March 08, 2006

Let's Talk About Class

Hi everyone,

I've been debating about how to make this post for a while, and it's a hard thing for me to do, but I feel that the people who read Quench are pretty awesome and I'd like to bring up these issues here. Also, it's a long post, but hang in there.

Soo. I was having a conversation with my tutorial professor this week, and we were talking about: talking about money. We'd both noticed a strange phenomenon: here at Harvard, a place built on money, people rarely seem to discuss their own class status, class privilege (or lack thereof) or classism in this country. Why?

In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks writes:

Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender; the uncool subject is class. It's the subject that makes us all tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand. In less than twenty years our nation has become a place where the rich truly rule. (vii)

she continues:
The closest most folks can come to talking about class in this nation is to talk about money. For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society – that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free society there would be no top. (5)

and adds:
The censoring of public discussions of money was not simply a matter of polite social decorum, it deflected attention from underlying competition about money. It allows those who have more to conceal their fortunes from others. It sets up the condition where individuals can feel no economic accountability to others. Most importantly, it enables those who have class privilege and know how to use money in a manner that is beneficial to hoard this knowledge. (61)

What do y'all think about this?

I really want us (Quench, Harvard, random people who read this blog, our leaders and families) to take these ideas seriously.

Why don't we talk about class? In my everyday life, I hear constant discussions about everything - gender, sexuality, politics, gossip, religion, race, homework, orgies in Widener Library, etc, etc, etc, e t c. But I almost never hear anyone talk about class. People [might] say "Oh, that is expensive," or "So-and-So is rich," but they never say "I'm rich" - even if their parents are millionaires, or they have access to an incredible amount of class privilege (10 percent of students at the most selective colleges come from the bottom half of the socio-economic scale, while 75 percent come from the top quarter, according to a recent Crimson article).

And conversely, a lot of low-income students don't know how to articulate or navigate the differences and divisions of class privilege, and thus don't articulate their class background or experience.

I'm just wondering, in a place where we're encouraged to share our experiences and identities, why is it that class seems to be brushed under the rug?

To be clear, I'm not advocating guilt, or shame, or self-pity.

I'm advocating an open dialogue about classism, class privilege and poverty in this country.

I'm advocating that people who have class privilege and access to cultural capital (which includes every student at Harvard) recognize, analyze and honestly discuss it.

I say this not because I think this dialogue would be an interesting discussion or community- building experience.

I'm saying this because it's a way to fight classism, by breaking a silence around issues that lie at the heart of inequality in this country.

It's a way to show solidarity (not sympathy, or necessarily empathy, but solidarity, both political and personal) with those who are living and working in poverty every day.

In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (a book that I find problematic in a lot of ways but interesting nonetheless), Barbara Ehrenreich points to the "money taboo" in our society as a major factor preventing minimum-wage workers from organizing for higher wages:

We confess everything in our society - sex, crime, illness. But no one wants to reveal what they earn or how they got it. The money taboo is the one thing that employers can count on...in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes. (206)

So, here are some Fun Questions About Class (like a Cosmo quiz, but hotter!) to throw out there:

Please post comments (anonymously, if you like) or just think about them, or talk about them with other people.

  • How would you describe your class status?
  • How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
  • Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
  • What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
  • Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
  • Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
  • Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
  • What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
  • When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
  • How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
  • Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
  • Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
So, y'all, let's start talking. Because the stakes are high. bell hooks says it very well:

Women of all races and black men are rapidly becoming the poorest of the poor. Breaking the silence – talking about class and coming to terms with where we stand – is a necessary step if we are to live in a world where prosperity and plenty can be shared, where justice can be realized in our public and private lives. The time to talk about class, to know where we stand, is now - before it is too late, before we are all trapped in place and unable to change our class or our nation’s fate. (viii)

Thoughts? Comments? Feelings?

Post away.

25 comments:

maudite entendante said...

It's interesting, at the large public high school I went to (with a bona fide murder rate and a vast majority of students on federal free-lunch programs, but also with a swanky magnet program), our gov teacher once had all the students in the class write down their household income on an index card, and the class they believed themselves to be a member of on the back of the card.

The incomes ranged from $18,000 to upwards of $350,000 - and all but two of the thirty students claimed to be "middle-class." Frankly, I don't think anyone knows what "middle-class" really is, and since we fetishize it from both directions (either aspiring to it from below, or thinking it makes you a down-home red-blooded American if you're looking down from great heights), people tend to assume that they probably fall in there somewhere.

For the record, my answers to your questions:

How would you describe your class status?
Economically? Lower-middle-class. My meager humanities-grad-student stipend makes me the highest-paid member of my family, the members of whom have always had to work upwards of 14 hours a day, six days a week just to make ends meet.

Socially? Upper-middle-class. *shrug* I'm Harvard-educated, now pursuing advanced degrees in utterly useless subjects. That alone affords me a type of privilege which is completely out of sync with my income, or my family's.


How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?

Upper-middle-class, to be sure. Most of the folks I know are the children of two professionals; some have family money. And of course, all of us have, or are acquiring, fantabulously prestigious educations.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?

It generally hovers around the $20,000 mark; less in bad years, more in better years. This, btw, is two working members of the household, my mother and my grandmother.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

I was selected to represent the country at a prestigious competition in South Africa, the catch being that all the expenses of getting there would be paid for out-of-pocket. I am still terrified of finding out how we ended up coming up with that money.

In a less intense, but more persistent, way, I'm incredibly reluctant to throw anything away, precisely because I know exactly how much everything I own costs, and exactly how much really backbreaking shitty work went into earning the money to pay for it. (I spent last night completely reconstructing a pair of boots with "Shoe Goo" ... we'll see how that works.)

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?

Yep; food stamps, AFDC, WIC, SSI, you name it. (I wrote the "welfare princess" post in one of the last two issues.)

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?

Er, sort of all the time? My mom actually has been homeless; and every month is kind of a decision-making process in terms of which bills will get paid. It's not always the rent, and sometimes it's been really hairy when the rent played second fiddle to other bills for multiple months in a row.

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?

My mom, definitely. My grandmother, to a lesser extent, but she's developed a habit of living off candy and cookies because she can't afford to stop working long enough to eat anything else. And yeah, sometimes when I do my own balancing process, I spend what money I have on something other than food. (I've learned you can go for at least a couple days without food if you buy a $1 cup of coffee each day and refill the cup with cream a couple times before you leave the coffee shop. The caffeine acts as an appetite suppressant, and the cream gives you enough calories to keep going a while.)

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?

I'm going into academia, heaven help me. (Another example of the disjunct between my economic class and my social class.)

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?

