Life on the lowest setting

On his blog, my friend John Scalzi has recently posted about the privilege of the straight white male in American society by using a decidedly clever metaphor to describe what is often invisible to others, especially to those who hold the most privilege:

Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

Please read his entire post, because what I’ll be doing here is furthering some of the conversation John raised, and which my friend Meghan McCarron already furthered (after she and I nitpicked with certain aspects of John’s argument on Twitter, and John said he’d be happy to have other folks take the ball and run with it).

One of Meghan’s additions to John’s metaphor for privilege in the game of life was this:

Finally, at the end of the post, Scalzi points out that one doesn’t “choose” one’s own setting – it’s chosen by the computer, and that receiving the easy setting is a stroke of luck. That’s a powerful message – that we did nothing to deserve our privilege, and the fact that we have it is in fact meaningless – but ending there strikes me as a missed opportunity to explore an essential aspect of privilege: its invisibility to those who have it.

All too often, Straight White Men do not see that their setting is easier, and they assume that those struggling against bigger challenges are simply poorer players. At first this is innocent – the Straight White Men are focused on surviving the game themselves, after all. They didn’t design it. But the “easy” setting’s invisibility breeds arrogance, not the humility necessary to acknowledge that you’re “winning” the game because a. the game is easier for you and b. the game itself is designed to benefit you most. The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Meghan’s furthering of John’s metaphor.  Part of the problem with privilege is that, when you have it, it’s almost invisible.  The same way you might not realize what your voice sounds like until you hear it played back in a message–it seems like it belongs to someone else, unless of course you’re used to hearing your own voice played back to you.

Since Meghan had brought up what had been, for me, a salient defining point about privilege that had been left out of John’s metaphor, I was not going to write my own blog post about it.  Well done, Meghan!  But then today I came across an update from John on his blog, in which he further discusses his definition of privilege by way of responding to some of the general reactions various commenters on his blog post shared.  John is always spot on with so many things–he’s a smartypants, for sure–but one piece of his extended discussion of the Life on the Lowest Setting blog post was a sticking point for me.  Here it is:

3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.

Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. But they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are (note “inherent” here does not necessarily mean “immutable,” but that’s a conversation I’m not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.

This is where he sort of lost me (only partially, and on this one issue, to be specific).  John had been defining privilege and how some people start out in life (or the roleplaying simulation game) with various benefits due to race, gender, and sexuality, which is all true.  We don’t have terms like “the glass ceiling” to describe women’s perpetual inability to break through to the top of their various professions as easily as men for no reason, and we know that women still generally make less than men for doing the same work in many professions.  We know that many GLBTQ people are not protected in their workplaces (or outside of them), and we know that systems like Affirmative Action were created to combat an entrenched system of prejudice and bias that had withheld opportunities for people of color.  These are no-brainers (except for, I’m sure, people who have their ideological blinders on–hello, Privilege).  But John’s dismissal of wealth/class as categories that affect one’s privilege because wealth/class in his estimation is not part of our “cultural sorting behavior” which might determine whether a person receives more privileges in the game of life than others.  He discounts wealth/class because it is not “an inherent part of one’s personal nature.”

But this is not true.

First, I need to take apart John’s wealth/class hybrid category.  These are two different things.  Wealth is material goods and knowledge resources and access to social networks.  Class is a cultural identity steeped in more than resources such as those, though it is intimately connected with those items that define wealth.

Class is something different than wealth.  It’s a cultural identity that is connected in some cases to wealth but is not defined entirely by wealth alone.  Socioeconomic identity is constituted by various social class values, attitudes, and mannerisms.  It is something that we are judged on every day, just as an African American or a GLBT person or a woman faces judgments based on their identity every day.  I know this because I come from a working class background, and though I have “risen” into the middle class, I do not feel as much a part of the middle class because I have a certain amount of money in the bank or more social networks at my fingertips as I do a part of the working class, which defines how I see the world.  Though I crossed out of my working class background into a middle class life, the way that I learned to see the world, and to think of how the world saw me, is still with me.  Rings on a tree don’t go away just because new layers grow over them.  They’re there, inside, the heart of the tree really.

