Middle Klass

Now that I drive a Mercedes-Benz, I should acknowledge the reality of my comfortable middle-class status. Which would be a much funnier thing to say if I actually had a picture of my car to go with it; I’ll put one up eventually, I promise. For now, let me show you my aunt’s new vacation condo in the Florida Keys, which has a similar expectation:reality ratio:
a double-wide trailer on top of a ladder
But seriously: I make more money now than my parents did when I was little, even adjusting for inflation. And if I weren’t planning to quit my job, blow a big chunk of savings on a laptop and a trip to Europe, and retire to a life of quasi-poverty as a graduate student in the fall, I could have easily bought a genuinely nice car, the kind where you have a warranty that lasts for more than a month and you worry about getting little dents and shit.


So when I’m meeting people in my official capacity as a prospective grad student, and they find out where I’m from, their first response is generally to confuse the University of Iowa with Iowa State. And gaaah! Why don’t people on the coasts understand the intricacies of college rivalry in the flyover states?! – but at least no one has asked me about Idaho. More saliently, their second response is to ask if my parents are professors. This is considerably different from conversations outside academia; when normal people find out that I’m from a college town in Iowa, they ask if I grew up on a farm.*

It’s not that anyone responds rudely or dismissively when I tell them I’m from a largely blue and pink collar background. They just say “oh” in that oh, my assumption was wrong, I feel kinda silly way, and I feel like I’ve killed a planned or habitual line of inquiry.

And now a response to the discussion chez Wolfangel centered on this quote from Emma, because it’s vaguely related:

I do not entirely trust someone who’s never held a shit job that he or she needed to keep in order to make the rent or buy food. A summer job making photocopies in the law offices of daddy’s best friend does not count. Waiting tables three nights a week and weekends so you can pay the rent and eat while you do an unpaid internship does. I can eventually overcome my mistrust, sometimes, but, to me, if you’ve never had a shit job ever in your life, then you’ve experienced a fair amount of privilege, and chances are pretty good that you’re unaware of that privilege. You’ve never had the joy of someone treating you like shit, simply because of the work that you’re doing, and knowing that you can’t really object too much because you need that job. The feeling that goes along with that is neither hopeful nor positive.

The prevailing sentiment chez Wolfangel seems to be indignation along the lines of “but many privileged people are nice to waitstaff!” and it’s neither polite nor helpful to make assumptions, don’t write the middle class off so quickly. Honestly, it reminds me of nothing so much as a bunch of men complaining about feminism: I’m a good person! I recognize my male privilege and treat women with respect! I am sad that women don’t return my affection and trust right away, and this sadness has alienated me from feminism. Feminists should drop everything to cater to my hurt feelings, because my alligience is more important than their anger.

An exaggeration, of course. As everyone acknowledges, it’s hard to have these conversations without seeming defensive. Moreover, we’re all on basically the same page, after all the rhetorical puffery has been taken into account; as Wolfangel says, “the fact is that people can be nice or assholes, and it’s not correlated with how easy or hard their lives have been. I don’t know what makes people compassionate or not, but working as a waiter doesn’t seem to be the necessary & sufficient condition.”… come on, who doesn’t agree with that?


Uniting the “privileged” end of both conversations are two things: a sense of entitlement to others’ trust, and the idea that the disadvantaged should avoid expressing their/our anger in ways that make the privileged feel guilty. And I have conflicted feelings about both those things. It’s important to legitimize others’ anger, and to be considerate when expressing our own. The world is full of untrustworthy assholes, the vulnerable will, by necessity, trust fewer people and I won’t condemn anyone for feeling vulnerable; but it’s also fundamentally not okay to mistrust solely based on extraneous garbage.

Which leaves us with the question of whether or not class is a piece of extraneous garbage. It’s been my experience that being an asshole isn’t correlated with one’s financial history. On the other hand, I do think that people often innocently forget about any financial constraints they haven’t experienced – from “why don’t you just fly across the country to do that?” to “why don’t you use the clothes dryer?” or “oh, you can’t afford to eat out this weekend, we’ll go to a cheaper restaurant!” – and this usually comes off as clueless and insensitive.

So… yeah.

* You’d think the word “town” would tip them off, but no! I have to explain how areas that look just like suburbs can exist in clusters of less than 100,000 people.