I don't really get "checkups" - if I have a problem, I try and get it taken care of before it gets too bad, but I don't really go in if I'm well. I do have insurance, though, through the school - although it only covers the absolute basics.

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?

Depends on what I'm buying. And as I say, I tend to think of things less in dollar terms, and more in terms of "how much labor does this thing cost?"

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?

Depends where; my office building, yes. The Estimat's dorm, one of the custodial folks and all of the front-desk/security people. My dorm, most of the front-desk/security people, but I haven't been around to meet any of the custodial staff. I knew the names of all the people who worked, in any capacity, in my house at Harvard, though ('cause I was there longer than I've been here), and I knew the name of the overnight custodian in Boylston, because I spent a lot of late nights in the department.

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?

It's complicated; I grew up hearing a lot of "you must get an education so you don't turn out like me," so I guess that counts as an effect. I've also alluded earlier to the fact that my education affects my class status, in that I have access to privilege by virtue of passing as someone who could afford a really top-notch education, or at the very least by being seen as someone who will go on to earn money by the sweat of my brain and not my brow.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post, icarus - I'm curious what your answers would be to some of these.

Datura said...

"And conversely, a lot of low-income students don't know how to articulate or navigate the differences and divisions of class privilege, and thus don't articulate their class background or experience."

????????

Most of the low-income student I know all too well how to articulate the class differences in our society. I serisously wonder how true the above statement is. I'll post more when I have more time, but I must run to class now.

tea cozy said...

hey icarus ---

thanks for the post. I don't consider myself or my family low-income, but we are certainly lower-income than the average harvard family... around $37,000/year, I think, which (in my hometown, things may be different here) is high enough to pay bills and mortgage and food and books and piano lessons, but low enough to get a fantastic financial aid package. however, I've never known how to describe my class per se, maybe because I feel the class system back home is completely different from the one here.

I guess I really consider myself to be upper-class, in terms of the amount of privilege I've been allowed, which is kind of funny, I guess, since my dad, in addition to being a librarian, has washed other people's windows for the last twenty years.

Here's why I think I'm upper-class:

*My parents insisted that my brother and I have music lessons, sent us to arty-hippie summer camp, and, often, sent us to saturday art classes at the local university.

*My brother and I both went to small private schools for much of my life, and finished up high school in an excellent little charter school. This is an interesting point, actually --- our area abounds with tiny, alternative schools which are supposed to avoid the rigidity and some of the problems of the public school systems. And actually, the families with the higher-end incomes (which are few) tend to send their children to public schools. I don't know why. It's just the way our particular cookie crumbles. These schools tend to shut down after about six years due to criticism or lack of funding, and others replace them... and being run by bleeding-heart liberals, they have scholarships, finincial aid, or just a "look-the-other-way-and-pretend-the-tuition-got-paid" policy towards lower-income students.

*I'm at Harvard.

*I never wanted for books, and the trees around our house felt like an estate.

*My mother is an artist, or was (she now owns and runs a ceramic supply store)

Nevertheless, I feel awkward around money, I will probably never buy a pair of winter boots unless it's at Payless, and I am (often awkwardly) shocked and awed by the homes of classmates. Since coming to college, I have not received an allowance from my parents, and it's difficult for me to remember not to make disparaging remarks about students who do --- I don't actually think it affects their moral worth, it's just a habit of talking freely about money which I got into in high school and haven't managed to shake.

As for knowing the people who work in my building, I do --- but only at my work, not in my residential house (I mean, of course I know the dining hall staff by sight, and we are civil and say hello and all that, but I've never introduced myself). I know all the security and custodial staff, as well as the independent vendors, who work at Mem Hall, possibly becuase our jobs there are similar. My job is basically to move shit, pick up trash, lock and unlock doors, and make sure that HRO doesn't break anything.

To end...

I've always felt that when you have money, you should spend it, I guess because, as a family, we always have. We've also spent money we don't have, but that's the way it goes. And luckily, there's never been a question of not being able to afford necessities, although we have occasionally had to drop non-necessities, or talk music teachers into giving us lessons for free. All my life, we've been hitting taht happy medium of spending all our money and ending up with a lot of beauty and life; this is also how most of my friends at home lived (perhaps because most of them had a least one parent who was an artist or a teacher). It's been really strange for me to come into contact with large numbers of people who have more money than they know what to do with, and don't put it to good use.

"Good use;" who am I to decide what "good use" is? I just know what worked for me, and hope when I'm old that it'll work for my children.

LeDiva said...

* How would you describe your class status?

Maudite draws a distinction between social and economic class, which I quite like.

I'm probably upper-middle economically, but it doesn't always feel that way. I still largely live paycheck-to-paycheck, bank balance dropping near to (or below) zero regularly before the next pay day. I don't have a credit card, which gives me a lot less flexibility financially... but also limits how deep a hole I can dig for myself.

I've often run into issues where co-workers (who are generally making more than me, having less long-term expenses or both) tacitly expecting me to pay out of pocket for some business expense, then wait for the reimbursement. I've had this happen for amounts as "small" as $200, and things as large as airfare, hotel and car rental for a business trip (~$1000). As if I wasn't already conscious enough of how much (or little) money I have available, and all the attendant guilt for feeling like I should be "doing better" with my money than I am... now I get to admit to my coworkers that I can't afford X.

For me, money is like gender... the less I think about it, the better.

Socially, I'm sorta all over the place. I spend lots of time with geeky folk who can afford sushi and electronic gadgets, and I spend lots of time with queerfolk who are often scraping by. I feel very self-conscious often about how much money I am making... I never EVER want to be seen as someone who flaunts their relative wealth.

* How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?

I guess I touched on that above... I'd say it ranges from lower-middle (friends) to pretty solid upper (some classmates, and probably most coworkers).

* Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?

I know how much my dad made when he was working his blue-collar pressman job. It's a weird feeling to realize that my first real job out of college, I'm making more than my dad ever did.

My mom was a second-grade teacher for many years, and was always very secretive about how much she made, at least with me.

* What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

When the disparity between class is apparent. This can be when I'm around coworkers asking me to expense stuff, as I mentioned above, or when I'm around friends who aren't doing as well as I am. Both times I feel really guilty, the former for not being "successful enough" (despite the fact that I'm just starting out in a field that is not the one my degree is in), the latter for feeling like I'm "too successful" in some way. I dunno... it's like I feel I can't or shouldn't be successful if my friends aren't doing just as well.

* Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?

Both my parents are currently retired, and my dad was on Social Security disability for a few years for work-related injuries. I think they're both just on regular retirement Social Security now.

* Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?

Thankfully, no.

* Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?

