Why explore social class?

Myriad influences impact each of our lives from early childhood (some even before we are born) to the present. We have forgotten most of the specific events that shaped our viewpoint. 

One example: I used to be scared of heights. One summer in college I got a job in a grain elevator in our town. One hundred-twenty foot white towers filled with wheat. My first job, sweep the dust out of the penthouse, and throw it off the side. No door on the tiny, wire-mesh lift to the top; two feet per second—a terrifying minute ride through space, my fingers laced through the wire mesh as I traveled alone to the top. Hoping I wouldn’t slip or lose my balance. Vertigo. Then sweep, scoop and toss the dust over the side. No railings, wind shrieking around me. Far below combines harvesting the fields in rhythmic patterns. Shake, sweat, panic. Stay as far from the edge as possible. — Two weeks of shuddering and perspiring behind me, I walk to edge, toss the shovel of dust over the side and watch as the wind carries it away before it hits the ground several stories below.

Some categories affect larger swaths of people. We identify these with names like “race,” “gender,” “age,” “physical difference,” “immigrant,” “sexual orientation,” “mental health,” "job title," and others.

If you looked at my picture on the About page, you know I look like an older, white, male in a suit. Middle class? Probably. That is all the initial information anyone is going to see when they look my way. What do they make of that? It depends on what my image brings to their mind. It also matters how I look at them. Happy? Concerned? Interested? Distracted? Grumpy? Numb? I have some control over their perception, but each person brings her or his own life experience to the encounter with me. And, they will test me to see how I compare to their preconception. — I do the same with them, of course. I get to choose my approach to make the best of the initial contact.

“Class” is the hub around which all the other categories spin because of the work we have to do and the economy in which we exist to survive, prosper and flourish for ourselves and those we care for. Considered loosely, the four categories of class are poor, working class, middle class and owners. And, job title stands in for class. In the USA we are partially blind to class, but we see it in the roles people play at work, or out of work: CEO, middle manager, consultant, doctor, teacher, principal, foreman, carpenter, sales associate, janitor, temp, unemployed.

What do middle- and upper-middle class men tend to do in mixed company? They talk more and more often, express their opinions as fact, get impatient with those who don’t speak up right away, offer good advice a lot, and on average drive the women, people or color, youth and older people (quietly) nuts. Then, these men wonder why no one pays attention to them. As one of these men, I’ve learned that people see me that way, and expect that behavior from me. I’ve also learned from good and bad experience how much I have to gain by listening more and talking less, paying interested attention for long periods, making occasional modest suggestions, or better, asking others what they think. It isn’t hard to do, but it is opposite my training as a middle class white male. 

It is time more of us learn “to see ourselves as other see us,” as the poet Robert Burns put it. This journey into class exploration begins with an overview. More to come. Welcome onboard.

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Reader Comments (1)

I really enjoyed reading this article David. In addition, I find it funny that here you are talking about class and the way people view each other. When I first clicked on your link I was not immediately aware it was your blog and started reading in a much less attentive fashion, but as soon as I figured out it was yours I re-read it with a different perspective than I had before. There are always judgements being made about each other and so much stems from how we were raised, our differences, our hurts. There is a lot to it. I'm really glad you're starting this blog! I hope to start my own soon.

July 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNini

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