Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Passing and Working-Class Origins

Lots of people have been writing about class, and I actually started to write this post at the beginning of May (it was one sentence long) and it sat in the box until now. However, having read Profgrrl's post and New Kid's post, among others (and yes, I'm going to be a bad blogger and not link to the posts in part because if I were doing the linking thing I don't think I'd actually get around to writing the post - if I didn't leave anyone out, as so many have been posting about this). The thing is, this is kind of a hard post for me to write, and the reason that I think it's hard is precisely because I do know what class I was born into, it was in no way complicated by my parents' education or how old or new the money was: I grew up solidly working class. And my education makes me something other than that, but I still carry with me the values of that class origin.

What does that mean? Well, here's the Crazy family background:

My mother was one of ten children, two of whom had disabilities. Both my grandmother and grandfather worked, but throughout my mother's childhoods there were constant problems with making ends meet (my mother vividly remembers being taken with her brother into a cloakroom and being given bread with butter on it to eat by the nuns and being mortified by that experience), with violence, with drinking and drugs, and with the law. Of my mother's 10 siblings, one died, homeless and alcoholic in his 40s, one was institutionalized for 25 years (because she was "slow"), at least 3 of my uncles did time in prison, and one aunt did time for prostitution. My mother was the only one in her family who graduated from high school. (And, incidentally, my grandmother always said she was the "average" one.)

My father was one of seven children, and his father left the family when his youngest sister (who is only eight years older than I am) was an infant. In fact, his youngest sister was born on Christmas day and that is when his father left the family. My father had just turned five or six. The family, which had lived in a nice neighborhood in a nice house basically lost everything and moved down in the world as a result of the divorce. My grandmother had to go to work to support the seven children. As far as I know my grandfather (who died when my father was 13) started a new life and did not support the family at all after he left, although this may not be true. While the family wasn't as dysfunctional as my mother's in terms of violence, major substance abuse, problems with the law, it nevertheless was no picnic. My uncle was arrested for dealing pot. Three of the seven children dropped out of school. The house was filthy (I mean roaches filthy). Two of my four aunts had their first children before the age of 18.

And so. From this come Dr. Crazy's parents. High school sweethearts. And I think it's no mistake that they found each other, given the chaos and fucked-up-ness of their home situations. And then, when my mother is 19 years old, she realizes she's knocked up. My parents aren't married, but they probably would have ended up married anyway (says my mother, even now), so they get married in a huge shot-gun wedding on the day before St. Patrick's Day and the reception (held at my mother's family's house, which they never owned) lasted three days. My father is working a shit job at a gas station and my mother is working a shit job at a hospital. They did both graduate from high school, which one would think would be a bonus. And then, my dad "gets lucky" and finds an in to getting into the steelworker's union and gets a job, working second shift, at a steel mill. I arrive, my mom stays home for a while but then goes to work by the time I'm pre-school age. We took two vacations total as a family, and both were to stay with family/friends and/or to camp. My father is miserable, but he's making "good money." Until, of course, the rust belt rusts out and he is layed off. And then we were depending on the union for our thanksgiving turkey and every day I had government cheese on my sandwich in my lunchbox. I remember having potatoes and eggs for dinner because that was the food that we had in the house. This was around the time that I asked my mother what class we were, and she responded that we were "lower-middle-class," which I think was stretching it. My mom started working full time. My father cheated on her. My father and mother split when I was 12. We owned our house, but it was in a neighborhood in which stray dogs and gangs (among other things) were a problem, and so ultimately the bank foreclosed before we could sell it. I went to Catholic school, but that was not primarily because of my parents' commitment to the Catholic faith but because my parents didn't want me "bussed over to the other side of town with the niggers. It's bad enough that at St. Catholic School she's with all those spics." (I don't record this racism to make you hate my parents but to give you an idea of what was normal in that neighborhood, in their upbringing, and in my upbringing when I was a child.)

After the divorce, both of my parents moved up in terms of money, in part because of the partners they chose and in part (in my mother's case) because she got further job training. But my father, who did not pay for one cent of my education and who paid my mother only $100 every two weeks in child support from 1988-1992, works as the supervisor of maintenance at a mall. (Now, my stepmother makes more, has a college degree, and has family money, so my father and my half-brother's have a vastly different standard of living than I had growing up.) My mother works in a clerical-type position, and my step-dad (who is awesome, and an immigrant) works in a parking lot, and they probably make around $40k/year.

So, what's the point of all of this? I have all of this ambivalence about even writing this tale of woe. What am I trying to prove? That somehow I have more of a claim to working-class-ness than do others who've posted? I don't really believe that, but at the same time I have a really hard time with the way that we deal with class in academia. I feel like we can, with our liberal politics and commitment to our communities, etc., come off like condescending fucks who have no clue what real working-class-ness or lower-class-ness or whatever is. Maybe I feel this even more acutely because so many of my students at RCU come from backgrounds like my own. In fact, I know a lot more of my students who have backgrounds like mine than I know colleagues. I see (some of) my colleagues bemoaning my students' lack of involvement on campus or the fact that they don't make school a top priority - because how will they ever "move on up" from their current situations if they don't - and I think to myself, "Don't you realize what they're up against? Don't you realize that the fact that they are even in college is a huge deal?"

Class is just such a fucked up thing to deal with in this country, partly because we're so reluctant to talk about it in real ways. If the NYT series has done anything - and if these blog posts are any indication, it has - it has at least started that conversation. And I think that class is even harder to discuss in academia - at least in my field - because I think there is a real assumption that we all come from vaguely middle-class-or-higher origins. We talk about working-class-ness like it's a problem to be solved, like we should "help" the workers of the world unite and rise up together. The problem is, at least in my experience, working-class people don't want to unite they want to get the fuck out of their working-class-ness.

And so, for example, thank god that my parents, whatever their racist motivations might have been, kept me out of the shitty public school system when I was in K-8. Thank god my mother moved me out of the neighborhood I grew up in before I hit high school. If I would have stayed there I probably would not have gone to college and I probably would have had a kid when I was a teenager. Thank god my mother and stepfather invested their money in my education and didn't give it away to the fucking (Insert Your Charity of Choice Here).

And so now I'm in this profession where I'm evaluated on things like community service, something that I honestly just don't get, where I'm constantly hounded to give money to different things (walk-a-thons, campus giving campaigns, you name it), where people talk about sending their kids to crap schools (and I say this living in one of the bottom ten states ranked nationally in K-12 education) because they "support public education." And I think all of this is fucked up. But I can't really think it's fucked up, because I (I guess) know better. I know that one has to "give back" to the community, that the "more privileged" should share the wealth, that urban flight is a real problem and that if I don't support public education I'll just perpetuate the inequities in the current system and it will be my fault that the schools get worse and that inequalities become even greater. See, I've escaped my class, right? Except I haven't, but if I haven't, then maybe everything that academics do and value and encourage, etc., is basically fucking pointless.

So, this post doesn't have a real ending, but these are the things that I think about class. And I think it's important that we have the discussion including the kind of background I describe, because I think it's common for people with my background to try to blend in and shut up - now that I think about it, to pass.

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