I have, in college. I was working a secretarial job for the Radcliffe Public Policy Center, and wasn't making a lot of money (go fig). I'd been living off of $1 ramen cups for at least two meals a day for a few days... I'd been really grouchy, sleepy and generally out of sorts. And while trying to work, ended up developing a spontaneous nosebleed which I'm convinced was due to my poor nutrition.

* What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?

For now, I'm doing tech stuff for a financial company. In the future (say, 5-10 years out), I plan to be in grad school pursuing a degree in clinical psych, after which I'll be a therapist.

* When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?

A few months ago, and yes. My current job provides health insurance, and it's much appreciated.

* How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?

In salary terms? Enough where you can provide for all your basic needs, most/all of your basic wants... enough money where you have to think "Hmm, how should I spend this?"

In everyday terms? I generally don't concern myself with purchases under $20. For computer gear (I'm a geek, I buy lots of this stuff), probably > $200. Not that I make $200 purchases regularly... but greater than that feels like it requires a good bit of financial planning to save up for.

* Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?

Not the people who clean the office where I work. I haven't seen any custodial staff in my apartment building.

* Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?

Certainly having a Harvard degree has impacted my class situation. The name imparts a definite increase in status, and has given me social connections which are what got me my current job.

Bridget said...

I think the fact that I felt compelled to answer anonymously really proves your point, so that's exactly why I'm going to sign, though it's rather uncomfortable.

How would you describe your class status?
I second the comment that it's a great idea to distinguish economic from social. Economic, upper. Social, upper middle.

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
Most of my friends (from college and from high school) are middle/upper middle, hence my social identification.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
No, and that's a conscious decision. Somehow I think knowing would make me feel less bad about throwing money around, which is probably not a good habit to get into when financial independence is imminent.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
This one time, at band camp... heh. In 10th grade, I was picked to be my school's ambassador to the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership thingo. This being LA, it was a rather mixed group of kids. I will always remember how our group leader asked about our after-high-school plans, and one girl replied that she wasn't sure she was going to finish high school, because she wanted to have a baby instead. I couldn't even conceive (no pun intended) of having that kind of mindset.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
No

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
No

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
No, but going back a couple generations, yes

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
Academia

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
About a year ago... I'm not sure exactly how it works, but it was somehow paid for either by my family's insurance or the college health fees

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
A salary in the mid-six figures

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
Yes

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
Yes - in short, I have never worked because I have never had to. (I do a little tutoring here and there, but more for the experience than the money.) For the educational situation, it's not easy to say. I went to public schools through 12th grade, so I didn't have the prep school > Ivy League experience, but probably some of the opportunities that made me a strong admissions candidate were made possible by money.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting because I too feel compelled to answer for some reason . . . but I'm going to have to do so anonymously . . .

•How would you describe your class status? Well, I currently have negative $13 in my bank account if that answers that question.

•How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues? Lower class- broke, but not quite as broke as me.

•Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour? The farm brings in about $10k a year, and the family business, just a little less than that.

•What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status? The last time I was at Wal-mart buying groceries wondering if I was going to overdraw my checking account.

•Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs? No, but I blame it on pride.

•Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness? My family, no, but I was out of the house for a while as a teen- but for a completely different reason.

•Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food? I'm currently taking in only about 600 cal. a day, but high school was worse. I attend EVERY SINGLE event at my university that offers free food.

•What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future? Eventually I'd like to work with some kind of community organization.

•When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance? Only a few months ago and it was in fact covered by my school insurance.

•How much money do you consider to be "a lot"? Enough to buy non-processed foods. And not shop at Wal-Mart.

•Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building? Mariela on M/W, Lisa on T/R, and Tim on the weekends (my office building, that is).

•Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How? Its definitely affected my educational situation (I don't go to Harvard). Employment? I would say no, but only because I doubt most people know my class status (or perhaps they might assume otherwise . . .).

I love this discussion though. I can't wait to read more : )

aurora said...

It's actually kind of funny that you're posting this now. A couple weeks ago, I was on a retreat and talking with some people who are friends, but not very close friends. We were in this magnificent house, and we began commenting on the wealth of its owners. And then we noticed that we were very uncomfortable talking about our own wealths or lack thereof. So, we talked for a while, and it was very uncomfortable at times, but overall, it was good. I'd never had a conversation like that before.

How would you describe your class status?
Upper, economically. Middle, socially. I feel like I live below my means (if that makes sense,) but it's a conscious decision.

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
Middle to upper middle. I feel like my classmates have been middle to upper middle throughout my whole life. When I got to college, there were more upper class people, but I still tend to hang out with middle-ish folks.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
No. When I was younger, my parents didn't want me to know. Now, I think they'd tell me, but it doesn't really matter to me. I know it depends on the year. (My dad owns his own company, so he gets whatever's left over after paying his staff and bills.)

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
Nearly constantly recently. I somehow feel like I'm being dishonest if I don't talk about money. But I feel like a prick when I bring it up. I feel like I'm usually fairly down to earth with how I manage my own money, but sometimes I'll drop cash down for something that I think is reasonable and then realize that it's not affordable for whoever I'm with, and that's uncomfortable.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
No.

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
No.

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
No.

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
I have little idea, and I feel little pressure to decide. Maybe something technical, maybe something in public service, maybe something that's a combination of the two, and maybe something else entirely.

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
A couple years ago, and it was covered.

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
It depends. For a meal, more than $10. For entertainment, more than $15. For transportation (airfare, etc.) more than $150. I feel like I've been spending too much when my monthly credit card bill is over $300.

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
I don't ever see them...

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
Both, yes. I feel like my class status has afforded me the opportunity to go to school without having to hold a job. (I do feel good when I'm working, though. I like feeling like the money I spend is money I earned, as opposed to money gifted to me by relatives, etc.) Specifically in terms of education, my class status allowed me to attend whatever school I wanted because financial aid wasn't a consideration. I did attend a public high school, but some of my activities (sports, music) that made me a stronger college applicant would not have been possible without money.

emily2 said...

I'm going to freeform some of my answers, because I think the questions presented leave out other factors that figure into the meaning of class in America. Race does play a large part in social class, especially in certain parts of the country. However, it is less of a factor when it comes to economic class, at least in my opinion. But social class and economic class do affect one another, so maybe race indirectly affects economic class as well. And I'm a little slow on the uptake - I never even conceptualized the idea of class until very recently. I did mistakenly believe, because of my upbringing, that America was, more or less, a society where class boundaries were fluid and mostly breakable. If you were lazy, you fall. If you worked hard and were personable, you end up in the high classes. I still sort of believe that, but it's more complicated than that. And class mobility isn't as fluid as I once thought it was. So here's my take on it...

How would you describe your class status?

