It’s Not What You Say, but How?

Using Language as a Weapon of Classism

a boy snidely glaringA British friend of mine, who met and married his American wife in London, told me that he dreaded attending her job-related social functions in “The Square Mile.” As a bank executive, her coworkers were mostly upper middle-class, and they, along with banking and corporate elites, attended these affairs. When my friend’s wife introduced him to her associated, he’d shake hands and remain silent for as long as he could. Because once he spoke and they heard his working-class accent, the tenor of the conversation changed and they very politely extricated themselves from his company – as quickly as possible.

My friend may have exaggerated a bit, and certainly the Brits are infamous for still observing – albeit less rigidly – a centuries-old class hierarchy. However, I know that language is a powerful class indicator in the United States also – and, sadly, a way that too many people with and without class privilege decide who is and is not worth their time.

Not Worth My Time

For example, my husband and I recently went to a rather tony men’s shoe store. The female clerk and I were chatting about my husband’s style preferences when he came over. As soon as he entered the conversation with his working-class South Bronx accent, the woman began to furtively look around the store for other customers to help. She obviously assumed that we could not afford the shoes and asked if we were “from the city.”

This got me thinking not only about grammar/accent/syntax/etc. snobbery, but also about the many classist words and phrases (“from the city”) that people use to separate themselves from those they consider inferior and of “lower” class status. Thanks to the contributions of my Class Action colleagues who answered the call for examples they’d heard, I have a long list of classist terms, phrases and expressions. Here are just a few.

You Have No Class

We have all heard the term “classy” used snidely to demean someone’s appearance, housing, speech or behavior. But the term is also classist when used to suggest that someone did or said something admirable or looks especially good. Betsy Leondar-Wright, Class Action board president, responds to either sincere or snide comments (pretending that the person is offering sincere praise) by saying that she also admires what the speaker is calling classy. She then says, “But I don’t like to use class, high-class, or classy to praise people, because in reality, working-class and poor people do admirable things just as often as rich people do – sometimes more.”

Language is a powerful class indicator in the United States.”

Trainer Phyllis Labanowski has heard people use “from the projects” as a put down. She responds by questioning the premise that people who are working-class, middle-class and wealthy live in neighborhoods while people who are poor live in projects. She then asks, “Doesn’t everyone live in a neighborhood?”

Prolific “Classism Exposed” contributor and school counselor Fisher Lavell shared that school administrators often use “the good kids” as code for “white, middle-class kids from two-parent homes.” When an administer recently came to her with a concern about a good kid behaving badly, Fisher was direct in her response. “Oh,” she said, “you mean she’s a middle-class kid.”

A coworker of mine used to refer to people with poor grammar and articulation as “ghetto.” This insensitive, classist stereotype was especially egregious as it came from a well-educated black woman working at a social justice organization! And one of her office mates, a young woman from the rural South, used the descriptors “redneck” and “hillbilly” to talk about her extended family. I wish could tell you that I offered an instructive response, but I did not. When I would say that they wouldn’t want anyone to say that about them, they’d just laugh.

Celebrating Differences

According the BBC’s Jason Goldman, “What makes human language unique is not that it allows us to communicate with each other, but that it allows us to do so with infinite variety.” So instead of being language police, let’s celebrate the rich variety that different class groups bring to ever-evolving living language.

Your Examples?

I’ve shared some of the classist words, phrase and expressions that we at Class Action have heard and try to respond to constructively and instructively. What classist words and phrases have you heard? Do you have tried and true responses? Please share them in the comments section below.

2 Responses

  1. Johanna Halbeisen

    “Inner city” as in “That’s an inner city school.” I heard this especially when I was teaching, but while it made me uncomfortable, I didn’t know enough at the time to think of ways to counter it.

  2. Calling poor white people ‘white trash’ is an extreme form of this in the US, and the term ‘chav’ in the UK is similar.

    My view is that it’s all unacceptable. Accents do matter a lot in the UK to some people, but it has changed. Most of us who are from working class backgrounds, will tend to be ‘bi-accented’ for want of a better term. If we are with our local friends we speak with our normal accents, if we are somewhere else or we soften the accent. I think many of us do that. However, those who speak ‘posh’ may play up a working class accent, too.

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