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.
Wow, I totally hear you. There have been studies that people feel better off when they live in a neighborhood with lower wage earners than themselves (less well off than they are) than a wealthy person living in a more wealthy neighborhood than they identify with.
Not that I think people who have less money are happier, but it amazes me how many people who have things I could only dream of who aren’t happy. I couldn’t wrap my head around the luxury vacations, beautiful designer clothes and fine dinners, but there’s a threshold of “happy” everyone seems to hit where more money at a certain level doesn’t necessarily max out the happiness any more than it did before. Crazy!
Class, race, and money are so hard to talk about it, because it’s so under the radar, and yet everywhere all the time. We can’t avoid it. I feel like I definitely tried to buy more privilege by going to NYU, and now I feel like it backfired and I am poorer than I’ve ever been. I have not really changed who I am, or the jobs I get, I just have a fancy degree from a fancy school. I also think going to grad school legitimized my choices, it felt right. I saw so much of what you talk about here at school, I felt like an outsider, even though I am white. And to see the lack of people of color in my program was completely disheartening.
I appreciate you sharing your experiences here. I’m from Southern California, and encountered a lot of diversity growing up, as well as Mexican immigrants coming to the US via LA. I was just looking at this NPR app today, which was so illuminating: http://apps.npr.org/borderland/
It’s not an easy experience at all to come from somewhere else.
This is a lovely response and discussion. While there are a lot of people who are worse off than me, the one “problem” with upward mobility and “making it” into circles generally more upper class / wealthy than you grew up in, is having to grapple with a lot of people who had an “easier” path than I did. (Um, sorry for all of the quotes, but I think they need to stay there.)
I’m going to think about this and probably post on it. After I read the rookie discussion! Thanks for the link!
The comments about class really resonate with me. As a pakeha woman, I can’t begin to fathom what it must be like to be of a minority background.
Like you, I was also financially independent from a young age. I moved out of home at 16 and made my way in the world. I come from a fairly working class background — I’m the first in my family to go to university (or to even have the inclination to do so), and my career in the tech industry is completely foreign to my family.
My past boyfriends were all blue-collar men, and I have to admit that it’s really nice to be with my partner now, who comes from a middle-class background — simply because he understands where I’m currently at in life, something that my family don’t ‘get’ and I can’t really discuss with them in any meaningful way.
Very interesting. As a child of immigrant parents, I can empathize with you. Many shy away from these issues and try to pretend they don’t exists…but even in this enlightened age, they still do exists. More often than not in the corporate world, I see style over substance. Someone who has the prestigious degree, talks/looks/and acts a certain way has immediately put on the “superstar” track, while often times someone who might be more intelligent or have a better work ethic is left wondering why they don’t get those opportunities. While I try not to invalidate the accomplishments of others…I do often see that they were born on third base with many more opportunities.
“Stephanie, vegetables are not cheaper than like the cheapest brand of lunch meat, and they go bad.”
That’s so true and definitely an indicator of what sort of financial situation you grew up under. I never realized that things like fresh veggies are sort of a privilege. I often think of how incredibly skewed my American outlook is to most of the world. I mean, veggies are not a privilege to me, but in many other countries, they’re an upper class delicacy… of course, in those situations, a large roll of questionable lunch meat would be too.
This article goes to prove show how we are all so consumed with “keeping up with the Joneses”. It’s so built-in to the human psyche that we don’t even know it sometimes. Top 10 list of personal finances is to forget about the Joneses, but I wonder if that’s even possible. There is superficiality to all of us and we all have these ever changing standards that we try to live up to… and those standards are created by the Joneses. Great post.
So interesting. Coming from a very impoverished town on the coast of rural Maine, I’ve always studied the intersections of race, class and socio-economics-probably why I became a social worker. There was almost no diversity (cultural, racial or socio-economic) where I grew up. Nobody had money (to speak of) and as a result we didn’t really know we were poor.
It wasn’t until years later when I went to college that I learned about luxury cars, designer clothes and all the “things” we didn’t have. That being said, when I return home today, I’d say our family is better off than most in our neighborhood. My parents have most everything they want and everything they need (which is more than many people in their immediate area).
Those points are all so relevant to things that I spend waaaaay too much time thinking about! It’s also been really hard for me to avoid topics like that in my head to myself, since most of the students at law school all come from super rich families and went to *those* private schools and live in certain suburbs, etc… That point at the beginning, about privilege as being a super big advantage — I really really struggle with that one. It’s so frustrating to know that some people’s gateway into jobs is simply a phone call by their parents, and all they have to worry about is getting nice looking grades — none of this, working-20+hours-whilst-taking-six-papers business. Sigh.
That’s a really interesting discussion at Rookie and I’ve enjoyed reading your response as well. There are so many things I can say about this, but I guess my main takeaway is this: it seems everyone is in this awkward middle space where they’re ashamed or angry about their lack of money when around richer people, but at the same time, they feel guilty about their relative privilege compared to poorer people.
I grew up very poor in a latchkey family situation with an immigrant father. I totally understand every bit of this. But I like to think that it made me stronger, more empathetic, and less concerned about status and money!
[…] NZ Muse brings it home with her analysis on “Class, Race, and Money: My Response to Rookie Magazine” […]