What follows is a very personal essay about my own learning about class, race and other “isms.” I use my own method of self-critique and observation and lived experience. Most of what I’ve learned is, of course, unfortunately, hindsight.
I am from a poverty / lower working class background. Socially I have had many mixed poverty/working/middle class friends and girlfriends. Recently I had a huge fight with my girlfriend because I mentioned the “C” word. No, not Cancer, Class. We have since ironed it out but it is ever present in everyday life. Here’s what this argument looked like:
We were driving from San Francisco up Rte 5 to Oregon to visit her sister for Thanksgiving. I was driving her car which is a 2003 Toyota Corolla with Cruise control. I have a 1995 Toyota Tercel. I love my car, even though it has no Cruise control. I have 206+k miles on it. She has 60K miles on hers.
I have a “heavy foot” (tendency to speed) unless there’s cruise control. I was driving her vehicle and commented how nice it is to drive her vehicle and put on cruise control and relax so I can stop looking at the dashboard and be worried about speeding all the time when on the highway. It’s dangerous, annoying and stressful to be driving in fear of getting a $300 ticket. After a few moments of silence I snapped my fingers and said, “hey, that’s a class issue.” I was just excited because I had an epiphany. I said it with no intent. I saw it as a class issue because usually cars with cruise control are later model cars and/or more expensive cars than I can afford.
She got really irritated and angrily said. “not everything is about class!” At that point I got angry back and started yelling about “OMG I said the ‘C’ word!! Yep, I said it again! Well, goddamn me, shoot me!” I felt like Ralph Cramden (Jackie Gleason) from The Honeymooners (1950’s network TV). I’m laughing now as I write this. But it felt maddening to me at the time.
I realize that so many of these arguments are because of our varying degrees of privilege and the resulting guilt of that privilege. And usually from there the argument degenerates into defensiveness and no one can hear anyone. The reason I know this is because of prior relationships I had with wimin of color. At times I would get tired of always hearing “white this or white that” or “Indian this or that.” I knew the political content and got it, but my ego, my race, race privilege got in the way. It’s one thing to know it on a somewhat distant level, but living in a mixed race couple, of course, I had to deal with my racism. I am at least honest enough to admit it. Threfore, I can learn. Same thing goes for Class issues, gender/sex issues, etc.
I don’t say all of that to pin a medal on my chest, but it is what I’ve learned and observed. In a way, getting to understand how our society is organized, including the emotional content as part of society, taking it to the larger picture, I think, helps me understand myself and others without all the blame, shame and guilt. And now I can make a lot of Jewish jokes because I’m Jewish — and guilt being the topic, well, I can have a really good time with that.
Guilt. What can I say about that? We all have it. It’s not always a bad or negative thing. Sometimes, guilt helps us do the right thing. Other times, and mostly, it gets in the way of honest communication and truly giving to others. Maybe this essay is really about owning our privilege(s) and how to make use of them?
I tend to share examples of internalized classism. I do that because it’s a way of saying to the self-proclaimed “guilty” ones ‘ hey, you’re not alone in thinking the way you do. I was socialized in this society as much as you were. And if you want to be guilty, because you think that will help us, that’s the wrong tact to take.’ Maybe we are all guilty, and then what? I think if we own our privilege(s) and put them to use in whatever way we can, then we’re doing something to alleviate inequality.
I pulled a classist act on my own sister recently. Out of three girls in my family, I was the only one that went to college in my 30’s. My sisters both live a pretty middle-class existence financially and socially. But the oldest bought a trailer for vacations and set it up in a Florida trailer resort, and then the resort got closed down because the town no longer approved zoning for trailers. I guess she had an eye opener because she had thought she had “made it” because she had money, she’s been able to have financial stability (for the first time in her life), and then the town which is a relatively affluent area on the west coast of Florida, decided that trailers were “too trashy” for their community. I mention this because there’s so much more to class than money.
But that wasn’t the classist act I laid on my middle sister. With my middle sister, I told her a story and gave her the definition of a word without her asking, and when I gave her this little tidbit, she said, “I know what that means.” I felt embarrassed and bad that I did that.
So, there we are. We are all guilty in a way. The internalization of the “isms” goes deep. If anyone would like to talk more about this I’d be really happy about that. And what about privileges? Can we name what they look like?