Socially: Don't know. I went to Harvard, and I'm a lawyer (at least on paper). But I don't work for a white shoe law firm, and in this city (New York), where you work matters. "What do you do?" and "Where do you work?" are the automatic first questions upon meeting a stranger. On the island of Manhattan, professional status is a strong indicator of class. I think my social class dropped from last year, actually. "Law student" indicates potential. "Law graduate who is temping" means you're a failure by Manhattan professional standards. Manhattan also has a very stratified social scene, and this extends to the GLBT community as well. The (economic) middle class is shut out of the more high end GLBT social events, which can cost $400 a head or more. I used to go for free as a GLBT student leader, and I was thrust into this crazy world of -- not asking for money for a cause -- but sitting among people BEING ASKED FOR MONEY for a cause. These were the people the Democratic party were begging for money from. Chuck Schumer gave a speech, and the people there were all fabulous and knew one another. So I'd say in Manhattan, I'm pretty much a nobody. I have no connections, money, or political clout. Here, everyone went to a fabulous school and is some sort of executive, attorney, or other professional. But if I go home and inform everyone I'm a lawyer in Manhattan, I'd be the shit. :)

Economically: Middle class, baby! (Last year I was a broke ass student looking under her mattress for beer change.)

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?

Socially: See above. Some of my friends do work for places like Goldman Sachs and Skadden (the "right" firms), so they are on their way up into the Manhattan/Westchester middle/upper to upper social circles. Now, it is a little harder if you're not white to break into these (social) circles, but if your dad is a hot shot Hong Kong businessman or Nigerian royalty then you'll have no problem. Also, if you hang out with people with connections, then you end up having connections, and things become easier.

Economically: Those that have been working for a while - upper/middle. Those who just graduated from expensive graduate schools excluding the trust fund kiddies - lower/middle to middle. But in a few years, we'll all pretty much be middle to upper/middle.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?

Yep. It's a lot back home. They are solidly upper/middle class in a neighborhood that can be classified as "successful professional class" or in the more ostentatious cul-de-sacs of our subdivision (i'm going to say it) "new money." But let me go on a tangent here. Yes, my parents live in a nice neighborhood where there are more BMWs and Jeeps than homes. However, my parents continue to live a very different lifestyle than their neighbors. What is important to them is much different than what their neighbors believe is important. Being relatively new to the United States, they still live the frugal immigrant lifestyle. Some of our neighbors have purchased cars that cost more than two years' tuition at my law school. During Christmas, my neighbors will pay professional designers to decorate their houses with Christmas lights. There is a lot of "showing off" and suburban competition amongst my neighbors. It's like they're proving to people that they have money. My parents consider those expenditures a waste of money and prefer to invest in stocks and real estate. They drive low end Toyotas, because "cars depreciate in value." They do home repairs themselves. They manage their own properties. They keep the A/C off or on minimally during the summer. (Seeing as how they grew up with mosquito netting during the summer to avoid getting eaten alive by mega mosquitoes, I'm sure I sounded like a baby when I complained it was too hot.)

So, yeah... it's like they're not part of the whole culture, ya know?

Anyway, another point I have is that, yeah, once you reach the upper economic middle class, the lifestyle often involves a level of being seen and displaying the trappings of success. The car you drive, what country club you belong to, what social club you're part of, is your kid going to be a debutante... etc. But a lot of that comes with being connected and being accepted into the higher social classes. When you have a funny accent, eat funny food, wear funny clothes, look different, still use a wooden tennis racquet from the 1970's, and obviously didn't come from "these here parts," that's going to be a issue. Also, you might not even be aware of the "proper" social customs.

However, since my dad is who he is at the University, that takes away from a lot of the "need" to follow certain social customs. But back when I was a kid, he was a little fish in the big pond of [Big Research Institution in the South], and that really didn't help.

So yeah, if you're a minority, you have to prove that you're Mr. or Ms. Big Shot to break into the higher social strata. You have to be better than the average white professional.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

Law school. Those loans are KILLER. Being in debt SUUUUUUCKS. Also, the amount of conspicuous consumption among the local rich kiddies was ridiculous. And let me say that upper middle class in the New York City area means FRACKIN' RICH everywhere else in the country. It was Prada Prada Prada, Gucci Gucci, Sevens Sevens Sevens. My school uniform was LaCoste shirt, Rock and Republic Jeans, Burberry Jacket, and Prada Shoes. The bag also had to be $300 or more. Many of my friends come from professional class families from the south and rocky mountain states where people might display some level of conspicuous class showing-off-edness, but this was out of control. They (and I) were like "What the hell is this? This is nuts!" Actually, they used the term "Japs," but that term can be applied to people of any race or religion. There was a group of black girls clad in the latest designs every single day, wearing Manolos or Jimmy Choos. There was a clear pressure of "who's wearing what" and "who knows who." I never experienced this at Harvard of all places. Why my second tier law school? I mean, I like nice things, but this was just out of control. And their parents were all footing their wardrobe expenditures, and they are in their 20's! But it's like you have to behave like this in order to be accepted, which is why I fear raising children in this area of the country. Class matters here. A lot. And that to me is very weird.

Perhaps I should go on a tangent. I grew up in a college town, where there were only two classes. Those who were affiliated with the university, and those who weren't. It was a very academically oriented and more-lefty-than-not town. Jesse Helms said he wanted to put us all in a zoo and charge admission. The traditional ideas of "class" in southern society was laughed at by the people who taught at my high school and the group of students who "ruled" our school - the AP kids and the drama students. The debutantes were laughed at. We voted in the punkiest of punk girls as the homecoming queen. I mean, it was a really cool place to grow up.

So yeah. Law school opened my eyes. And attending those richie rich GLBT fundraising events. I'm excited that there is a world of upper class inner circle successful GLBT folks. I want a piece of that! (I say this without irony.) A professor who recently passed away told me that he went to law school when he met another gay black man who was a lawyer. He realized that being gay and black does not preclude a person from advancing in the world. I sort of had the same epiphany. Like, wow there really IS a fabulous dyke club! We *can* go out there and kick ass! And I sort of feel a weird duty to guide other confused young Asian dykes into fabulousness (even though I admit I'm not there yet and I have a long ways to go). Okay, I'm off my soapbox. For now.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?

No.

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?

With the exception of hurricanes and tornadoes, no.

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?

No.

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?

Hopefully an entertainment or media lawyer. If not, intellectual property or business litigation. When I've sufficiently dug myself out of debt and have accumulated assets, perhaps public office.

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?

Two months ago. Yes.

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?

I think "a lot" is "financially secure without worry." In the NYC area, $3 million in assets, not including your home. In the midwest, $1 million in assets, not including your home.

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?

