Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Didn't Know Summer could be a Verb

"When I finished my masters..."
"My parents owned 250 acres..."
"...I discovered that those people don't have any appreciation for nature..."
"When I want to China..." (Europe, Australia, Alaska, Thailand, fill-in-the-blank)

More and more I'm seeing how privilege affects world-view. The above are types of comments I hear frequently at my Friends Meeting: They are paraphrases of statements I heard this week while at a meeting with a bunch of long time attenders of my Meeting. One man talked about working on a farm in summers while he was in college. It was hard work, physical and uncomfortable. He enjoyed it and I'm sure it taught him a lot and made him a "better" person but it was a summer job; one of many summer jobs I'm sure he could have chosen from among. It was an option for him because he was born to a life which was blessed with possibility.

Another woman, whom I love and respect and who I've always known to be gentle and loving and supportive to me and my children (and who is also a member of a minority group which is often discriminated against in our society) is one of the biggest snobs I've known in a long time. She grew up with privilege and sees under-educated working class and poor people in a very, very negative light. I'm pretty sure she is completely oblivious when she talks about "them" but she says it just like that: "THEM" as if all the people who live in the neighborhood around the Meetinghouse (excluding those who have chosen to live simply so they won't have to pay war taxes), people like my cousins who work in factories, people who's experience of public schools were only of failure and who dropped out and barely survive in our society are all the same. She talks about them as if they are all less than. It makes me very, very sad.

I come from a working class background. I barely made it out of public high school and have no higher education. I am very well self-educated. I am extremely articulate and verbal. I work for a university doing a respectable and interesting job. I work for an hourly wage. My husband and I are scrambling to figure out how we're going to pay to have our leaking roof reshingled. We would have liked to send our youngest two children to a small private school next year but couldn't afford the $8000 (total) tuition plus a car payment. We're planning a trip to Ireland within the next year but we are going to borrow against Hammy's 401k to pay for it. But we do have a 401k. And good health insurance. But I have never made more than about $13,000 a year and have never held a salaried position. But, I have stuck with this same job for 6 years and have almost doubled my hourly wage (I'm almost making enough money that I could support myself and my kids in something other than abject poverty should the need ever rise).

I feel like a woman in-between. I feel like I should be acting as an emissary between the two worlds. But how do I say to my dear friend that she is a snob? How do I broach the idea that we live like insiders, treating those not inside with some amount of disdain? How do I suggest to all these people whom I love and esteem that they are so mired in the comfort and privilege which they've always known and taken for granted that they seem to show little true compassion for the lives of individual people who come from less privileged backgrounds. And individual is the key word. Yes, we all work to end poverty, to improve the schools, to eliminate discrimination. Great! But how often do any of us sit down and have an actual conversation-between-equals with someone who is of a lower socio-economic situation? How often do we see a poor person as peer?

I feel a tremendous amount of agitation, fear and sorrow over this. Who am I to point a finger? I'm usually so harsh and judgmental about things. People get so defensive. If I suggest that the comfort in which one grows up makes one unable to show compassion that just sounds ridiculously judgemental. How can I lead people to see that we all live inside of boxes-socially constructed boxes-and the more comfort and privilege one grew up in, the thicker the walls of those boxes and the more one assumes that all boxes should be, or are, similar. "My box has wallpaper and a two story deck. And my grandparents own a small summer box upstate that my family summers at." Your box only has mirrors, no windows. The boxes of poor people sometimes only has windows and rarely ever mirrors. How do I communicate this without pushing people away? How may I punch holes in walls to make windows without making people really resentful? Nobody wants to feel guilty and this seems ripe for creating the resentment born of implied guilt.

I'm just kind of thinking "out loud" here. I don't have any answers, only this vague agitation. I open the floor to discussion, suggestions, action...hope.


Robin M. said...

I don't have any good answers, at least not that can be communicated via blog comment. But asking the questions is a step further toward finding the answers. The main thing I want to affirm is that making mistakes doesn't mean that you should stop trying.

