January 24, 2008

Noticing class privilege.

Via Adventures in ethics and science, an interesting exercise in class consciousness. As a classroom activity, line the students up, and have them take one step forward for every sentence that is true for them. No discussion until every sentence has been read. As a blog activity, mark the ones that are true for you.

ADULTHOOD [up to and including college]:
If your father went to college
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college (My mom earned an Associate's degree when I was in high school, but never got her Bachelor's. `College' is ambiguous -- does a JC count? I'm going to count it for half -- so starting, but not finishing, college.)
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe (Studying abroad for a semester in college -- on the cheapest programme you could imagine -- seems to just barely qualify. My brother's never been to Europe, and my mom's only been twice.)
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels (I can recall only two vacations where we stayed in hotels. Every other vacation was either boatcamping or visiting relatives. I don't think two trips count as a sufficiently general trend.)
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall (My mom made a lot of the clothes I wore through about fourth grade, and we occasionally had a few things from Goodwill. I still shop at Goodwill more often than the mall.)
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School (They weren't common until my junior year of college. I didn't get a cell phone until I came to Notre Dame a few years ago.)
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries (Mostly natural history museums.)
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family (We heated our house with a wood-burning stove. I never knew the financial cost, but I certainly knew first hand the cost in terms of time and labour -- we got a couple cords every August, and I had to help stack and split it.)

If your body does not bear long-term signs of malnutrition.
If you had orthodontia.(Only because my mom didn't give us pacifiers, didn't really bottle feed us, and didn't let us suck our thumbs.)
If you saw a doctor for anything other than emergencies or school-mandated shots. (I had routine checkups every year or so up through about 6 years old.)
If you heated your home with clean-burning fuels or had properly vented heating. (Well, wood is cleaner than coal, but it's nowhere near as clean as natural gas. And we couldn't really afford natural gas. I'm not counting this one, since I counted the last heating one.)
If you grew up in a house without vermin. (Rats and cockroaches? No. Ants? Oh yes. Every summer.)
If you had running water.
If you had a basement or foundation under your house.
If you had an indoor toilet.
If your parents and immediate family were outside the criminal justice system. (I'm assuming traffic tickets and a DUI don't count.)
If you yourself remained outside the criminal justice system.
If your parents had a new car. (My dad had to drive a LOT for work, so he would buy a new car ever 4 or 5 years, then sell it and buy a new one when the old one racked up about 250,000 miles. I don't think my mom has ever owned a new car.)
If you never went barefoot so that you could 'save your shoes for school.'
If your parents never argued in front of you about having enough money for food to last out the month.
If you ate hunted and fished meat because it was a recreational activity rather than as the major way to stock a freezer. (Occasionally we'd eat caught fish while out on the boat. No hunted meat.)
If your laundry was done at home in a washer rather than in a lavandaria.
If your hair was cut by a professional barber or hair stylist instead of your parent. (My mom gave me every hair cut I had until I left for college.)

My family, at least until my parents split up when I was in junior high, was pretty much in the middle of the middle class. At least, if you examined us as a unit. What this list brings out was the class divisions within my family.

Let me explain by getting a bit personal. Between the time her parents divorced -- when she was just a few years old -- and her mother married a very wealthy cattle rancher -- when she was in high school -- my mother grew up poor. And she returned to the life of poverty after being effectively disowned by her mother when she was 18, and didn't really achieve a middle-class lifestyle again until my father was done with school and earning a decent income, in her early 30s. My parents divorced when she was in her late 30s or early 40s (I'm too lazy to figure out exactly how old she was at the time), and, while she's had some successful years since then, her income has been extremely variable from year to year (as often happens with home businesses, especially ones that are closely tied into the state of the housing market).

So my mom has spent the vast majority of her life either poor or just barely in the middle class. My dad, on the other hand, came from an upper middle class family, and has never had to really worry about money at any point in his life. He hasn't always been able to afford every luxury he wanted, but he's never been worried about how to put food on the table or heat the house.

The biggest luxury in my dad's life has been his boat. He's had a sailboat since before I was born, and it has always absorbed a huge chunk of his income. So, while my parents were married and our family was right in the middle of the middle class, we sacrificed a lot of luxuries -- cable teevee, central air, two new cars, fancy vacations -- for the sake of the boat. This placed certain additional burdens on my mom: having to prepare most every meal, even when we were on vacation; having to split firewood to keep the house warm during the day; having to clean the house herself, instead of having a cleaner come in once a week while she sewed and spent time with her children; never getting her own new car; and so on. And, because of growing up in poverty, my mom also had a self-reliant attitude towards things like clothes and haircuts, and so happily took on even more work.

In short, in order for my dad to enjoy a hobby reserved for the upper-middle class, my mom took on the burdens of a lower-middle class mother. And yet, this list isn't sensitive to that class division within my family -- although, to be fair, it didn't really affect my class status.

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