Monday, March 14, 2005

Class, Part V: Where does that highway go?

Charle raises a good point in the comments below about how customers' comments at his Radio Shack job made him feel:
Besides being yet another lesson in the difference between customers and clients, it was interesting to find that I would sit there and think, to myself silently, don't look at me like that! I wondered if I hadn't had my "real" job (as I called it), would I have started to buy into the idea that I wasn't good enough for any other kind of work?
That is the very essence of the privilege about which I/we have been writing. When you were a kid, what did you think you could or would do? What did the people around you do? Not just your parents, but your other relatives, too. What did your parents and teachers and other relatives teach you, implicitly as well as explicitly, about work and life?

As I've intimated below, I consider myself extremely lucky in this regard. In addition to having our material wants addressed, my siblings and I benefited from a family that encouraged and even expected us to do well, by which my parents meant, at the least, go to college. It is also relevant that my parents did not discriminate on the basis of sex in this arena. It was apparent at a relatively early age that I was pretty smart, and it didn't matter that I'm female--smart was not regarded as a gendered quality. It's true that my mother is still engaged in her lifelong campaign to make me more ladylike (you'd think she'd give up on that by now, but apparently some dreams die hard), but "ladylike" was separate and distinguishable from "smart," and the two were not regarded as mutually exclusive. (My sister was much more "ladylike," in many ways, but she, too, was smart.) There were gendered aspects to how we were treated, especially in that my brother has always been The Prince and exempt from most household chores, but they had nothing to do with intelligence. And with regard to the gendering that took place once my brother came along, well, I was six by the time he was born, and I think a lot of our personalities are in place by then. I've always felt like the oldest son as well as the oldest daughter.

To get back to the main point, though: What did you think you COULD do? And, perhaps as important, what does your family, what do you, consider "success" to be? Does it involve a lot of money? A lot of things? A big house? Children? A college education? A husband who doesn't beat you? A marriage that lasts? A high-profile career? A "professional" degree? Not wearing a uniform of some kind to work? Wearing a uniform to work? Our expectations in this regard are shaped by our habitus, and, in particular, are shaped, I think, by what we learned at home and at school and at work.

The other thing that happens, though, is that those of us who have upper-class educations and/or jobs to go with our workinig-class roots and our history of shit jobs learn to "pass." Many of us--myself included--choose not to do that, but we could. We've seen what the elites read and wear and drive; we've seen where they live, and we might even live there, too. We see what they eat and drink. We see what kinds of entertainment they buy, and where they vacation, and where their kids go to school. We are aware, even if they are not, of the privilege inherent in the ability to make those particular choices, precisely because we come from a literal, figurative, metaphorical space where those choices weren't available--weren't even conceivable. That, then, seems to me to be the first project, the one to which Charlie alludes: How do particular choices become conceivable? And then: how do they seem like good choices?

4 Comments:

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