I have a friend who once told me about a study her Harvard classmate once participated in, where the social scientists observed the differences between working class educational institutions and private upper middle or upper class institutions.  One of the clear differences, she told me, was that in the private upper middle and upper class institutions, the students were being taught how to conceive of ideas, how to execute them, and how to direct others in helping you execute your plans.  But in the working class institutes, the students were being graded on how well they followed directions.  Or, in essence, they were being trained to be the followers–the worker bees–for those students learning how to direct them.

That story was told to me probably a decade or more ago.  In the years after I heard it, I finished a Master’s degree at the same university where I received my Bachelor’s degree–a university that is technically labeled as a research institution but generally behaves as a community college, because of the nature of the region in which I grew up:  mostly working class, unprepared for college life.  Youngstown State University offered (and still offers) heaps of remedial course work that most research institutions leave to community colleges surrounding them to do, because there were few other educational institutes in this region that could fill that role at the time.  It’s odd, really, for a person to receive both undergrad and graduate degrees from the same institute–if you’re planning on being an academic, it “looks better” if you move from institute to institute, which can broaden your knowledge based on each institute being different from one another and offering different tracks and themes of study.  But I had done both, because I didn’t know that at the time, and because I believed that I couldn’t succeed at another university–as a student, I’d overheard some professors talk about the nature of the working class student body, and how they’d never do as well in other settings.  This hurt, but I do think there is truth to it, due to unpreparedness many working class students face.  We haven’t been taught to be active learners, after all.  We’ve been taught to follow directions.  To do what others tell us.

After I finished my MA, I moved to Japan for a couple of years to teach English.  This was a huge event in my life.  I had lived for a short time in Southern California and for a couple of years in Lansing, Michigan, but the majority of my life had been spent in the general region where I’d grown up.  I’d moved from the country to the town, but the town was an old, dying steel town, and it was small.  A decent stepping stone for a kid who grew up on a farm learning how to break beef cows to lead behind him with a rope halter.  It provided me with something different, but not completely out of my realm.  Going to Japan, though, changed my life in incredible ways that I hadn’t even understood were possible, and most likely I didn’t understand those possible changes because I had grown up in such an isolated working class environment, and one of the things about that culture is this:  we don’t tend to travel.  Some people say it’s because we don’t want to leave what we know, and there is some truth in some cases to that, but it’s also because travel costs a lot of money, and working class people don’t have a lot of that.

So how could I have known just how much travel could change a person’s life, since I hadn’t done a whole lot of it, and what travel I had experienced had been minimal and in not-so-different-places in the U.S. from what I knew (Lansing, Michigan, for instance is an old industrial town that lost a lot of its industry too)?

While I was in Japan, I finished a novel, started a second one, learned a second language, and through the good fortune of having been a published short story writer that a Japanese translator of fiction recognized when I began to blog about life in Japan, I began working part time for a publishing company in Tokyo.  The translator had reached out to me through email and brought me to Tokyo for dinner and conversation, and eventually he began finding work for me in his company.

This is all necessary background, trust me.

One evening, late into my two years in Japan, my friend Jodi and I went to a town festival, where we met a group of other ex-pats who were teaching English in nearby towns, and we hung out with them for a while.  One of these other foreigners was a 23 or 24 year old African American male who had just graduated college and moved to Japan. We got to talking.  He’d grown up upper middle class in Cincinnati, gone to a private school in New England, then did his undergrad degree at an Ivy League university, Brown.  At one point in the evening, he told me he’d really come to Japan not to teach but to eventually get a job in a Tokyo publishing house.  He had a plan, he said, and figured he could find work in one within a year.  His dad knew someone who worked in publishing there, he said.  He had an in. And also, he said, there’s always a Brown student who worked at this one company–they sort of held the position for a Brown student, in his description, which for all I know could have been completely inaccurate, but how would I know?  No positions are reserved for YSU students, but maybe they are for Brown students?  Or for students from other Ivy League schools.  When I eventually told him that I was working part time for a Japanese publisher, he seized on me and shook me down for any information I could supply him, and asked whether or not I could get him work.  I told him what I could, and said that I’d see, but that I was mainly only working by way of my personal contact.

Later, when Jodi and I went home, I grew upset and started to rage and storm a little bit about that guy.  Jodi got me to talk about why I was so upset.  Before I’d started talking, she was feeling me out, trying to see if she could touch on what I couldn’t say.  She assumed it was because I thought all of the things that guy had received as he grew up seemed unfair.  But really it wasn’t because of that.  It was because I realized that night that he expected so many things with great confidence, and talked about his achievements with a grandiosity that was completely foreign to me.  I didn’t expect much out of life.  I was worried, by all accounts in my blog records of that time, that I couldn’t ever return to America because I hadn’t been able to find work there prior to leaving (I left America not because I had some kind of geek-on for Japanese culture, but because it was where I could find work), and I expected that that would never change.  What I realized that evening that upset me so much was that I HAD achieved certain things in my life, but I discounted them all as good fortune that had befallen me, or as hands-up others had extended me.  I didn’t see any of my achievements or successes in life as belonging to me, being rooted in my own endeavors, in my own inherent abilities.  Here was this other guy living in Japan, doing the same thing I was doing, teaching English, but he’d chosen to go there because of his interests, whereas I’d gone there because I needed work and couldn’t find any back home.

I was self-effacing, which is a trait of many working class people.  No, no, not me.  Please don’t pay attention to me.  I’d been taught to be invisible, and whatever I have I have by the grace of god or my benefactors/employers, etc.  I had absolutely no confidence in my ability to change my life purposefully. Any good thing in my life “happened to me,” in my worldview.  It’s not for nothing that working class people generally rack much of their lives up to fate, luck, chance, or other religious/cosmic forces.  There’s a lack of agency for most working class people’s personal natures, and that is built into their identities culturally.  It’s as inherent as a boy performing what his culture expects from male gender performance, in order to fulfill his identity as a male, etc.

What I’d like to add to John’s and Meghan’s furthering of Life on the Lowest Setting, the metaphor of privilege as a function of how easy or difficult life is based on character aspects, is that class does indeed count.  If you’re a highborn mage instead of a lowly farmer’s son who happens to have a small knack for casting magic, you’ll receive all the best teachers, all the best training in the arcane arts, will have access to all of the materials you might need to cast a spell, which can be quite expensive.  Or likewise, if you’re a highborn knight, you’ll receive all the best armor and weaponry and training in arms and defense, whereas the pub master’s kid will mainly know how to throw a punch and will swing wild without any really access to training.

Those are material considerations–the wealth aspect, or knowledge resources–to which a person of a certain socioeconomic identity generally has little access.

But class cultural considerations can also severely restrict some people, by learning your place, by taking direction because that’s what you were rewarded for, rather than learning to plan and set goals, rather than being among people who value reading and education or even networking beyond one’s own family in order to have greater opportunities in the warp and weft of our social order.  And these are inherent to one’s personal nature if you have grown up in those conditions.

We judge people by the way they talk.  Most people where I grew up say, “I seen,” instead of “I saw,” for instance.  And are judged to be rubes by others because of it.  The style or manner of appearance is different–the deeply casual is the mark for most working class people.  I still cringe at putting on a suit and tie, and in fact didn’t learn how to tie a tie until I moved to Japan, where I had to wear one every day at the school where I taught.  Even simple things like that cannot be taken for granted as we suit up for our various roles in the game of life.

Class does matter.  Wealth does, too, but class is an identity, an invisible identity in some cases, like mine.  Many of my friends now say that they can’t imagine me having grown up on a farm, that I once took part in a 4-H contest to catch a greased pig when I was eleven, that I seem too intellectual and worldly for a background like that.  They can’t put my past and my present together, because I’ve crossed over into their world, and I’ve learned their language and mannerisms, much as I learned how to speak Japanese.  I can switch codes from the academic circles I work within to the circle of service industry oriented childhood friends who are waiting tables and retailing and fixing cars.  And all of those features are part of my inherent personal nature, a personal nature that was nurtured in a working class environment in my formative years.

I’d add class to that list of identity categories that determines privilege.






29 responses to “Life on the lowest setting”

  1. Meagan Avatar

    Everything you say is true, but just because something matters doesn’t mean it’s innate. If you have two straight white males, one poor working class, one wealthy trust fund, they start out with the same potential, on the same “easy” setting, as your friend says. Class and wealth are TRAINING. You learn powerlessness. You learn to milk connections. The trick is, in this game, as with which difficulty setting you play on, you also don’t get to choose which training you get. It’s still a lottery.

