Thursday, November 08, 2007

Class, and other bugaboos

Well, I had a post in mind to write--I had started it, even. Then I came across a column in the Chronicle, "A Class Traitor in Academe," penned by Thomas Benton aka William Pannapacker... I knew I had to discuss it.

The point of Benton's essay is to acknowledge some of the cultural, ethical, and personal challenges of being a professional academic who grew up working class. He clearly and thoughtfully discusses this dilemma of no longer fitting in at home with your family and your community, while also not fitting in on middle- and upper-class campuses. He is even self-effacing in his acknowledgement that, as the person who got out of the neighborhood and now has the privileges of education, professional status, and income, his guilt is largely in his own mind and matters little to those working class people he encounters. All of this resonated for me--the child of a salesman and a secretary.

I struggle with how to define my family life in terms of class. Some might say that my family of origin were "climbers," starting out working class and moving up when my father moved into management. Yet, my immediate family members look a lot like Benton's friends in his essay:

Many of my childhood friends have struggled to find stable, full-time work. The police and fire departments aren't hiring; nursing and education have shifted to part-time, no-benefits operations; manufacturing is long gone; and the union jobs that lifted many of their fathers into the lower-middle class have disappeared.

So, in the place where I grew up, there are men and women in their 30's who live with their parents and can't start families because there are so few real jobs, even for the ones who put in a couple years at community college, transferred to a state school, and were the first in their families to get degrees that were sold as certain tickets to the middle class.

A lot of those people end up delivering pizzas, mowing lawns, waiting tables, or working the checkout lane at Wal-Mart for $7.15 an hour, and the message spreads that education doesn't matter.

My father died and took his big salary with him, leaving my mother with a small set of investments and my siblings with very little. They live on hourly pay; only one of them has benefits. Neither my siblings nor my parents have an undergraduate degree. My doctorate and my profession make me very strange, and while they don't understand my research, they believe that whatever I am doing must be worthwhile.

Benton and I are both white, roughly the same age, from the same geographic region, and both of us have secured tenured academic positions. We both have very different lives than our friends and family members. We have a great deal in common.

One of the biggest primary differences between Benton and me lies in our historical and current proximity to wealth: he is a child of private schools who got his doctorate at Harvard and teaches in a private SLAC; I have only attended public schools--elementary, secondary, and post-secondary--and I teach in a large public university. This difference may make his experience of students and faculty somewhat different than my own, as the students I encounter tend to worry less about which foreign country to visit and more about how to pay the rent and still buy books. Sure, some of my students have jobs to pay for beer, but more have children to raise or tuition to pay.

Another possible difference between us may be our relationships with people of color. My home community was very racially and ethnically diverse. While he lived nearby, I am not sure Benton had as much cultural diversity in his life. Our differences, growing up and now, may also effect how we talk about diversity efforts on campus.

He writes:

And, in faculty meetings and in the larger profession, I sometimes feel deeply conflicted when someone talks about diversity in terms of race and gender without explicitly considering class as another significant variable. It's not that I am opposed to affirmative action but that I think we need a more comprehensive vision of who needs that assistance.

As has been said in many other contexts, academe's admissions, hiring, and promotion practices seem to favor people who look different but mostly think alike, largely because they belong to similar class strata. Celebrating diversity involves many arbitrary choices about who is "diverse" and who isn't, who should be shown deference and who should be shouted down, who should be "strongly encouraged to apply" and who should be called "overrepresented." In the end, I think too much of the celebration is about making privileged people feel like they care about inequality without having to really change anything.

I am turned off by Benton's grumpiness about diversity, although I take his point about the need to consider class. I find, though, that white people who grew up working class, especially white men, tend to buy into the need to refocus "diversity efforts" on class a little too hastily. They want to discount the importance and centrality of racial and ethnic oppression, and even gender oppression, and somehow subsume them all in class. It is no accident that Marx was a white (European) guy, as was Engels. A purely class focus obscures experiences of oppression that are specific to race and ethnicity and gender. And sometimes we just need to talk about race and ethnicity, you know?

Nothing makes me more tired and irritated than a hierarchy of oppression discussion, except for perhaps someone who makes a "but isn't it all really about class" move that tends to try to thwart all discussion. Focusing solely on class does not address the unique and important problems and experiences and needs of people of color in education, much as some white guys of all income levels may wish it did. And when white male academics start complaining about being silenced, I tend to head for the rhetorical door.

Class does matter, and we should consider it when we discuss diversity and oppression issues on campus. But focusing solely on class is not a panacea, and a formerly working-class white boy better be in touch with his white male privilege before he starts (re-)claiming space for his own oppression.


Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for this post, Lesboprof. You pretty much took the words right out of my mouth :)

Hattie said...

This is all very well said. And much more temperate than I would be about the issue.

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