Tuesday, January 08, 2008

More Class Privilege Markers

The Paper Chase has added some new markers to the Social Class Privilege exercise that I tried out back in November. The guidelines are the same. Mark in bold those statements that describe your experiences from childhood to the years traditionally associated with college attendance.

If your body does not bear long-term signs of malnutrition. (For example, my teeth are marked up from poor nutrition when they were forming.)

If you had orthodontia.

If you saw a doctor for anything other than emergencies or school-mandated shots.

If you heated your home with clean-burning fuels or had properly vented heating.

If you grew up in a house without vermin.

If you had running water.

If you had a basement or foundation under your house.

If you had an indoor toilet.

If your parents and immediate family were outside the criminal justice system.

If you yourself remained outside the criminal justice system.

If your parents had a new car.

If you never went barefoot so that you could 'save your shoes for school.'

If your parents never argued in front of you about having enough money for food to last out the month.

If you ate hunted and fished meat because it was a recreational activity rather than as the major way to stock a freezer.

If your laundry was done at home in a washer rather than in a lavandaria. (Laundromat)

If your hair was cut by a professional barber or hair stylist instead of your parent.

What does it mean that I feel a bit upset by the idea that I am the recipient of a lot of class privilege; I scored 13 out of the 16 new markers that Chaser added. I mean, I'm black, disabled, and from the south. How the hell did I get to have more class privilege than someone who is white, non-disabled, and from some place that I associate with being rich (The Hamptons, Beverly Hills, Manhattan)?

In the past, I've mentioned my sister-in-law and her family but I'm not sure how much I've really said about her. She was born and raised in the swamps of Des Allemands, Louisiana. The first time we (me, VanGoghGirl, my parents, and The German) went to visit her family was when we found out that she and my brother were expecting a baby. We wanted to go and meet her and reassure her family that my brother would act responsibly towards her and this child.

We met at my mother's house and decided that we'd all ride down to Des Allemands in one car, since my mom and dad's SUV was big enough for all of us. No one, except for my dad, had ever even been to Des Allemands before. As we rode, my mom was on her cell-phone with my future sister-in-law getting directions to the house. I remember seeing my mom's eyes growing wider and wider as we got further and further into what southerners call "the country" (i.e. any rural area). We laughed nervously about how this was no place for a car full of black people to be riding so it was a good thing we had The German with us to talk to the police in case we got pulled over.

When we got to her neighborhood, the streets were no longer paved. It's all just loose gravel. We were in shock. I mean, I don't know what we expected but this certainly wasn't it. My sis-in-law was outside waiting for us and her mother welcomed us inside.

They were really great people. My brother's girlfriend had already explained to my mom that her parents really hated black people and were none to thrilled about the idea of their daughter giving birth to a black child. We weren't really surprised about that. I think the average white person down here feels the same way. That's why my mother really wanted to meet them.

She wanted them to see that my brother comes from a decent family, with values and expectations. I'm not saying those aren't problematic views but it's how she saw things. Anyway, the result of this was that my mother made sure she was dressed in nice clothes, had her make-up on, and was wearing tasteful jewelry. The rest of us were dressed nicely too. I did my best to make sure that VanGoghGirl was looking really cute so that they could see that we take care of the children in our family.

So, there we were, all dressed up and sitting inside of this family's house. It's not like they didn't have paved floors or decent furniture. It was a nice two-bedroom home with a carport and a backyard. It was clean and comfortable. It's just that it was, in many ways, very different from where my family tended to socialize. It was a small home and it only had one bathroom. The nearest Wal-Mart was in the next parish over. The nearest hospital was in the next parish. If she continued to stay with her parents, my sis-in-law would have to drive a very long way to the hospital for her obstetrical visits.

I was really glad that my step-dad was with us. He hunts and fishes and there wasn't much conversation until he started talking about gaming with her step-dad. That's when things got a lot better. It seemed like they warmed up to us some then. It really broke the ice because it was the one thing that our families had in common. My dad can speak with authority when it comes to Louisiana wildlife and so could her mom and dad. By the time we left, they had invited us to return and made us promise that when it came to be time for the yearly catfish festival, we'd be sure to go.

You know, I'm embarrassed to admit the fact that I noticed a lot of this stuff. To be honest, I'm not even owning up to it all here. For instance, I happened to notice the fact that my mother had even lighter skin than her mother's. At the time, I kept thinking to myself, "She has the nerve not to like black people and she looks blacker than my mother does!"

Oh yeah, while I'm telling a little bit more of the truth, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that they were white. It's not that my family doesn't know any white people. It's just that we don't really have any close family friends who aren't people of color. In New Orleans, things are kind of odd. There's the white middle class and the black middle class. There's the white upper class and the black upper class. And then there's the really economically-disadvantaged people; I can't bring myself to call anyone "lower class"--it just sounds too elitist. At the bottom, the races inter-mingle quite a bit. As you get further up the ladder, the separation becomes more pronounced.

In racist America, I don't think anyone would be surprised to find out that rich white people don't really want their kids marrying black people. However, I think it may surprise some white people to find out that the more economically-advantaged black people are, the more they don't want their kids marrying white people. I'm just speaking about my own observations. This isn't based on any studies or anything.

Anyone who knows my family well might find what I'm saying to be really ironic. After all, it would be rather difficult for me to be a direct descendant of this guy if my family was just black. But down here, it's not that simple. Even though a lot of people of color have quite a few white ancestors, most will identify themselves as just black or perhaps, Creole. I mean, there are so many folks I know that look no different from any white person walking down the street but they would curse you out from A to Z if you called them "white".

My relationship with The German is complicated. Because my family first got to know him as my friend, I think it was easier for them to accept him as my romantic interest once we started dating. Still, my mother had more than one talk with me about whether I could deal with the sort of racial/ethnic issues that might crop up during my relationship with him.

Maybe the fact that The German and I came from similar economic backgrounds made a difference.He was college-educated and so was his mother. His mother owned her home. They all drove nice cars and had jobs that didn't require them to ever work outside or break a sweat. None of his siblings had any children outside of wedlock nor were any of them inside the criminal justice system. Would they have accepted him as a part of our family if he had been raised in a family that was more economically-disadvantaged?

Even after trying out Chaser's addendum, to the Class Privilege exercise, I don't have any more answers about this stuff. I really don't know where to go from here when it comes to understanding my own class privilege and what should I do about the fact that I may have had more advantages than I feel like I had.


Daisy Deadhead said...

Fascinating list, and radical stuff. I assumed my parents' (and step-parents! and Grandparents! God help me!) inability to stay out of the pokey was due to their drinking. ;)

But yeah, I get it. Rich/affluent people (i.e. Daniel Patrick Moynihan) who drink, are quietly taken home or given over to relatives on their own recog and don't get booked.

Thing is, so much of that is tied to shame... I never discuss those things. Your father AND mother are not supposed to go to jail, period. To mention this is to call into question your own morality, if you were raised by "bad people" or not...so, we stay silent and do not discuss those things. And how can we ever discuss class, if those-things-we-won't-discuss are the markers?

Your post has given me much food for thought.

Daisy Deadhead said...

What a beautiful post!

I wish I had nice things to say about former mothers-in-law, but alas.

Rent Party said...

But is it necessary to do anything?

Another Conflict Theorist said...

Peace Tulip,

I agree with Daisy. This was an honest, beautiful post.

Oh, I've got one..

"If you've never had to convince your parent/s to drop you off a block away from school because you were embarrassed about the kind of car they were driving."

Ravenmn said...

I don't know how to do the track back thing, but I posted on this as well. It is interesting to look at concrete facts that separate the haves from the have nots. I think the resistance that tickles the back of my mind is the fact that lacking certain things does not necessarily add up to lower class status. For instance, I spent a lot of my childhood at my Grandmother's farm. This was a huge house (9+ bedrooms) filled with love and honesty and good things. It also lacked central heat, running water and indoor plumbing during the winter. In Michigan. Cold fucking Michigan.

The alternative was living with my nutso Dad who had all the amenities and none of the love. That choice was incredibly simple.

What this list lacks is the emotional aspect. A lot of physical hardship fades in the face off emotional well-being.

Lisa Harney said...

I had 13 of those as well. I've always considered my family to be lower-middle class, and that pretty firmly puts me as the recipient of class privilege.

Heck, I still am the recipient, as I'm unemployed, but not homeless.

Yeah, it's surprising how much stuff I take for granted that is a sign of class privilege. That's interesting to know, and I'm going to have to think a bit about it. Thank you for posting this.

And that's an interesting story.