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      Right, it’s learned, but so is being male or female, and gender is one of his categories. I would argue that there are learned aspects of racial identity as well, and sexual identity.

      What matters is that there’s no choice in any of these, yet they all affect us in the game.

      1. Meagan Avatar

        Racial identity isn’t innate either, but the color of your skin IS. And parts of sexuality/gender etc. are innate, others are culturally imposed. It’s internal vs external.

        Yes it’s important that none of these things are things we choose, but it’s also important that some of them are inborn, while others are things we’re born into. For one thing, things that we are born into we can effect, even if we can’t change them entirely. You were born working class, and that continues to shape you, but you are no longer working class. If you had been switched at birth with the guy you met in Japan, you would have all the advantages of wealth and class, but he would still be a black guy.

        If we want to stick with games, class and wealth are more like rolling the dice to get your starting stats. If you get a lousy roll, it’s going to be much harder to win, whatever difficulty setting you’re playing on. But your choices later in the game CAN change your stats.

      2. Christopher Barzak Avatar

        You can’t change the color of your skin, true, but if we’re going to begin talking about visual categorical thinking, how can we include GLBTQIA people in this discussion of identity when it’s not easy to determine who is gay versus straight, for example? I can change my working class stats to middle class or more, I suppose, but my point is, I shouldn’t have to in order to have access to the same opportunities as those born into “better” class circumstances. Nick Mamatas has a really good post about this in response to Scalzi too. It’s fine that there are some that are innate while others are learned, but if we’re going to use this “game” metaphor, it doesn’t work without class being factored in as well.

      3. Christopher Barzak Avatar

        I think what I’m not being clear about here, too, is that just because I accumulate more wealth, and can acquire things associated with middle class people, that doesn’t change how I feel. My identity is still working class, even though the markers of my life reek of middle classdom. I’ve learned how to navigate this other sphere, but I don’t feel “of” it, just passing through it. And that has nothing to do with wealth, but with the cultural identity of being a working class person, and why I said that I shouldn’t have to change. So many of the things that make me a working class person–I wouldn’t ever want to give up those features, those characteristics, that go beyond material wealth or professional markers.

      4. Meagan Avatar

        I used race as an example because it’s easy to pick apart… not because it’s visual. Sexuality is the same, a person is gay if they’re gay- it’s inborn. In the DNA, yeah? In fact, anytime someone comes out they are making a choice to disregard the external societal rules imposed upon them, to live more truly. The rules and some aspects of gender identity are imposed the same way class is imposed. That’s not to say the imposed traits are unimportant, but they are mutable. They are constructed, so they can be renovated.

        Of course these things are still a part of us. Maybe we could say that race/sexuality/etc is part of what we are but class and gender rules are part of who we are? It’s identity, character details, not general game settings.

        As for whether a working class character should have the same opportunities without moving to middle class, I think that’s a definite, but it’s a real social justice dilemma… Not a problem in defining metaphors.

      5. Meagan Avatar

        I know! The trick is we aren’t the players, we’re characters. Difficulty, stats, skills, hit points, we don’t get to choose any of it, we just play the game.

  2. […] Chris Barzak posted a great response/addendum about wealth and class in John Scalzi’s otherwise well-observed “Straight White Male: […]

  3. colleenlindsay Avatar

    Effing brilliant, sir.

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      Gracias! 🙂

  4. Theodora Goss Avatar

    Chris, I think that’s brilliant, and I may need to write in response to it. I’ve thought about social class a lot, since I’m an immigrant — from the sort of immigrant family that had no money (WWII and the Communist regime took care of that) but provided, even enforced, an intensely intellectual background and a set of crazy expectations for what we were supposed to achieve. It’s a social class of its own, and it may be why certain immigrant children have a lot in common with each other even when they’re from widely different cultures. I think both you and Meagan are right — it’s learned to the point where it seems innate, like femaleness (as a gender rather than a biological sex).

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      Dora, I was just on a hiring committee for a multi-ethnic lit professor position here where one of the candidates talked exactly about what you’re talking about, and it was fascinating. I’d love to read more of what you have to say about it.