Allison said...

Yes! Thank you for posting this!

As a (hopefully) reformed snob, I have been called out time and time again by friends - yes, friends - who pointed out behaviors which I finally identified as coming from a background of extreme privilege. It is through my own sometimes painful personal experience that I look at Friends' classism and racism.

My first response when arriving at Meeting was, "I've finally found my kind!" And then I examined this and thought - "what exactly do I mean by my kind?" Do I mean people who are just like me and believe all the same things I believe in? How would my friends feel coming into a Friends Meeting? Is it true that "they" just don't like Quaker worship, or is there something unintentionally systematic going on here that keeps certain people away? And how does this hurt all of us?

I still live a privileged life in San Francisco, a city which apparently South Park the cartoon said was covered in a cloud of "smug." And yet I miss my family and friends who are not as elitist and politically active for their personal warmth and diversity of opinion.

Susanne K said...

Mary Linda,
Thanks for bringing this question to the fore again. I wrote some of my thoughts on what we do in this post back in January. In essence, I think we are most likely to be met with success in pointing out another's privilege unless we can do it in a humble and loving way that promises both forgiveness AND basic practical steps for change. And your post seems wonderfully compassionate and humble. The next step, I think, is in suggesting how-tos. I am convinced that most people do the right thing if they only know how. Here's the whole post, if you care to look at it.

Stacy said...

Gratitude can be such a beautiful antidote to complacency. I wonder if framing the conversation in that way might be helpful--e.g., "You must be so grateful for [x]." I think gratitude (more than guilt) can help people see their things/opportunities as gifts rather than as privileges, diminishing the validity of snobbery along the way. If we see something as having been given to us by God/the Abundant Spirit (rather than as the natural, right order of things), it's harder to see those who don't have the same things/opportunities as being lesser beings. At least in theory. :)

Anonymous said...

There's a wonderful exercise which I did once at quarterly meeting I went to. I was told this idea came from some wider Friends body, so it is likely that other readers will know of this exercise too: The group attempts to order itself in order of "family privilege" from low to high with out speaking a word. The object is to focus on whatever level of financial/class comfort was experienced growing up. For some people, this is radically different from their current situation that their f/Friends may be aware of. Putting aside this complication, we are left to judge where we fall in the pecking order. Remember, this must be accomplished entirely without speaking. As I experienced this particular exercise, it was in the context of a quarterly meeting on advancement. It had been preceded, with little fanfare, by two similar experiments. The first and simplest is to order all participants by height, which is simple enough without speaking. That's the prelude to the next exercise which is to again order, this time by age (oh, and no gesturing allowed either). This was probably most critical for the advancement meeting, since the meetings in that region are beset by age demographics quite severely. This last experiment, based on class privilege, is so so telling though! Without the ability to communicate verbally or with gestures, we are left to contemplate what little we know or think we know of our neighbor. What. We. Think. We. Know. Just chew on that, as it is the key point here. It's devastatingly simple, and it is more than a simple self-assessment of hey I think I grew up at the 50% percentile of this group of folks, because you have to do this publicly, and you also have to do fine tune your answer based on the people that settle in roughly around you, with very little information to guide you. (I settled in at around the 60% percentile of the group I was in, with about 30 Friends in attendance, in case anyone is wondering). The results surprised me... there were individuals whom I assumed were rather closer to average in their class upbringing who'd "hidden it well" (what a terrible phrase, of course, but I think it serves well here) on BOTH ends of the spectrum. There were also individuals rating themselves far closer to the middle than I would have expected. I highly recommend that you attempt this exercise with your group, if you get the chance. I think it will be enlightening for everyone.

forrest said...

Evidently you have no trouble saying all your 'How-Do-I-Say's. (I did catch a few gramatical glitches, i.e. missed distinctions that seem to be disappearing from written English anyway from lack of common observance. But then I've been a professional writer/editor.)

