Every once in while you stumble across something online that just sparks SO MANY FEELINGS that you have to respond in some way. For me, this discussion piece on Rookie covering class, race and money ticked all the boxes.
“I had/have an ingrained prejudice against people who grow up wealthy that I am trying to work past. Like all prejudices, this one is based more on my own insecurity about money, class, and my worthiness/abilities than on anything real, and I often catch myself trying to invalidate the achievements of people who grew up with privilege (“Yeah, of course you’re an editor at the Paris Review, YOUR PARENTS STILL PAY FOR YOUR APARTMENT PROBABLY” or “I grew up with what you did, I’d have SO MUCH MORE to show for it”). It would be a lot easier to get over my unfair attitude if it didn’t contain at least a little bit of truth: I mean, growing up privileged does make it easier to get into a good college and get jobs and stuff.”
Oh, man. I can’t tell you how hard this resonates. I have had a lot of luck in my life so far professionally, but also a whole lot of shit happen, and because I was fully independent from a very young age, I admit I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that people who are quite poor tend to think of themselves as richer than they really are and people who are quite rich think of themselves as less well off than they are.”
Also very true in my experience. I’ve also noticed that those who are less well off are often looser with the money they DO have (and whether that’s because of a lack of money management skills, desire for pleasures in an otherwise grim existence, etc is another subject altogether).
“My mom’s personal class shame was also tied up with the racism she experienced when she was young. She often acted like she was ashamed to be Mexican. She was never racist against other races or other Mexicans, but she definitely hid her culture and did not speak Spanish at home with me.”
As I’ve blogged before, I used to be painfully aware that I was different and hideously ashamed of the fact. Right after we moved to New Zealand I wanted nothing more than to lose my accent and distance myself from my ‘weird’ parents (they were highly educated professional immigrants, but still immigrants, and I just wanted to be white like most of the other kids at my upper middle-class school). It’s not a part of my past I’m proud of.
Class and food
“Food was one of the big eye-openers for me in terms of privilege. When I was in grade school, most of my friends got free school lunches (and I was actually jealous because I had to bring a bagged lunch). At my new, wealthier school, everyone went out to lunch at this hot dog stand around the corner at least twice a week; I could only afford to join them about once a month. Then when I was a teenage punk and beginning to go vegan, one of my friends who had grown up in a poor family went on this rant about how being vegan was a sign of privilege. At first I was like, “But if you don’t shop at Whole Foods and get the fancy fake-meat products, vegetables are cheaper than steak, and you can make a giant stir-fry for like nothing.” And she said, “Stephanie, vegetables are not cheaper than like the cheapest brand of lunch meat, and they go bad.”
From my observations of one family close to us: when you don’t have a car, don’t live near transport and the supermarket/butcher/fruit shop are too far away to walk to easily, fast food from the takeaway around the corner is the way to go. Cheap and filling. It’s hard to beat that kind of bulk value with produce that is 90% water and goes bad easily.
I once took them supermarket shopping and it broke my heart a little to see them buying a huge roll of what I think was luncheon meat for the week – which isn’t really food, let’s face it. I bought the kids some chocolate for a treat. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do.
Speaking of food – shortly after we moved here, I was invited to a sleepover with a group of other girls. They were a lot posher than us and had a huge spread at breakfast, including boiled eggs. I seriously had no idea what they were or what to do with them. The mother saw I was the only one who hadn’t taken one and insisted Katherine, her daughter, give me one of hers. Luckily, she had already peeled one – and that’s the one I got given.
Class and career
“They never question my credentials because I went to good schools, and they “like” me because I know how to talk to such people, because I am comfortable with them, because of my privilege.”
I’m from a very middle-of-the-road suburb and went to a high school that doesn’t have a particularly great reputation. That doesn’t really matter these days and it doesn’t often come up, but I often feel a pang of shame if it does. I felt this most acutely when I first hit university; my course was overflowing with wealthy white girls from the central, eastern and northern suburbs. In response, I kind of retreated into myself a little bit and focused on working two jobs to support myself.
I still feel wayyyy out of place when I go to events or fancy lunches or black tie dinners, but at least I have done it enough to be able to fake my way through now. My upbringing did not prepare me for any of this kind of stuff.
T has always worked very blue collar jobs, but recently has ventured further into the white collar world, which is not necessarily an easy transition to make. He doesn’t really have any role models in this regard; I’m the only person really placed to be any sort of guide at all.
“Obvious ones: education and membership in any of the networks of rich white people who enjoy perpetuating themselves. (There is some overlap between these two things.)”
“The way people speak is a huge indicator. Also cultural references. Also personal style.”
Oooh, this is a goodie.
I definitely think the way people talk is a dead giveaway. I also have seen firsthand how poverty can start to breed racism. I recently heard someone (who is now technically related to me, alas) say something along the lines of: we may be poor and breed like rabbits but we’re still better than (insert derogatory term that rhymes with ‘triggers’). It was rather worrying; it felt like I had suddenly stepped onto the set of American History X or something.
For me growing up, one big marker was whether kids and their families went away on holiday. It’s common around here to have a bach (holiday house) in a beach town, but I also knew a lot of kids who would go on overseas holidays every year. (We never went anywhere. We stayed home every summer.)
One last anecdote: when I was maybe 5 or so we did an assignment at kindy/school where we wrote about our families. One of the questions was ‘do you live in a small or big house’? I honestly didn’t know, as I didn’t really have anything to compare our house with, and went back and forth in my mind about how to answer that. We had a pretty nice house but I settled on ‘small’ – apparently I’ve erred on the side of modesty ever since I was born. When I came home and showed my mum, she was definitely surprised and corrected me on that.