“I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and all I got was this chip on my shoulder”: Uplift, Downsizing, and Other Changes of Class
So it turns out I’m really bad at taking notes. Basically I jotted down bits and pieces that interested me, and a bunch of quotes with no attributions. I don’t know what I thought this would accomplish. But here’s what I wrote down. This is in no way a complete record of what was discussed, and I’m sorry for all the gaps, because it was an amazing discussion.
Moderator: Alexis Lothian
Panelists: Julie Hayes, Kiini Salaam, Fred Schepartz, Vanessa Vega
A big question is about identity: is it something that doesn’t shift at all?
Here, Kiini described the idea of growing up with a lower class background but middle class norms and expectations (such as expectations of going to college). (This was fascinating to me, because it actually describes my own experience growing up, but it’s not something I’ve ever heard articulated before.)
Three kinds of capital are articulated:
- Social — your network, who you know, what connections you have
- Cultural — reading (being literate, encouraged/read to by parents, etc)
- Economic — my notes just say “duh” as a description of this
You’re defined by class if you’re at the bottom or the top of the hierarchy. The problem with being at the bottom is not having any choices; the problem at the top is being extremely out of touch.
The idea of authenticity and people denying the privileges they do have as a way to feel or seem more authentic. Vanessa describes the frustration of seeing people (especially artists) decide to “make it on their own” when they still have a safety net, and what it’s like watching that as someone who doesn’t have that net at all. There’s a grandiose notion that being poor is artistic.
Quote: “Economic capital provides access.”
What can’t you escape when you change class?
- When you’re moving down, you’re used to having things, growing up middle class leaves you racking up debt.
- Skills: there are poor person skills (self-sufficiency, resourcefulness) and rich person skills that come down to your understanding of the world.
Quote: “The most dangerous part of class is the mental mindset.” (Kiini)
Quote: “Class is really a weapon.”
Class is used to destroy a community, and that community is then described as “low class.”
Quote: “My experiences of poverty are extremely privileged experiences of poverty.” (Alexis) (This was another thing I identified with but had never heard articulated before.)
Quote (on growing up having moved up a class): “I always feel like I’m less than.” (Julie) (Another on the “my experiences” list.)
Quote: “Having a British accent in the U.S. is like having white privilege cubed.” (Alexis, who got a laugh in response)
Q: How much of the current class struggles are based on bootstrap ideology?
A: “America’s new favorite pastime is judging.” (Julie)
Q: What about internal vs. external experiences of class?
A: “Class is about relationships.” — between you and your community, you and money, you and other people.
“You must have boots to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” (I think this was an audience member, but I’m not positive.)
“Class is a construct. Constructed by those who have, to keep the rest of us from having.” (Definitely from the audience.)
So those are my notes, such as they are. I’m extremely grateful that this panel existed and glad I was at it, because, as I noted a few times above, there was a lot of stuff there that I experienced and identified with.1 I think class, more than anything else, was my entry point into awareness and caring, and my attempts to be an ally against oppression.2 But basically: class isn’t something that’s talked about a lot in this country, and hearing other people validate my experiences was incredibly valuable to me.
- Someday I might write a massive personal post here about my own experiences jumping from a tiny, rural, working class town to attending Brandeis to living in New York. …actually, knowing me, I probably won’t write this, but I do think about it a lot and those changes very much shaped me. ↩
- It’s odd, because you’d think feminism would be that key for me, but I don’t remember a time before I knew what feminism was, why it was important, or before I actively identified as a feminist. Thanks, awesome family! But class was not something on my radar until college, and then I had no vocabulary to articulate my experiences; learning what the hell happened opened me up not only to that, but to other people’s experiences as well, so… ↩