Middle Class Studies?

March 1, 2012

It is common now, when teaching about race, to turn students’ attention to “Whiteness Studies” and to the  unearned and often invisible privileges of whites in relation to people of color.  It’s understood now that merely teaching white people about “them” or encouraging white teachers to reflect on their conscious attitudes about race is never enough.  We have to also dig deeper into the taken-for granted privileges that sustain oppression.

Several recent studies about make me wonder about the potential of “middle class studies” as part of teaching and learning  about class and education.

For example,  this study out of Berkeley demonstrated that our ability to quickly “read” a variety of subtle social signals enables us to perceive the social class of others relatively early in social exchanges. Some of the markers identifying higher status individuals are particularly intriguing:

In general, powerful individuals are less dependent on other people, and tend to show more nonverbal disengagement, than less powerful people do. Studies find, for example, that high-power individuals, compared with low-power individuals, focus their gaze less on other people (particularly people of high status; Ellyson, Dovidio, & Fehr, 1981; Hall, Coats, &Smith LeBeau, 2005), are more likely to interrupt, and tend to speak at greater length—behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998).  …

For example, a meta-analytic review of status and nonverbal behavior found that, in comparison with lower-SES individuals, upper-SES individuals speak in ways that are less attentive to the audience, for example, making fewer turn-inviting pauses (Hall et al., 2005).

A second study also done at Berkeley suggests that upper-class people feel less compassion in response to suffering than lower-class people.

Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). Taken together, these findings suggest that upper-class individuals may underestimate the distress and suffering in their social environments.

And this recent study suggests that the individualistic norms of college classes, norms that work well for competitive, independent work styles of middle-class students, may undermine the academic success of first-generation college students.

These studies  share the limitations of any research done with undergraduates in “lab” settings rather than in day-to-day interactions.

But they are suggestive.

So much of education policy and practice focuses on “fixing” poor and working- class kids.  Might not we also begin to speak openly about how class privilege may limit development of such basic human traits as compassion for suffering?

Some things I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been reading this new body of work:

Policy makers have long been touting the importance of teachers’ academic preparation as key to closing achievement gaps (and academic preparation might is, indeed, essential), but might, for example,   those privileged young people in Teach for America be missing key relational qualities that could be essential to building safe and supportive classrooms for poor kids?

Might all the teachers who regularly come here to defend Ruby Payne ( here, here, and here, for example) and her tired Culture of Poverty approach to “understanding” low income kids might come to understand that merely teaching poor and working-class kids to emulate mythical middle class culture is selling them short? And that understanding poor kids in our classrooms is never only about learning lists of things about “them” but also about our own deeply-engrained inability to see how our own actions disadvantage others?

I wonder about how often first-generation college students have written of their sense of “just not belonging” in academia, and how that sense of unease may be fed by middle-class propensity for “behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others”.    I know that even now, as a highly-educated middle-aged woman, I still catch myself feeling that I need to earn the recognition of higher-status people I meet, that it will take effort to get on their radar.    It’s so easy to take this personally, to wonder if I’m still talking too loudly and too assertively and too working-class.  But it may well also be about them.

There would seem to be any number of fruitful lines of research suggested in these initial recent studies.

What might a field of “Middle Class Studies” include?

Ok, this one is too easy.

But.

Articles like last week’s NYT piece, Teaching Work Values to Children of Wealth test my patience:

A whole coterie of experts has sprung up in the last few years to coach the children of affluence into the working world. Gibraltar offers classes in “financial life skills” that cover topics including saving, preventing debt and how money affects friendships. J. P. Morgan Private Bank offers what it calls “Next Generation Leadership” seminars.

This may seem unnecessary, unfair or worse to parents with fewer means and just as many concerns about their children’s futures. But the central issue for all parents is the same: how do you raise children who are productive?

I beg to differ.

I learned a strong work ethic, but not as some abstract value.  I learned to earn enough money to buy my own clothes in high school, to pay my way through college and graduate school, to cough up the down payment for my  first house years after friends had cashed their parents “gift” checks for their down payments, and now to support aged and nearly  indigent parents.  No one had to hire consultants to teach me those things — my parents taught me by showing me their empty pockets every day of their  life, by sharing the single bathroom with their four children, by never, ever taking a vacation.

I’d learn to be productive or I’d starve.

There really were no other choices.

I deeply resent this “we’re all just alike” language.

