This got long, so it’s going to be a two-parter. Here, I explain why classism offends me so much.
I think I’ve dealt with as much classism in my life as racism. Both of those practices get me all riled up. It has occurred to me (this morning!) that classism in the US, especially in small towns, is incredibly insidious – because it’s harder to see. The signs of who is in what class are often subtle. However, it’s easy to feel.
As a wee lass, I lived on a quiet street in a working-class neighborhood in a north-Florida college town. My dad had come up from extreme poverty in north Georgia/Chattanoga and was in his first job that would let him afford to buy a little concrete-block house on two lots (which he turned into a botanical garden, but that’s another story). My mother was from a family with deep roots in the area that had always aspired to be “classy,” I guess. They came from merchants, musicians, journalists, etc. They had maids who raised their kids,just like in The Help. She HATED that her surveyor father had made her live in Dixie County, Florida as a child, around all that “trash.” No wonder her parents didn’t like her marrying my dad; it took her down a notch in class. (Mom had many great qualities; I’m just not focusing on those right now.)
Trash, the People Kind
I heard a lot about “white trash” as a kid in the Deep South, as much as I heard pejorative terms for black people. (I normally don’t use those terms.) Apparently, thanks to Mom’s side of the family, we were not “trash.” Our neighborhood consisted of people who were not all that well off, but of some other, slightly higher, class. Well, except the Purvis family, whose women all had babies at 15, whose men wore overalls and sleeveless t-shirts, and who never took their Christmas tree lights down so that the tree grew around it (it may be noted that I liked them, played with their daughter, and loved their kumquat tree). The classes didn’t have formal names, but apparently everyone knew what they were.
Worse were those people way at the end of the street who lived in an old, unpainted house with (gasp) a dirt yard and (gasp) a washing machine on the porch. These people, unfortunately also named Kendall (ha ha ha), were trash. My mom pretty much taught me all about classism in the Deep South. Great.
Thank goodness I also had Dad. Dad wasn’t big on -isms. He liked people for who they were. I don’t know how he put up with some of the stuff Mom said, which I only later realized what pretty ignorant/mean. He’s the one who encouraged me to have a sleepover with the little girl who lived in the trailer outside of town, who most of the kids in first grade made fun of. He’s the one who told me to be nice to that black girl in my freshly integrated fourth-grade class, because her dad worked with him at the telephone pole plant and he was a good man. He didn’t talk like Mom. I later found out he’d even seen Martin Luther Kind, Jr., on a train riding through Alabama. He was a product of his times, but for the 60s, he was progressive-ish.
How I Ended Up
Thanks to being brought up by Dad, having some great teachers, and having some genetic urge to root for the underdog, I ended up always testing class boundaries. In addition to confusing Mom by having close black friends (even, to her discomfort, bringing them into our house), I chose as my friends some of the kids other people made fun of because of where they lived. Ask Anita about how she was treated by some people in high school.
I also had friends who were of the professional class. I learned as much as I could from them about how their parties worked, how they decorated their homes, what their hobbies were. I’ve always been fascinated by people, and since I somehow lucked out enough to be smart enough to get a scholarship to college, I had a feeling I wouldn’t end up in the secretarial pool, or whatever people in my less-fancy neighborhood on the wrong side of the Florida Turnpike did.
When I was an undergrad, I, of course, met lots of kinds of people. The high-class ones were in fraternities and sororities, and I knew a few of them and learned how their class acted. I also met a lot of nerdy intellectuals, and knew I’d found “my people.” But, what I learned outside of college is what got me where I am today with classism.
My summer job for three years came thanks to my dad, who inspected printed-circuit boards at a small plant in Pompano Beach, Florida. He got me a job as the lowest person on the totem pole there, the person who washed and cleaned off the finished boards (you would not believe how low-tech this process was in the 70s, nor how HUGE the boards for the big IBM computers were).
There I met a lot of working-class people. And since I had a lot to learn, they taught me my job. And we talked. And I learned so much from Millie, who had few teeth and much facial hair but had zillions of delicious low-cost recipes to share. And Barbara, who was covered with fatty tumors she couldn’t afford to remove, who taught me how to manage money. And Sam, who was large, black, and strong, who turned out to tell fascinating stories of his life. My dad did me a HUGE favor by making sure I learned I was no better or worse than these people who didn’t have the luck to go to a fancy college and study linguistics. They weren’t “trash” to me; they were friends and mentors.
This is where I am today, and may explain why I have so much to learn about dealing with some of the things I see in Cameron. It’s a place with very firm boundaries in social class. I’m going to suggest an article by a man who had similar experiences to mine that might be good reading if you don’t think that perceived class can limit people.
Why is it assumed that those with privilege are to become the leaders of tomorrow, while those who lack are supposed to be the flunkies?”“Classism in Our Schools,” by Andy Pope
More on this tomorrow