The problem is saying these things so they'll be heard--and not misheard--by the people who need to hear them.

Even Jesus had trouble with that. The way I read the stories, poor folks and sinners understood him perfectly well, while the rich and the preachers just understood that he was threatening their goodies.

A woman in my meeting: "Why do you think that poor people are better than 'rich' people?" I don't think that, never did think so, but she thinks I do, and I'm not expecting I can tell her otherwise anytime soon. I'm working on an essay of sorts, re why "the poor" are so significant in Judaism & its descendant religions... but it's a hard piece to write! "Money is addictive and causes brain damage!" is the best short explanation I've come up with so far.
has some very interesting stuff on this translated from Jacques Ellul... but you might not take to him right away; he took a lot of traditional protestant theology for granted, stirred in a bit of Marxism, and did his thinking in French. But when he isn't just being bewildering, he nails some pretty wiggly -- and crucial-- confusions!

cath said...

I grew up in a working class environment--mom, dad, gramma and grampa, uncles, aunts and cousins (and sometimes a few neighbors) went together to make family vacations (like the run down cabin by a lake) and then we "summered" there. :) Yes, we actually said that.

I think snobbery can cut both ways. Pride in being poor is as thick-walled a box as an unexamined sense of entitlement.

We are seeing some of this in the current political campaigns. I don't care which candidate you feel is best, they all seem to be trying to be "just plain folks."

Perhaps if we could look at what we all have in common we would have a better dialogue. I'm not trying to say there isn't classism in the developed world, but I have a feeling that it would be less of an issue if we could find ways to meet each other over a cup of the beverage of choice(s) in the course of some adventure--in a neutral spot, of course.

The adventure would be different for each of us. Like taking a road trip. :) No two people ever completely agree on the circumstances of a road trip, but unless there is a major mishap, they will find something to share a laugh about later.

I know, this is idealism--but some of my best times were spent in situations where the adventure leveled out the playing field, where who we were had to be checked at the door.

It would be nice if more people reported that their Meetings were those kinds of adventures, but if they are not, then let's get to know each other outside of Meeting and take all the good memories back to share and perhaps uplift.


Anonymous said...

So are Quakers supposed to be closetted about their possessions? Or are we supposed to live so simply that we don't have any possessions to be closetted about? If we are currently living simply, are we supposed to be closetted about our past? Isn't this a form of lying?

Talking about my PhD is a form of elitism? So are we anti-education, and supposed to be closetted about this? I was born working class, spent 10 years in poverty as a student, got an ulcer from the stress, worked extremely hard and sacrificed greatly to get my education. Now I'm supposed to hide that, because such things are classist?

I will not lie by hiding my education or current financial situation. If I had had a priviledged upbringing, I wouldn't lie about that either.

Education is a form of truth-seeking. It is something to be sought after; something to be shared. It is not something to be ashamed of.

Education is as important as food and shelter. If you want to level the differences between classes, then do so by educating the uneducated, not by denigrating education.

(A note to people who believe the rich and the educated are the same people: I personally know many working class (if not poor) people with graduate degrees.)

Raye said...

I have prayed about this, myself. One answer that comes to me is the word, "chesed." If you wish to see the short post I wrote on my blog, it is at

The best I can translate this Hebrew word is lovingkindness that gets close to people, alongside them, perceives true needs often before they are expressed (because with chesed, one takes the time to get to know the other).

So, whether I am searching for ways to show a friend that they are missing the mark by failing to see others as valuable individuals, or searching for ways to open myself to relationships with people who do not have the privileges that I was raised with, chesed is the way I follow.

This way does not always prove outwardly successful. People dismiss my opinion, dismiss my assistance, insult and try to manipulate me. Oh, well. That is their choice, over which I have no control.

That is what makes chesed so distasteful to some. It does not give us power to achieve an external goal, it makes us vulnerable. There is power in it, though, because it makes us more able to carry the Lord's love and mercy to others, whether we see it or not.

Allison said...

This other blog post made me think of yours: