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:
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.
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.
* 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.