      1. Sofia Avatar

        I’d love to hear more, too! Particularly because the anxiety of the group of immigrants Dora describes has everything to do with class, and the intense pressure to scrabble into the “right one.” I think that hyper-awareness comes from the sense of having belonged to a higher class “back home,” and having fallen on bad times at the moment (“temporary embarrassments of a pecuniary nature,” as Mr. Micawber put it), and fearing that one’s children are going to completely miss out on (middle- or upper-class) Culture. The strength of that fear supports the thesis that class is learned so deeply it might as well be innate. What those parents fear is that their kids will learn to behave like–and therefore to be–poor children.

        Lots wrong with this of course, and I’m not saying we should throw a pity-party for those parents, but it does tend to support your points above, Chris.

      2. Christopher Barzak Avatar

        Thanks, Sofia, and yes, I am really hoping Dora will blog about this too. What she has to offer is so, so much different from what I understand from my own experience, embedded in the American experience several generations in–but lagging nonetheless. I want to learn more about how class works in all of intricacies. For my own family, the immigrant experience has passed, but the assimilation experience is one that, in a weird way, froze us in amber as workers…except for weirdoes like me, who, in fits of (American?) egoism, responded by thinking, Not me! Not me! I want something else. It’s interesting to me that class can work in ways in which sometimes a family will attempt to preserve the working class identity and aesthetic, whereas in others they endeavor to break away from it.

      3. Theodora Goss Avatar

        I may try to blog about it tomorrow? Been traveling today so I’m too tired to go into it, which is another marker of class: I’ve been to two cities in two weeks, and in both I went to parks, museums, and restaurants. Because that’s what I’ve been taught to do . . . What I saw in my own family was in part a refusal to acknowledge that class had anything to do with wealth, and a linking of self-worth to education and culture. Indeed, a looking down on wealth if it was in any way obvious as somehow not cultured, cultivated, “classy.” And tremendous anxiety about children who weren’t going to live up to the family standard. My two sisters both have graduate degrees, and my mother always talks to my brother about getting a graduate degree, even though in some ways he’s the most successful one of the family. (He helped develop the internet browser many of us use.) My father, who is a university professor, bought a house with a small indoor pool, and is always at pains to explain that it came with the house and he bought the house cheaply because the owner, who was a Russian businessman, went out of business. There’s the sense that anything ostentatious is in bad taste. I’ll have to write about this at length, but it is a weird liminal space to be in, that sort of immigrant status. And you end up with a lot of family history and baggage — and silver. (Not sure where this post will end up, since there’s no reply button to the post I’m actually responding to?)

      4. Christopher Barzak Avatar

        It ended up right here, Dora. That is a fantastic response. Please do go at length when you’re settled back in and able to write more about it. It really is fascinating. I’m learning so much. Seriously, sometimes I think it would be a very cool project to document the inner narratives of people in our generation at this moment. It just doesn’t feel like what everyone said it would, does it? And that feeling of disappointment is, for me, a clear indicator that whatever others were in love with about America back in the day, and talked about at length, is gone.

      5. Sofia Avatar

        Also not sure where this will end up–hope it goes to the right place! Just wanted to add that being in love with the U.S. is still alive and well for many new immigrants. It would be interesting to see how it compares to the love “back in the day.” Maybe it’s quite different. But it’s there for sure, and still talked about at length.

      6. Richard Baldwin Avatar

        “And that feeling of disappointment is, for me, a clear indicator that whatever others were in love with about America back in the day, and talked about at length, is gone.”

        If you really mean this, might I suggest Canada? While it has its problems, I often think about my move here as living in the US as it should have been, or maybe as it was before I was born. And it’s fairly easy to immigrate here too.

  5. cathschaffstump Avatar

    I totally agree. I am often baffled by the choices made by truly middle class friends. I’m also a second generation American, which carries another set of assumptions and responsibilities about culture.

    Both of these things help me be a better community college teacher, even if I occasionally make cultural gaffes because I’m passing.


