To what extent is a person’s class culture determined by the environment they are raised in, and to what extent is it determined by their parents’ class culture?
What do I mean? I have noticed an interesting phenomenon:
In owning-class old money families eventually the money runs out and people are forced to raise the children as middle or working class people. However, these children who are raised economically as middle class people, but whose immediate parent was raised owning class old money, end up having the unique aura about them that is almost only present among people who are born owning class.
For example, they may have been raised in a middle class suburb on a middle class budget, but as a result of being raised by parents who grew up owning class, some of the cultural competencies, strengths, leadership aura, and accent rub off on them.
Also, if you compare the cultural style between children of, say, a man who made it big as a first generation construction millionaire and a child of the Rockefellers, the son of the first generation construction millionaire may have owning class style confidence but often have some cultural traits that are working class and have a much easier time blending with blue collar people his or her age.
Have you ever noticed this? A person changes class dramatically on an economic level, but their children despite being raised in the new class culture economically, take on the class culture that their parent was raised in.
This question is similar to the question asked by sociologists studying immigrants: How many generations does it take for an immigrant family to truly assimilate?
Being a child of parents who each came from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, I’ve found your posting very personal.
If you are African American from an upper to upper middle middle class family, you will have heard of an organization named Jack & Jill. My father and uncles, along with their cousins, all belonged to this organization, in fact they were among the charter generation.
My father because of his political beliefs rejected much of the classism and colorism he was raised in, and raised his children to do the same, however, due to my grandmother’s insistence, my siblings and I became second generation members. For me it was not an enjoyable experience.
When I was among my paternal cousins, I was called “ghetto”, when among my maternal cousins, I was labeled “bougie”. At the time I always thought my cousins’ behavior towards me was based on my “lack of or my possession of” material items.
Looking back now I think it was a combination of their own issues and my acquired idiosyncrasies of both my father’s upper middle class upbringing, and my mother’s working poor upbringing.
Lena Rothman says
Sounds like you were between “a rock and a hard place.” Maybe we all have a little of that scism built in sociologically speaking in that whatever class we were raised in, there is the ideological preference to be assimilated into the “norm” of middle class white.I can only imagine that within African American culture class is perhaps more of a challenge given that color has usually determined what class one was/is. I’m from a poverty/lower working class Jewish background and the only one that I know of that isn’t ashamed of owning the “p” class label in my immediate family.
I don’t think class transference goes both ways. I do think middle or working class people whose parents were owning class have a lot of the culture and entitlement of the owning class. But I know a lot of people who were poor or working class when they were growing up but who are now middle class…show little signs of that background. Have you read Limbo: White Collar Dreams, Blue Collar Roots, by Al Lubrano? I think it’s much much easier for a working class person to act middle class than it is for the middle class person to act working class.
Peter Daly says
There are so many elements that enter into this from race to whether one choises to be proud of their background or deny it and pretend it never existed. But the lack of money and the financial security that comes with that, and lack of possessions are always a constant. No matter what your parents background or education, when you are poor you are poor. The furniture looks bad and you think twice about inviting friends over to the house. You have less stuff than other people and that stands out after a while. The car your parents drive is noticeable older and second hand. Thick tension hangs in the air everyday over money.
My parents were decidely upper middle class to wealthy until protracted illness and mismanagement of money put my family on welfare when I was 3 years old. Although my parents were college educated all my friends growing up were sons and daughters of merchant marines, carpenters, masons etc. It was obvious to me even as a child that money was a problem. There was that palpable tension in the house that hung in the air it was always there, it was unavoidable.
But my parents were intelligent and articulate and expected me to attend college. That expectation always hung in the air also, far more so than for my friends. But once I was in college I realized I had some limitations. I couldn’t afford to fail economically because my parents would be unable to help me out if I did. I also realized that they would not have enough money for their retirement so at a young age of 18 I had to start thinking about how I would help support them in retirement although this was never openly discussed. But it was obvous it was going to happen. Other people unburdened by these necesitties had a greater range of freedom to choose what they wanted to do and could make riskier choices because their parents were their safety net whether they cousciously thought that or not.
My 3 oldest sisters who were 17, 17, (twins) and 14 at the time of the financial collapse definitely have an attitude of being upper middle class and entitled. My younger sisters who were 6 and 10 at the time of the financial disaster do not have “the attitude” of entitlement.
I am a pediatrician now and work in a very mixed economic area from very poor, about 40% of our patients, to college educated, about 10% of our patients, with the other 50% being blue collar, electricians, masons, carptenters, etc. I make no attempt to tell patients about my background and do not know what I do that gives it away but the patients pick out somehow that I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood. The other physicians who grew up upper middle class are treated much more formally by the patients than I am. I take this as a great sign of respect and affection. Sooner of later, usually sooner, the parents are calling me doc or honey. I can sympathize with them and their financial problems because I remember them from growing up and remember the anxiety and pain associated with it. It is more than just theoretical empathy. The other docs get called doctor. The trendy yuppies call them by their first name.
My wife is also a pediatrician in the practice and grew up a blue collar kid in a blue collar neighborhood. I was a child of white collar parents growing up in a blue collar neighborhood. Despite her MD degree this has also left her with the remarkable ability do drop the f bomb with surpising nonchalance. But mabye that’s a NJ blue collar thing. She doesn’t use the phrase trendy yuppie like I do, it’s always f**king yuppie. Her patients hug her a lot and give her little presents: pictures of their kids, brownies, etc. They immediately sense she’s a blue collar kid. They immediately sense this, much quicker than in my case. So I probably am a bit of a mix by uncouncious habits from childhood — blue collar neighborhood with college educated white collar parents.
I think it has to do with unconscious speech patterns,, what restuarants I gravitate to where I run into patients, type of sense of humor and many other unconcsious habits that I have that I don’t even know I have, that on some level I have chosen to maintain.
But I have also seen people go to college, in my case Princeton, from my background, and rapidly deny their background, figure out what the habits and speech patterns and clothes are of the wealthy, practice and assume them, and pass themselves off as someone who grew up in cirumstances quite different than what actually occurred. This usually happened by Sophomore year. Pretty damn fast. For me the culture shock of being from a welfare family and winding up in a elite Ivy League college on a scholarship is a bit of a wound I will never quite forget. But the thought of “assimilating” was just not acceptable. My first week there in a conversation I had during orientation week with people who were nearby me, one of the woman in the group looked at the other and said “NQOCD”. I later found out this meant, “Not quite our class, dear.” They had gone to prep school. I had not. The comment came out after they asked me where I went to high school.
The experience varies from individual to individual. I would imagine 1000 people would have to be interviewed to see how the group tends to break down in percentages. What percent deny their background, what percent embrace it and use it to their advantage. And then I am sure there would be even more subgroups than just those two.
Debbie Lynangale says
While reading Barbara Jensen’s book, I’ve been fascinated by a variant on this same question. For the relatively few people who do experience a significant change in socioeconomic status in their lifetime in financial terms, how long does it take for the psychological shift to take – and what is the effect for subsequent generations? Or, put another way, if our financial, social or cultural capital changes, what happens with the other kinds of capital and how they’re experienced?
My grandparents (with a lot of help) moved from a working poor to upper middle class status during their lifetime – certainly financially, but less so in terms of their social and cultural status. And yet I’ve felt confused all my life, raised with firmly middle class messages and privilege – and spoken and unspoken recrimination for not valuing family and community enough, maybe getting a little too uppity, moving too far away, etc. (using Barbara Jensen’s framework, told to “become” but also to “belong”).
I’m still playing with this, but makes me wonder how many others experience something similar, where a class change takes a few generations to work its way through. As pointed out by your post and the comments, there are obviously a lot of variations on how class change plays out. But for now at least, I’m inclined to think that environment, and maybe not just parental but generational/other family-related circumstances, may indeed play quite a significant part in our personal class experiences.
Thanks for this thread!