The Facebook post showed a 1950’s cartoon businessman: blonde hair, suit and tie, saying, “No, you can’t ‘axe’ me a question. I don’t speak Walmart.” A snotty enough putdown if it came from racial and class privilege. But it wasn’t posted by an upper-class or even a middle-class person, but a person who has struggled in and out of a series of working class jobs and never been able to go to college.
What’s more mysterious is that, although the ‘axe’ presumably refers to black language, the poster had dated black people and has a half-black granddaughter whom she loves.
What can this post mean in this context? I suspect, based on my own experience, that it represents a need to maintain a toehold in status, as in “I get this, unlike some people.” “I (despite all my struggles, despite what I might appear) claim a category above this.” In a strange way, it reminds me of Rodney King’s remark, not the famous one about getting along, but the less famous one about how beatings such as he received ought to be reserved for child molesters and murderers (not mere robbers and speeders).
And it reminds me of myself in middle school, that hellhole of status desperation. Living out in the country, I thought perhaps my poverty wasn’t visible to everyone. But while others talked of mysterious clubs (Job’s Daughters) and opportunities (swimming at the Y, going to a vacation cabin), all I had to maintain status was my “Above-Average” courses. But Home Ec class had only one level and in that level was a cousin of my mother’s who seemed to me the epitome of low-class: humble, socially and educationally insecure, someone who might “out” me with references to demeaning events and objects. She greeted me in a friendly way and asked—in front of two higher-status girls— if I had seen the movie Bambi.
“I don’t go to baby movies,” I answered scornfully, aiming to ally myself with the higher-status girls and distance myself from my mother’s cousin. Ridiculously, the truth was that I never went to movies at all because we couldn’t afford it.
My cousin’s face fell, and I felt a twinge of guilt. Without the presence of higher-status people to judge (or affirm) me, I would never have been so mean. My bid for status backfired, however, big time. One of the high-class girls came to my mother’s cousin’s defense and asked me point blank why I was such a bitch. I was the one who ended up humiliated. But even after my evil behavior, my mother’s cousin was still nice to me.
And I’m reminded of one last thing. A student of mine from the San Francisco area was on a bus with her friend. A Spanish-speaking girl got on, looked around, and asked for assistance in Spanish. The student’s friend spoke Spanish, but she kept silent. The student nudged her friend, but couldn’t get her to speak up, to ally herself with a low-status, recent immigrant.
How great the need for status is when life offers countless opportunities to be looked down on, dismissed, rejected. Yet what an achievement to overcome this temptation. Those who do can truly say they have worked in solidarity.