What is Class?

We see the clashing of class cultures in Larry and Lisa’s blogs below.  "Class is a funny thing, because unlike race and gender, it can be difficult to quickly assess who’s in what class.The US has no hard-and-fast divisions between class groups.Income and wealth are both on spectrums, and most of us move a little up or down the spectrums during our lifetimes.Some people grow up in one class and as adults live in another.The definitions that make sense to one person may not make sense to another.It is relative status in terms of income, wealth, power and/or position.Class indicators can be related to college education, net worth, housing, and occupation.In our culture, it’s often taboo to openly discuss, so we make a lot of assumptions."(Betsy Leondar-Wright, Class Matters, p. 1)

In the absence of clear definitions or well-defined divisions, stories can impart a common ground for exploring our experiences.I offer some accounts from my life that have helped me wade thru the muddy waters of classism.  [Edit: I see that Larry just posted a story-blog of his own right below.  Make sure you read his; it is much more poignant than mine.]I hope you’ll share some of your own stories in the comments below, so we can explore how class, culture, conditioning, and the colliding of our worlds are surfacing here on this blog.

The book, Class Matters offers a series of Discussion Questions in their Resources Section.I present some of them here as a means for generating further dialogue:

  1. How would you define class?Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?
  2. Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?What words would they use/have used for their class?
  3. When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?
  4. How do you know which class you fit into now? 
  5. What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?

When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?

I suspect that at least one of my parents (maybe both, I can’t quite tell) grew-up working class, and then they raised me in a middle class home.My parents never self-identified or said: “This is what class you are.This is what class somebody else is.This is how you should or shouldn’t relate to each other.”I just pieced it together on my own thru lots of different incidents.I bet that’s how most of us have figured it out…if we’ve ever taken time to really think about it.

When I was in second grade, my friend B invited me to spend the night in her home.It was my first sleepover, and I was thrilled.We had a great time: giggling, playing, and staying-up “late”.As my mother was driving me home the next morning, she informed me that I would never be permitted to play there again.Crushed, I asked why.“They live in an apartment,” she scoffed.“I don’t want you playing with people like that.”

I didn’t understand what “people like that” were, but I was determined to figure it out.I tried hard to make the "right friends” over the years, but I just couldn’t get it.My friend D’s family wasn’t right because her mom had divorced and remarried.My friend M’s family was unacceptable because they lived on a farm.C’s home was unkempt.J lived with her dad in a single-parent household.D’s family lived in a trailer.V’s mother worked.

I picked my friends because they were fun, kind, and we liked each other.But over and over again, I bumped-up against issues that only my mother could spot: class markers.I learned which class I “fit into” by my parents’ admonishment of those friends who weren’t a part of ours.

I grew-up in a professional, middle-class environment.My father is college educated and owns a small business.My mother did not have to work while she raised my brother and me.We lived in a large, single-family home, in an affluent neighborhood, way out in the suburbs: “furs and station wagons”.

But my extended family didn’t look like my immediate family.When we got together for birthdays and holidays at our extended family’s small urban homes, my cousins sported blue jeans and long hair, my uncles talked about their factory jobs, and my aunts brought pot-luck dishes in large Tupperware containers.No one else had a college degree.  Only the four of us wore button down shirts and heels.Over the years, our extended family weathered divorces, jail time, drug and alcohol problems, unemployment, pregnancies out of marriage, and a host of other melodrama more prevalent in lower-income demographics.

My extended family lived in different social and economic classes than I.They brought an entirely different culture to our gatherings, which created a lot of confusion for me growing up…especially as I hit adolescence.I listened to my parents verbally dissect the clan on our car ride home: clucking their tongues over the children’s attire, expressing disdain for “improper” grammar and foul language, criticizing our relatives’ career or education choices.In turn, my cousins, aunts, and uncles all mocked my stuffy parents behind their backs.And as a rebelling teenager, I was not inclined to defend my parental units; I jumped class lines and stood with my relations.

How do you know which class you fit into now?

I recently toured three schools for my boys, based on their proximity to the neighborhood we will be moving into.

School #1: I walked into the building and was met in the hallway by a very harried principal who hadn’t been informed that I’d made an appointment for a tour.She took me straight into her office and quickly explained that she had taken over the school just a few weeks earlier.There was fighting every day, she had six expulsion hearings looming, half of the kids didn’t speak English, she was being pressured to convert to Spanish-immersion, almost all of the kids were on reduced or free lunches, and the teachers weren’t meeting district standards.“I love my job!”she exclaimed.“This school is a real fixer-upper.”My total time in school: 13 minutes.

School #2 (located a very short walk from school #1): Principal greeted me warmly and spent lots of time talking with me about my boys, walking me through the school, introducing me to teachers, and asking questions about my work.The teachers chatted-me-up, showed-off their classrooms, and asked for details about my children.The halls were brightly painted with murals reflecting the cross-cultural neighborhood, and I was offered information about before and after school activities.The principal told that about half of the kids received free or reduced price lunches, and she left me with an armful of paperwork for admission.My total time in school: 67 minutes.

School #3 (located a short drive from schools #1 & #2): The principal greeted me stiffly in the office with an indiscreet scrutiny of my jeans and dreads.She walked briskly thru the halls without asking me questions and offered a minimal amount of information about her school.I was not introduced to any staff.At one point in an empty hallway, she stopped and said, “I just want to be direct with you: if you’re looking for a mulit-culti experience, you won’t find it here.There are no students on free or reduced lunches, and the kids are predominantly white.So if you want something more diverse, you should check-out School #2.”My total time in school: 7 minutes.

Can you guess which one I felt most at home in?

I found it really interesting to see not only how quickly I could identify where I belonged, but also how quickly those principals knew whether or not I would become a part of their community.Yet, I hadn’t disclosed anything about my finances or education.

How did they know in a few minutes whether I would fit-in?What were those quiet class markers that they used to size me up?How many patients walk into my clinic and decide in 60 seconds that they don’t belong?And how do those unspoken class markers play-out in the conversations we have here in these blogs? 

Here’s another example of how I’ve seen classism in my adult life: I attended a UU church when I lived in Wisconsin.  I wanted to like it because it was non-denominational and emphasized social justice.  But all of the members lived in the wealthy parts of town, and all of the social work they did was for the indigent.  They were professional middle and upper-middle class.  I was a college-educated, working, single-mom, who was also back in school (MCOM), with two little babies, and we just didn't fit in (for reasons I didn't understand at the time).  It wasn't until I joined the church's dinner club for monthly dinners at different members' homes that I saw how everyone else lived: large dining rooms, complete crystal and china sets, matching living room furniture, and one-of-a-kind artwork.  I felt totally embarrassed about where/how I lived: tv trays, corning ware, mismatched furniture, and print posters.  I finally realized that we were from entirely different worlds.  But I didn't fit in the world of the underclass that they devoted their charitable time, energy, or money to either. There wasn't room in the church for me--for working class--because the social activities were all expensive, and everybody there flaunted social markers (clothes, cars, spare time). 

What is the most classist thing you have said or done, heard or seen?

Author of Class Matters, Betsy Leondar-Wright offers a few classist things she has said over the years:

  • I came back from college and bumped into a working-class guy I’d known in high school.I asked what he was doing.“Bagging groceries at the supermarket.”I said, “Oh, is it interesting?”He just looked at me like I was an idiot.
  • In college, I was going door-to-door in the dorms signing people up for an Oxfam fast in which we would all skip eating for a day and donate the money for famine relief.One guy said, “No, this isn’t for me; I’m working my way through college.This is for people whose parents pay their tuition.”I told him, “No, this is for everyone!”I wouldn’t take no for an answer.He actually opened a drawer and showed me those little packages of peanut butter crackers he was eating for meals, and still I badgered him to contribute.
  • My friend with an Associates degree said, “I am so tired of teaching dental hygiene.”I said, “Well, why don’t you try teaching something else?”She looked at me like I was clueless and said, “Because I don’t know anything else.”

I too have said and done some really awful things, because I grew-up with mixed messages about class from my immediate and extended family (see above).One of them, I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t even recognize until recently reading through this page on Class Matters.

Twelve years ago, I was the administrator of a skilled nursing facility (SNF), managing about 60 employees.I started that position in October and soon had to plan the holiday party.The staff were all working class ($7-$20/hour, including the nurses, PT's, and myself).  Many were uneducated workers, some were single moms.For years, the facility had budgeted money from the dietary department to purchase frozen turkeys through their food vendor for giving to each employee at the holiday season.Shortly after I arrived, the Director of Nursing approached me: “You should do something about those stupid turkeys,” she said.“They’re so impersonal.There’s no warmth in them.It’s like, ‘Here, thanks for your time and have a cold turkey.’”(She banged on my desk for emphasis.)“Why don’t you take that money and do something nice, like have a party for the staff where we could all get together and socialize a little?”Wanting to demonstrate my openness to suggestion and trusting that she had a finger on the pulse of the employees, I very foolishly abandoned the frozen holiday turkey program in lieu of a facility holiday party.

I couldn’t have infuriated the staff any more if I had actually tried to.

At the time, I thought they were angry because I hadn’t thrown a good party.I reasoned, “Well, if I can just improve the music or the gifts next year, everyone will be happier.”Duh.I stole the food that those women counted-on for making a happy holiday with their families.I replaced it with a party that not everyone could attend because: 1) in a SNF, there is always one shift working, and 2) with single mom-employees, there are always those who can’t afford a sitter to attend a party.Furthermore, parties are the perfect class divider.Out of their work uniforms, everyone’s class markers became much more apparent via their apparel.My good intentions were demeaning and ignorant.

My attempt to enhance the holiday season by throwing a party for my facility’s staff, and the resulting employees’ anger because I made their family's holiday meal inaccessible, reminds me of the fighting which occurs in our acupuncture community.The BA world has worked to enhance the acu-experience for their patients (facial rejuvenation, specially-prepared herbal concoctions, insurance parity, doctoral degrees), while CAN has angrily fought to protect the very basic needs for our patients (accessible acupuncture).

That’s how we learn though.Like Mary Margaret in her well-intentioned blog, like my early managerial position (and many of my earlier CAN posts), we clumsily stumble through uncomfortable territory.The question is, do those experiences harden our defenses (“You people are so angry and ungrateful!Can’t you see I’m trying to help you?!”) or do they open us to new ways of processing our interactions (“Gee, I can see that I really pissed you off.I’m going to figure-out what the hell I did there.”). Do we need somebody else to point-out our fuck-ups, or are we awake and curious enough to glimpse the problems ourselves?


So: share your stories, share your thoughts.  Here are those questions again.

  1. How would you define class?Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?
  2. Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?What words would they use/have used for their class?
  3. When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?
  4. How do you know which class you fit into now? 
  5. What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?
This story was posted on January 2 2011 by Jessica Feltz.
Tags: classism

Comments

  • January 2 2011 at 7:20 PM
    chaitime writes:

    ooo! ooo! ooo!

    i’m pre-posting my reply before reading. i can’t wait to read this blog jessica! thanks for posting. its funny, i was just talking to larryg yesterday about this exact topic. as much as i think i understand the idea of class and class conflict, in a lot of ways i have such limited understanding of it as well. nothing says a great sunday evening to me like a handful of ginger snaps, tea, and a little studying up on class! patients are waiting now though….you rock!

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  • January 2 2011 at 8:13 PM
    tessmcginn writes:

    Jessica happy new year

    Thanks for firing up your well placed anger in earlier posts and then putting your life and its imperfections for all to see, which clearly justifies your angry rebuttals (to Will et.al.).  

    You are a champ.   

    Tess Bois (formerly McGinn)

    One World Community Acupuncture

    Fitchburg, MA

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  • January 3 2011 at 12:49 AM
    jenniferwoolf writes:

    “How many patients walk into

    “How many patients walk into my clinic and decide in 60 seconds that they don’t belong? ”

    Jessica, that line is the very best New Year’s gift you could have given me.  Thank you.  Off I go to think it over and see what kind of answers I can come up with - and then find out if there’s a chance to change any of them.  It’s my new koan.

    I know just the place to ponder it, too.  If there’s a chair free at Andy’s, I’ll lay there next to the red brick and think.  Or not think.  The answers will come either way, because this might just be the most important question I can consider right now.

    Thank you, again. 

    Jen

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  • January 3 2011 at 2:21 AM
    obnicole writes:

    thanks jessica

    How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?I don’t have a definition of class. Well I could talk about it, but damn, it would take all night. For my family, income is the most important, as we dig our way out of my massive acupuncture student loan debt while trying to feed the family healthy food. We’d love to own a house, but that is a dream in San Diego.Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class?I think I grew up lower middle class. I went to a high school where almost all of my classmates were given cars at age 16, and I always felt this weird divide… my family had very little “stuff.” I worked from age 14 to buy clothes to fit in with my friends. My parents stressed higher education and were themselves educated. I still laugh about how I’d like to send my kids to trade school and THEN they can pursue more education. Maybe there will be an 18-month acupuncture tech program by then.When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?

     

    Age 5-6. A few things: my mom took us to get clothes at salvation army, which was no big deal, but I remember crying because she selected underwear and I really, REALLY wanted unused underwear. AT MY first sleepover, I was overwhelmed by my friend’s room , all expensive-seeming and matchy-matchy. Also she not only had shampoo but “cream rinse.” LOL. I would have killed for cream rinse.

    How do you know which class you fit into now? 

     

    I don’t know. A lot of how I think about class is solely my own perception, based on a specific environment and world view. Having spent some time in the developing world, I still think, “a fork! hot water!” etc. I know in global terms that my kids have wealth beyond belief. So we rent. So my kids have bunk beds. So effing what. We are very grateful. Now, what I am curious about is how my KIDS will view their class, with their limited, sheltered environment. Their friends live in big houses and don’t so much wear the hand-me-downs. 

    What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?Not the most, but a good recent one…passed on to me by an acupuncturist. A comment about BCA from a former classmate: “community acupuncture is so communist.” OK that’s just ignorant. But maybe classist too, as she works for a massively high-priced fertility clinic.

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  • January 3 2011 at 6:45 PM
    chaitime writes:

    .

    How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last day, and I still don’t have a workable definition of class that I’m happy with yet. From a very gut level its the issues around power and position/status that have always had the strongest affect on me in my personal understanding and relationship with class. Hierarchical relationship, based on threat of or direct violence itself, or whether based on societal expectations and assumed status has always rubbed me the wrong way. Even though I can see the interconnectedness of all of these factors, wealth disparity and income issues had been an initially absent issue, and later still, a fairly abstract concept to me. Its an evolving issue as to why that is but I think a lot of it revolves around the fact that I didn’t HAVE to see class in this particular way until I chose to. I grew up in a middle class household with middle/upper middle class values for most of my younger life. Sure, we saw the kids starving in Africa on t.v. and knew that there were homeless people out there somewhere and would donate money to organizations to help them. It was all very sad and unfortunate. We did what we could to help. It wasn’t near us though and it was due to natural disasters, failed states, bad luck, or bad life decisions. It was out of our hands. What we had to think even less about was that there were working families living paycheck to paycheck or that people might work right on through life and never be able to retire. That many, many people work jobs that literally destroy their bodies with no health insurance to rely on. That high wealth or job status doesn’t just come from “pulling yourself up by the boot straps”. That powerful interests and institutions were set up to systematically work in direct opposition to the interests of working people. What we chose to NOT think about was the fact that we directly benefited from this unethical socioeconomic structure at the cost of other people. How painful would that realization be? How could we go on participating in something so unhealthy if we truly understood the ramifications? Class was absent for me, if I wanted it to be.When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?
    The first experience I can remember that really did this for me was when I was about 15. My family and I took a vacation to Jamaica one summer for a week. It started off like any other vacation might until we actually arrived at the airport in Jamaica. I was immediately struck by the feeling in the air, it was of unmistakable contempt. I scrunched down in the seat of the bus the hotel and sent for us not knowing why I felt so embarrassed. We stayed at one of those all inclusive hotels where food and drink was available at any time. There were security guards with guns at the main gated entrance. We could technically leave the hotel if we wanted to…..but why would we ever want to when we had everything right here? The hotel staff would say. Aside from all the other isms that I experienced first hand, for the first time in my life, I knew that something wasn’t right even if I didn’t have the words for it. I was seeing where I fit in to this picture and I wasn’t ok with it. The class and race distinctions in Jamaica are very clear which makes them even more perceptible I think. You could look towards the center of the island and see multi-million dollar mansions criss crossing the mountain side, and then you could turn towards the ocean and see miles and miles of hand built shacks made out of any kind of discarded material supported by rocks and bricks.
    Later, in to my teenage years i stumbled across punk rock music and again was opened up to a way of thinking that ran very contrary to my upbringing. Class was a very present theme in a lot of the music and a lot of my learning about that came through this vehicle. It was very formative in a lot of my present thinking on issues of class, power, and politics. What was really interesting about it to me is that it inspired and thrust me in to a position of jumping class lines in a major way. Not jumping up classes, but downward. I began spiking up and dying my hair and wearing ripped and torn clothing to spite my class background. I wanted to challenge what I saw as unjust and  hypocritical concepts(concepts rather than realities being a good indicator of the abstractness of my relationship to class i’d say). I also lived for a number of years on next to no money, dumpster diving for food, couch surfing, and involving myself in a political subculture that directly challenged the mainstream culture. I’m aware now of the underlying class privilege in doing this. I COULD do this, i didn’t really have to work for a living or if I didn’t like a job for whatever reason I could quit and still have my parents to rely on if things got bad. Most social justice movements and activists that I now respect seem to be filled with people who are in the trenches because they HAVE to be there, there is no other choice for them. There was also a lot of sincerity and growth in what I was doing though. After a lot of the more superficial layers of this class jump have worn off and I get older, what has stuck around strongly is that I still choose to align myself with working people and communities. I still choose to work for justice and dignity.What do you feel comfortable sharing about where you and your family today fit into the US class spectrum?
    This is a big one for me right now. Lots of evolution of ideas. Trying to honestly sort through internal needs/wants, fears, expectations, and how that ties in with the bigger picture of social justice. As a parent I have a lot of the same concerns that every parent does around wanting to provide for your kid and have some sort of economic “safety net”. There are a lot of challenges to doing this in a way that feels ethical and desirable, got to find balance. My daughter comes back and forth between her mom’s house and mine and there is an interesting class dynamic there. My daughter’s mom grew up in a working class household but has moved up to a more middle class lifestyle, myself and my side of the family are the exact opposite. Raising kids in different houses can be hard enough, but raising kids across class lines simultaneously!? It brings up interesting issues between her mom and I to say the least. My daughter is exposed to working class and middle class homes and values, it will be interesting to see how it shapes her over the next few years.What’s the most classist thing you have said or done, heard or seen?
    -“Class doesn’t exist!”
    -I personally had a very similar experience to the bagging groceries example mentioned. Shit, embarrassing.

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  • January 3 2011 at 6:50 PM
    Justine writes:

    Great thread, Jessica

    Since I just reviewed Lisa’s classism talk (2nd time I’ve seen her give it, and it has been 3+ years since the last time) this is all so fresh in my mind - and the talk, as well as your post, are both so well-explained.  I don’t think the first time I saw Lisa give her classism post I was as blown away by it as I am now (actually, I know for a fact I wasn’t then - because i wasn’t yet financially independent, I was still in school, and I just didn’t know the realities of money.  I think I still don’t though, in some ways).  The point you both made though, about how to make a space comfortable for the patients, was really poignant to me.  I feel similarly about my home as I do my office: that it’s not frilly or fancy, it’s more homey and living-room-ish, neat, clean, colorful and warm, with some used/thrift/family relic items combined with some newer, but fairly inexpensive, items.  It’s kind of like me - down to earth and pragmatic.  This way of being, I think, actually developed for me back in high school.  Early on I was aware that my family was fairly well-off and my friends could tell, but weren’t judgmental of me, and I realized it was a bit of a taboo topic that nobody ever really talked about.  My 3 best friends in high school all had part-time jobs throughout the school year and I didn’t.  One lived with her mother in a rented two-bedroom apartment, and they moved around a lot, renting places.  My family was thrifty in certain ways (mom was queen of the coupons, and we did get hand-me-down clothes from friends and cousins while little kids, and my mom was a super negotiator on just about anything she could negotiate on) but we did a lot of traveling (practically every school vacation and summer vacation we went somewhere), I was able to do after school activities, go to sleepover camp, etc. and my parents eventually put my sister and I both through college and grad school.  In high school I decided to work through two summers (although I could have opted not to, like my sister did, and travel instead) because I thought it was the responsible, grown-up thing to do and wanted to earn money so I could feel like I was contributing toward my expenses and family - and I’m glad I did it, because my jobs not only helped me to earn money but were great learning experiences.  I worked through most of acupuncture school waiting tables so I could pay my rent and for entertainment and other things, but when I had to quit about 6 months before graduating I was able to.  I never took out a student loan and have no debts, and my parents also helped me to fund the start-up of my clinic and for this I am so
    grateful.  I felt like a bit of a poser being a CAN member and owning a CAP given my background at first and even still in some ways, but it’s where I feel comfortable and what I feel passionate about, and because we talk about money and class I feel it should be a non-issue.  My parents had to work to put my sister and I through school and are continuing to work.  I realize not having to take out student loans is a very rare thing and I doubt I’ll be able to ever do it for my kids (if I have kids) assuming I keep doing what I’m doing and don’t marry someone wealthy.  I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that I was given this gift when I most likely won’t be able to give it myself, but I don’t really see it as being a choice.  I’m just lucky we didn’t have to worry about money - not all of my extended family is like this, and my parents didn’t always have much, especially when I was a lot younger.  My parents just had good skills and talents and work ethics and luck and somehow did pretty well.  These days my working class living allows me to rent a one bedroom apartment near my clinic, and to live by myself is actually a bit of a luxury but for me a necessary one for the sake of my sanity.  This area is really damn expensive (I talked about this w/ the punks in Portland - for what a house is worth in WCA’s neighborhood I could only buy a 1 or maybe 2 bedroom apartment here in Somerville/Cambridge).   I have nearly all used furniture and family hand-me-downs in my apartment, a 11 year old car (fortunately only about 91k miles on it) and I am basically a bargain shopper.  I put away money for savings now (thankfully I’m making enough to do this!).  Once in awhile I treat myself to nice/more expensive experiences (meals out, theater, travel, a massage) but of course it’s easier to stretch my money since I’m a single gal with a cat and he’s pretty inexpensive to take care of - no kids to feed or put through school.  Anyway that was sort of a ramble to answer the questions you asked, although sort of out of order, but you get it.

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  • January 3 2011 at 8:44 PM
    Lisafer writes:

    I love this thread and these comments

    It’s very cool to see the diversity of experiences here. Also, those questions are really helpful. I think that I think about this stuff all of the time, but as I thought about it in the context of the questions, I had a “well, duh” moment—no WONDER I have issues.

    1.  All of these, but also culture, education, and stories. So many of the family stories I heard as a kid had to do with being descended from immigrants, part of an immigrant culture. Anybody else a Gogol Bordello fan? I was thinking of doing an entire blog post about this video, but really, it belongs here. It would make a good soundtrack for this comment.

    2 & 3  together: I couldn’t have been older than 5, because I remember hearing stories about my father’s childhood while we were still living in the inner city, in the house that my great-grandparents bought when they got off the boat. It started with food: my father would never eat mayonnaise because there were so many times, when he was a kid, that all his family had to eat was mayonnaise on bread. Also, he and his brothers sometimes had to steal that bread off bakery trucks. Later came the explanation that my dad walked with a limp because when he was 12 he was hit by a car and his family couldn’t take him to the hospital. I grew up thinking that we could go back to being that poor at any moment. That probably was not ever true; my father had a good, stable job as a technician in a chemical plant, but we never took vacations, almost never ate out (even fast food), never spent money we didn’t have to. All my clothes were hand-me-downs or made by my mom. My dad never got over his habit of rummaging through other people’s trash looking for things that might still have some use. This did not make us popular in the lower middle class suburb that we eventually moved to.

    My mom’s side of the family was better off ( translation: nobody starved), but my grandfather still had to quit school in 8th grade in order to work. He pumped gas for a living but never owned a car or even learned to drive.

    Nobody had any words for class at all. As a result, off I went to a Seven Sisters’ college on a scholarship—I think I might not yet have recovered from that collision.

    4. Factoring in the (worthless) Master’s degree, the household income that’s a little above the median for this part of Portland, owning my own business that supports me, the church I attend, and the fact that I feel most viscerally connected to working class people and culture, I figure I probably average out to lower middle class. Which makes me a straddler, as they say in Class Matters. No matter how much money I make in my lifetime, I’ll never truly be able to fit into the middle class.

    Outside of being with my family and close friends—most of whom don’t come from the same background I do—I notice that when I’m around genuinely middle class people that I DON’T know well,  I feel like I’m always trying really hard not to screw up. I think I don’t have the right reactions and the right reflexes, and I’m constantly on the verge of making some embarrassing mistake. It’s only around working class people that I can actually fully relax. This is one reason that my clinic is such a big deal and such a refuge to me—I feel safe there. As Larry wrote about so beautifully, I get to treat people who remind me of my family.

    5. Oh Lord, I don’t even know. Maybe the acupuncturist who told me directly that the only reason I do what I do is that I have no self-esteem?

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  • January 3 2011 at 8:53 PM
    Lisafer writes:

    answering those questions

    made me aware of the degree to which I still feel that I am “passing” as not-working class/not-poor—even among my comrades.

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  • January 4 2011 at 12:59 AM
    David Lesseps writes:

    today’s experience with classism

    Today i went to the bank to make a deposit for the clinic.  Instead of going to the branch I normally use, where many of the tellers know me, I went to a new branch that opened downtown.

    After standing in line for the “business transactions” window, when it was my turn the teller pointed to the next window and told me to over there.  I asked him if I could make a business deposit and his eye’s grew wide and he said, “oh sorry, I thought you were doing a personal transaction.”

    Guess my work attire (scruffy beard, jeans, several year old t-shirt) don’t send a professional message.

     

    David L f’ing Ac (my earned title)

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  • January 4 2011 at 9:57 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Education

    @Nicole ~ My parents stressed higher education and were themselves educated. I still laugh about how I’d like to send my kids to trade school and THEN they can pursue more education.”  Residential college education is interesting, in terms of the development of class.  Scroll halfway down this page  and read the section on “Differences Between Working Class/Lower Middle Class and Professional Middle Class Activists.”   Uprooting and moving to residential college shifts students’ worldviews with an immersion in abstract-thinking and book learning…while often crippling the student with lifelong debt.  It’s like: look at how the upper professional class lives, but we’ll impose this financial burden so you can never achieve it. 

    I have a few classmates who went to the local community college, graduated in two years with no debt, and quickly went on to earn six-figure incomes.  It was the less-esteemed path, but in many ways reaped greater rewards.

    Maybe there will be an 18-month acupuncture tech program by then.”  Word. 

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  • January 4 2011 at 10:13 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Middle Class Privillege

    I felt like a bit of a poser being a CAN member and owning a CAP given my background at first and even still in some ways, but it’s where I feel comfortable and what I feel passionate about, and because we talk about money and class I feel it should be a non-issue.”  I think it’s important to acknoweldge that we all have different backgrounds, which contribute to the ways we interact.  Your middle class privllege afforded you a good education (as did mine), which provided the intellectual tools you use in doing advocacy work for CAN, Justine. 

    This piece has a related perspective on cross-cultural alliance building:  “Often the paid organizers in low-income communities come from professional middle-class backgrounds…the class dynamics can be tricky. Nearly everything I know about poverty and urban politics, I learned from members of groups I staffed.”

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  • January 4 2011 at 10:28 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Straddling

    Stating that you feel like you don’t fit into the middle class but aren’t “passing” as working class reminds me of the acculturation that Fr. Riebe-Estrella talked about in When Worlds Collide: “People who studied culture used to think that acculturation proceeded on what we imagined as a straight line…Studies (now) show that people adapt at different rates in different areas of their lives.”  It sounds like you have the education and residential college experiences of a middle-classer, but the values and identify of working-classer. 

    OMG Lisa ~ you’re a HYBRID!!!

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  • January 4 2011 at 10:42 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Kids & Class

    @Chai ~ “Raising kids in different houses can be hard enough, but raising kids across class lines simultaneously!? It brings up interesting issues between her mom and I to say the least.”  That’s a really good point.  Maintaining a household in which both adults are from different classes (like Lisa’s parents below) can be crazy-making, too.  But how often do we ever find somebody with exactly the same class background or identity as ourselves?  You’ll have a really good opportunity to talk with your daughter about class as she’s growing-up, and also model cross-class interactions (for better or worse).

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  • January 4 2011 at 12:44 PM
    Spartacus writes:

    .

    1. How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?

    I think one can tell one’s class by how much control they have over their daily life.  The “lower” the class, the less control.  Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” left me shocked at what life can be like for adults making minimum wage.  The working poor have little to no control over their daily lives – and one thing going wrong (as little as a bus running late or not showing) can turn the whole world upside down.  Contrast that to all the stories the media inundates us with about people who were so brave and daring as to “give up” the rat race and start their dream business (which almost always becomes wildly successful).  They really aren’t giving up, they’re cashing out, as folks who make large sums of money can do because they have the luxury of savings, large IRAs they can take early withdrawals from, etc.  Income doesn’t seem to me as though it matters very much if one is very much in debt though – if one is making six figures but every last dime goes out the door to student loans, an underwater mortgage, keeping aging parents taken care of in their twilight years, what class do they appear to be living in?  Probably not one we’d all associate with that level of income. 

    2. Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class?

    My father (who was an “older dad” when I appeared on the scene) was born in 1919, and so was raised during the Great Depression.  His family was at most working class, as was my mother’s, during their formative years.  I remember him telling me that dandelions were good to eat if you fried them (well, what isn’t good if you fry it?) and saltines in milk was a favorite cereal of his into his old age – two bits of information that lead me to believe they were more like working poor in terms of class, at least during that time period.  My mom and her 5 siblings were raised by my grandmother at her parents’ farmhouse after her father died when she was 3.  They were also on the cusp between working poor and working class.

    3. When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in? 

    Mom worked at a bank, dad was a machinist for Monsanto.  We had separate holiday parties for her friends and his, apparently my mother didn’t think the two groups would mix well.  Even in elementary school I was mortified that she didn’t bother to get a new deli tray for the second party (guess which group that was for?)  We never took vacations.  I went to a very expensive private university for undergrad (on grants, loans, and awards, plus a couple grand from my folks every year until my dad died) and got a fabulous education there, but all my friends and acquaintances were at least solidly upper middle class and I felt continually shocked by the things they would complain about.  One girl’s parents had bought her a brand new Cabriolet (convertible, remember how awesome those things were in 1990?) for her high school graduation.  I told her how awesome it was, her response: “Yeah, it is, but I wanted a red one.”  I’d go home periodically to my friends who were just working and we’d laugh and roll our eyes – to have such troubles! 

    4. How do you know which class you fit into now?  

    This one is tough to answer, because I’ve been working in theatre for nearly 20 years, and somehow there is very little class distinction in the field.  I feel most comfortable with people who are working class to lower middle class, and have a really hard time with people who are any higher up on the socioeconomic ladder – but I realize that it’s not because they just have more money or more comfort, it’s because they are often really oblivious to the way people who do not have as much money live – the way we need to make decisions and prioritize things out of pure necessity. 

    5. What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?

    Recently a patient was being discussed in our weekly student clinic meeting.  He had been explained the fee for the first visit ($70) but didn’t bring enough money, made a second appointment (which would have cost $55) but cancelled at the last minute (incurring a $25 late cancellation fee), and there had been a few phone conversations with his student practitioner about how he was living on a fixed income (state disability, I believe) and wanted to come at the beginning of the month because that was when he had the most money.  The student had contacted him and he still wanted to come in but he hadn’t scheduled again.  From across the table another classmate said “Yeah, he just doesn’t want it.”  Ugh.

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  • January 4 2011 at 2:48 PM
    chaitime writes:

    .

    nice simple definition, i like it.

     

    “I think one can tell one’s class by how much control they have over their daily life.  The “lower” the class, the less control. “

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  • January 4 2011 at 8:48 PM
    Nic writes:

    How would you define

    How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?

    Owning Class has more to do with wealth, power

    Upper middle class- income, position, status

    Class is an economic position linked with value sets and social priviledges.  Its also mixed up with race/ ethnicity.

    Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class?

    My Dads family is split.  His mom is working poor.  She has drug and alcohol issues and I have never met her.  His dad was a union man at a steel company who jumped over to the management side.  My uncle worked at the mill in the union.  My grandfather and step grandmother have always tried to keep up appearances- nice things etc.  Their children are all working class or working poor.  My dad has been a truck driver, farmer, and enlisted in the military.

     My moms family is working class too.  Her father is a first generation imigrant.  He was a teamster and then a farmer.  My grandma was a nurses aid and secretary.  Some of their children are more middle class.  Some are working class.

    My parents did their best to raise us middle class because they wanted us to be better off than them.   

    When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in? 

    Growing up on a military base there is a distinction between officers and enlisted.  There was some of the officers kids had nicer things or acted like they were better than the rest of us.  Generally speaking it was pretty egalitarian though.

    When we moved back to Kansas I realized there are a lot of people who did not have it as good as us and also some who had it a lot better.

    I got really angry about the injustice of this and how much easier some kids lives seemed.  They were carefree and ignorant and some seemed hostile towards those they saw as inferior. 

    How do you know which class you fit into now?  

    I always thought I was lower middle class.  I have been realizing that we were raised much more working class then I thought.  Emphasis on relationships, thrift, hard work, doing work that is hands on, story telling, . Not too interesting in wealth, power, status, keeping up with the jones’s etc. 

    What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?

    What do you mean? You’re just like me.

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  • January 4 2011 at 11:44 PM
    jenniferwoolf writes:

    I spent the day thinking

    I spent the day thinking about this and reading the responses, and it’s left me feeling out of sorts. 

    I grew up in the nicest neighborhood in uptown Nashville and went to the best schools (until I was expelled from one too many and ended up in public high school in New York, where I had my very first experience of being in a class with someone of a different color).  But at home it was all a sham - we had no heat, no food, and I washed my school uniform a lot because I had no replacements.  I ate mayonnaise sandwiches a lot - or just mayonnaise, or milk from the carton if I was lucky.  I never learned how to deal with money or time and I was very confused about where I fit, or didn’t.  One thing I did learn was how to be a businesswoman, because that’s how my mother supported us and kept up the lie that we were comfortably middle class. 

    You’d think I learned to look down on everyone out of a need to prop up the lie but somehow my mother was not that way.  She was very inclusive and could make friends and find commonality with anyone, a skill I sure hope I inherited.

    I don’t know where I fit now.  Me and money and class - it’s a complicated issue.  I have recreated the scenario I experienced as a child - a small business stands between my child and disaster, and sometimes we’re okay and sometimes I just hold on to hope. 

    But look at me from the outside and I’m totally middle class - educated (way, way too educated!), own my house, drive a soccer mom car.  There’s some sham-ness going on here and this thread has poked a few holes in it.

    Jen

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  • January 5 2011 at 12:57 AM
    tatyana writes:

    ... some of my story

    1.    How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?
    I like the definition that includes how much control of your life you have, so I guess it is about power and status – I would also say it is about levels of access in general – access to things like healthcare, leisure time and basic structures of society such as housing, banking, transportation. Income plays into it, of course, because if you have money you can buy some of that stuff, but they are not entirely directly related.

    2. Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class?
    This one is a bit tricky for me, as I did not grow up in United States. My maternal grandmother grew up in a shtetl in rural Ukraine and survived 2 world wars. She lived in unbelievable poverty most of her life, although I do not think she ever starved, even in wartime, because she was infinitely resourceful. She was one of 7 siblings and was only able to attend school for 3 years. She married a tailor (working class). I never met my father’s parents but they were more urban and educated and better off. Because Jews in the USSR as an (unspoken) rule did not get to go to the University, my mother was educated at a trade school and had an office job in a factory in Moscow. The last 2 years before we immigrated to United States, she worked as a personal attendant for elderly / disabled women. My father was college-educated and worked as an engineer, so my family in the Soviet Union was probably kind of lower middle class. It is hard to evaluate the class culture of my childhood because compared to United States, we lived in pretty amazing scarcity, but we were used to it and did not know anything different. My father was mentally ill and my parents did not stay together.
    After immigrating to United States, we were very poor and lived 3 people to a studio apartment in New York City, using food stamps and government assistance while my mother tried to learn English, take vocational training and find employment as a bookkeeper. Then she re-married and my stepdad, a talented classical musician (also a Soviet immigrant), was lucky enough to land a job playing in New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This changed our lives fundamentally and propelled our family into middle class lifestyle. I remember feeling really weird about living in a co-op in Riverdale and having a nice safe clean neighborhood to walk around in. It was like a dream or something. I went to a public high school in the Bronx with 8 thousand students, because even with higher income, a private school is not something my family would ever consider to be within our reach, if not fiancially, at least culturally.

    3.    When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in? 
    I remember going to some friends’ house in New York shortly after we immigrated – they were Russian immigrants too, but they have been in the US for a while and have done pretty well for themselves – they had a nice apartment near the park with shiny hardwood floors and all that space. I remember those floors and the light in their home and how dank and cramped our little studio felt by comparison. I also remember that my friend’s parents had a car (in New York City!) They used it for weekend trips out of town. I am pretty sure it was some kind of a cheap Ford 2-door, but this seemed really fancy to me at the time, because why would you need a car in a place where the subay goes almost everywhere?

    4.    How do you know which class you fit into now?  
    I was poor my entire adult life. In my early 20’s I quit college and decided to “leave the world”. I spent 5 years living in a Yoga community, working 12 hours per day in exchange for room, board and structure. When I left this community and tried to get my own apartment, it was near impossible, because I have not been a consumer for 5 yrs – I had no address so I could not get a bank account or apply for a job and I could not apply for an apartment lease without any credit history. After this, I always felt like I could never catch up with the rest of the consumer world. I worked at many shitty part-time jobs, got very good at living in really small spaces, with few possessions and pretty much hand-to-mouth. I think I inherited a bit of my grandma’s resourcefulness and it has been a life-saver for me. I even managed to complete Shiatsu training on work trade and save enough money to travel in India and Thailand for 3 months. But I never had the luxury not to have to think about whether I can afford something, even if it was a simple meal out, a movie ticket, or a thrift store sweater. I never owned more than a few boxes worth of stuff and could move with one load-taxi ride (never owned a car).
    Most recently I married a man who has a child in private school and a pretty regular middle class job at the local University.  Between the three of us we are struggling hard to survive on our lower middle class income in the very expensive Bay Area. Our short-term solution is to live with my father-in-law.  It’s a bit crowded, but the rent is cheap and so we can afford to actually have some fun once in a while. Despite the fact that money is really tight, I am keenly aware of suddenly having much more access and privilege that I have ever had: I have access to a car, I have health insurance for the 1st time in many decades, I have been on vacation a few times, and I did not have to sleep in a dorm room on the floor in order to go.
    I am not sure what all this makes me in terms of class – all the newly acquired privilege is still at times really strange to me, so I think I am probably a straddler.

    5. What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?
    I have so many stories about this, it is hard to know what to pick. Here’s one - When I lived in Chicago, I worked as a receptionist at really fancy therapeutic massage spa. My boss was an over-educated white male who grew up in a wealthy family, and after deciding he did not want to practice law anymore, he invested 6 figures to start a very successful massage business in a fancy downtown neighborhood. It was a new and growing business, so our business hours were constantly in flux. Several times during my 3+ years at this job, my boss would cut my hours without warning me. Every time this happened, I would march into his office and practically yell at him in desperation – I would remind him that I was going to not have money for food if my hours were cut. Literally, not as a metaphor. He would get this blank look on his face, like he had no fucking idea what I was talking about and just say “Oh… sorry” – It was obvious that he was not purposely trying to hurt me, it was just that his privilege has made him completely ignorant of any possibility of this issue – it was an invisible problem.

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  • January 5 2011 at 10:10 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Hygiene

    Maybe your beard had food in it again.  So f’ing unprofessional.

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  • January 5 2011 at 10:13 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Nickel & Dimed

    I loved that book too, Kim.  This about her waitressing experience really struck me: Working class does not equal prostitution.  As a general rule, people…look at us disapprovingly, no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene’s original profession.”

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  • January 5 2011 at 10:22 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Actually,

    my teasing comment above reminds me of a judgmental statement I heard years ago.  A woman I know was talking about her experience volunteering in a school classroom, and she remarked that some of the kids came to school filthy.  “Why don’t their mothers just brush their hair?  Or wash their clothes?  Everybody has access to soap and water—scrub their faces!”

    But the fact is, not everyone *does* have access to soap & water…or maybe their budget is tight enough that they have to watch their water bill and can’t afford to shower daily.  Not all working parents have time to do those things for/with their children every morning before everyone scampers out the door.  And families in apartments might not have access to laundry machines in their buildings, so yeah, laundry might not get done as often by lower income families which have to find time and money to schlep it across town and sit at the laundromat while it cycles thru.

    At the same time, there is this perspective: “In my neighborhood everyone can spot the class differences between women: the working-class women wear make-up and styled hair even when watering their gardens, and the professional women wear no make-up and loose hair even to work, and sometimes even at weddings.  And at one meeting of a low-income grassroots group, I realized that I was the only person in the room with all my front teeth. We might as well accept that working-class people will know who we are; there’s no hiding our privilege.”

     

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  • January 5 2011 at 10:45 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Hostility

    Some seemed hostile towards those they saw as inferior.”  Anger is more socially accepted when someone from a wealthier class directs it at someone from a poorer class.

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  • January 5 2011 at 10:58 AM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Sham

    Thanks for expressing that, Jen.  The holiday season (gift-giving) always makes me think about how much I pose with my family of origin as having more money than I actually do.  I feel shame in having moved down a class (from the one in which I was raised) into the class that my parents used to mock (with my relatives).  But really, WTF is that all about?  What message am I giving my kids—that our intrinsic worth is tied into our class or bank accounts?  One of the things  I love about the CAN community is that it’s OK to be open about what I do/don’t have.  It helps me accept myself and learn to be OK with that when I interact with people from other classes (like my parents).  Conversations like this help me feel less isolated.

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  • January 5 2011 at 11:14 AM
    Guest writes:

    classism on facebook:

    comment by an acupuncturist on an article someone posted about the dangers of soy:

    When Starbucks first discontinued carrying their organic milk, the store clerk said to me “Oh we don’t have organic milk anymore, I could make it with soy instead.” How is that even comparable—first off, it wasn’t organic soy (non-organ…ic soy is very high on the list of contaminants) and secondly, it’s not even remotely related to actual milk. I educated him on the difference and also the fact that processed soy products are actually quite unhealthy for women. He didn’t see to appreciate my care to teach him a valuable health lesson. I tried to eliminate all soy from my diet this year, and switch to raw or organic dairy products - but alas, soy is in everything these days!

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  • January 5 2011 at 11:25 AM
    Nora writes:

    LOL

    “I educated him….He didn’t see to
    appreciate my care to teach him a valuable health lesson.”  I can just picture the line at Starbuck’s building up behind this woman.  Bless her heart - not like she doesn’t have a point, but damn.  Reminds me a little of this tumblr (where “white” is mostly code for privileged, esp. class privileged). 

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  • January 5 2011 at 12:48 PM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Classist Website Statement

    Also, *this* comment about how to use the sliding scale really pisses me off: Your generous participation in this fee system allows us to serve the whole community.”  WTF is that?!?  The point of the sliding scale is so that patients understand that they should pay what the can afford in order to receive treatment as they need it, NOT to subsidize visits or make patients feel like they’re expected to pay as much as possible.  Statements like “generous participation” = class barrier.

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  • January 5 2011 at 1:35 PM
    Spartacus writes:

    For the sake of discussion…

    I want to play devil’s advocate here because I’m curious and want to flesh it out for myself: while I wholeheartedly agree that “generous” is a push for people to pay more than they are comfortable paying, is a general statement similar to this ok?  Seems like “as much as possible” could be construed as “what you can afford” - ie, if someone can’t afford $20 and can afford $15, they are paying as much as they possibly can.   Or, is it just to hard to ignore the fact that the statement is also basically a subtle ‘be honest and don’t pay *less* than you can afford either, potential cheapskates’, which is generally a crappy dig at people and not a great way to make clients feel comfortable coming to see you. 

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  • January 5 2011 at 1:43 PM
    tatyana writes:

    what website…

    are you talking about?

    -tatyana

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  • January 5 2011 at 1:59 PM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    M2C

    Statements like “pay as much as possible” or “pay generously” imply (to me) that people who can pay more are valued more.  It sounds to me like you’re expected to open your wallet as far as possible. 

    But that is not the intention behind the sliding scale.  We’re not asking people to pay as *high* on it as they possibly can…we’re asking people to slide *down* as low as they need to so they can comply with frequent treatments.

    Also yes, the subtle “don’t pay less you cheapskates” is there, but that’s not upsetting me as much as the above.

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  • January 5 2011 at 2:15 PM
    tessmcginn writes:

    I don’t know but this is what we say…

    The sliding fee scale is the lifeblood of our clinic.  We understand that health care in America is costly.  So the sliding scale was created for flexibility of payment. The flexibility of payment allows acupuncture to be accessible to many more people.  We know that there are some people for whom even our sliding scale is a barrier to access.  While we advocate to make this change in the U.S. Healthcare system, we cannot –at this time- give regular care for free. 

    But we do depend on those of you who choose to pay atthe bottom of the scale; that is why we designed flexibility in our payment system.  What you pay within that scale is up to you.  Everyone contributes to the financial health of our clinic. 

    I think it is better to encourage people to not feel bad about paying at the bottom of the scale.  Sometimes people feel the need to pay more than they can afford and you don’t want to encourage that because they will stop coming because $25 per visit is too expensive for their budget.  You don’t want that to happen.  

    You want to design the bottom of the scale to be enable your clinic to pay the bills.  In order for your clinic to pay the bills you will need to see 6 people paying $15/visit, not 3 ppl paying $25/visit. 

    In reality, most clinics will average more than $15 per visit.  But the tricky part about a scale is that you can’t count on that; you can count on $15 per visit.  Some clinics don’t feel comfortable with this and I know of at least one who charges a flat fee (but within the CAN happy range).

    but this is why when you calculate what the cost of doing your business is, you will most likely need to see 6 ppl and higher an hour to make a living wage and pay all of your bills.

    I see no value in asking people to be as generous as possible.  It does not serve your mission and people who can afford it will value your services and pay you accordingly; but even then you don’t want to guilt people into a range of pay; very short-sighted.  Some people will probably pay you the low rate who can afford more but that is their choice.  As someone else above talked about living a life that appeared better than it was; it may be that you would be making incorrect judgements about anybody’s ability to pay based on what they are wearing.

    Settle your heart on $15 and all will be well. 

     BTW, I want to thank MAS because I may have borrowed some of the language above from them.

    Tess Bois (formerly McGinn)

    One World Community Acupuncture

    Fitchburg, MA

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  • January 5 2011 at 3:23 PM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Taty ~

    What strikes me about your story is that both you and your  mother essentially had to start over: she in a new country and you after your yoga experience.  And just like your mother, you moved up a class with marriage.  Really interesting to see the parallels. 

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  • January 5 2011 at 3:24 PM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    What website am I talking about?

    Not yours, Taty. 

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  • January 5 2011 at 5:21 PM
    jenniferwoolf writes:

    Yes, thank you for

    Yes, thank you for expressing it better than I did.  It’s only acceptable to move up, I guess. 

    I am a much better, healthier, responsible person having moved down.  Too bad I couldn’t have gained the living skills I needed at the class I was in - but since I didn’t, or couldn’t, I think I’m in a place that is better for me as an individual. 

    These lies we tell ourselves and other people out of shame.  I notice it more and more these days with patients and myself.  If I can accept my own feelings about class maybe I can hold a loving place for patients to be comfortable regardless of their own struggles with it. 

    Still thinking on this one and thanks again.

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  • January 5 2011 at 7:01 PM
    NancyS writes:

    Some thoughts

    Mainstream culture has a lot of assumptions about sliding scales, I think, including: 

    They’re for poor peopleThey allow rich people to subsidize poor people (and thus rich people can feel good about their charity)They are based on incomeThe bottom line is threatened by those who don’t pay enough/their fair share/etc.In contrast, here’s what I want to say about our sliding scale fees: They are for everyone.  Everyone gets the same opportunity to choose what they pay.  Period.  Whatever presumptions I may have about how much someone should be able to pay because I see what car they drive or know what profession they are in are my own judgmental burden.  And what if someone “takes advantage” in my opinion?  I’m much more concerned that someone who needs to won’t than someone who doesn’t will.The idea that those who pay higher in the scale subsidize those who pay lower is a complete fallacy.  I make a living because I get more butts in recliners, not because my per treatment average goes up.  Having said that, I like it when my per treatment average goes up by a dollar or so.  It does satisfy a certain want for a little more income each month.  But that burden is on me, not my patients.  Meaning, maybe I am aware that many of my patients don’t have jobs and I have lowered fees below the low end for a number of them and thus my average has dropped (which it has).  I have chosen at times to hang some extra flyers in places that might attract more employed people.  So my solution is on me, not on putting any expectation on my patients to subsidize someone else’s treatment.  Our sliding scale has nothing to do with income, really.  It’s about how much money do you have available for whatever reason (really, whatever reason), to put towards acupuncture treatment. The approach to our sliding scale does not change based on one’s income.  Again, my bottom line is threatened by poor volume not by too many patients paying at the low end of the scale.  Some days, I admit, I say to myself something about wishing my average were higher or even something judgmental about how much someone pays.  I am human.  But I don’t have to take it out on other people.   

    Nancy S.

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  • January 5 2011 at 7:12 PM
    River Jordan writes:

    great conversation

    How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?Income, wealth, power, position, status - all of these are intertwined. I think a lot depends on how individuals self-identify, as well as how social biases in individuals and institutionalized structures conspire to judge others. It can be a pretty sticky mess. 

    Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class? I had limited contact with my grandparents due to a wide gap in generations in our family, though my grandfather and grandmother on dad’s side were an M.D. and Ph.D. respectively. I experienced a lot of (unconscious) privilege growing up - opportunities to travel, nice house in a small very white town in suburban Maine, summer home on the ocean with sail boat, friends with others of like background, some of which opened doors for me (college recommendations, etc.). 4 years undergrad at an elite college payed for by grandparents. The academics were intense and at the time, I couldn’t imagine having to work at even a part time job and doing well in classes.

    When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?  This is a difficult question. As a person of privilege, I don’t remember ever not fitting in - in any situation. Of course, there were low income people in town and I was aware of that, though I don’t remember thinking that I was better than they were. My dad worked as a lawyer doing legal aide work for low income people as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, so I’m sure that his belief in his work influenced me. All that said, awareness of privilege and socio-economic (i.e. class) has been a lifelong process. I lived on a native reservation for a while, as a squatter in Canada for a few years, in India for a few years, and most recently, my involvement in CAN, opening a CA clinic, and reading this blog, have all figured into my education.

    How do you know which class you fit into now? Having lived in a number of different social environments (due to my privilege), I feel that I am able to fit into whatever class I need to in order to be present with others and make them feel comfortable. That said, and to avoid confusion, I wouldn’t say that growing up, I belonged to the upper class by any stretch of the imagination - more like upper middle class.  So perhaps  I might not relate to people from the upper class as well, though I believe their numbers are very small and I don’t encounter them much to my awareness. This might sound disconnected from the lives of people for whom class distinctions are more immediate and consquential than they are for me - I believe that the ultimate privilege is our inner freedom as human beings to choose how to interpret and respond to life. Of course, outer freedom (or lack of) is where the conversation needs to happen first, and as a person who acknowledges my own privilege, my job is to learn to see beyond the projections of my class upbringing, listen and learn from others whose experiences are sometimes radically different from mine, and do what I can to positively influence the larger conversation in the world about peace and social justice.

    What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?

    Recently, another parent at the (private) Waldorf school my daughter attends said something to the effect that because there is financial aid available, that the door to the school is open to anyone. Besides being classist, I politely argued that his position was passively racist as well.

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  • January 5 2011 at 7:40 PM
    River Jordan writes:

    consequences

    Re: My spontaneous comment above….Of course, living in a classist society has huge implications and consequences for everyone, including myself…it’s just that privilege seems to afford one the comfort of pretending it otherwise. Not so, when one digs a little deeper and begins to realize how the suffering of even one person, let alone the institutionalized marginalization of the majority of people in the world - leads to a world of less peace, less openness, and more inner and outer strife.

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  • January 5 2011 at 11:35 PM
    tatyana writes:

    parallels

    Yes, there are definitely parallels. Also interestingly when my mom first met my stepdad he was a starving musician living off government assistance in a roach-infested studio and when I met my husband, he was working part-time (due to the unfortunate effects of the dot com bubble burst) and living in a remodeled garage while going into debt to pay his daughter’s private school tuition. So neither one of us necessarily moved up a class at the start of the relationships, but later on.

    tatyana

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  • January 5 2011 at 11:37 PM
    mitylene writes:

    My NOT relevant reply

     

     

    1)How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status? 

     

     

    I guess it’s really hard for me to talk about class as separate from race and sex. It all really runs together for me. But I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.   

     

    I guess to me class is about power.  It is about having the power to speak out.  Having the authority to talk to people in a certain way.  I knew plenty of immigrants that were making a decent “middle class” income or had accumulated enough wealth to be middle class or above.  But they didn’t have a power of a middle class white person.  They couldn’t speak out against injustice.  They couldn’t articulate unfair situations.  They always got stepped on and just went home and hoped for a better day tomorrow. 

     

     

    2)Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class? 

     

     

    My mom’s parents were definitely “middle class”.  But middle class as in refugees that escaped from a war and lived in air force barracks middle class.  I remember I tried to do an ethnography on my mom once. She told me there were 4 kids in her family.  She was always jealous of the 2 kids next door.  They had 5 different kinds of fruit in their house, while she only had two in theirs.  She wore all her older sisters used clothes.  But they were definitely “middle class” in a very poor society.  

     

    My dad’s parents were definitely impoverished.  I think calling them “working class” would have been polite.  His father was just in the army, a plain honest soldier who never took any bribes and could barely feed his family.  My grandmother still cries when she recollects the times when my uncles were sick and they didn’t have money for medicine.  They didn’t eat much besides rice if they even had rice. 

     

    My parents are college educated. My father has a master’s degree.  So they definitely were “middle class” but they immigrated to the United States.  I think if they had stayed they probably would have remained “middle class”.

     

     

    3)When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in?  

     

     

    I guess in first grade I learned about class. I stuck out like a sore thumb.  My grandmother had taught me to speak my mother tongue.  But before first grade I never realized she didn’t speak properly.  I got laughed at a LOT. Got into a lot of fights. And grouped with the misfits.  

     

    We were pretty poor when we first immigrated to the United States.  I mean I was spared the worst of it.  But we ate only day old groceries for most of my childhood.  I don’t know though.  Even after we moved to another stated started over.  I always thought it was pretty fun rolling around the carpet and watching TV on the ground without furniture.  It’s only when you go to other people’s houses that you’re aware of class.  And I was never allowed to go to other people’s houses so that’s a moot point. 

     

    I remember doing surveys of housing projects in college and being surprised at the economic miracle of the Rent to Own industry.  I mean they had real furniture.  Like real matching stuff. And TV’s and video games.  Immigrants even middle class ones don’t have stuff like that.  

     

     

    4)How do you know which class you fit into now?   

     

     

    This is an interesting question. I think I am definitely Middle Class.  It’s kind of funny to say it this way.  But I’ve grown up in the United States.  I’ve been in developing countries and see what my life could have been.  I have a master’s degree.  I know how to stand up for myself.  I am not afraid of bureaucracy.  If I define class as power, then I am definitely middle class.  

     

     

    If we talk about income, and for my race we don’t speak of income as separate from my parent’s income or my boyfriends income. I think I am definitely middle class. If I became severely disabled or injured today, there is a cushion. Someone will help provide for me so I don’t starve to death on the streets. I think that’s middle class.  

     

     

    Now, finally if we talk about lifestyle and ideals. I think I am pretty much “working class” with some caveats.  The caveats are that I CHOOSE my lifestyle.  And that really isn’t working class at all.  But all in all, I don’t spend much, I try to save everything, and try to get everything from Salvation Army.  I hate waste.  My ideal life is to live in a studio apartment and make do with one car and a Japanese capsule hotel’s worth of stuff.  And if I was any thriftier I think I’d do a even better job of breaking my boyfriend’s and parent’s hearts.  They didn’t work this hard all their lives for me to CHOOSE to live like the way I do.   

     

     

    5)What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say? 

     

     

    I don’t think anyone EVER says classist things to me.  I guess unless I was with a very white family and pretended to be their Korean/Chinese adopted daughter.  Which means the potential for only classist comments are increasing in my life time. Woo!  

     

     

    I don’t attribute much to class…Like I said race and sex predominates any experiences I have. When I was young, I always thought my life would stop sucking once I won a Noble Prize for discovering the cure for Cancer and people stopped looking at me as a girl “Oh…a girl, an only child.(how sad for your parents)“P.S. I always think of Christmas as the most interesting intersections of race and class. After living most of my life without Christmas rituals. It’s fascinating to participate in them.  Why does Santa bring so many presents and stuff in a stocking? I thought Christmas was just about getting ONE present from Santa.  How do you know how many “presents” you’re supposed to gift to someone i.e. a boyfriend or the parent of one?  Why do you receive presents from fido? Does that mean if I get a fluffy. I will have to get a whole another series of presents, so everyone in the family can receive a present from my fluffy? In my culture, our cats and dogs usually do not give the my family or my extended family an array of socks, underwear, and random christmas trinkets for Chinese New Year. And I would be very surprised (but pleased) if my childhood companion dog gifted me a red envelop filled with cash.  

     

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  • January 6 2011 at 2:54 PM
    lumiel writes:

    Thanks, Jessica.  Interesting what more we find digging deeper.

    1. How would you define class?  Which is most important in your definition: income, wealth, power, position, or status?

    Like Nicole, I don’t remember when I had any awareness of class until I joined CAN.  But I do remember my definition of “classy”: a statement or action by someone that demonstrates both social (consideration of others)  and material (quality goods) values.  I have no idea when that word entered my vocabulary but I can say with certainty that it had no place in my growing up years.

    2. Thinking of your grandparents’ and parents’ younger lives, what signs do you see that let you know their class background?  What words would they use/have used for their class?

    My grandparents were immigrants, really poor immigrants.  They came over in the early 1900s with a dream in their hearts and ended up doing slave labor on plantations.  My parents didn’t have to do that.  Middle class was their dream, so they would have said they were somewhere in the middle class, but that wasn’t so.  They left behind their cultural heritage in their scramble to fit in with the American values in the media.  Education was their emphasis for upward mobility, so they wouldn’t let us kids learn the family language, thinking we’d do better in school without that hindrance.  Somewhere in my parents’ younger lives was the influence of World War II and the pervasive influence of the American military in our environment, no matter where we turned.

    3. When did you first become aware of class distinctions and where you fit in? 

    My parents differed philosophically here.  My dad associated with people from all but the upper classes, through his work as an electrical contractor (which he became because he was too strong-willed to work under anyone) and his years of service to the community and the political movements he favored.  My mother had the greatest influence on my class prejudices, since I didn’t spend much time with my dad.  My first recollection of snobbism came when I was very young, as we were walking somewhere in public.  She would make these disparaging remarks about another race as we walked around them to avoid walking too close to them.  I remember thinking two things about these “inferior” people: they had dark skin, and they preyed on little girls.  As I grew older, it was confusing to see her continue with these remarks, at the same time entertaining friends of this race in our home.

    So it wasn’t so much about money or education or status; it was more about race.  But it looked like race didn’t matter so much if there was income and status to balance that out.  Here’s something funny: the darker folks were inferior, but that didn’t mean that White was the top.  In fact, where I grew up, white folks dominated the economy but were never trusted.  When I got my first boyfriend in my senior year, and he was blond and blue-eyed, my mother constantly made fun of him.

    4. How do you know which class you fit into now?  

    The changes I’ve gone through here are so many and strange.  Because of the way I thought, I related better to white folks.  I had little regard for my cultural heritage so had adopted the dominator culture.  My family was definitely working class, even though my mom never had to work.  I became engaged to someone who was Irish/WASP, and when his mother met my parents, she freaked out.  She always pictured herself a Boston Blueblood, and denied her Irish heritage, so her son’s engagement to this working class Asian girl living in a house that didn’t even look like a house (more like a machinist’s yard outside) threw her into trauma and totally insulted my dad.  Like rebellious kids, we eloped.

    I had married someone who didn’t need to work.  His parents weren’t rich, but they had a lot of status in their newly adopted community.  My husband lived on a trust fund from his biological father that paid him quarterly, and he told my parents that we’d never starve, which was true.  But he also never held a job for long because he never had to, and he never developed a passion for anything that motivated him to work.  This meant that I now had access to more money than I ever had before.  Not a lot, but still a lot for me.  This created social problems.

