Caveat time: I am aware that classism is a fact all over the world. Today I focus on small towns and use Cameron as a specific example. This doesn’t mean I think less of its citizens. It’s a great place full of many kind, caring friends and with much warmth.
Yesterday I talked about how my father came up from poverty thanks to hard work and talent. Yet, you couldn’t take the Chattanooga out of the boy; he had a rather intense (and sometimes incomprehensible) accent, and his broken nose and funny ear testified to his past as a boxer. He didn’t always look middle class.
But, he was allowed out of the shackles of his past by kind friends, coworkers and others who saw his kind heart, great humor, and intelligence. He was lucky. He also moved away from his hometown where the Kendall boys had quite a reputation for mischief, from that I hear.
What If You Aren’t So Lucky?
While I’m noticing many newcomers to down, Cameron is a place where many of the families have been there long, long time. There are surnames in this town that I see in the newspapers from the early 1900s (by the way, this includes Mexican names whose families were here before this was the United States and long-time black residents). Some families have done well, and are the scions of the community, populating all the right churches, the right organizations, the country club, etc. Others are respected business owners known for their charity and work for the community. Many are successful ranchers and farmers who live outside of town behind gates proclaiming their ranch names and fencing that costs more than many homes.
The children of these families are beloved by their school teachers, who come from the elite families or are their friends. These children dress well, participate in the important clubs, win dozens of 4-H ribbons, are in the prom court, play on the football team, are cheerleaders, etc. Nice kids. They also enjoy some leniency at school, since everyone knows they are good kids from good families. Sound familiar? Sound like where you came from? Sure! This is the norm in the US, especially in small towns.
What about the others? Some of the surnames in town have different reputations. They are assumed (because of how their parents, grandparents, or distant relatives were troublemakers, lived in the “bad” part of town (literally on the wrong side of the tracks in Cameron), or had other nefarious connections) to be the kind of folks you don’t want to associate with. These kids may not have parents who can afford all the activities. They are the ones who get picked on because they smell funny, live in an ugly house, have parents with drug or alcohol problems (or their relatives do). They go to the churches who dare to accept everyone, no matter what their family history. This, too, is not surprising.
What bugs me, though, is how little mobility there is in these groups. If you have the right surname, you stay elite no matter how your circumstances change, what legal trouble you or your children get into, or what harmless mischief your kids engage in in school. Boys will be boys, after all!
On the other hand, if you are in the group with the unpopular surnames, you can get clean, get educated, learn from your mistakes and clean up your act, and treat others kindly and fairly, but your reputation follows you around like a cloud over your head. Like my dad’s accent, you can’t get rid of all the signs of where you came from.
If you want a job, you better do temporary manual labor, serve the high-class people in their clubs, or work in the convenience store, because no reputable company owned by the elites, will hire you.
My Question to You
Can we just break this pattern, even a little bit? I don’t mean let’s put down people from “good” families whose circumstances change or their kids get in trouble. I’m all for including them in the community and treating them with respect. You will assume they are doing their best to remedy the situation.
What I suggest is that we give people with the “wrong” surnames a break. Let’s stop keeping good folks (or people trying to be good) down. Maybe, even, we can take a look at people who, like my dad, got into a bit of mischief when they were young, and see that they are making a big effort to turn themselves around. Maybe an opportunity to prove themselves is just what they need to end familial patterns. Right now I am thinking of at least four people I know who are doing this.
It is damned hard to escape your reputation without moving to a new area where no one knows you. No wonder so many young people flee small towns. It’s hard to persist when doors are repeatedly slammed in your face, people warn others that you aren’t the “right kind of people” to have associated with your business. For many people, it’s two steps forward and two steps back. No wonder people give up.
What I’ve Done
First, I’m not an idiot. And I’m not easily fooled, thanks to that handy “highly sensitive person” trait. But yes, I have given people with poor reputations in town a break. I’ve provided opportunities and seen them rise to those opportunities. I see hard work that goes unnoticed, kind deeds done in private, and intelligence that is an asset when allowed to be used. I also see mistakes and areas for growth. I’m not a fool. I am, however, glad to have among my friends people from all parts of good old Cameron.
[Here commences a lecture and unsolicited advice. I’m not comfortable doing this, but here goes.]
I ask those of you who read this and are in a position to do so: give someone a chance. It may or may not work out. But it can’t hurt. See past reputations and mistakes made long ago. See the potential in kids with less than ideal backgrounds. Please. We live in a place where hard work and perseverance are supposed to help you get ahead, not where there is a caste system (official or informal). Let’s be kind to ALL our neighbors and give them ALL the benefit of the doubt.
Classism just isn’t right. It causes us to often put inappropriate people in power and eliminates those who could do much good. The world would be a much worse place if someone hadn’t given my dad, with no college degree, a chance to work as an engineer, because he was talented at it.
I’m not going to stop caring about my friends, family, and coworkers. I can’t stop people from making inaccurate assumptions, speaking poorly about others, or punishing children just because they came from struggling parents. I can’t change the culture of a community on my own.
I CAN stop shopping at people’s stores, doing business with their companies, and assuming the best of THEM. There are lots of stores and businesses out there where I can spend my money.
It takes a lot to piss me off. I’m not an angry person except when I see people treat others poorly. I am not pleased with how people I know have been treated in Cameron, nor am I pleased to be thought of as a pushover who lets “that kind of people” walk all over me.
Believe me, I’ve given some people chances who were unable to use them to better themselves (even some of my own family). It made me sad, but I don’t pay people who don’t work. Do I regret given them a chance? Nope. It’s hard to find good, steady workers in Cameron and many other small towns, I know. Given a chance, though, you might be surprised who will work hard for your business.
Join me, wherever you are, in assuming most people are doing their best and trying to better themselves. If someone asks for a chance, give it. Don’t just stick to the “right” people. You might feel good about yourself, have a better opinion of your community, and help make the world a better place, one opportunity at a time.
[End rant. End advice. Comment away.]