Rapid response to “low-class Italian white trash”

What a coincidence! Just a few days after posting the two pieces below about responding to classist comments, I heard a doozy – and I think I responded quicker and better because I’d so recently read Nicole’s and Susan’s advice. But I’m still not sure whether it made any difference.

In water aerobics class, several older white women were deploring the TV show “Jersey Shore,” in particular the female characters’ sexual morality. “They meet a guy at a bar and take him right home!”; “Or two or three guys – at once!”; “They’d do it right there on the bar stool!” “I wish my daughter wouldn’t let my granddaughter see it.”

I told one of them, an Italian-American grandmother whom I often chat with during the weekly class, that I’m from New Jersey, and that that’s not what life in NJ is mostly like. She said in a questioning tone, “It seems like they’re all Italian?” and I answered, “That part is realistic. New Jersey has lots and lots of Italian people.”

She replied, “But those [meaning “Jersey Shore” characters] are low-class Italians. They’re white trash.” My first response, “That seems like a put-down term to me,” got just a baffled look from her, so I tried again: “Some of the Italian Americans in my home town were poor, and they didn’t behave like that.” She made an acknowledging noise like “hmpf” (or maybe “huh?”), and that was the end of the conversation. The water aerobics class ended, and she left the pool without talking with me more.  I have no idea whether she understood what I meant, or whether I had stepped on her toes so now she’ll avoid chatting with me in the future. It’s hard to imagine bringing the issue back up at another week’s class.

Still, I’m glad I tried. If I’d said nothing, I would have felt that silent bystander guilt. It was easier because we were already in a one-on-one conversation. If I’d been eavesdropping on strangers and heard them say classist or racist slurs, it would have been harder to butt in.

It also went better because we’ve chatted before and I had already come to like her. “Connect before correct,” as Class Action board president Jerry Koch-Gonzalez has taught me: if she understood my “correction,” she would be more likely to accept it because of our human connection.

What if her comment had been a racial slur instead of a class slur? I think she would have understood my reaction in that case. I imagine how I look in her eyes, and what she probably assumes about my political attitudes. Her guesses would probably be close to the truth on racial attitudes.

My partner and I feel very different from our water aerobics class-mates. Not only are we (as far as we can tell) the only lesbians, and younger than most regulars, and US-born at our majority-immigrant YMCA, but we’re acutely aware of our class difference as well. We have masters degrees; we haven’t heard anyone else mention college. The other women, if they still have jobs, care for retarded people or pre-school children or the elderly, or work as administrative assistants or travel agents. By contrast, my partner and I both work with progressive ideas professionally. These differences tend to separate us socially from the other women in the pool, and keep our conversations superficial.

So from the Italian grandmother’s point of view, it wasn’t just anyone reacting to her “low-class white trash” comment about the “Jersey Shore” characters; it was one of those college-educated lesbians. I wouldn’t expect this particular person to say something racist, but if she had and I’d spoken up, she probably wouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve found that lots of working-class and lower-middle-class white people expect college-educated professionals to be sensitive about how race is mentioned; many walk on eggshells around us, expecting to be criticized for using the wrong term or not being positive enough about every single person of color. Almost everyone in the US has heard of someone being fired for making racist comments on the radio or in a public job. I bet there’s a category in her mind for such reactions during a conversation about race with someone like me.

But speaking up to defend poor people – that was a surprise. My sense was that she had no context for interpreting what I said.

With classism, our society is approximately where we were on sexism and racism in about 1951. We’re living under a cone of silence — one that’s just waiting to be smashed by an organized rebellion.

5 Responses

  1. Nicole Renee Brown

    This was certainly a real-life exercise in countering Verbal Classism! I’m glad you spoke up because it makes a difference when standing up against injustice–whether the person receives it or not. It’s quite possible that she placed you in the assumed category she may have had for you (middle-class, politically correct, Lesbian Liberal, oh boy!) and decided not to continue talking to you after the class. Like, “oh, that lady just doesn’t get it, end of conversation with her.” But here’s where I’m thinking Race and Class intersects: she’s a Italian Grandmother, and although Italians haven’t been considered a separate race since the turn of the century (I should say Ethnicity and Class Intersection), on top of the assumption she may have about you, she may also think that she’s Italian and knows what she’s talking about way more than your or others in that pool! And here this Liberal is telling her about class! I think you’re right and people who are caught out there making silly comments find a way to excuse their actions by thinking the other person is out of line–add to the fact that she herself is Italian, she may think she knows way more about “low-class Italian White Trash.” Gosh, that is a loaded term. For her to believe that there is a difference between her Italian-ness and the True Italian-ness of Snooky, “The Situation” and other characters on the show (I am guilty of having watched a few episodes…) sounds like Internalized Oppression to me. It’s like me thinking that my West Indian side of the family is better than the more recent immigrants from the caribbean who may have less money. But on the other hand, I have a bone to pick with that terrible show which is poor representation of Italian Americans but it doesn’t condone calling the characters horrible classist terms like “trash.” Anyway, that’s my two cents but bravo for speaking up! I agree–only with organized rebellion can we expose and dismantle classism.
    Yours in Struggle!

  2. Pete

    I have known and been related to first generation and off the boat Italians. I think I understand where grandma was coming from. I doubt she thought much in terms of internalized oppression. She was more concerned that the trash behaviour of the individuals on this TV show would somehow be attributed to her and her children due to the conspicuous Italianness of the cast. It’s not about classism. It’s about calling something what it is. Trash is trash. And I wasn’t there for the conversation, but I’d bet her assessment of these individuals had nothing to do with money, or formal education. Nicole didn’t expose or dismantle any classism. You just didn’t understand where Grandma was coming from.

  3. I think its entirely possible that g-ma wasn’t talking about class in the socioeconomic sense but more so in the self respect sense. I think you may have totally jumped the gun on this one.

  4. Pittsburgh Italian

    As an Italian-American from western Pennsylvania (where there is a large Italian-American community), allow me to say that I’ve noticed that among our community, there are some pretty noticeable distinctions based on class and socioeconomic status. Italian-Americans vary more widely than most other ethnic groups in America in this regard, meaning that while you have plenty of us who are well-educated professionals (i.e. doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, etc.), you also have a large number of us who are blue-collar types and would even be considered working-class or lower middle class (i.e. plumbers, mechanics, electricians, construction workers, cops, firefighters, truck drivers, etc.). In my experience, a very large percentage of the Italian-Americans in the NYC/NJ area represent the latter type of Italian-Americans, and is also where you’ll find the “guido” stereotype and subculture to a greater degree among many in the younger generations.

    Areas such as Staten Island, Brooklyn, parts of NJ, and also South Philly all contain large numbers of more blue-collar Italian-Americans. Here in western PA, there are many white-collar and blue-collar Italian-Americans, and in a state like California, it seems Italian-Americans there lean heavily white-collar. There may or may not also be another factor involved, namely the region of origin of Italian-Americans. Sicilians and Northern Italians in my experience are heavily represented in the white-collar contingent of Italian-Americans, whereas you see more Neapolitans, Calabrians, and others who lean more toward blue-collar occupations. Sicilians are very independent, entrepreneurial and business-like, which largely explains their success (including that of my own Sicilian relatives). Northern Italy on the other hand has simply always been wealthier and more prosperous, hence northerners who came to the U.S. had certain skills that their poorer southern counterparts didn’t have, which likely gave many northerners a head start.

    Therefore, I think I understand the Italian-American grandmother’s point of view better than most. The people on “Jersey Shore” represent the stereotypical working-class image of Italian-Americans that the media loves to portray, and was, rightfully so, expressing frustration and anger over how it reflected poorly on the Italian-American community. I’m not a fan of “Jersey Shore” myself for this reason, and get rather annoyed when people toss the term “guido” around so lightly. Most Italian-Americans I know, including myself, don’t act this way at all. Also, not every working-class or blue-collar Italian-American acts like that either. Most are actually decent hard-working people who just happen to be blue-collar or working-class folks, nothing more.

  5. Anthony D'Agostino

    My grandfather was born in Italy. I grew up at the Jersey Shore. There are certainly “guidos,” at the Jersey Shore, but it’s a very small percentage of the population. And, yes, there’s a culture of “hooking up,” there during the summer season. But it’s really not excessive. Go to any college town in the United States and you will witness far more casual attitudes about sex. I’ve lived out West for about 10 years now, and what surprises me is that people here really seem to buy into stereotypes about Italians and New Jersey out here. Perhaps it’s because there are very few Italian-Americans out here. But Americans in the West then to view Italian-Americans as caricatures based on what they’ve seen on television. They just haven’t been back East much apparently. I experienced the opposite, before I started traveling in my 20s. I really had no idea that Italians weren’t all over the USA in the large numbers I grew up with back East. I don’t bother trying to correct people or explain where I come from. For the most part, they will never understand. And forget about decent Italian food until you get to (maybe Vegas) San Francisco.

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