  6. Jennifer Stevenson Avatar

    Thanks for posting this, Chris. Since class is something handed to you at birth I’d argue that while it’s not completely genetic, it is definitely something you get handed by the computer. Moreover, I’d add this anecdotally-supported factoid about class:

    My then-fiance went to graduate school at Yale Drama School, and within a year I married him and joined him in New Haven. I come from a town with, as it were, “no class” to speak of. We had people with money and people without money, but no visible members of the classes above “professional.” In New Haven however I met kids who were upper class. They came from four generations of college education–but, more, also from four generations of good dentistry and good prenatal nutrition. The impact of these privileges on their health and habits were markedly visible. This was literally *a different animal.* I was dumbfounded at the realization.

    As I swim at my health club, I can identify the birth class of many of the mostly-elderly people around me by body type. Many of them are immigrants, and some came over more recently than others. I can tell them apart, too. It’s hard to verbalize these distinctions, but they’re noticable.

    I offer this as food for thought, not a definitive or definable fact.

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      I’m right there with you, Jennifer. Thanks for posting this. It’s eloquent, and yes, the markers are evident if you know what to look for, I think. I think a lot of people do know, too. They’re just not conscious of their evaluations–and whatever goes along with those evaluations–in many instances.

  7. Alisa Avatar

    Great post, Chris. I’m often annoyed by how much class is overlooked in this country. It’s a huge factor in our lives, but somehow unAmerican to admit to it. I see myself in your descriptions (I too tried to catch the greased pig), and it’s always seemed to me that my more middle-class friends don’t quite grasp how different our childhoods were. Having essentially moved up a class through a knack for educational success and intellectual pursuits feels a bit like being in the classic immigrant position – I now feel like I don’t quite belong in either place.

  8. Ann Avatar

    Yes, I think this is dead on. When I read the original post I thought about how I would explain it to guys on the line where I work, and how off it would be, because they grew up thinking they’d get a factory job, and I grew up without even questioning the fact that I’d go to college. To me saying ‘I’m a girl, therefore you have it easier’ would be a lie.

  9. EMoon Avatar

    Class is indeed assigned at birth, and affects self-identity and other-identity. Income is part of it, but not all of it. It’s what the available money is spent on, what markers of a higher class are so precious that they must not be lost if the income drops, what remnants of a more prosperous and higher-class life are saved and which are jettisoned, that determines what the internal class is.

    My teeth are still crooked. Old hunger lurks in my genes as well as my psyche, under the padding of prosperity. What you said about not believing my accomplishments are my own…that any good thing that comes must be luck or charity…yes. It’s been a long time coming to think differently, and the old way of thinking comes back at 3 am. It’s dangerous to claim competence, let alone talent. Female, child of divorce, growing up in the bottom quintile economically…how dare I set myself up for anything but failure? I must credit any good thing to luck–I’m certainly not entitled to it. The world was never my oyster, my bowl of cherries…it was where I was intended to work to make it someone else’s Oysters Rockefeller, someone else’s bowl of candied cherries with whipped cream.

    And yet there was confusion in the definition, where I was, a society less isolated/embedded than industrial working class in the Rust Belt. Someone who’d been demoted for only one generation or part of it might well still feel part of their parents’, or their own earlier, class. If they could regain the resources–the money–they were back in, belonging again. The memories were there, the experience was there…but how much could pass to the children–to a child like me–would vary with how far down and what the community taught that child. There was a divide between my mother and me that none of her ambition for me, her wishes for me, her work and sacrifice, could bridge. So–like others here–I’m not native to where I was, or where I am now, class-wise.

  10. Sofia Avatar

    Thank you for this. Great post.

  11. Matt Avatar

    Like I said on Facebook, Chris, thanks for writing this post. I always feel a bit strange talking about class because, as a Straight White Male, I know I have far more privilege than most. However, I come from a working-class background and I have a strong suspicion that’s played a role in the trajectory of my life to this point.

    I was self-effacing, which is a trait of many working class people. No, no, not me. Please don’t pay attention to me. I’d been taught to be invisible, and whatever I have I have by the grace of god or my benefactors/employers, etc. I had absolutely no confidence in my ability to change my life purposefully. Any good thing in my life “happened to me,” in my worldview.

    This. Though to be honest, I don’t think I was taught this per se. (Maybe I was and was unaware of it?) I simply figured that my view on my own accomplishments grew out of a desire to have humility, though I may have taken it to an extreme. And, as I’m preparing to embark on a PhD, I find myself worrying that, at long last, the system is going to get wise and my run of luck will end. That I’ve not been earning my success all along but they were flukes, or lucky breaks. It’s impostor syndrome writ large. (I only just heard about it last week and it’s come up several times since.)

    It’s odd, because I don’t think I come across as working class but materially speaking, I am. I have education and a degree of eloquence that would seem to mark me as middle class (maybe? The lines are fuzzy, I expect) and the work I do as a teacher isn’t blue-collar in terms of status, though in terms of dollars and sense, it is. The life of an adjunct. I’ve always been told to work hard, to do my best, and follow directions when appropriate. But maybe because of the vagueness of those injunctions I’ve been able to aspire to more. I remember at some point in the past that, upon seeing my family struggle financially, I vowed that somehow I’d escape that trap, that I’d “do better for myself.” I haven’t yet, but I’m on the path toward it. So I hope, anyway, though naturally I’d like to see some payoff *now* rather than down the line. After all, when you’re not seeing even small dividends from an investment, you get a little impatient. Or I do, anyway.

    All of which is to say, I understand your situation, Chris, moving between different spheres. I have circles of friends among whom I’m clear and away “the smartest” (so they tell me, not that I’d claim it for myself) and other circles where I’m on more equal ground, not just in terms of formal education but knowledge, critical thought, inquisitiveness. Personally, I don’t like talking about class, not because it’s un-American, but because I feel a sense of shame at that background–not that I can help it, mind you. Sometimes I wonder if I bought too much into the myth that hard work pays off, because I’ve seen plenty of exceptions to that; in thinking it, I almost get frustrated that people haven’t risen to the next tier. But I know it isn’t that easy. And I’m going to stop here before I really go off the rails.

    Thanks again, Chris.

  12. Nick Mamatas Avatar

    Good one.

  13. Richard Baldwin Avatar

    Nice post.

    And it makes me wonder where I sit in all of this. My family does well enough generally to be middle class: Most of us have degrees, none of us do manual labour as a job these days. We have firefighters, nurses, engineers, a graphic designer, secretaries, journalists and similar in my family, and I was never discouraged from pursuing the arts or academia. Yet in my family there’s still a sense that academia is frivolous, unimportant in the real world. We’re heavily self-deprecating. We don’t tend to think of success as our due, rather something that comes or doesn’t–though we do expect that we’ll have to work hard to accomplish what we want, even if we don’t necessarily expect success will actually happen. And we’re quite casual people in general. Maybe this is just because we’re Midwesterners (by which I mean at least Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, if not other Midwests); a fair few traditionally working class traits seem to be also attributable to this Midwestern middle class, far more so at least than those of the middle class on the coasts.

    The funny thing is, when I was growing up I used to think my family was the closest thing to upper class, just fallen on hard times. My grandmother had a very nice house, and I figured she must have married a wealthy man to afford it and to keep taking care of so many children in it after my grandfather’s early death. I speak with a very clear, ‘accent-less’ speech, because I thought my mother did, and I used to pride myself that at least we amongst everyone I knew did not speak ‘poorly’ (yeah, I was a child snob)–but then I came back to visit my family after a trip overseas, only to discover that absolutely no one in my family but me speaks ‘without an accent’.

    So I suspect I grew up in the middle class while deluding myself into thinking I was in some ways upper class. And this makes me wonder how much of class is about our family and how much is about what other things surround us–even things like media, which don’t have the ability to make us direct connections to institutions of higher learning or good jobs and such, but ‘merely’ affects our thinking. Did I read too many British fantasy novels from the Tolkien and CS Lewis era, or watch too many TV shows about wealthy Manhattanites, thereby coming to conflate my own background with that of those characters–but thereby also in a sense changing that background? But was I really deluded, or did I create this fantasy of a higher class background as a way to forcefully step out of a background I knew I had but couldn’t find my own interests reflected within? I bet the latter is true, which suggests that in at least some cases people can choose from a young age their (performed, if maybe not deep-down) class–yet without some access to alternatives, without indeed a fair bit of priviledge, I myself couldn’t have even conceived the idea of making such a choice in the first place . . .

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