In my office building, yes. In my apartment, I am the custodial staff. Well, my girlfriend does the dishes, so I guess she is too, and most of the time I remember her name. :)

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?

The legal market in New York City is an interesting little animal. I passed the New York and New Jersey bars, but there appears to be a huge oversupply of us in the market, which has pushed many of us into the temp market, where I am working. Those in the higher social strata are better off, because of the connections. I have a friend who works at a big law firm, and her dad's company happens to be a client. It helps. Definitely. However, I also have friends whose parents are well known in other cities, but they don't have that social network in the New York City area. (I did get into a rural medical school and get a free ride because of my dad once upon a time. Nepotism and connections are just as important as being an academic rock star, and sometimes it is even more important.)

Sure, all of us graduated from a snotty private college and then a snotty private law school. But sometimes, that isn't enough. You either have to have stellar grades or you need to have social connections to high level people. In other words, you have to be an academic superstar or you have to be from a high social class in the particular region where you intend to work. I am neither here. Furthermore, being from a high economic class also helps. It gives a padding for someone to pursue more artsy or economically risky careers, which is why a lot of immigrants with no capital go for "safe" careers such as medicine. Those who are upper middle or upper class can risk going into entertainment, journalism, or the arts. I noticed that a ridiculous segment of Harvard's pre-med classes were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. It makes sense. My parents wanted me to take on a "practical" career rather than "waste time" reading literature or taking classes in VES. After working so hard to get to where they were, they simply didn't understand things that are done for education itself or for pleasure. Those things can only be done - without guilt - by people who are used to living comfortably.

I have a friend from law school whose entire life is paid for. She worked for free for a couture designer. Now she is being paid peanuts, but the work is exciting, and the pay doesn't matter for her. She's got a trust fund. In the long run, she will be making a lot of money. But economic class is a barrier to many who want to enter these types of fields. I think it is a big problem in media and journalism. I don't know anyone living in NYC for less than $40k a year without financial assistance from their parents. When you are offered $25k the first year, and your parents are unable to help, you just can't become a journalist. Sorry. And thus, journalism automatically comes from an upper middle class perspective. Unless you were one of the few born brilliant and beautiful like Oprah. OPRAH IS A ROCK STAR!!!

But the fact that I was even able to go to Harvard in the first place, that was my parents. They funded it, and I graduated with very little loans. Also, I didn't have to work as a teenager. In fact, I was expressly forbidden from working so I *could* do as many extracurricular activities, many of which they funded, so I could get into Harvard. Heh. AZN parents...

And Harvard helped me get into law school, even with a mediocre LSAT score. So I guess it all does go back to class, eh?

The Estimat said...

Emily2,

I found your perspective on being a lawyer in Manhattan to be really interesting and informative, so thank you for that. I was unaware of the degree to which different types of law firms in NYC are arranged in a sort of hierarchy, and your comments were eye-opening in that regard.

I wanted to respond to this comment of yours in particular:
Many of my friends come from professional class families from the south and rocky mountain states where people might display some level of conspicuous class showing-off-edness, but this was out of control. They (and I) were like "What the hell is this? This is nuts!" Actually, they used the term "Japs," but that term can be applied to people of any race or religion.

I find the term JAP (Jewish-American Princess) to be incredibly disturbing. Even when applied to people of other religions, the use of the term JAP draws on a history of hurtful stereotypes regarding Jewish people (especially Jewish women), and has historically been used in all sorts of terrible ways.

My further comments on the use of the term JAP are not aimed at you specifically, of course, but are rather a general commentary on the term, in case it comes up again in the course of this discussion.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book "Jewish Humor: What The Best Jewish Jokes Say About The Jews", writes a devastating critique of JAP jokes and the use of the term JAP to imply materialism.

He points out, "The ongoing torrent of ' JAP [Jewish-American princess] jokes," which depict all Jewish women as materialistic, bitchy, and sexually frigid, has hurt the image of Jewish women... Far more disturbing, however, is the fact that the image of Jewish women conveyed in JAP jokes has been used to exonerate a man who murdered a Jewish woman. In 1982, a jury in Phoenix, Arizona, sitting in judgment on Steven Steinberg, who had murdered his wife, Elana, was repeatedly told that the term JAP described Jewish women who were materialistic, frigid, and nagging, and that Elana Steinberg was such a person. The ` JAP defense" was so successful that Steinberg was acquitted and permitted to inherit his wife's property. "The guy shouldn't have been tried," one juror told a reporter. "He should have had a medal." "

The above example is just one of many in which the term JAP has been used in a manner that is, to say the least, profoundly disturbing, (and I could certainly provide more examples if I weren't concerned about taking up a lot more space with a point that is only semi-related to icarus' wonderfully thoughtprovoking post-thank you, icarus!) JAP is a word with a lot of history and connotations attached to it. Like other derogatory slang, JAP is a term that should be used extremely carefully, if it is ever used at all.

There are other, better words that can be used to describe crass, tasteless displays of wealth, which, as you point out, can occur among people of any race or religion.
There is absolutely no need to use a term like JAP, which incorrectly and offensively singles out Jewish-Americans as putting on ostentatious displays of materialism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this Icarus, I'm really glad that you did. It's great that the issue of class is being put into a dialogue at Harvard, especially when drawing on some of Bell Hook's ideas.

Frankly, the statement that people at Harvard don't think about class is a little bit scary to me. I grew up in Cambridge, but I was new to Harvard this fall, and walking around through the gated yard and million dollar buildings, I couldn't STOP thinking about class. (And that gets depressing pretty quick...) I do have a bit of a qualm with this post, also, because it is asking readers to frame their discussions by labeling their own class status; it is in effect asking readers to "come out" as rich or poor to others. The fact is: Harvard students pat themselves on the back more than any other collective group of people I have encountered, anywhere. Whether you had socio-economic advantages growing up that helped you get accepted to this elite institution (and now you're brave enough to admit it) or whether you had socioeconomic disadvantages and had to overcome more than others in order to be accepted to this institution, EVERYONE at Harvard needs to stop thinking about themselves-- and start thinking about the great big world out there.

Although I fear a mudslinging barage may be on its way, I will say: yes, let's talk about class! Please let's talk about class, but let's do it in manner of intelligent patient people rather than snotty little (rich or poor) Harvard privileged brats.

spork said...

i don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that people are reflecting on their own class status. yes, it sucks that people at Harvard don't think about class, but given that a lot of us don't, i think this is a good first step. the next step should definitely be thinking about and talking about class outside of our experiences/outside of Harvard, but i think that in order to do that people need to be aware of the positions of privilege/unprivilege that they may be speaking from.

does anyone else have thoughts about this?

wannatakethisoutside said...

I guess that I have a different experience than the most recent "anonymous." In my experience at Harvard (in activist circles, which is where I almost always am), people talk a lot about class. Or, about "poverty." Or "injustice" when they mean class. Or "distribution of resources." And are really talking about class in the abstract all the time.

How can "we" build a better/more just world is what I'm always hearing. But what I don't hear us talking about much is how Harvard students, or others with educational privileges or other class privileges who are among us are a part of the systems that we wish to change.

Around me, talking about class abstractly seems to happen all the time, but we don't tend to talk about how we fit in. How the fact that a college degree or even a couple of years of studying in college, especially an elite one, puts people in a place where they are likely to have choices to move relatively high in class structures.

Even when some of us are "students with no money," we are still becoming people eligible to make choices about our future class status. And "no money" means something very specific when we live in dorms with our meals provided.

When we do spend time thinking about the ways in which our presence contributes to systems of oppression, it is easy to say well, "let's look at the bigger picture" or "it's not about us" or "think about the outside world." Yes, we do need to think about all of those things. And we need to do more than think, we need to ACT. But we also need to think, act, and take responsibility for our own lives. And when we think about the "bigger picture" as a way to avoid our own feelings of guilt, or our own discomfort with recognizing that we are a part of a system that is oppressing people, then we have adjusted our gaze for the wrong reason.

Just my opinion.

gromphus said...

***** Please note that what follows are somewhat incoherent, meandering feelings. There are a lot of more important things about class than my responses. I’m a little frustrated and sad, it comes through, sorry. *****

* How would you describe your class status?

Upper middle class, but in the academic sense, at least in my hometown and when I’m with my parents. Lower on my own, not sure where.

* How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
Varies… I’d guess that the average of all harvard undergrads were also upper middle class. What is that, anyway ?

* Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
Approximately

* What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

Class in relation to myself is stressful to think about in general for me. This is because some people are most directly affected by money-class, as in the stress of poverty, and other kinds of class are about values and stuff. Value-class I am less unhappy about, since this doesn’t necessarily lead to things of bad involving ranking. Ranking and money-class and bad things in people’s lives lead to the class-meritocracy problem, which kind of sucks in a big way. And how can I take a job that someone else might need for FOOD when my parents could support me right now ? But then where’s the limit when they can no longer support me ? (quite apart from the ‘is this a mature/moral thing to do to your parents,’ or ‘how privileged can I be to even be thinking this !’)

Thinking about class makes me think about my family and its history. Like my mother’s family’s wealth, which fluctuated by vast amounts when she was growing up, and which then disappeared, leaving certain class habits and violently dispelling others. Most of the anxiety, though, comes in the context of health, because of the members of my family who have had, have, and likely will have expensive or debilitating health problems. I think particularly of my mentally ill aunt’s health coverage and housing, and how drastically better her care might be if someone had a fat fund for her. She suffers so much, and sometimes, if she had the money for a cab and a prescription, it would get better. About the end of my grandfather’s life, and what it might have been like if he had lived long enough for his money to run out, with him still needing people to do everything for him. When my mom tells me I had better make money in my life because no one else in my immediate family will ever make anything, so I’ll have to be responsible for everyone’s medical and financial needs.

Class and worth. WORTH. Impostor.

Health-purity. And survival. What is this shit ?

Bullets and knives and the economy.

It’s really depressing, which is why I’m glad we’re airing it.

Most depressingly, my class anxiety is puffy, theoretical cotton candy compared to the harder stuff.

* Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
Aunt and possibly uncle’s family

* Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
no
* Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
My mother
* What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
Art conservation or humanities grad school. Maybe massage therapy. For the MAD BLING.

* When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
Maybe a month ago, covered by uhs

* How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
totally depends on context, but my initial response is about $150.00. This is probably the line of where I would shit myself if I had to come up with it in a few days, since I figure I could scrounge up that much by selling things/doing psych studies in a panicked rush, but more would be sit down and cry time.

* Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
Not everyone. Names have special power.

* Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
Hell yeah – I didn’t consider a state university because my parents supported my desire to go to a private school, which they couldn’t have necessarily done were it not for their and my class. Also, I was recovering from a concussion when I was applying for college, and I couldn’t organize shit, keep track of time, or go wait in line at the post office: my parents and visiting brother had the time, energy, and knowledge to help me with this after their workdays. Employment is interesting – if my family were ruled by my mom, I’d have a steady job along with school, no matter what, because the family might be on shaky financial ground and I have to be prepared to support myself and others at a moment’s notice. If it were ruled by my dad, I’d devote myself entirely to study and creative thought and not earn money doing something non-intellectually engaging if I could be learning quantum mechanics or chemistry, because the family’s financial situation is fine, and because doing something you’re intellectually passionate about is the big pie. Totally dependent on their own class/education/work experiences. As it is, I don’t support myself completely.

gromphus said...

I heartily agree with wtto about the gaze.

kyledeb said...

A large part of my perceptions on class are based upon living most of my life in Guatemala.

I disagree with the premise of this post in that a very large part of Harvard interactions are based on class, in the states as well. It may not be as explicit as "I make this much a year" but it is based upon a lot of other things, like how you dress, the way you speak, the way you look, where you come from. etc. Class is actually a huge part of Harvard interactions. I'll bet you that you've guessed about how rich a lot of the people you meet are even if it's not explicitly talked about.

My biggest problem is that any discussion on class, in the U.S. in general and at Harvard especially, is so far removed from the rest of the world.

You know those Habitat for Humanity Trips that most people go on, and witness poverty. The people you build houses for are usually actually middle-class by world standards even though you wouldn't know it by people's reactions to them. They have to pay for half of their house and then work the other half off, and most don't even have that type of money.

I look at stats like the billions living for under 2 dollars a day and what I realize is that there is a huge gap of perception in this world. I mean $40,000 a year and your looking at a free ride to harvard (almost), and i know a lot of people that would consider that poor at Harvard. But think of the amount of people in this world that make that much money (I'll give you a hint it's nowhere close to billions).

I look at this gap of perception like this. Think of everyone that you know in a meaningful way, and think of everyone that you could even possibly hope to relate with in this world, the widest margin possible. Add all of those people together and you don't even get close to the amount that live at under $2 dollars a day.

Class is the single most important thing for me in my quest for social justice, but I don't like talking about it at Harvard, because I think nobody at Harvard, including myself, has the ability to even understand what class means or how it shapes our lives.

spork said...

How would you describe your class status?
I went to private school from K-12. At first it was a stretch for my parents to afford that and everything else, but my dad's business has grown a lot and as I grew up I began to notice that we were leading an increasingly comfortable lifestyle. Now I'd say we're solidly upper class, financially. My parents pay for school and medical stuff and I pay for everything else by working a campus job, which allows me to save a lot of money, so I do not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. Which is a really big piece of privilege right there.