  1. wolfangel wrote:

    I think one issue is the wide meanings of trust possible: you can trust people by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not assholes while not trusting them with your innermost thoughts, and so on. People do make innocent mistakes based on their own experiences (and it is clueless and insensitive if it’s done more than once), but that’s different from saying something like “I never let people who didn’t have shit jobs leave the tip”.
    I don’t get the sense of indignation, I get the sense of “look, we know we’re privileged, we don’t like the fact that there is unfairness, but being written off immediately doesn’t help”: this is different from continuing “and there should never ever be something for just working class people”. We are, after all, responding to posts that explicitly link not being an asshole to being working class.
    There’s a reason I didn’t respond elsewhere: because I don’t want to shut down discussion, or tell people they don’t have a right to do these things. (The reason I didn’t trackback is because it didn’t work.) I don’t feel entitled to other people’s trust; on the other hand, I feel that I am allowed to be annoyed when I am told I can never be a good person without having experienced a shit job.

  2. yami wrote:

    Even with “look, we know we’re privileged”, though – indignation, impatience, there’s something. Irritation? I think that’s what I meant. Irritation can blend into indignation pretty easily anyway.
    I didn’t read the original post as saying non-shitworkers can’t be good people, just that they’re jerkier on average. (As an aside: it’s funny how shitwork and customer service work are being identified here. My first job was in food service, but it absolutely pales in comparison to the summer I spent on an assembly line, which was easily the shittiest job I’ve ever had.) Though you’re still allowed to be annoyed
    I think what really bothers me, though, is the emphasis on what does and does not “help”. Who or what are people supposed to be helping here – the cause of harmonious class relations? Why is this more important than an individual shitworker’s coping mechanisms? Alternatively, why should we think that soft-spoken persuasion will be more helpful, in the long run, than yelling and screaming? Yelling and screaming is sometimes the only thing that gets people’s attention.

  3. New Kid on the Hallway wrote:

    You’re right about the analogy between my reaction to the Emma post and the men responding to feminism thing. (Though, for what it’s worth, I *do* think that men can be feminist and recognize male privilege, and I would equally have problems with someone saying, “You can’t trust any men.”) I guess it goes back to the American inability to recognize class because of course, we’re all socially mobile, aren’t we? So there is no class (not). (It’s all so slippery…is doing shitwork in college to put yourself through so you can end up a professional the same as doing shitwork as a single mom to feed your kids, not on the way to something else? I honestly don’t know.) Anyway, yeah, you’re right that individual anger needs to be legitimated and that yelling and screaming is sometimes the only thing that works. In terms of what “helps,” though, I do think that it’s important for different groups of people to be able to understand each other and have conversations, and while it’s not the responsibility of the working class (or anyone) to make me “comfortable” or explain themselves, I find it much more useful when people (in general) talk about their own experiences rather than make assumptions about others. (Though it may also just be that this is my one area of privilege and so I jettison all my “correct” ideas when this comes up – I hope not, but I recognize it’s possible. )

  4. wolfangel wrote:

    I’ll grant irritation. I am generally irritable. I will also call factory work shitwork, based on stories my mother has told me. But most people I know now have had customer service work as shitwork. Maybe it’s because of where I live.
    I read the original post (or group of multiple posts on that topic) as being something like “middle class people are untrustworthy unless they work hard to prove they’re not assholes, while working class people are the reverse” — believe what you like, but I am also allowed to believe what I like about this.
    Ranting is one thing, and I would never want to stop people from doing that. And yelling and screaming is often the only way to get things heard: as I mentioned, I know tehre’s a certain rhetorical stance on blogs. But — by definition — working class people don’t have the power (ex-working class people can, of course, but there is a limit to how much class movement there is, especially in the space of one person’s life), especially in places where unions are weak. So not writing off your supporters before they have a chance is probably a wise move, if you want support. (I know this sounds worse and most threatening, but there’s a distinction between “men can never understand” and “all men are bad people until they show otherwise”, too.)
    As I said: my argument isn’t about feeling guilty; I think there should be some guilt about privilege, because I think you can’t acknowledge it without guilt. And it’s not about not getting trust. It is about being told that until I prove otherwise, I am an asshole, because I’ve never held the right kind of job. (I also wonder: are these people going to insist their kids hold shit jobs? This is a bit unfair of me, but I do wonder about it seriously. Many people discussing that are into the middle class, so their children aren’t going to need to take crappy jobs to pay rent, at least not necessarily.)

