Class is on a continuum. Members of “Duck Dynasty’s” Robertson family – estimated net worth of around $53 million – are regarded by many fans as “real working guys” while Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – worth just over $4 million – is regarded as a privileged Ivy League elitist.
Is class a matter of identity, like gender and race? Is it a matter of loyalty? How do Americans define themselves when it comes to class?
It’s an uncomfortable question, so I’ll begin. If I were using trendy identification politics alone, I’d say I am a working-class woman – because that’s the class in which I was born and raised – who as an adult has made money.
But that would be misleading. I’m a college professor and columnist who lectures around the country. To call myself working class would be disingenuous as would disrespect those who are the real thing.
I no longer have to rise before dawn, as my parents did, to take public transportation to jobs they didn’t like for a wage that underpaid them so that they could pay bills that left them with no savings, no retirement and, most significantly, no way out. I didn’t leave school after the eighth grade, as they did, to support their families. Their hard work and disciplined life permitted me choices they didn’t have.
Sure, I grew up wearing used clothes, used shoes and never owning a pair of pajamas or slippers, which were considered frivolities only the wealthy could afford. We waited for condescending relatives to ship us their old stuff as hand-me-downs, and I don’t think my mother ever wore stockings that didn’t have a run in them. But that was my family of origin; it’s not who I am today.
Now if I work my tail off, I do it on my terms – and if there is any definition of privilege, it’s precisely that.
So what am I? Upper-middle with my lower roots showing, like somebody who doesn’t color her hair often enough and whose true colors can be seen only when somebody is looking down on her? Am I like my friend Lynne Ferrigno, who says her family has “white-collar jobs but many blue-collar values”?
My former student and friend, Ebony Murphy-Root, argues that “Trump voters don’t own the label ‘working class.’ I don’t need to read the Harvard Business Review to understand the U.S. working class. How about I just ask my dad, who’s driven a tractor-trailer for the past 30 years? He doesn’t seem that resentful. He taught me no one owes you anything and certainly you are not owed a life ‘better than your parents had it’ just for being born.”
It seems to me many Americans voted against their self-interest in this year’s election, if personal gain is the only measure. I did; my household will profit from the lower taxes and cuts in spending promised by the party I voted against. My friends who voted for Trump are, for the most part, hard-working, working-class people who I believe will be punished by the Republican administration. They have family members on disability; they have relatives relying on workers’ comp, Social Security or veterans’ benefits, and I think these programs will be in danger.
Maybe humor can save us, or at least help us connect. When I first went to college, I had no idea how to cope with the unfamiliar environment. On one of my first days in the dining hall, I saw a girl who sat across from me in my French course. I decided it would be too weird not to acknowledge her. “I know we’re in a class together,” I said. “Which is it?” “Upwardly mobile,” she said, grinning, and bit into a hard roll. From that day forward, I figured I would be OK. Here’s hoping all of us will start feeling that way soon.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut.