For the past year or so, the Challenging Racism program at our UU church has been hosting events designed to begin a conversation on classism. My schedule finally allowed me to go to a discussion session today.
Before reading on, it might help to know my personal story/identities, in order to understand where the following statements and reflections originate. I come from a blue collar, immigrant family. I am a first generation college student. My parents were a welder and a social worker and officially below the poverty threshold for much of my childhood (partially because we had such a large family). I was solidly lower class for my entire childhood. BUT I went to one of the Seven Sisters schools for my undergraduate degree and to one of the Big 10 Research universities to get my masters. I’m a white, cis-gendered female who does not flaunt her sexual proclivities. My first full-time job after I got my masters, I am making more than my parents have made at most points in their lives. And now, I suddenly belong to the professional middle-class, and there’s this dissonance….
As I sort of expected when I went into the discussion today, I was the “token” person representing lower class groups. Well, this isn’t strictly true – folks told stories of coming from myriad backgrounds. But I still had the sense of being that outsider who “got it” and who actively engaged in the struggle today. There were moments in the conversation when someone expressed something that was just so….not right, and others nodded in agreement, and there’s only so much that I can try to say.
So often, in groups of people like the UUs at my church and in groups I encounter at work or socially, people make these broad statements that assume we all come from the same background and all have the same experiences and the same values. I get it. I get why it happens at the church: the UU faith tradition tends to attract “thoughtful rebels” who are largely white, upper to middle class with high levels of education and liberal values. But just because we tend to look and dress and act and speak the same way, it does not mean that we come from the same place. Every time I’m in a situation where someone makes a statement about “us” v. “them,” where “them” refers to the lower-classes, I get uncomfortable, and I get angry.
Because these statements erase my history and my identity. I am fucking proud of where I come from. My parents worked so hard to feed and clothe and educate six kids, and send us all off to really great schools, and also manage to pay off the mortgages of two houses in twenty years and pay down half of another mortgage in just seven years. They are rock stars. And they taught me to work hard, to work 20-30 hours a week at part-time jobs while going to school full-time. I struggled financially, because the safety net that others take for granted was almost non-existent in my case, and I am so proud of myself for getting out of my tough financial messes and for getting to where I am today. I am proud of that history, of the values my parents taught me, of the struggles that we were dealt and that we did not succumb to. And conversations that assume that I am from a solidly middle-class family where poverty was never an issue – these conversations erase a huge part of who I am.
There’s also this stigma that exists around being lower class. People tiptoe around it, they tiptoe around discussions of poverty, they are uncomfortable admitting that their parents struggled or that they personally cannot afford to go on this trip or pay for that dinner. It’s such bullshit. How much you earn should not reflect on who you are (and yet, it does, and here we are having discussions about classism). At several moments in the discussion today, people talked about striving to raise social statuses, about going to “visit the poor” in order to “improve them” (ok, that exact phrasing wasn’t used, but the meaning was the same). At several points, people touched on how, in order to belong to a higher social class, people need to assimilate, to dress and act and talk the way of the upper class.
Discussions about classism that focus on improving the plight of the lower class, that basically say “poor people shouldn’t be poor,” continue to reinforce the prejudices that brought us together today.
Society as a whole is so oriented towards celebrating wealth and upper class power, that we have forgotten to celebrate the values of the lower class. My parents taught me the value of hard work, of family and community, of independence and self-reliance. In a world where helicopter parents call professors when their children get bad grades and where “affluenza” allows a killer to walk free, the upper and middle classes could stand to take a good, long look at the values of the supposed “lower” class.
Jane Addams got it. That’s why her Hull Houses were meant to be “mutually beneficial” to both upper and lower class folks (I say this with a grain of salt, understanding that the application of her theory left something to be desired). She understood that each class had different things to offer the other. When our conversations about class turn to going out into the community and helping the lower class, then we start to step into that uncomfortable “white savior” role. When our conversations about class begin with the assumption that everyone wants to be upper class, no reservations, then we ignore the identities that are not welcomed in an upper class world, identities which people must often leave behind in order to become part of that world.
Class affects us in huge ways, ways that we aren’t even aware of, ways that can be incomprehensible to someone from a different class. I didn’t even realize some of the ways in which I’ve been affected until today. I feel dissonance within because I come from a lower class background with which I still relate intensely and yet I have been thrust suddenly into a middle-class, professional world with which I don’t always identify. It’s why I refuse to listen to classical music or read Literature-with-a-capital-L (even though I majored in the more esoteric of Literary studies) – because I associate both things with the hauteur of a middle/upper class that looks down on the hoi polloi and their interests. And it’s why I struggled and continue to struggle to relate to a boyfriend and to friends who haven’t experienced these same things that come from being lower class and/or immigrant.
I know that, above, I am just touching on some of the conversations ongoing in this topic. I haven’t really delved into classism much, partially because I feel so strongly about it and know that I have the potential to get so angry about it, and I worry about alienating people that are my friends and are my community. I don’t know if I will continue to attend classism events at the UU, even though my ears are sharply tuned to catch statements that accidentally display the privilege that comes of being born and made middle/upper class. But then again, I am uniquely positioned, by grace of my background and my education, to bridge a divide here and to speak about some of these things in a way that an audience with a similar education might finally understand. So….I don’t know.