Category Archives: class
I was reading an old blog post the other day about the whole “it’s rude to ask what someone does for a living in Europe” thing, and I got to thinking about the difference between class/family background and income/occupation/career. It is true that what you do is a pretty common way to identify oneself right off the bat here in the US, but what’s the alternative? The most obvious one I could come up with is where you come from–hometown, family name, background. The difference between those two identities, of course, is that one is dealing with class and upbringing (which you can’t control) and the other is dealing with income and occupation (which you, supposedly, can).
Part of our American individual responsibility rhetoric is the idea that it’s only up to us whether we succeed or fail in our careers. Supposedly, occupation should be a more egalitarian way to define oneself, rather than speaking directly about class or family ties. But is that really the case? Personally, I feel a pressure around the occupation question, because I grew up in a middle to lower middle class family in the South, did very well in school, and was expected to far exceed my parents’ incomes. I am more educated than any of my family members, and live in a large urban area in a more affluent part of the country now. However, I make far less money than expected, and I find myself defining myself more by what I want to do than by what I am when someone asks about career. I often define myself as a blogger, writer, and activist, obscuring my full-time paying job. Sometimes I say that I work in the “non-profit” sector, but rarely mention my job title, because it’s more a means than an end.
I do wonder if the tendency to identify ourselves by our careers contributes far more to stress than some people realize. How many of us use an aspirational definition of what we are, or speak about our education rather than our job, or our sector rather than our occupation? How many feel ashamed by a job description? I do think that there is a tendency to see what we do as a direct reflection on our job skills and what we have to offer as professional people, rather than an accident of circumstance, what was available in this economy when we applied, or what we grew into as we went from job to job. I don’t necessarily think that defining ourselves by class is any better, but I do wonder what the attendant pressure of that definition would be.
As a writer, blogger, and activist, I think I have a certain responsibility to think about how I express myself. Whether I’m writing a post or an article, having a casual conversation, or replying to a Tweet, it’s easy to use language without thinking about it. We all talk in the feminist and queer communities about how harmful societal norms are–whether it’s the pervasive use of “crazy” as a negative term, the way rape culture is subconsciously taught and accepted, or the societal pressure on women to be thin and “pretty.” A lot of us end up with increased awareness of certain types of language through activist communities, and I love how this happens and very much encourage everyone to blog or just talk about terms you notice people using that support the kyriarchy.
Today, I want to talk about a particular group of words that I find harmful and am working to eliminate from my own speech. The words I’m thinking of are associated with the garbage–from words that describe what we take in (“junk food,” “trashy books”) to words that describe what we are (“trailer trash,” “sloppy seconds”). These words, in my experience, tend to apply primarily or only to things that are associated with poverty or “low” culture. When a middle or upper class person talks about things in the first category, it’s common to speak of guilty pleasures and indulgences–“I know I shouldn’t eat so much junk food; I’m putting trash in my body but it’s just so good.” This kind of language implies that 1) we should be guilty about things that are labelled “trash” and 2) these are a temporary deviation for middle and upper class people, ultimately linked to individual responsibility.
I could go on for days about what’s wrong with the way we talk about individual responsibility in Western capitalist countries, but to stick to my main point, what sucks about this kind of language is that it implies that people who consume such things should be guilty, and further that they are bad people because of what they consume. It’s not a big leap from “junk food” and “trashy magazines” to trailer trash, or from saying someone’s clothes are trashy to saying that she is trashy.
Elitism is easy not to notice when you’re raised to value education, health, etc. and to look down on “guilty” or “nasty” habits. I know I tend to talk a lot about “guilty pleasures” or be embarrassed about certain books or music. So here’s a challenge to those of us who were raised in that environment, or for whatever reason find ourselves boxing habits into “good” and “bad” categories. Let’s try to think about these problems when we’re writing, and especially not to use words like “junk” or “trash” to describe habits or people. Also, let’s try to avoid the trap of talking about how people are “victims of their environments” or using the language of pity when talking about access to education and culture. This kind of language assumes that culture has an innate value, that people who don’t have access to “high” music, literature, food, or clothing are stuck with “low” forms. It ignores the inherent value of these things and ascribes unnecessary guilt to their consumption. Taste is a matter of individual preference, so let’s all make an effort to stop demonizing others’ tastes and start questioning the origins of our own.