    Some of my parents’ friends were scornful of my new husband because he didn’t earn the money he received.  With greater income, I had been pushed into a higher income class.  But we were simple people, and wanted friends like ourselves.  I remember trying to hide how much money we had.  I was ashamed to have this money and an idle husband while I attended college.  My husband didn’t do well in school, so he took a series of menial jobs while I got my degree.  We lived in an apartment in town while our friends lived in student housing.  I even tried to behave like we were poor, practicing thrift and shopping at Goodwill, and being resourceful when I didn’t have something. That worked for my husband, who had what we call Scarcity Consciousness.   What a strange, conflicted life!  In truth, I’ve always lived like this, making my own clothes, re-using, recycling, etc.  What I hated was the lying and pretending.  It got worse and worse as time went on.  I wouldn’t say that was the main cause of my divorce (which enabled me to finally become really financially poor!) but it was a major underpinning of a dysfunctional relationship and family.  In that period, I didn’t feel free to have real social and family relationships because of so many things I had to hide.

    In those years my original family (two drug addict brothers included) tended to regard me as always richer than they.  There was an underlying resentment toward me whenever I went back to visit.  Even after the divorce, when I moved everything I owned to my hometown, my possessions left over from monied times attracted snide/envious comments.  My parents, thankfully, ignored those things, probably because they were so distracted by their health issues.  Today my three brothers still see me that way, even though one brother owns his own house, has sent this sons to college, and has savings far beyond what I can hope to have.  So I can say that I have two siblings in the Under Class and one in the Middle Class.  I consider myself Working Class, even though I’m over-educated.

    Landing in acupuncture school gave me something practical for economic survival while I learned to do something practical to contribute to the world.  Then I spent years transitioning from the old Wife/Mother role to Entrepreneur.  Now I’m again a Wife but also Entrepreneur.  My new husband doesn’t see us as Working Class.  He likes to think of himself as Middle Class, as most people understandably do.  But we don’t own our own home and we drive old cars.  He needs new socks and underwear, but won’t buy those because he’d rather spend the money on food.  He didn’t grow up with the prejudices I was taught, so he doesn’t have to unlearn that kind of programming, and is wonderfully inclusive in his approach to people.  He doesn’t think about class, and I usually don’t think I do, either (until those old subconscious programs surface).  We focus on financial survival and a few goals to reach, like some day being able to afford our own home.  Not because we desire ownership, but because we want more control of our immediate environment, like wanting to plant a garden or erect a solar project, or build and repair a few things.  I’m tired of refinishing wood furniture outside on the third-floor landing, hoping the landlord doesn’t catch me because I’m violating Fire Code.

    5. What’s the most classist thing you’ve heard anyone say?

    I’ll bet I’ve put out some doozies myself.  Like using the words Trailer Trash.  Thank God for Lisa putting a new spin on White Trash.  Reminds me of the days we’d use the word Dope playfully to describe the “substances” we were “abusing”.  It’s all a work in progress, teaching ourselves to recognize the harmful nature of the vocabulary we were taught.  I forgive myself because I’m trying to undo this, and I forgive every one of you who has been caught in the act.  In fact, I admire and appreciate you.  Okay, myself too.

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  • January 6 2011 at 3:02 PM
    ellengrover writes:

    I made sure

    Korben had food in his beard while being filmed today, don’t worry.  Pretty soon they won’t turn us away at the business teller, they’ll just know.  

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  • January 6 2011 at 3:35 PM
    Roppy writes:

    The former head of my school

    The former head of my school asked me why my sliding scale wasn’t $15-$65 in order to “subsidize” the patients are the “bottom of the scale”.  I don’t think he has ever had a job that he really needed.  

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  • January 6 2011 at 11:19 PM
    Jessica Feltz writes:

    Jade

    Thank you so very much for your reply ~ it is *totally* relevant! 

    You raise the issue of class intersecting with race.  This made me think about how race really affects your perspective of class: “for my race we don’t speak of income as separate from my parent’s income or my boyfriends income.”  That is such a shift from how I think of class, because I would never take my family’s income into consideration when determining my class.  The fact that they are all more financially stable than I am doesn’t serve to elevate me from lower-middle class to middle or upper-middle class; but for you, it sounds like it does. 

    Thank you for sharing that and everything else.

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  • January 9 2011 at 9:29 PM
    Diana writes:

    Defining class, my experiences

    Thanks Jessica, and everyone who is sharing their thoughts and stories.  I find this all very valuable.

    I agree with those who see power as key to defining class.  The more social power one has, often thru the privilege of being white, speaking unaccented English and having some level of education, the more a person is able to weather changes in income or employment and still be thought of as “middle class”, if that is their goal.

    My father is a first generation Italian-American and grew up during the depression.  In his youth, he held jobs delivering coal or working as a day laborer beside his father.  His mother had been born into privilege in Italy.  A I was told the story, she developed an interest in a boy the family thought of as “beneath them” and was sent to the US to stay with her brothers and give her some time to forget him.  I guess male privilege trumped other power distinctions, because the brothers put her to work taking care of them, something she had never had to do back home.  She managed to meet, and run off and marry, my Grandfather, and for this was cut off by her parents for several decades.  

    Still, the two of them managed to hold things together, living in a working class immigrant community of Boston, raise seven children, and when they had all grown enough to contribute to the family finances, to buy property in a wealthy suburb where my Dad attended high school.  He worked as a teacher in his young life, and our family moved to a very poor farming community in rural New England.  

    I was aware of class distinctions between myself and the neighborhood kids based more on education than money.  Nobody had much, so in some ways we all sort of blended.  At home, I was never told that anybody else in the community was “less than” us, but at the same time, the message was subtly delivered that we were better.  There was a lot of family pride associated with being Italian, this was used as a way to set us apart, including snobbishness around food.  In other ways, my family’s values were very working class—thrift stores and rummage sales to find the kids’ school clothes, fix it, wear it out or do without, a good car is a car that runs, not one that looks any certain way.

    Then my parents decided my father would attend graduate school to study film, and our family moved to Southern California.  He had been in the service in his 20’s, and had money from the G.I. bill to pay for school, but not much to live on.  With four kids and very little money, we struggled, but as an adult I can see this was a choice, and that my father had enough privilege to pursue work he enjoyed, even if it meant the family would have very little money for a time.

    We lived on the beach for a month, looking everywhere for housing we could afford, and finally ended up in a two bedroom cottage that had been taken over by the landlord’s dog—my parents cleaned and bleached it to make it livable, as part of their rental agreement.

    As an adult, I took on my Dad’s middle class example and strove to follow my “passion” rather than looking at pay as the main indicator of job satisfaction.  I began a career in broadcasting, taking low paying radio jobs in tiny markets as a way to “pay my dues” towards a better position in the future.  I burned out in that field after 8 years and then at age 27, while in a transition place between jobs, with no health insurance and no savings of any sort, I was diagnosed with cancer.  My docs said, “you’re sick, you can’t work, go apply for welfare”. At the time, this was the only way I could get any sort of health insurance for what would end up being a lengthy and expensive illness.

    I experienced much of the humiliation and shame many people do, being on welfare, even though I could tell a lot of my caseworkers considered me one of the “worthy poor”.  The system is so awful in so many ways, and yet it was my lifeline to a future where, if I did get well, I wouldn’t be thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt for my health care needs.

    After a year and a half on welfare I was finally able to obtain disability through Social Security instead.  I began to think about what my life would look like post cancer, and to consider going back to school.  Through some miracle, Social Security had something called a Plan to Achieve Self Support….they would pay for my schooling if I could demonstrate that it would get me off disability and back into the workforce.  Somehow, they agreed that acupuncture was a field in which I could work, even if my energy were limited by my illness, and my plan was approved.  I guess I would say this was an area in which the myth of acupuncture as an upper middle class profession worked in my favor.  I finished acupuncture school and underwent a bone marrow transplant all in the same summer, and then began the slow task of getting my strength back.

    Little by little I began to work in private practice, letting go of disability completely as my practice grew large enough to support me.  The lack of student loan debt allowed me to have a (sort of) middle class existence in spite of my field of employment.

    I have seen others have much more financially successful boutique acupuncture practices in this same area.  I believe one of the main issues that “held me back” was my discomfort with charging a lot of money, my obvious unease in prescribing a frequency of treatment I myself couldn’t have afforded and my disinterest in or inability to schmooze the rich as a business strategy.  All of this relates to my class status and life experiences.

    The community I live in now was a working class place 50 years ago that has since been invaded by folks with money from “away”—retirees, vacationers, second home owners and city dwellers with fat salaries who have opted to “simplify” their lives and move to the coast.  My wife, who was born here, grew up in this working class community.  She’s spent decades watching the place she loved being carved up, sold off and overbuilt by folks who were sure they were better than her because they had more money and more class privilege than she did.  Today, it is rare to meet a person who was born here.  It is healing for both of us for me to be doing community acupuncture here, as working people are so invisible in this place, while the wealthy are seemingly everywhere.

    We belonged to UU church for a while, but, like you Jessica, found the class issues to be a big barrier.  The upper middle class are typically the ones with the most free time here, and in a volunteer run organization, it is people with time who set the rules, the agenda, etc.  There is an expectation that everybody could give this amount of time if they wanted to, which ignores class realities.   

    One of the classist things that really bugs me is the notion that everybody has the same freedom to “follow their bliss” in the choice of a career or livelihood, and that the world will support their choice with success.  This is a middle class and upper middle class idea propagated by folks who have the option of failing, and someone to pick them up if they do fail (typically, Mom and Dad).  This sort of safety net comes with privilege, and it bothers me when people can’t see this.

    I also sometimes feel like I am “passing” in a higher class than my actual income will support.  My wife and I do own a home, we have health insurance, we sometimes take a vacation that involves travel.  But we see all of these as kind of miraculous based on our cash flow, and we recognize that our access to these choices may not last forever. It is in thinking about the future that I experience the worry of not having “enough” class privilege.  I’ve started to believe retirement is a three-generation long experiment that will not live as long as I do.  I hate living in a country where the social safety net is so tattered that working people have to worry about how they will survive when they can no longer work.

    I just finished reading a book, “The Great Risk Shift”, on how right-leaning political forces and corporations have managed, over the past 35 years, to place more and more of the financial risks of society on to individuals and families instead of insuring them collectively.  One thing that surprised me is how common it is for folks who look middle class on the outside to have spent some time in poverty—they say 58% of all Americans will spend at least a year in poverty between the ages of 20 and 75. I think this is the “fear fuel” that makes some people pursue the middle class lifestyle “dream”, in hopes it will insulate them from this risk. They are afraid that falling behind in class status means falling into poverty. 

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  • January 15 2011 at 10:29 PM
    melissa writes:

    grateful

    I can never remember a time I was not aware of money being a big factor in our lives. My grandparents were definitely working class, or, as my mother pointed out, they would say they were “working people.” My Mom and her siblings refer to their time growing up in “the Heights” a public housing project in Pawtucket, RI. Her father worked in a thread mill, back when there was actually manufacturing in Providence. My grandmother worked occasional jobs but also suffered from mental illness. My mother was the oldest of five and did a lot of the raising of her siblings. Before and after the projects, they lived in two-or three family houses, often with extended family—there are many of these “tenements” around RI. Eventually they were able to move into single-family houses.
    My Dad is the youngest of eight. His father did what was called “collecting debits” on life insurance policies door to door—ten cents, 25 cents. It meant walking up and down through these tenements and neighborhoods—mostly in St Raymond’s or Holy Name parish. My Dad says he would watch these piles of money be counted out at their dining room table on  a Friday, wrapped in rolls, and turned into the company. He learned to do figures by listening to his father add colums out loud. I remember stories of my grandparents’ bad feet and hard times.

    My father told me the story today of when he (my father) was working as a young salesman for Campbell’s soup, he was kind of working to get more space for his product on the shelves and one of the supervisors brought him to the manager to complain. The manager asked his name and then who his father was (pretty much how many Rhode Island conversations progress…) and when he found out it was Joe Tiernan, he said, “oh, you’re okay. I grew up in Holy Name and your father took care of us there. If someone was out of work and couldn’t make their payment, he would cover them until they could get on their feet. It was like that, and we’d help them out with food. People looked out for each other.” I asked my Dad, how could my grandfather have afforded covering those payments, raising eight kids of his own? and he said, “it was just what you did. As little as you had, there was always someone who had less. We borrowed a cup of sugar and traded for milk, not because we didn’t have time to run to the store or something, but because maybe that week they had some sugar and maybe you had some milk.” He still eats hunched over his plate, in case siblings tried to steal from it; there was often not enough.
    Growing up, my brother and I were always told we were middle class, but we were still working class, or lower middle class and anything we had came from the unrelenting sacrifice of my parents for us to have it easier than they did. We heard phrases like “those people have money” or “they come from money” which clearly meant we did not. My boyfriend and I were laughing about going grocery shopping as kids and being whisked right past certain aisles or name brands. “There’s no money for that.” Vegetables meant whatever was three cans for a dollar. His Mom admitted buying one name brand box of cereal and refilling it with generic brands over and over.
    My father, with coaching from my steely Irish grandma, had negotiated the lowest mortgage by playing offers from various banks off each other—$15,000 in 1965. It was a 3 bedroom colonial in an old neighborhood filled with large families in Cranston, RI. Then he spent most of the rest of his adult life working two and three jobs at a time to pay it off. (I’ve looked at real estate there nowadays—out of reach at half-million and up or mostly broken up into condos, and lots of foreclosures.) They had a bedroom set they’d bought over months on layaway, a kitchen table from the nuns that my brother and i later liked to scrape to find the different layers of paint underneath, and one other chair. My mother took a break when I and then my brother were born and went back to work as soon as we were old enough to get ourselves to school. she says it was 1974, I would have been 8—right on that edge of when it was “acceptable” for kids to be left at home alone after school. She says she remembers leaving the interview and being so excited to be able to make $3/hr, still no benefits. She bought our family’s first “brand new” car after the age of forty.
    I remember once watching my father icing down a twisted ankle so that it would fit into an ice skate in order to referee three high school hockey games, despite our innocent kid pleadings not to. I can still see a pale blue sheet over our Christmas presents one year so my father could be there to see us open them—he was driving a trailer truck through the night from somewhere called Chicago. He still has the largest, most calloused hand I’ve ever seen.
    My Mom sewed a lot of our clothes when we were little—matching “wet look” pleather Easter suits, anyone? Anything else had to last—I was never so happy as when they started making Sears toughskins in “girl” colors! My Dad especially made a big deal about getting us new “back to school clothes” since he had never had any. After we outgrew anything, it went to family, neighbors or to St Vincent De Paul. I related to someone’s comment above about “dressing up” and how many times I felt out of place either too dressed up, or too dressed down. I still have a holdover from my Nana Tiernan, and “dress” when I travel. I can hear her voice: if you get stranded, someone will be more likely to help you if you “look decent.”
    I remember most of my friends were kind of similar background. A few kids were, like, off the charts wealthy in our view—“in-ground” swimming pool in your own backyard!? Vacation to a place I have to look up on a map? An actual new, new car at 16?
    Education was huge and we were encouraged to go to the best college possible. I ended up at one of the “little Ivies” in Vermont and that’s when I became acutely aware of class in a new way and began my development as a class “straddler.” As Lisa said, I am still recovering from all that. I was shocked at the crazy excess and the derision of those with less. I made excuses to study when I really just didn’t have the resources to go out that much or go on trips. I was on scholarships, loans and work-study. I loved the education but was mostly miserable. I think I got through because I found my way to some town friends. But certainly these were some of my most embarrassing actions of being classist myself, returning to family with my new found “realizations.” Ugh, I can only imagine how awful I was! Because where I’m from, you are always walking the line between being proud but not being “stuck-up.” I definitely came home from college being pretty “stuck up.” I even lost my Rhode Island accent—I said it was because no one could understand me—which was true—but really it started to sound wrong, not as smart in my ear. Ouch. Luckily, I can still fall into it around my family and I cringe when hearing my own Mom start adding “r”s where there aren’t any, if she is around people she perceives to be upper class or more educated.

    I got one of those union jobs flagging on the highway during summers. Seriously, be nice to those people. People actually think it’s funny to throw stuff out of cars. I met some of my favorite people there, sometime felt weird being the snotty college kid but they were almost always encouraging—you go for it, do good in school, make your folks proud. My favorite was Christine—she was fulltime through the year. Some older aunt had passed down an actual vintage fur coat. In winter, she said she wore it on the job sometimes. People were outraged to see a flagger wearing a fur: “corrupt union jobs!” “lazy government workers!” I asked if people gave her a hassle, she said ”hey, you know what? This is the warmest coat I have—so fuck ‘em.”
    Another weird straddling: My parents live down by the ocean now, on land given to my father after his brother’s death in the 50s. they were finally able to put up a house after we were in college, by selling the city house and with help from a successful cousin, and a few years having it as a summer rental for others. A bunch of families had also gotten together in the 50s and bought a piece of oceanfront and built a little clubhouse to have a place to shower and give the kids lunch and sit out on the front deck and watch us play on the beach. It will always be my childhood heaven. My parents stopped going over the years as people from Connecticut began moving in and buying up memberships—which are now in the five figures. My folks are charter members but most of my generation could never afford to have one, so we go to the town beach next door.

    My parents are retired now, relaxing but trying to keep up with the inflated property taxes and trying to stay out of the donut hole after two knee replacements, pacemaker, IBS and chronic asthma so bad that my father had to miss my graduation (so proud to finally have a doctor in the family!) because he can no longer visit me here at altitude. What awesome people they are, god, I love them!

    Most of my adult life, I have been in retreat from the culture of privilege I was supposed to embrace in college. I’ve worked mostly social service with all manner of side jobs. I’ve always been self-sufficient. (although with my job choices, I’m sure I would have qualified for welfare several times over the years) I’ve built and sold my own house and have also rented. I guess I am still working class, although it seems much cushier than it was for my past generations. For the first time in my life, I am my own boss, with all the joy and worry that entails. I am a small business owner struggling to stay ahead of the game, living out a destiny I could only hope would make my grandparents proud—looking out for my friends and neighbors as much as possible.
    All of this to say how I feel lucky for my life, how grateful I am to those that have made the sacrifices and found the laughs in spite of hardship, and have held the space for me to be just who I am. And I am especially grateful for the experiences that have made me able to understand how much all this stuff about class matters. I am grateful for the common sense skills it has given me and for the ever-present “bullshit meter” that continues to guide me and make me willing to look at the hard questions about myself and others and the systems that perpetuate un-necessary suffering. When I found CAN, it was like coming home to people that had their priorities straight, that spoke my language, that already knew my story and knew it was worth something. I will be forever grateful to all of you.
    Most classist thing I’ve ever heard:

    Way too many to mention, but one from recently and two oldies:
    “ I can’t understand why anyone would stay in a job they don’t like.”
    From long ago, but with perhaps one of the most satisfying endings:
    Working alongside a good friend waitressing in the elite college town of our alma mater. Large table of richie college boys come in for brunch, known to come often, spend hundreds $$ each time. With my female friend waiting patiently at his elbow to take their order, college boy loudly regales his buddies with many lewd, degrading details of his latest sexual exploits. My friend says, “I’m sorry, did you not notice that I’m a woman standing right here as you’re saying all that?” College boy turns to her in disgust and yells, “why would I give a shit what you think? You’re the fucking waitress!” My friend comes back into the kitchen, asking if anyone else can take the table, she will not be able to do it. The chef/owner stops us, leaves the line, walks to the table and says, “I’m not sure who you think you are but these are my people and you can’t treat them like shit in OUR restaurant. Get up, get out and don’t ever come back.” CB actually tries to argue with him! Owner repeats, “You are not moving fast enough, get out and if you ever show your face here again, I’ll call the police myself.” Best boss ever!
    From my acu school graduation: We wanted a barb-b-q potluck in a park so we could invite all our families and friends. (Especially since we were getting charged for it. yeah, $80 grand later and you can’t even pay for the graduation?!) We were told, no, that a bbq would not be acceptable and it would be held in a ballroom of one of the fanciest hotels downtown (we nixed the traditional leis being flown in from Hawaii) where we could only bring 5 guests and had a kind of cheese and cracker buffet that was lame. Everyone left within half an hour.

    can’t wait for the CANference to meet some of you in person!!

    Melissa

    Good health is not a measure of adapting to a sick society.

    When the power of love outshines the love of power, the world will know peace.

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