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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).

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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The Best of Both Worlds

What can we learn about the human spirit from an examination of both classes? I used the metaphor of multiple personalities to describe my own cross-class experience. The classes themselves seem like characters in a multiple personality disorder which has afflicted our larger social body; each has retained particular gifts and agonies of the larger whole. Each class allows its members access to certain aspects of the human experience and restricts access to others. Because middle class culture dominates centers of social power (institutions of education, media, political process, etc.) our larger society tends to reflect the values of the middle class and to ignore the insights and values that working class people hold. I have tried to illustrate that working class culture has an integrity of its own. I am now further suggesting that it guides its members into certain kinds of human experiences which are valuable aspects of all people. (6)

As we have seen, working class culture encourages a psychology of sharing and cooperation that is integrated into basic psychological processes. We have seen that children may be taught to "tune in" to others as early as when they develop basic language and motor skills, and that this is valued over the creation of an "individual" self. It is not that there is not a self, it is that the sense of self is constructed and perceived differently. I suggest this sense of self does not exist in opposition to others but that it actually includes others. This person emerges into a culture which does not encourage them to grow out of that mutuality, to develop and defend their "individual" identity. Perhaps this ability to feel connected, to feel part of one's people, is something that should be available to everyone, regardless of their talents and achievements. Any clinical psychologist knows how many suffering middle class people spend their lives yearning and searching for a sense of connection to others.

Similarly, working class communities value a kind of "peerness", and shy away from hierarchies. Hierarchies exist (e.g. parent and child, boss and worker) but most of one's interactions and leisure time is not spent within them: kids play with kids; and workers speak freely, and often quite intimately, when the supervisors are not around. There is a relative freedom from having power and "role negotiation" interwoven with communication. In my experience, this leads to a comfortable, relaxed, un-ambitious and unambiguous atmosphere where people can just "be themselves." Again, it is not difficult to imagine that some psychological freedom from the stresses of hierarchical systems would be good for anyone.

Perhaps underlying all of what I have explored in this paper is the kind of "directness" of experience that working class people have, a "directness" that middle class people search for in therapy, in Eastern and earth-based religions and in nature. Relatively free of pressures to prove one's originality or cleverness, working class people enjoy a more unmediated "being there" — in just "hanging out" with friends and family; in how they learn to be part of, rather than "appreciate", natural settings; in how children learn to invent their own kinds of play. It is also seen in the directness of working class speech which, while not culturally oriented toward explication in a universal sense, has much less trouble "telling it like it is" in a personal setting. Though the elaborated code allows for explication, the culture it lives in frequently restricts this when it comes to emotional topics. This directness is also an attitude toward life itself and, as such, preserves something essential in human experience: an unearned sense of oneself as part of other people, part of the world we live in, part of life — a foundational sense of belonging. (7)

I am trying to imagine a society that could integrate the best aspects of each of these cultures. The fact that these cultures exist in opposition to each other makes imagining their integration difficult. And yet all of these things — the capacity to "tune in" to non-verbal systems, the capacity to use and enjoy words and concepts, the ability to feel that one "belongs" with other people, the desire to respect one's own particular self and psyche — are all part of human potential, they are things we all contain. What would it be like to focus on developing one's personal talents if it did not mean "proving oneself" and competing for scarce resources (scholarships, jobs, etc.)? What would it be like to enjoy a silent sense of communion with something while also learning to play with words and build intriguing theories about it? How might those theories be different if the person thinking them up lived in a close relation to the physical world and regularly worked with his hands? How might these human qualities reconfigure if they were not constructed by society as mutually exclusive; if they were not constrained by a society committed to privileging some people over others, some aspects of the human spirit over the other ones? How might society itself look different if all these qualities were available to all of its members?

Concluding Comments

We gather together to create this exciting new field, Working Class Studies, with revolutionary potential. If we do not pay attention to the particulars of working class culture and psychology we risk further insulting and excluding the people we wish to study (including ourselves!). Whatever our location in the debates about working class speech or culture, I think we can agree that the language of the professional middle class "just ain't the same one other folks use." If we do not address the class biases reflected in language use in Academia, we put ourselves and our field in a most peculiar position. Academics in English have tried to illuminate the vitality and richness of working class culture through the exposition of vibrant working class writing (Zandy, 1990), but their insights and intuitions should not be an isolated island of "real stuff", while our intellectual explorations run down the same old arid, middle class tracks that have already served to create an immensely powerful "insulation" around higher education (Bernstein, 1990). The road less traveled would involve not only looking at our own linguistic biases, and daring to disobey them, but examining the individualistic and competitive methods of academic assertion. The knock-'em-down-and-see-if-they-still-stand-up approach of academic inquiry (so brazen in the field of sociolinguistics) would seem to be a particularly middle class, and some would add masculine, manner of theory building. Did I say building? Surely we can find a more inviting and cooperative method.

The moose died in the asphalt streets of Mounds View, Minnesota. The men dragged it into Ben O'Neill's garage and still remembered how to separate hide from tissue, rack from skull, to use what they could in respect for the dead. It had wandered long highways from the Carlos Avery Game Reserve. What could it have been thinking as it entered Mounds View, as it walked the straight lines of asphalt, lined with little box houses, a dark giant among the tiny saplings hopeful young couples had planted? Those young couples moved to the suburbs thinking we would all be middle class, but they worked in factories and serviced the people in wealthier suburbs. They had parties in garages on Saturday nights. They were walking a long highway themselves. Us kids endured the school hours, came home to wise-cracking, belly-laughing coffee Moms — the ones who could afford to only work part time. We pantomimed to forty-fives with the only phonograph in the neighborhood; whispered secrets in bunk beds on precious overnights; made the dirt piles, ditches and debris of housing developments into adventures in exotic lands; spent Saturday nights flying around the roller rink. We didn't know we were headed into a larger universe where we and our parents would be looked down upon. We didn't know the indignities of our work later in life would sometimes crush our spirits like bones and blood beneath tires. Or that if we left the world we lived in we might not be able to find our way back.

I wandered, in the vehicle of language and ideas, into the middle class my parents couldn't buy their way into with things. I had no idea that I would not find my natural habitat everywhere I went, or how awkward and out of place I would feel outside of it. I didn't know I would forget my way home; that the signs I had learned to read would not be there to guide me back. Now, through the vehicle of memory, I visit where I came from as a psychological kind of "preserve". That place preserved and protected my own, uncultivated inner life, as well as a kind of human connectedness that belongs to all people — where all people "belong."

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