This is something that’s been bugging me for a while when I read blogs of all sorts, though especially those in the personal development and food spheres (two categories where I’m guessing the average blogger has an above-average income). I keep seeing little throwaway sentences that make assumptions about the class and income of whoever’s reading. For example, exhortations to give to charity that are designed to make the reader feel guilty, or posts about cutting back in a recession/when unemployed that urge readers to give up the gym membership and stop shopping at Whole Foods.
Now, I realize that Internet access is a barrier, and that people online as a whole are going to generally have more money and be more likely to live in the “developed” world than the world population as a whole. But with the advent of free Internet access in libraries and other public spaces, the saturation of the Internet in workplaces, and the availability of cheap netbooks with free wifi, there are a lot of people online who aren’t middle class and don’t have disposable income. Thus, this whole guilt language about giving to charity or making “small” purchases has to go, as do blog posts about financial advice that only really apply if you were making about $40K/year before the recession.
I’m not saying that these posts aren’t valuable, just that like any writing it’s a case of knowing your audience. Instead of using language of guilt to make people donate to charity, highlight the good works that your charity of choice does and let people evaluate for themselves whether they’re able to give this year. If you are giving financial advice for middle class people, be explicit about it. Include a note that your tips are directed at those who have plenty, or those who have been employed for a while pre-recession, or singles. Basically, don’t be like this writer.
Welcome to the First Blog Carnival on Privilege! First, thanks to all the bloggers who contributed to this first round of the carnival. I was excited to see all the different takes on privilege represented here, and the diversity of those who submitted. You can see all the entries below the cut, and follow links through to read the complete posts. I also want to announce that we will be having a second carnival, since this first round was so successful. To give everyone plenty of time to think about submissions, the second carnival entries will be due Sunday, May 23rd. The topic for the second carnival will be White Privilege, so start thinking about race and racism for your posts. I would also accept posts for the second carnival that deal with other sorts of racial privilege, for example if you want to write about a community where one group is privileged based on the color of their skin, but that group isn’t “white,” that’s perfectly fine. Submissions again can be e-mailed to judithavory [at] gmail [dot] com. If we get a lot of submissions again, then I’ll probably switch over to a monthly format, and perhaps ask for other hosts for future carnivals. Also, because this came up a couple of times in this round, I do prefer new posts, but if you want to submit an older post for a carnival and not rehash an issue, that’s also fine.
And now, on with the carnival!
I touched on this topic in my Blog for Choice post this year, but I wanted to go into it a bit more, because I think issue-framing is something crucial that we sometimes ignore in our debates. I’ve noticed that pro-choice people often use the argument, to try to look less “scary,” that no one wants abortions, or that both sides want fewer abortions. Whether it’s true or not, this is a problem.
The problem is that this argument makes the debate about should women have abortions? I don’t think we want to go there. Once we go there, then the point of contention becomes “how do we reduce abortions?” And we know we disagree on this. One side thinks the answer is abstinence-only education, crisis pregnancy centers, and making abortion illegal. The other side thinks the answer is sex education, combating rape culture, and fighting systemic issues that take away womens’ effective right to choose. Certainly, that’s a debate we need to be having, but not while the legal right to have an abortion is under attack.
What we should be asking is not should women have abortions, but should abortions be safe and legal? Abortions will happen. Even if we “want fewer abortions,” we’re never going to get it down to zero. We need to focus on the medical trauma that women go through when they go to unsafe providers. We need to focus on how provisions like the Hyde Amendment and any number of state laws make it impossible for poor women, many of whom are indigenous women and women of color, to get a safe and legal abortion. We need to focus on the costs to the system when women try to abort without proper medical attention, and then come in for emergency care. We need to put that stark picture in pro lifers’ faces and say “is this what you want?” Then, we need to address the issues that underlie abortion. We can do this simultaneously, advocating for sex education, for enterprise programs in poor neighborhoods that give women more options, for an end to racist policies, for anti-rape messages in schools, for all these things that will in the long run decrease the number of abortions. But we can’t make our argument about whether women should have abortions, or we stand a high chance of losing.
I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values. We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice. Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has. While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.
This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual. Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support. The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer. The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law. It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.