Class Passing

I had another one of those stealth class experiences while I was away.

I was sitting around with a group of people who didn’t know one another well. One of the men started telling stories about growing up, and I sat up a bit straighter when he started telling of his time working in one of those jobs in which men live in camps and perform grueling physical work.

He implied that this work was part of his journey of discovery of who he was, how he came to realize that he was not someone who would do that labor as his life’s work, how he then left to spend the next few years exploring other roles.

A few years ago, I had an uncomfortably intense argument with a (now former) friend. I was trying to explain to him that class is more than income — that walking around in the skin of someone who had been raised working class was a very different experience from being raised to simply assume that the world will fulfill all of one’s needs.

My friend insisted that he knew what it was like to be working class, because his father had required that he spend a summer working construction so that he’d understand “real” work.

His insistence that he “understood” class from these few months when he was 19 — when he was the kid whose father got him the job that someone else’s kid really needed — is one of the reasons that we eventually had a hard time finding things to talk about.

Both of these stories romanticized manual labor as something that builds character and affords insight into one’s “real” self.

And both imply that class is something from which we can just walk away, whether it’s the middle-class kid walking toward something more “real” or the working class kid deciding that better things await elsewhere.

There is another layer to these stories, though.

There was an almost indiscernible ripple of respect last week as my new friend was telling of his foray into the woods. Points were definitely scored in the subtle little contests for admirability that were being enacted among that group of relative strangers.

I thought, of course, of how often I and many of my formerly-working-class friends have learned to just not talk about what our parents did, about how we’ve learned that if we do, we should expect not admiration but condescension when people learn that we walked away from such backgrounds, even when our leaving required much more than packing our bags and calling home for the money for a bus ticket out.

Stephanie Lawler recently wrote that while the working class in the abstract is admired by middle-class liberals, working class people are a different matter entirely.

So middle and working-class kids who cross class boundaries both learn the implicit rules of class passing — the middle class kids learn to frame their temporary downward mobility as fable: “I learned some thing about myself, part of which was that I can be so much more”.

Working class kids, whose parents did not find existential meaning in years of demeaning work, learn to just nod along in admiration.

Lawler, S. (2005). Disgusted subjects: The making of middle-class identities. The Sociological Review, pp. 429-446

2 thoughts on “Class Passing

  1. Will Barratt February 24, 2007 / 8:07 am

    I am continually stunned by the ‘coming out’ stories of faculty and professional friends who were/are first gen students and are still struggling with issues, sometimes 30 years after getting their professional degree.

    After High School (c 1910) my grandfather was given the choice to go to work in the factory or go to college. He worked in the factory for a few months and decided to go to college. Had the option to go to college, which many do not have for financial, family, and other reasons. Most of my friends who worked construction jobs in summers did it for the money, not the nobility of work, however, we were all acutely aware that we had the option of not working. Physical labor as a tourist, or as a way of life, or as an option to get some spending money reflects some interesting class notions.

  2. The Urban Scientist May 2, 2008 / 7:10 am

    This post hits home for me. It explains feelings I have had, but have never been able to explain – not even to myself. At times, I have been able to class pass (well) because of my learning ‘better’ from my multi-generation middle class friends (that’s what I call them. Because I’m a first gen college grad, I call myself and others like me 1st gen middle-classers – alot like being nuevo riche (sp)).

    Some people are surprise to discover that my parents and my life back home are filled with the angst and struggle of dealing with economic and housing instability. In truth, my parents are still struggling to be middle class – having attended some college and obtaining VERY good jobs and salaries at times in their lives. But it still remains that those so-called benefits/values of middle-class life were gained at a whole lot of physical hard work.
    And the lesson I took from that is that you may be able to do very well (economically) from hard work, but the moment your body gives out all of the benefits of it (better home, private school, better car, vacation, etc.) expires soon after.

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