My students who are working themselves through college can’t find summer jobs this year.

But the daughter of the “chief executive of Gibraltar Private Bank” has been coached into landing a retail job that she doesn’t need so that her parents can atone for the first 18 years of her life in which she apparently learned nothing about the value of the many luxury goods in her life?

My parents would be appalled that any child had to learn the value of work via any means beyond actually working hard.

And they’d be furious that anyone would dismiss the vast economic and cultural differences between the parents of those coming very late to such lessons and themselves.

My parents hoped that their car would hold together long enough for them to drop me off at college.

Their “central issues” were about how little their “hours of hard work” yielded for them, not whether their children appreciated the “hours of hard work” that went into buying their luxury SUV.

I grow weary of the wealthy arguing that deep down inside, we’re all just alike.

Those who hire “work coaches” for their wealthy children should not have the final word on such things.

And I think that it’s worth asking why it seems important to them to assert otherwise.

I weary of writers in the Sunday Style section attributing the wonderful designs in the featured private homes of impossibly young architects to the distinctive talent of these prodigies when quite obviously, another thing that likely distinguishes these featured young talents from their equally talented peers is access to family money that allows them to build their own dream homes as very young adults, enabling them, then,  to attract the attention of the press at a point much earlier in one’s career than would otherwise ever be possible.

Middle Class Privilege

May 16, 2008

The organization Class Action offers terrific resources on class and classism, and in their recent newsletter Building Bridges, they write of the important discourse sparked by Peggy McIntosh’s piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (which you can easily find via Google, but since many of the copies on the web may be bit casual about copyright, I’m not linking here), even as they note that many of the items on her list are experienced by middle class whites, but not by lower income white people.

The exercise that Will Barratt and his colleagues developed that morphed into that “privilege meme” a few months ago was one take on developing a parallel class privilege list.

In the Building Bridges newsletter, the Class Action people offer another take on a middle class privilege list, They acknowledge that this list is far from definitive, given the many ways that race and gender complicate class privilege.

Thus, they invite others to contribute their own lists at <privilege at classism.org>. I’d invite you to cc me in the comments below.

Middle Class Privileges

  1. The “better people” are in my social class; I know this because they are the ones reported on and valued in the media and in school.
  2. People appear to pay attention to my social class; we set the standard.
  3. When I, or my children, are taught about history, people from my social class are represented in the books.
  4. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the laziness, poverty, or illiteracy of my class.
  5. The neighborhoods I can move to, where I feel “at home”, typically have better resourced schools.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization”, I am shown that people of my class made it what it is.
  7. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their class.
  8. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my class.
  9. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my class.
  10. I am never asked to speak for all people in my class.
  11. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of poor and working class people who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my class any penalty for such oblivion.
  12. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people in other classes.
  13. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection of my class.
  14. I can worry about classism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  15. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my class.
  16. If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my class is not the problem.
  17. I can read recipes and purchase whatever ingredients or appliances they might call for.
  18. I can invite my friends out for an evening and not have to think about whether they can afford it or not.
  19. I don’t need to worry about learning the social norms of others.

What else might you add as a manifestation of middle class privilege?

Class, Race, and Privilege

February 13, 2008

That Privilege Meme simply will not die, moving now among a number of blogs written by people of color, and generating infinitely more complicated discussion about class, gender, and race than were evident in the early rounds rounds of denial, discrediting, and general disdain of the very idea of class privilege.

I’m finding the discussions in this round of the meme to be particularly intriguing, because in every single conference session I’ve done on class, people in the audience (both white and people of color) stand up to argue that if we open the door to talking about class, whites will have an excuse to simply stop talking about race.

I’ve always found this puzzling because in my experience (and I’d love to learn that my experience has been particularly limited), few whites have gotten beyond conflating race with poverty,  and fewer still have any interest in talking about class whatsoever.

I’ve yet to hear anyone in these sessions argue that people of color might, themselves, have considerable interest in talking about class and might, indeed, deepen the broader conversation about class privilege.

In contrast, the conversations on which I’ve eavesdropped this week are rich, frank, and complicated. Sample them here at Racialicious, The Apostate, What Tami Said, Postbourgie, Prometheus 6 and The Luscious Librarian

Are there other conversations about class and race out there this multi-faceted?

And is it possible to imagine having conversations about class, race, and privilege within the same blogs rather than in these very discrete conversations that have unfolded over the last month?

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