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Class Matters book cover

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

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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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Barbara's Box Theory

I am thinking of two boxes, equal in size, that contain human communication. One is a middle class box; one is a working class box. The middle class box is three fourths full of words and the ability to use them in ways that make explicit exactly what one means to say. The working class box is, let's say, one fourth or one third full of words. This is not necessarily the amount of actual words said but the amount of ways words can be put together and the level of explicitness those words achieve, as well as the number of things in life that one is expected to put into words. Now we have another way to pose the question of what working class psychology and culture is made up of: what is in the rest of that box? Is it just empty waiting for the right education system to fill it up with middle class skills?

Here I turn to a broader focus than that of speech, to a "semiotic" perspective, the study of all the ways that meaning is created and received. The advantage here is not that semiotics is an even more obscure and intimidating word than linguistics, an advantage within middle class culture to be sure (with one more syllable even!), it is that it allows us to see what might be in the rest of the box. (5)

The difficult part is that some, perhaps much, of the "stuff" in the working class box does not easily lend itself to dissection and explication, and even less to experimentation and quantification. When we try to explicate the more or less inexplicable we end up using words like "intuition" and "tuning in" and other vaguely California-esque terms that are too ethereal to withstand the harsh light of empiricism. The concepts tend to break up and fade away when they are removed from their natural habitat. It may well be that words are not the natural habitat of these kinds of experiences. That does not mean they do not exist and it does not mean they don't count. It is perhaps like this: there are some things about a frog that you can study by killing it and dissecting it. There are a lot of things you clearly can't study about a frog once it is dead. Working class culture is direct, vital, and metaphoric; it shies away from the static, dry climate of academic verbiage. In my experience what becomes central to consciousness is almost a kind of unmediated communion with others, and with other aspects of life as well (being in the woods, or on a neon street on a Saturday night), that is so intimate that words would kind of spoil it. As folk singer Alison Krauss croons to her lover, "Old Mister Webster could never define / what's being said between your heart and mine."

Music is a good vehicle with which to venture out beyond speech because it is so obviously the case that it is made up of "stuff" beyond the symbol system that describes it. As with speech, middle class music is fostered through a step-wise, linear process: learning to play an instrument while also learning to read music. This is not at all dissimilar from how Jacob learned language skills while also learning cultural skills like role negotiation. We can assume that music, like speech, existed long before anyone ever tried to write it down. As with speech, I suggest that working class people tend to have a direct, unmediated relationship with music.

I have heard middle class musicians, my husband among them, bemoan the way learning rule-bound musical notation from a young age initially squelched their creativity and natural ear. Again, it became a "job". Some middle class people learn to read musical notation and play an instrument and never "get" what the music is about. Working class, and tribal, musicians either really make music or they really don't. If they have a "tin ear" they sound awful and nobody encourages them to continue their music because it stinks. If someone "jamming" in a group is unable to tune in and play with the others they either drop out or make it impossible for the group to play. When it works, working class music is wonderful. It is praised by middle class critics as being full of feeling and vitality, for being inventive and gutsy. Indeed, if it works, it is exactly these things: these things are all that it is. You can't fake music if your only entry point is intuition and a good ear. I have heard stories of poor and working class musicians who faked reading musical notation. But you can't fake music.

This is not to romanticize lack of musical training, I am grateful to have learned both ways of making music. But if I had to choose between what I learned in each setting, I would stick with what I got in childhood, the ability to jump in and ride music like surfing a wave. I would stick with the ability to "make it up." I still have some trouble taking a few notes out of context to work out some detail of harmony. It is hard to learn that music comes in little units; for me it is a flow of feeling. This is a bit annoying for the middle class musicians I work with, but they put up with it because they need me for the feeling and creativity I bring to the music. I suggest the kind of "tuning in" necessary to play music in "folk" traditions is the same kind needed to communicate in other ways. You jump in and swim the same musical waters. A psychological way of looking at it might be to say it comes more directly from the unconscious mind. Formal music is, painfully or exquisitely, conscious. Virtuosity is prized and "practice" is usually a solitary experience, not unlike learning the skills of an elaborated code in an academic setting. In working class music, certainly a good guitar player is noticed; someone will say, "Take it, Bobby!" But it is also important not to "show off" too much and make the other musicians look bad.