Socially is a whole other story. Some members of my close family are crack addicts. One engages in prostitution regularly. I could go on. But some are professionals, and I'm a Harvard student now. It's very hard for me to pin this down because I feel like even in the presence of financial privilege there are other things that can be at play in families that create pretty serious barriers to success. I feel like parts of my experience have been very different than what would be expected for someone with my financial background.

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
Lower-middle to extreme uppermost top, with most around upper-middle. I went to a private high school that was known for being snobby rich kids central, and I was routinely shocked by the palatial homes of some of my classmates. Now, at college, I think I have more financial security than nearly everyone I know. But socially, I feel lower class than lots of people around me.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
I don't know, mostly because it changes a lot depending on how my dad's business is doing.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
When a high school friend mentioned that she lived in a specific new subsidized housing development, and I realized that it was the one my dad had worked on for the city (at a considerable profit to his company). That really made me aware of the class range represented at my high school (which, if anything, talked about class way less than Harvard), and how privileged I really was.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
Some members of my family, yes. Not my immediate family, to my knowledge.

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
Some members of my family have been or currently are homeless. My immediate family has never been, to my knowledge. There were times when I felt that I was in danger of homelessness, though I always had a friend's house or a car (financial privilege again) or some other back-up plan.

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
My mom did during college.

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
Management/technology.

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
A year and a half ago, and it was covered by Harvard health insurance.

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
I stop and think before spending more than $6 or so. But to impact my budgeting, I guess it'd be around $100. I try to save money mainly so that I will have more control over my life in emergency situations - what tea cozy said about needing to put your money "to good use" doesn't make much sense to me, or maybe it's just that it's most useful to me when it's not spent yet, because then I know it's there if I/my loved ones need it.

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
Most of them, I think. I don't know the names of all the dining hall workers, I should get on that.

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
Class has definitely affected my educational situation. I got a stellar high school education at an expensive prep school, which prepared me well for Harvard. When I got in, I knew I could go if I wanted, regardless of the financial aid package offered. Also, my job requires a lot of skills I would not have been able to learn without the class privilege that I grew up with, so yes, class has definitely affected my employment status.

tea cozy said...

I just wanted to make a note of something --- gromphus, you said you didn't consider a state school because you knew your parents could and would pay for a private school. I had the inverse of that situation --- I didn't consider going to a state school (UC Berkeley or UCLA) because it would have been too expensive --- about 4 times the cost of my Harvard education.

raine said...

How would you describe your class status?

I don't even know how to answer this question any more. I wear a collared shirt almost every day, but most of my clothing is free. I listen to Brahms and I listen to the Killers. My parents call my family "comfortable," but I've always been in a mid-to-low financial bracket at school.

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?

Again, hard to say. In high school, people had their wealth and they flaunted it. You can't fabricate a designer handbag. But in college, the distinction becomes blurred, because rich or poor or whatever, we're all a little pretentious around here, aren't we?

Part of my conception of class was always the way one imagined oneself relative to others. In high school, people expressed their assumed superiority with material goods, but at Harvard, where wealth is often measured in knowledge, taste, and mannerisms, I'm lost. I'd venture to say, though, that most of my friends are a good deal wealthier than I.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?

No.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

At one of those, "So. You Got Into HAH-Vahd" cocktail parties during my senior year. It was mostly the alumni who wigged me out. I'll never be that wealthy or culturally savvy.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?

Extended family, yes. Immediate family, no.

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?

No.


Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?

My parents did in college and during the first years of their marriage.

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?

the arts/academia

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?

fuck if i know/yes, probably

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?

50 dollars? 100 dollars? I don't know.

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?

Some

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?

Absolutely. I got a stellar education in a tiny private school full of wealthy kids. That privilege enabled me to come to Harvard, where I have a job because I want one, not because I need one. I can afford to go into the arts because even if I have a hard time getting off the ground, my parents will support me. Not too many people have this option.

emily2 said...

Whoa, hold on. I think there are people on this board who know me, who my friends are, and where I went to school.

"JAP" - I made it clear that it was other people who used this term, and I'm well aware of the connotations. And maybe I should have added that the speakers of the word were all Jewish. It wasn't like it was a bunch of Asians and Catholics were running around calling the Jewish women Japs. Not that it makes it any better, but have you seen the Carlos Mencia skit where he asks people who can say the N word? Anyway, when you're of a particular race, religion or ethnic group, it is like you have a special license to use derogatory terms for people of your own demographic. I know it's not PC to admit this, but you know it's true.

If a white person were to come up to me and talk to me in a fake Asian accent, I'd be offended. But if it were another Asian person, then I know that person is "in" on the joke. Get what I'm saying?

Sorry, I should have pointed out who the original speakers were.

Like I said, I know where you're coming from, and I lived with a rabbinic student who said the exact same thing and who thought other Jewish people's usage of the term was really deplorable, and that they were perpetuating a stereotype.

I've noticed a strange phenomenon at my law school that Jewish women would readily call other Jewish women Japs. A lot. I can't exactly figure it out. Maybe the school was a "safe" place to use the word? Maybe they feel comfortable using the word around me? And my girlfriend, who is Jewish, calls everyone a Jap. She called *me* a Jap the other day. And maybe, between Jewish people, it's not not that offensive.

So, yeah, I know it's not a nice word, but I guess the point of this post was to relay who was saying it and under what circumstances.

Maybe it's like Asians' use of the term FOB, "Fresh off the boat." It's not nice, but it's okay to use it if you're Asian, and it's funny, when we say it at least. But in the larger context, it implies that Asians are foreign and unassimilable and that they and all dirty and jumped off a banana boat. But I guess in Asian American cuture, there are ABCs and FOBs. Those that were born here and those that haven't yet assimilated. See my above post about my parents' eating funny food and not knowing social customs. Anyway, if a non-Asian were to call my parents FOBs that would be incredibly offensive. Because they are educated and are the opposite of the whole "unskilled refugee" stereotype. But it holds another meaning for Asian speakers. If my Korean friend were to say "Hey our parents like so FOB" it takes on another meaning. Because we are at a different level of understanding.

Does this, at all, change anything?

The Estimat said...

Hi Em2,

Thanks for responding! It's interesting to hear more information and to hear more of your thoughts. I agree with you that in-group and out-of-group usage of derogatory terms are two very different phenomena. In general, I would say that yes, it certainly makes a difference whether someone using a derogatory term is a member of the group in question- it gives you a sense of the likely tone and intention behind the speech.

