Sunday, June 10, 2007

Class Consciousness

The subject of class (socioeconomic, cultural) is one I spent a good deal of time reading and writing about in college for my sociology minor, but one that I've hesitated to reflect upon in my own life. Class is such a hush hush topic, entangled as it is with racist, elitist, sexist, and generally presumptive stereotypic trappings. Who am I (white, educated, upper middle class female) to be commenting on class? Except perhaps for being female, my signalment sets me up for unfavorable impressions when it comes to discussions of class. I worry that anything I say could be taken the wrong way. Or worse, that maybe I'm not as open-minded, liberal, and unbiased as I'd like to be - or like other people to think I am.

I was going to say for better or worse - but it's definitely just for better - I wasn't particularly conscious of the idea of class growing up. I was aware, via my mother's constant involvement with charity organizations for poor women and children, of stark differences between my life and those of some children whom she worked with. I knew that I was fortunate and was taught to be thankful for everything I had. I could recognize that there wasn't even complete equality among my friends, but what I wasn't conscious of were the implications of class. That class - a label over which really no individual has any control at the onset of life - would shape my perceptions, my actions, my future, my culture, everything.

There was an article in the New York Times today about Ruby Payne, a woman who's written a few semi-scientific anecdote-laden books regarding the influence of class in our society.
"Your class, Payne says, determines everything: your eating habits, your speech patterns, your family relations. It is possible to move out of the class you were born into, either up or down, she says, but the transition almost always means a great disruption to your sense of self."
In my adult life, I've experienced a progressively increasing awareness of class. In part I'd say that can be attributed to a similarly increasing level of class-diversity. Dartmouth, as you can probably imagine, was not remarkably diverse when it came to class. I'd say 90% of my friends had similar upbringings and experiences. While our religions, family histories, likes and dislikes, interests, skills, talents, and personalities were enormously varied, we approached life with the same set of upper middle class history. Certainly it was not equality, but there wasn't great disparity. Even those who fell outside the upper and lower ranges of the norm seemed to have adopted much of the same culture - perhaps out of similar educational histories. To this day, I think my time at Dartmouth stands out in my mind as being a time when I could just know people easily. When despite differences there was enough of a common foundation that connections could be easily made. I didn't have to traverse the lands of guilt or inequality to meet the other person. Certainly it helped that everyone was, for the most part, also quite intelligent.

While veterinary school did bring with it a slightly more class-diverse population, we were still 70 white or asian women and 7 men, all college educated, 80-90-% from the northeast. Even within that population I still found myself closest to the private liberal art school educated women with similar cultural (class) histories.

Most recently I've felt the influence of class in terms of dating. A few weeks ago, I got a message from a guy my age. He's a city sanitation worker. He didn't finish high school. He's never left the U.S. He drinks beer and rides motorcycles and watches baseball. I said immediately I wasn't interested. While most will walk away at this point, he persisted. How could I know so quickly? he demanded. "Where to begin?" I thought. And how to say it?! It's such a delicate issue. Going back to the quote from the New York Times article, I can extract an idea - if moving between classes requires disruption of your sense of self, then wouldn't the idea of dating across classes bring upon a similar disruption?

How disrupted am I willing to be? Apparently not very much. That last example was quite extreme. Even if I strictly limit myself to college educated reasonably employed 20 somethings in New York I still can find plenty of class distinctions that make me uncomfortable. I know I shouldn't judge a person by what school they went to, where they're from, what their parents do, or what books they've read - but all of those things are class indicators. They're indicators of ways of approaching the world. I'm instantly either intrigued or disinterested as a result of them. This isn't a evolutionary strength thing - I'm not looking to mate anytime soon - it's merely a level of comfort. I want the basic framework to already be the same - so that it's not our histories, but our ideas and passions that make us different. I should note, it's not just those lower on the scale who would suffer but also those above. I mean, how could I honestly expect to be comfortable day to day with someone who has a driver, summers in the Hamptons and doesn't know the value of walking 5 extra blocks to save $2 on yogurt? Given that I've barely got my own "sense of self" delineated I have very little interest in challenging it at all.

Of course the implications of class don't end with my personal life. What about my professional life? I often lament the veterinary workplace. I envision my former Dartmouth classmates working in their professional offices with a narrow segment of the class spectrum. The reality is, of course, that every office has class diversity. Secretaries, maintenance workers, bosses, and CEOs and everything in between. The difference, I imagine, is that they work with more than three to four people at their level. The other day at work a summer volunteer stopped me. "You're a doctor?" she said. "Yes," I responded. "Can I talk to you about being a vet?" she asked, "Because I'm a Columbia undergraduate and I'm up here all day cleaning up shit and not learning a thing and it just seems ridiculous and I want to quit." I had to smile to myself. I also had to stop myself from telling her it was never going to get better. She'd be cleaning up shit for 40 years in a service industry profession with probably no more than three or four similarly educated colleagues.

Next weekend I go back to Dartmouth for my five year reunion. I'm ecstatic about seeing my friends but I'm also looking forward to the comfort of it. Being in a place where there's an understanding of where we all come from to make it just that much easier to be me and be excited by people.

I imagine that just as there is a spectrum of people for every debated topic, there is a spectrum of people when it comes to comfort with class interactions. I can't say that crossing class boundaries will always make me as uncomfortable or dissatisfied as it does now. In truth also, probably the very structure of the class that I came from perpetuates this discomfort by isolating itself as it does. Maybe if I hadn't been so class-limited for the first 25 years of my life I wouldn't be so limited in my comfort with other classes? Unfortunately, however this reflects upon me, I haven't really got the heart to test myself just yet.


At 1:11 PM, June 11, 2007, Blogger SP said...

Perhaps this isn't what I should have taken away from your essay on Class in our society. . . but

You really have to come down to Virginia Beach for some vacation, We an hang out with some Sailors, all officers!

I am being quite serious.
Love S-

At 10:59 AM, June 12, 2007, Blogger The Very Reverend Ace Clemmons, Jr. said...

Thats an ass-load to read, anne. you know this is the instant gratification generation.....!

the very.

At 12:39 AM, June 25, 2007, Blogger Dr. Claw said...

You write much more eloquently than I ever could. I lost my ability to write after 4 years in an engineering school and 3 in a veterinary school - neither care very much about writing abilities, so mine atrophied.

It's true though - I have no interest in dating guys far outside my class. The one really wealthy guy I dated was so far removed from my reality (trying to buy whatever I seemed to like when we'd walk past shops) that we became just friends. Guess we just like being around people that are similar to us. Non-college grads don't make the cut.


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