At the Winnipeg Folk Festival one year I saw a "blues jam" of different acts on-stage that brought these different orientations toward music into sharp focus. Blues is a quintessential example of working class music. The right feeling is essential or "the blues" just doesn't happen. The contrast of two harmonica players, from different acts, in this "jam" struck me. One was an older man, clearly a long-standing member of the blues community. He played with a singer/guitarist but never tried to overshadow him. The other harmonica player was a clean-cut white man at the center of his own group. His virtuosity was astonishing and the audience cheered, the other musicians in his group were all but invisible. The musicians in other acts on-stage looked down. This young man riffed on and on, doing what he thought music was about, performing impressively (in middle class terms) and showing off (in working class terms). The other harmonica player's face was impassive; he looked out into the distance, as if bored. As the different acts took turns starting songs (and ignored the young harmonica player), his virtuosity decreased. He tried to find his way into the larger group. He sounded less impressive as an individual performer but the music he played blended and accented the whole in ever more beautiful ways.

The whole process of clashing, then blending styles came full circle when the two harmonica players went into a duet together at the end of the "jam". The young player finally "paid his dues" by purposely taking a back seat to the other player, who now, for the first time, started to "wail" on his harmonica. I suspect he just hadn't wanted to overshadow the guitarist he was playing with, nor did he want to "show off." Then the young man gradually played more elaborately until the two of them were both "wailin" together; the other musicians on stage hooted and clapped in joyous approval. I do not know what the young harmonica player's class background was (his dress would indicate a middle class/arts orientation) but it was not difficult to see what class had shaped his approach to playing.

We move one step further, in trying to understand the non-verbal part of the working class box, when we look at systems of communication that do not have corresponding symbol systems. I am thinking about the roller rink of my childhood and contrasting it with the middle class art of ballet, which I have been exposed to as an adult. Most of the graceful boys in the working class suburbs I grew up in would have been very embarrassed to manifest that talent in dancing. Instead they channeled it into the more socially acceptable art of roller skating. For both boys and girls, the roller rink met a number of needs at once and well reflects the culture that elevated it to the place to be on a Saturday night.

There was the institution of the rink itself, a place where people gathered to find each other, meet new friends and lovers, sneak beer and cigarettes, and to celebrate Saturday Night. Contrast this with the highly structured setting of a dance studio where middle class teens take ballet lessons. At the rink, you learn to skate by jumping into the stream of skaters. People just weave around you until you get your bearings and pick up speed. Always there is the group around you and it is moving; you are in a rushing river of people that is very much like the culture, and the consciousness it creates. Everyone moves together, creates a kind of large skating body with many persons within it, each contributing what they can. Within that flow of bodies there is the opportunity to try out new, more daring, acts but it is rather more like the Japanese Suzuki method than a formal dance class where students take (humiliating or triumphant) solo sweeps across the floor to learn a new technique. With skating, you are always rather contained and hidden within the group.

For the "hot shots" there is always the option to perform any number of incredible turns and tricks but they generally do so within the body of skaters. As such they display their personal talents while also creating the visual embroidery (literally weaving in and out and across the flow of skaters) that makes the whole body look good. In my experience, albeit in a stable community, there was much helping of the teetering skaters by the more skillful. A hand was offered to right a toppled soul. A wobbling hand might be grasped and a sudden, steady companion attached to one's side. There might be a brief, steadying grasp of the hips or shoulders as the experienced skater paused in her dance, then moved on. Roller skating is a beautiful art but it is almost absurd to put it up on a stage for exposition. Almost by definition you have to be there, at least sitting at the side of the rink, drinking a Coke, to appreciate it. Roller skating is an apt example and metaphor of what I experienced as a skater and a working class person. There is room for a person to excel and to be a hot shot. But you do it within the whole and it somehow makes the entire group feel better. Again, we can contrast this with the kind of solo work and virtuosity that is the pinnacle of success in the professional arts.

What I have been circling here is that the different social classes confer different kinds of consciousness. While the middle class box, and the consciousness it contains, is driven by language and its linearity (Shands and Meltzer, 1973), which both reflects and recreates a culture that prizes individual achievement of excellence and the competition that will force the "best and brightest" to the top. In a word: "becoming". In the working class box language is in the back seat rather than at the wheel. In fact, the vehicle of consciousness is not so much driven (linear) as it is akin to a canoe setting course over a body of water which must take into account many things. "Belonging" necessarily involves paying attention to and being part of the world around one, whether that world is an urban neighborhood, a blues jam, hunting deer in the woods, or the transmission of cultural norms between a parent and child.

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