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where we stand: class matters

I grew up middle class. With my parents’ divorce, when I was seven years old, the economic strength of my household decreased significantly. My mother worked and my father (as far as I know) didn’t miss any child support payments (Mom, please correct me if I’m wrong), but given that my mother didn’t have a college degree and that women then—1973—made and still make less than men do for the same work, we didn’t always have money for everything. Not to say that we ever went hungry or without decent clothes—still, there was a definite sense in those years that money was tight. But, no matter how tight things were, our behavior and attitudes and self-positioning in society was always middle class.

In the last couple of years I have moved into the upper-middle class—and I am uncomfortable here. Two important things happened to move me up the class ladder: both my spouse and I have completed graduate school and found professional jobs; and, more significantly, my spouse inherited enough money to provide a sizable down payment on a house, which we have purchased in the hyper-inflated Bay Area market. Both of these events reflect the race and class privilege into which we were born and I am acutely aware of how unfair it is that we have what we have—which is more than some 90+% of the country’s, not to mention the world’s, population—and others do not.

I feel I have left my middle class roots behind. I feel it in my choice of entertainment: I go to the opera and the symphony and I read books; I don’t watch TV. I see it in my vocabulary and in the clothes I wear. The difference is especially keen when I notice how many times people ask me for donations to their causes. And, perhaps most powerfully, I see the difference in the way people treat me: people seem to see me as more moneyed and they treat me accordingly. It doesn’t matter if they know me or not and what I’m wearing doesn’t have any effect; it’s like even my most grubby clothes are mysteriously marked as only a poor covering on a rich person. The differences in the way they treat me are subtle. It’s a deference, an expectation, an attitude. Clearly, the change is partly about how I act; I’m not trying to act differently and, yet, somehow the improvements in my material well-being are affecting my behavior without my conscious control.

All this was brought to the fore as I read Where We Stand: Class Matters (bell hooks). In it, hooks describes her own more dramatic rise in class status from working poor to upper-middle class and what it’s like to be where she is now. She discusses the cultural shock of interacting with the class-privileged for the first time and the impacts of her decision to go to a “fancy school” on herself and her family. She writes about the difficulties of going back and forth between class and whether it is possible at all.

From these personal experiences—as well as years of research, thinking, and work on the interrelated topics of race, gender, and other sites of oppression in our culture—hooks builds a critique of class and its consequences in our nation. I believe this work is important and that all U.S. citizen’s should read it. Capturing the full power of hooks’ prose can only be done through the words themselves and I have already quoted her in this blog (see class in second life and hooks on housing). Here are a few, among many more, quotes worth noting:

“While the poor are offered addiction as a way to escape thinking too much, working people are encouraged to shop. Consumer culture silences working people and the middle classes. They are busy buying or planning to buy.”

“It is impossible to talk meaningfully about ending racism without talking about class. Let us not be duped.”

“Creating and maintaining social conditions where individuals of all ages daily suffer malnutrition and starvation is a form of class warfare that increasingly goes unnoticed in this society.”

“Ironically, the token presence of individual white women and people of color among the rich and powerful was effectively used to validate the existing social and economic structure by conservatives who had religiously fought to keep them out. By the early eighties the idea that sexism and racism and been eradicated, coupled with the assumption that the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy could work for everybody gained momentum and with it the noyion that those groups for whom it did not work were at fault.”

“In a world where pathological narcissism is the order of the day, it is difficulty to arouse collective concern for challenging racism or any form of domination. The will to resist can be tamed by a world that says everything can be as you want in the world of fantasy. And consumer culture generates the fantasy.”

“Women were encouraged to see the economic gains of affluent females as a positive sign for all women. In actuality, these gains rarely changed the lot of poor and working-class women. . . . When privileged women left the home to work, someone had to stay in the home and do the dirty work.”

“The rights of those who own real estate are more protected than the rights of children and women who are victimized daily by domestic violence.”

“At all educational levels students from working-class backgrounds fear losing touch with peers and family. And that fear often leads to self-sabotage. To intervene on this nonproductive pattern we do need more testimony both in oral traditions and in writing of how working-class and poor folk can remain connected to the communities of our origin even as we work to improve our economic lot.”

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