In her chapter in The Lost Dream of Equality: Critical Essays on Education and Social Class, Beth Kelly returns several times to Patricia Williams’ encouragement to find the strength to “spoil a good party” by speaking against taken-for-granted privilege. Kelly writes this in the context of remembering an incident when a professor said incredibly classist things to the laughter of other students. And Kelly didn’t speak up.
She writes that “Especially for those of us whose lives are deeply rooted in poverty, and who retain poverty in memory long after we have obtained some measure of the financial security and comfort that was denied to our parents, it can be humiliating to tell these stories”.
Someone that I read recently noted that when people of color, women, or gays and lesbians began speaking out in classes, at work, or at actual and metaphorical parties, they were connected at least peripherally to some broader social movement that had already started that conversation elsewhere. Classism seems a different animal: there is no broader social movement, no simmering moral outrage, no alliances across class differences, no representations of class conflict in popular culture to spark deliberations.
More commonly , there is simply each of us, one by one, and our stories of childhood and family.
And those can be raw and painful stories to tell, especially when our hearts are pounding and our mouths are going dry because someone has said something, again, that reminds us of how invisible their class privilege is.
So, I didn’t say anything, again, when I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago listening to a lovely woman segue from a politically informed critique of high oil prices to her worry that “our generation’s” retirement plans would be curtailed by the global economy (she was particularly sad that unlike her parents, she probably couldn’t take annual trips to Europe for granted). I didn’t say anything about how my mother is counting her dwindling assets from selling her small house and calculating the number of months she can afford to stay in her low-rent assisted living center (not many). There are very few choices for her when the money is gone.
And I bit my lip as, in another meeting, a very young colleague monopolized the social chatter over lunch by pressing everyone else for advice about investing in rental property (this in one of the more inflated real estate markets in the country), assuming that everyone at the table did own investment property. At his age. I didn’t remind him then –or a few weeks later when he supported action that would mean higher tuition — that most of our students are so deeply in debt that they’ll likely never own their own homes.
And I didn’t dash off the outraged letter to the editor of the magazine that I had picked up in an airport, in which the author of an article on reinventing oneself at middle age encouraged me to not feel guilty for investing my share of the “unprecedented” inheritance that my generation can expect on my own dreams. “How dare you assume that you and your inheritance represent your generation?” I seethed. But I didn’t write the letter.
So I teach. And now I blog. And I aspire to be part of generating richer public discourse about such things.
In part, I do this as part of my broader commitment to social justice.
In no small part, I do this because I’m weary of the puzzled stares when I do tell my stories.
What will it take to generate broader public conversation about social class in America?