A surprising class culture pattern

When I was studying 25 social justice groups for Missing Class, one of my biggest surprises was a class category I hadn’t even thought to look for: lower professionals. Activists of that class had such unique ways of speaking, participating, and especially dealing with conflict that they had a notable impact on their groups.

By “lower professionals” I mean at least the second generation to earn 4-year college degrees, but not advanced degrees, and not from elite schools; and at least the second generation to hold white-collar professional-managerial salaried jobs, but in the middle of hierarchies, not at the top. The lower-professionals in my study had jobs like nonprofit IT manager, community organizer, and human services case manager. Of course there were exceptions to every class culture generalization, but by and large lower-professionals were much more low-key than the more confident, assertive upper-middle-class activists.

Every class culture has strengths and limitations, and lower professionals (LPs) are no exception. Their biggest pitfall seems to be conflict avoidance. When studying LP-majority groups, often I wouldn’t find out what was really going on until after the meetings, in one-on-one interviews. In a couple of these LP groups, avoiding open conflict was such a powerful habit that even misuse of money and public intoxication weren’t discussed at meetings or brought up to the offenders’ faces.

Of course, soft-pedaling conflict can also be useful, and sometimes when opinionated and aggressive activists of other classes were arguing, lower professionals’ quiet tones were helpful in smoothing the waters.

But faced with the most common pet peeve of all classes, overtalking, some LPs spoke so tentatively that no one could tell what they were objecting to. For example, one LP facilitator responded to a long, long digression by a habitual overtalker by saying, with upward questioning inflection, “Maybe we want to get back to our agenda?” In interviews, LPs would express their desire for over-talkative people to speak less at meetings, but then they would pull themselves back and state their support for all members to express themselves, as part of a democratic or egalitarian ideal.

This see-saw of ambivalence was a common LP speech pattern. Many would say “but” in the middle of a paragraph and switch positions, often telling themselves not to feel what they were feeling. If they criticized someone, they included some praise in the next sentence. Their self-consciousness and self-doubt seemed to hold them back from assertively putting forward their opinions.

LP and other professional women, mostly white and middle-aged, were the behind-the-scenes workhorses of many groups, playing roles such as bookkeeping, fundraising, database maintenance, gaining technical expertise on the group’s issue, and teaching group process skills. Each of the working-class leaders in the study had one or more of these women quietly backing them up. Despite putting in many hours into such crucial functions, they were not publicly recognized as leaders. And in many ways they weren’t taking leadership: speaking so tentatively, dressing plainly, and avoiding domination for principled reasons, some of them had a notable lack of humor and charisma.

One of my hopes in writing Missing Class is that activists will recognize the strengths and limitations of their own and others’ class cultures, engage in cross-class dialogue, expand their tool-kits and thus improve their effectiveness at movement-building. For lower-professional activists, my hope is that some will feel freed up by the bluntness of powerhouse working-class leaders to laugh more and speak more from the heart, and that some will be inspired by more polished upper-middle-class activists to express their ideas more confidently.

This LP story is just one of several nuanced class culture portraits I was able to draw in Missing Class, thanks to 362 activists sharing their class stories with me. I also found strong cultural commonalities within several other class identities.

Usually when we attend meetings, we don’t know much about the class backgrounds of the other members. But after I read activists’ surveys about their own and their parents’ education, occupation and housing, all kinds of class patterns just popped out from transcripts of meetings and interviews, like looking through 3D glasses.

It doesn’t require a social science study to see class cultures, though. It just requires some open talk about class life stories, the kind of talk that Class Action workshops foster.

Betsty Leondar-Wright’s new book from Cornell University Press, ‘Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures,’ is now available in the Class Action store

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