Class Matters Workshops

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Order Class Matters

Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Press Coverage of CM

Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few ClassMatters.org visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Becoming Vesus Belonging

Psychology, Speech, and Social Class

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I am a psychologist hunting down my own "repressed memories." Don't worry. I won't be parading out the poor, over-exposed "inner child" that has folks sniffling before talk show hosts. The multiple personality I have is not considered pathological. It is a special variety of dissociation that is not only encouraged, it is expected in professional and academic life. I am trying to remember who I was, what mattered to me, before everything changed — before I learned to keep myself too busy to think about it. I am wondering how was I different when there was nothing to do but hang out and time was not measured in tight little packages filled with expectation and achievements. I want to know how my father knew when the fish were biting, if a deer had passed this way, which of these thorny brambles will turn into blackberry or blueberry bushes. It was just time, sometimes, and we were there, and the fat, sweet berries exploded in our mouths. It seemed like he knew everything, though there were no books in our house, no library in our town. I knew things, too: how to coast instead of pedal and pedal and pedal.

The tricky thing is that I am trying to remember this in a language other than the one in which I forgot. I am remembering, little by little, when words were not steps that led to the intrigue of concepts, and to staircase upon staircase of more words, more concepts, branching out into ever more intricate webs of intellectual illumination. You know, I loved that so much, listening to University students talk about ideas, that I just pedaled in and I didn't look back. Now I am remembering how, in our Midwestern working class suburb, words were buoys, instead of building blocks, buoys floating in stuff that had no name. I remember a kind of spaciousness to life. Then came events all in a tumble, a rush of people and excitement. Then life coasted again.

The meaning of our lives changed like weather, like seasons. Everyone in the neighborhood watched together as good times and bad times, odd times and the usual times, came and went. There was the summer an unlikely moose showed up in our suburb, identical tract houses all straight rows. Ed Butler hit it with his station wagon, coming home from the night shift. I can still see the blood that stained the asphalt for a whole summer and fall. Us kids clustered 'round it and felt something very large and foreboding leaning over us. It was spooky and disorienting. We went out every day to check the spot; the adults tried not to, but we saw their cars slowing down to check it, swerving so's not to drive over it. There was a sense, though nobody ever put it into words, that something wild was just around the bend, something tragically colliding with who or what we were trying to be.

I am even more confused today. I am winding my way back through the middle class world that I have come to inhale as easily as breath, and as thoughtlessly, alternative though my route has been. The trail leads me back to that world where the moose and the station wagon crashed, back to my friends and neighbors and extended family, back to the way we knew things together. I need all my senses to find the trail; I am sniffing it out from the inside. But if I walk that trail back home long enough it goes through that working class suburb and it starts to come out somewhere else, the baffling somewhere the moose came from, amid miles and miles of working class suburbs.

Class as Culture

I am journeying into the substance and psychology of social class through the medium of culture. My vehicles will be the communication systems people use, and they will change as the terrain does: language will get us to socio- and psycholinguistics; when they run out of gas, I will turn to other systems, like music, dance and roller skating, that reflect other ways people make and communicate meaning. I have four points to make in this paper: my first and foundational point is that working and middle class peoples live in different cultures; this is reflected in and recreated by the systems of communication they use. Secondly, the communication processes taught in early childhood (psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics) select different skills and meanings for children of different social classes, which lead to different world views. My third point grows out of the second: working class culture is not as easily tracked though an exclusively linguistic process and needs to be augmented with the observation of other ways that meaning is made and communicated. Finally, this paper suggests that working class culture accesses and honors aspects of human life and a kind of consciousness which have value for all people, however they are ignored or disrespected in the dominant society.

When I say "working class" I am referring to all people who work with things and their hands for a living, not just the industrial working class. When I say the middle classes, I mean people who work professional jobs, who work with symbols rather than things. (1) These are not entirely discrete categories but are rather like clouds of culture that overlap. Working and middle class income levels overlap, too, but one knows in a moment which is the school teacher and which the construction worker. Like the teacher and the construction worker, these cultures may meet on the street, interact and even change each other. But this does not alter the fact that each has come from a different world, each with its own integrity. The classes produce differences in who people are, in how they think, speak, in how they regard themselves and the world around them. These clouds of culture can be seen within the larger sky of American society. The sun in that sky shines ever more brightly upon middle class culture, highlighting it and leaving working class culture largely in shadow. Indeed, American society is largely shaped by that middle class culture. The professional middle class, by definition, selects and creates all the images and representations of "society" that anyone gets to see (writing, teaching, publishing, radio, television — you name it — they are all professional jobs). Behind the over-bright culture of the middle class, it is not so easy to see the particulars of working class culture which is also hidden by its own tendency to emphasize "hanging out" over "standing out."

There is a puzzle in trying to study working class people and culture through the medium of an academic paper. Everything we can say within academic convention is, by definition, translated into the language and culture in which it lives, that of the professional middle class. This translation inevitably occludes that which middle class language (and culture) does not recognize or understand. It is within this paradox that we may best enter into the study of cultural differences — through the medium of language and in the metastudy of its development. One way to get around the language conundrum is to allow both working and middle class voices to speak, as I have done in this paper. That language is the medium and message of culture is a wisdom as old as ancient Greece and as post-modern as deconstructionism.

As a psychologist I am attracted to the depth of this (sociolinguistic) approach, though I find the existing body of work to rather resemble my bedroom on a bad day: theories tossed this way and that, everything I want buried and in need of excavation (beneath heaps of criticism or within the very language it attempts to transcend). For our purposes, I offer bits and pieces, combining them with my own experiences and insights, to be used by way of qualitative example rather than quantitative measure. I pluck from the pile that which will help illuminate working class culture and psychology.

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