With the term JAP in particular, though, I think my personal feelings on the term probably fall closer to those of your rabbinic student friend, the one "who thought other Jewish people's usage of the term was really deplorable, and that they were perpetuating a stereotype." I understand that there are Jews who feel far more comfortable using the term JAP, but I doubt it'll ever be a term I'm particularly comfortable with, even if the person using it is Jewish.

Thanks again for your response and for providing more food for thought!

Best,
The Estimat

JSmithua said...

So, first I would like to say that I have never, ever felt poor. I have felt less privileged than others around me, but I have never felt poor. I have always been blessed enough to have all my basic needs met in addition to many of my less basic monetary desires. So, with this caveat in mind, here are my answers to Icarus' questions:

* How would you describe your class status?
If we're just talking about money, I'm basically lower-middle class economically, meaning my family is in about the 30th percentile nationwide. Compared to the backgrounds of the people in my home town, I would probably be on the upper end of the "white trash" spectrum. My checking account balance ranges from being in the red $50 to having a nice cushion of a little over $100.

* How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
Most of my friends in college and high school are/were economically privileged, far more privileged than I. The fact that I get well over $40,000 in financial aid while most of my friends have little or no financial aid says a lot about me. For some reason, I have always tried to distance myself from my background. In high school, I would lie to people about where I lived and what my parents did (my dad's a miner and my mom cleans houses), just because I didn't want them to think less of me. I am sort of the same way in college, in that I act like I have more money than I do and I generally try not to speak about money at all.

* Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
Yes, I do. My parents were always very open about that sort of stuff. They work well with what they make, making sacrifices here and there for their kids to pay for band instruments, class rings, etc. My mother is a master budgeter and should be an accountant with how much experience she has with finagling funds.


* What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
I always feel anxious about these things, but especially when there is an event that I want to go to, but can't afford it or when I really want to go to starbucks with some friends, but only have $3 in my checking account. Little things like this make me anxious because I always feel like I have to lie rather than risk exposing myself as someone who might not be as privileged as most students at Harvard. The most personal anxiety I felt recently was this semester when I couldn't afford my books and overdrew my account by a huge margin trying to buy the most pressing ones.

* Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
They probably should have been at the beginning of my parents' marriage and before I was born, but they didn't believe in things like welfare and food stamps.

* Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
No.

* Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
No.

* What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
I really want to go to law school (like half of Harvard) and want to go into some sort of public service law. I'm not really sure yet.

* When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
I've never had a real physical in my life. I don't think this was a result of a lack of funds to cover the copay or anything, however, insurance has always seemed to me as something for emergencies, not for everyday health issues. My family lived without insurance for many years until my sister was born, but they haven't been without insurance since.

* How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
To my modest side, "a lot" is enough to provide one's basic needs and moderate wants with a little left over to splurge. But in my ideal world, "a lot" of money would be an amount more than enough to buy anything I wanted and needed.


* Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
Yes, but not all of them.

* Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?
Hmmm... I don't think it has effected my employment situation any except that I couldn't have my current job without having work-study certification, which is an indirect effect. My educational situation? I'm not sure... I have often thought that since I'm the first one in my family to go to college that Harvard gave me a few extra applciation points, but I don't think that's what you mean. Money was certainly an issue when applying to colleges (besides the application fees) and it was the deciding factor in which college I ended up choosing.

I don't really have time to go into any more detail or to analyze my responses in any way, so, I might post more comments later.

Anonymous said...

How would you describe your class status?

I'm really not sure what my class status is. Legally I'm still attached to my family which is on the lower end of middle class, but they don't support me at all. Practically, I'm a student at an elite conservatory and up to my neck in loans to pay for a career which will have no earning potential whatsoever.

How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?

Upper class... definitely, upper class.

Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?

Yes.

What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?

It was definitely when I was hired to sing with a professional orchestra for the first time and didn't have anything appropriate to wear. The borrowed prom dress that was safety pinned together (albeit undetectable to the audience) didn't really fit the bill (or look all that professional), but it got me through.

Strangely enough, I was never really embarrassed about being homeless (which I have been), mainly because I wasn't around people who saw money as a big issue. Basic necessities were a big issue then, and, admitedly, I was shameless about asking for help.

Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?

No, damn pride...

Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?

Yes. I've been in imminent danger of homelessness for the past ten years or so. The one time I actually was homeless I ended up couch surfing for a while before some people gave me place to live for free.

Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?

Fortunately there's always been enough free food around...college campuses, free lunch at school and churches are really great for that. I've also stolen a lot of food to get by, though I'm not proud of it.

What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?

Musician/opera singer. Like I said earlier, absolutely NOOOO earning potential. I'll be lucky to even get a few gigs when I'm done with the next ten years of school.

When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?

Couple months ago. College health insurance.

How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?

$75-100.

Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?

No, but I talk to them on a regular basis.

Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How?

Yes, it got me a ton of financial aid and a lot of great work experience when I wasn't going to school b/c I had to support myself. Also, I wouldn't be here at conservatory if it hadn't been for the bunch of people who rallied behind me, paid for my auditions, and thought that going to college was something I could afford to do.

Anonymous said...

* How would you describe your class status?
lower middle class for where we live

* How would you describe the class status of most of your friends/classmates/colleagues?
upper class

* Do you know how much money your parents/guardians make per year? Per hour?
my mom makes $35,000 a year on a salary. this question isn't really fair because this may be a lot more in some places than others, but where we live for our family it is below the poverty line.


* What was a time when you felt the most anxiety about your class status?
at harvard


* Has your family ever received government aid in the form of food stamps, TAFDC or similar programs?
yes, food stamps, WIC, food bank and fuel assistance

* Have you or your family ever been in danger of imminent homelessness?
no
* Have you or your family ever suffered from hunger or malnutrition as a result of being unable to afford food?
yes

* What kind of career do you expect to pursue in the near future?
academia

* When was your last medical checkup? Was it covered by health insurance?
2 months ago, yes

* How much money do you consider to be "a lot"?
$50, for a salary, $75,000

* Do you know the names of the custodial staff who work in your building?
no

* Do you think that your class status has affected your current employment or educational situation? How? yes. i have been unable to take advantage of the numerous unpaid internships available to students. i also am financially independent and also give money to my sister in college, so i have to work extra hours term time.

Anonymous said...

Worse case scenario we consider ourselves lucky, in the mean time does Anyone live in Somerville? What if we help turn this town around?
Cehck this out:
http://forums.craigslist.org/?act=Q&ID=40353805

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, I was walking out of class earlier today when I noticed one of those little poetry fridge magnets that had fallen by the wayside, and it spoke one word: class. And the first thing that went through my head was: How appropriate (on many levels) to find this word in Harvard Yard...