  5. yami wrote:

    Hmm. My parents never insisted I hold a shit job, but on many occasions they jumped right in with the “it builds character” thing.
    Wolfangel: We can each happily believe what we like, and I have never particularly believed in supporting my arguments about rhetoric with careful analysis of the source text… but somewhere, a high school English teacher is crying. And I still see a very large gap between “I don’t trust you” and “you are untrustworthy”.
    And and, other things to the effect of “yes and no” but I got up at 5 this morning, so it all comes out as zzzzz right now.

  6. des von bladet wrote:

    I earn more in real terms than my parents did at my age, but sadly “real terms” don’t factor in the astonishing rise in property prices over that time. My parents bought their house (on my dad’s salary alone) at about my age and paid it off in a few years: my salary would qualify me for a mortgage on about half it’s value, over thirty (30) years.
    Meanwhile, I have always held that inverse snobbery is snobbery too. I’ve been variously dismissed, in my time, as too white, too male, and too middle class, but I am after all very white, male and middle class.
    (Ever since I became a social “scientiste” I have noticed that everyone wants to be a social “scientiste”, or that, as we might prefer to say, the social sciences operate in a field where explanatory claims and frameworks are vigorously contested.)

  7. Emma Goldman wrote:

    I don’t believe the original posts said that people who’ve never held shit jobs are assholes or that people who are privileged are assholes; in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s true. Part of what I’ve been trying to explore is how we develop expectations about work, about life, about what we can or should or are able to do. People who are sufficiently privileged such that they’ve never had to hold a shit job have a different path than people who have performed those jobs, and people who will never have anything BUT a shit job have a different path as well. Class is not just about what you earn, or how, which was the point. Apparently that point wasn’t clear.

  8. Emma Goldman wrote:

    And I see I have an unclear referent in that comment–what’s true (I think) is what I said the original posts said. I emphatically don’t think people who’ve never held shit jobs or who are privileged are assholes by virtue of those facts about them–they may well be assholes, of course, but that’s pretty much an option available to all of us.

  9. denisdekat wrote:

    “Why don’t people on the coasts understand the intricacies of college rivalry in the flyover states?!”
    Because it is similar to all the tribal disputes in the tropical forests of the Amazons. They all look the same and they all hate each other, and all their names sound the same (just kidding).
    Class is and is not baggage. It depends on how you look at it. Someone from lower class backgrounds has a different perspective on wealth than someone from an upper class background. This is due to direct experience with wealth. The outcome can be an anchor, or powerful sails on your sailboat of life… You make it what it is in the end

  10. yami wrote:

    Des: You have a point there. In the ancestral town, or particularly the ancestral farm town, I could buy a house on my current salary, but the ancestral town doesn’t have many jobs for geologistes. Here, if I leveraged myself to the hilt, I could maybe buy half of a weensy one-bedroom apartment.
    Denisdekat: That excuses “Hawkeye” and “Buckeye”, I guess, but as for looking the same, have you seen the silly hats they wear in Wisconsin?
    Emma: I feel vindicated As to your overall point, I’ve been trying (and failing) to think of something more interesting than “damn straight” in response…

  11. yami wrote:

    Emma Goldman, Bruce Springsteen, et al. – really, if you’re following this discussion and you haven’t read her whole series already… you should.

  12. ester wrote:

    i had the very interesting experience of being in a classless environment once, on a kibbutz in israel where everyone is assigned shitjobs — mine was in the cafeteria — so no one can look down on anyone else.
    back in america, however, i have always been of the privileged class. in fact, i worked in the EXACT JOB emma mentions with such disdain, photocopying (and filing) for daddy’s best friend. ouch. my fingers bled from the filing: does that make me a little more trustworthy?
    i find it interesting and maybe kind of arbitrary that she chose the issue of trust; it seems to me she could just have easily have said she finds people like me hard to relate to, suspicious, or enraging. but i guess i’m nitpicking because it’s natural, when you feel attacked, even with justification, to want to defend yourself. (i AM trustworthy!) that puts me in the fascinating position of being allied with anti-feminists for the first time in memory …

  13. yami wrote:

    I think there’s more to be said, actually, about the relationship between trust and privilege than about personally relating to people and privilege, or frustration and privilege. Because it’s not just is this person trustworthy?, it’s what happens to me if my trust is betrayed? – the privileged will, in general, suffer less from betrayal. Straight-up difficulty relating to people is more symmetric in its consequences.
    Maybe if you had sturdy peasant fingers, they wouldn’t bleed so much?

  14. ester wrote:

    ha! you should see my hands. i have the defintion of stury peasant fingers, passed down to me faithfully by my lithuanian peasant ancestors.
    but i do of course see your point.

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