as innocent as graduating from high school or college, it’s become closely associated with Black wealth and opulence in the wake of the misguided capitalism-as-activism spirit of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 album, Watch the Throne. The issue is that it often refers to individual accomplishments like Tyler Perry building his historic studio in Atlanta, Jay-Z becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire, or Rihanna recently joining him there. There has to be some acknowledgment of the ethical questions around accumulating that much wealth when it only benefits people in Jay-Z or Rihanna’s immediate orbits, as well as questions around whether Perry’s success is beneficial to all Black people because of how he achieved it. These conversations are happening because some people are as willing to challenge these precepts on Twitter as others are to praise them.

“In the last couple of years, there’s been renewed attention to the carceral system, but specifically the issue of cash bail and bond,” Clark says. “I think one of the ways you can measure the productivity of Black Twitter’s conversations is in talking about how class doesn’t really matter when it comes to the criminalization of Black people. Everybody knows somebody who, in some way, has been connected to the penal system.”

Black Twitter is not inherently hostile — Wired’s recent oral history detailed its joy, vastness, and power — but Twitter’s nature makes it unlikely that the performance, dissension, and projection at the core of these flare-ups will cease. Even at a time when blind allegiance to money is subject to scrutiny, critical thinking is still at odds with the burning desire to show how well you’re doing. People who are unemployed or facing homelessness still come across tweets from people flexing the new milestones they’ve reached along with a complete lack of awareness of their own privilege. But that shows the value in having these conversations — especially as people re-examine their perspectives on wealth and class amid a pandemic hurting Black people financially and physically, further emphasizing the hard line between those who have and those who don’t.