Class(ism)

For a number of years now, probably close to 25, I have been arguing with other feminists that classism is about more than economic status, or even ‘socioeconomics.’

Class determines your family’s pattern of existence.  You may have grown up in a nuclear family with a lonely, isolated mother whose friends are more competitors than sisters; in a neighborhood where every kitchen is a known entity and every mother mothers you, too, for better or worse; in a house full of people with too little privacy and too many issues to keep them all hidden away; or in constant motion from one abandoned, heatless building and its neighboring dumpster to another, in cast-off clothing and perpetual, aching hunger.  These four examples would approximate samplings of families who are middle class, working class, working poor, and poverty class, economically speaking.  What they don’t really show are the qualities within those lives, separate from the meeting of basic needs economically.

One hallmark of middle-class life is frequent isolation.  In a strictly-nuclear family, where childcare falls to the nurturing mother role-taker, she is routinely isolated in her single-family dwelling with its moat of a yard.  Competition is another characteristic of higher class status.  See http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/12/19/classandincome/, where the findings suggest that poorer-class people may “thrive better in cooperative settings than their upper-class counterparts.”  And “Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy,” […] “They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”

One hallmark of lower-class life is direct communication style, a bluntness in communicating which Bev Jo calls “plainly spoken.”  She writes of the “warmth, intelligence, kindness, humor, and love that I know is part of poverty class culture and is rare in colder class-privileged cultures.”  (http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/, “Progress Versus Cooptation in the Radical Feminist Movement”)

Part of class does have to do with money; part of it does not. Part of it does have to do with looking up the ladder and either wishing for what Up-Theres have (like money, more comfort, greater access), or resenting Up-Theres because what they have is unattainable. BUT …. Whether or not working class people feel inferior isn’t the point. It’s that we are treated as inferior. It that we are expected to want and value the things our “betters” have, like college educations … because, of course, having a college education is better than not. But is it?

I said elsewhere that working class parents know there are risks in sending children off to college. It likely means moving into a world of not-belonging, yes, but also realms are often colder and less caring, more competitive and more isolating, especially for women, the higher up the social ladder one moves.

When feminists look at male culture and analyze oppression and determine goals, there’s a huge amount of it that females do not, generally, wish to take on. Women do not covet warrishness, or raping, for example. But ending the two-tier system of treatment based on sex, ending male privileging at females’ expense, is a goal. It’s the same with class. Class-disprivileged people don’t want the characteristics of elite-class people’s lives — the frivolity or the waste of the ultra-rich, or even the relative isolation of the middle classes. Only the access and the genuine comforts — adequate food and shelter and meaningful ceremony and so forth.

Certainly class is enforced at the institutional level. But like with white supremacy, what women do at the individual level determines how we form alliances — or don’t. I don’t really care whether or not women can be said to oppress other women, or if it’s borrowed power that’s used. Words aren’t my point, here. Behavior is. A white woman telling a woman of Color that something isn’t racism — that’s unconscionable. A class-privileged woman insisting to another who is class-disprivileged that classist behavior isn’t an issue — that’s also wrong. We cannot form alliances if the privileged insist on determining definitions of less-privileged reality.

That level of ‘class’ that has to do with relationship to the means of production doesn’t even quite work. Not only do schoolteachers see themselves as being above (more intelligent, more resourceful, more valuable than) say, janitors, but they act on that belief consistently. Degrees confer status that no amount of life experience can equal, in this culture.  Farmers, on the other hand, who live by their own means, generally don’t have the same lofty view of themselves, even though by Marxist rights they probably should. Not, at least, until they become ranchers, instead (this is an inside joke among farmfolk — those who want to be cooler, more elite, claim to be ranchers; or I watched the stepmonster try to finagle the phrase ‘dairy ranch’ to elevate his status).

Yes, oppression comes about because of disdained membership in a group. But it’s enacted on a very personal level, as well as on the entire group. And it’s not about a sense of inferiority — it’s about indignity. I know Marx would disagree, but there’s a wealth of group awareness that defines class in this way, and Marx’s view isn’t the issue. So, can we start to discuss class?

Betsy Leondar-Wright has the best analysis of anything I’ve found to date:  http://www.classmatters.org/2005_07/

Most of this post appeared on Facebook as a Note.  If it’s familiar, this is quite possibly why.

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2 thoughts on “Class(ism)

  1. You do have a way with words, my friend!

    So many good points here that I’ve been mulling over…and that Class Matters site looks fabulous. I’m in total agreement that working-class people tend to be friendlier than middle class folks. They may have given up on making it up the ladder of capitalism and instead are concentrating on making the best of the lives they have. It could also do with how they were raised, as you touch on in your post.

    One thing that also should come into the discussion on class is mental illness. People who are lower class are more prone to mental illness for obvious environmental factors. BUT, people who are middle or upper class and develop mental illness are likely to slide down in class status. It is possible they will also loose whatever financial support they would have had from their relative’s as well.

    Perhaps it might help to make it clearer in these discussions how one is defining class. Is it personal income? All of one’s assists under capitalism plus income? Job? Level of education? What neighborhood one lives in? What status one’s parents’ had?

    I attend a private liberal arts college which is majority white. Almost all the folks (mostly women) who do the cleaning are black. I never know what to say to them besides, “hI,” and I occasionally thank them for cleaning. Do you have any more suggestions for how to interact in such a situation? Even though I haven’t asked for these women to clean, they are doing it with the tuition money they are receiving on my behalf. It’s just an awkward situation, and I know I’m not the only student who feels this way.

  2. Dear Paleosister, as a janitor in a small, private liberal arts college, I’m always impressed when students thank me for cleaning their spaces. I really appreciate when they don’t do things that make my work more difficult — we are always a bit understaffed and invariably short on time. I also appreciate simple small talk in passing; there are institutions where the custodial staff is to appear as if invisible, to never speak or even make eye contact. I always appreciate being allowed to be a person. I don’t know what the situation is where you attend school. Much of it may depend on the autonomy allowed, and the overall working environment that these women deal with. I do suspect that decent treatment always makes people feel more level, even across class lines.

    I don’t know how mental illness plays across class divides, except that it’s probably easier — like with child sexual assault and woman battering — for the class-elite to hide it.

    Is there something specific about my definition of class that confuses you? To me, I’ve defined it across the first five paragraphs, but since this is actually a compilation of writings, old and new, maybe it doesn’t read as clear as I think it does. This topic fascinates me, and there are very few resources, outside of Bev Jo’s wonderful blog, so it’s understandable to have questions. At least I know I sure do.

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