white trash and rednecks

It turns out “class issues” are some of the only topics I’ve encountered that can render me too uncomfortable to speak. I’m struggling to find language that allows me to talk (write) about socio-economic class “issues” without fifteen thousand apologetic gesticulations  every other word.

Last weekend a new friend was helping me assemble my daughter’s sandbox. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point he said, “Aw, you could just go to a pawn shop and…” (I don’t remember if he was talking about my buying or selling something.) I had no response. I didn’t know why, but I felt immediately confused and quiet.

Throughout Deer Hunting with Jesus I kept thinking, “Whoa. Oh! Yeah! Okay, I get that now…” So many experiences here in Maine have left me perplexed; Bageant’s essays shed some good light on my confusion. I also kept thinking, very passionately, “Oh my god! How does he get away with saying this?!?” That he described large groups of people as lacking critical thinking skills was disturbing and shocking, but it was also sort of a relief. The “how dare he! (what a condescending jerk!)” I felt was also illuminating. The whole book spoke to me. When everyone is tip-toeing and whispering I usually feel the need to yell and stomp. Bageant yells and stomps a bit through what has been so delicate a subject no one has said much of anything. Bageant said something to this effect when he pointed out that refusing to listen to someone because they are overtly racist means not listening to more than half the country. That’s a lot of not listening.

Mucking around in the language that prevents both speaking and listening fascinates me. When I find myself quiet because I’m afraid I’m going to offend someone I know there is a lot I need to say. In other words, there is a lot I am going to say.

15 thoughts on “white trash and rednecks

  1. There was an article somewhere by a typical white liberal educated woman on those toddler-tiara beauty pagents, nothing unexpected. Comments were as expected… except one. Paraphrased and expanded: you ppl accept the “tiger mom” stuff (maybe not to that extreme, but admire it up to a certain level) because it’s a white people’s thing of a certain class level. You all accept as a given that it’s a goal for your kids to get into a good college so they can end up in certain acceptable careers, make money, find good spouses, create clones of themselves to repeat the process, etc. But the toddler-tiara moms are a different class — more southerners, less educated, different expectations for their daughters, etc. You’re a bunch of class snobs. This is one of the last acceptable ways to discriminate in the U.S. — look down on “white trash.”

    How do you counter this? Yes, I am a bigot — I believe that making little kids do homework and get good grades is BETTER than having them prance around on a stage in tutus shaking their little booties hoping to win some prize. Why? Why is it better? Because a 22 year old woman with a college degree and a job at an accounting firm, who’s on her way to becoming a CPA, is doing BETTER than a 22 year old woman with a GED who’s dancing in a bar and hoping some 40 year old rich guy notices her. Why? Who will end up happier and more fulfilled? Well, I can’t answer this… I don’t know. I’m too committed to my own value system to be objective.

    • Hey Paula, I loved this reply.

      You said, “Who will end up happier and more fulfilled? Well, I can’t answer this… I don’t know. I’m too committed to my own value system to be objective.”

      I love this! I mean, it’s the problem all summed up. No one should define anyone else’s happiness, I think you and I can agree on that, yes? But the thing with this writer and the author of Limbo and some other “came from there and went over there and now I’ve gone back but I can never really go back” kind of writers I’ve read, and a couple of my friends in town who describe themselves as having grown up “blue collar” or “working class,” (phew! long sentence!)… the thing with all of them is that they’ve lived in both worlds (if we’re going to say there are two for ease of communication) and they all seem to think there’s something valuable in the life that focuses on the thinkier stuff.

      There’s a line in the Bageant book where he says that the people of his home town are “participating in the economy but not in society.” I think it’s an important point that it’s not (necessarily) saying the life of “rednecks” was less worthwhile or didn’t have value or even beauty. One of the important issues is that there’s no participation in deciding how things get done (social/political involvement) on a level that goes beyond what the ministers or “successful” people tell them they should believe. That sounds horrible to say, coming from me. It’s not my experience. I’ve never been close with people who look to authority figures to define their own beliefs. But, apparently, according to what I’ve read, the ministers and the bosses at work and the made-money-business-owners at the bars/restaurant/local hangouts are the people who sort of feed the rest of the people in terms of forming opinions about issues beyond how they’re going to pay the rent this month, etc.

      When I started writing this blog post I had about a gadgillion different drafts (I’ve tried writing about this for years, maybe) and I often returned to my learning about racism. For me, I have to stop being too worried I’ll say ignorant and offensive things so I just don’t even talk about it. In the late 80s I did that whole awareness thing where I started out asking Black people to fix my racism. I’m not looking to poor people (shit, one of the biggest blocks I’ve had in discussing this is how to even define the groups! every term or phrase isn’t quite right and/or is offensive in some way or another) to educate me or fix my classism. I am trying to educate myself, though, and fix my classism. In this case, though, I realize as I’m typing this, I don’t feel so much like I need to “fix” my classism as I need to realize what exactly is going on with me, my experience, and my relationships with other human beings. I’m not at the “fixing” point, yet. I’m still trying to sort out what “it” is. I also want to learn about the greater experience beyond my own life.

      Know what’s funny? The same new friend who said the pawn shop thing also sort of teased me at one point about something. He said, “Ha! You’re going to learn about that from a *book*?” he was incredulous and/or amused. I said, “That’s how I learn about everything.” Of course, I was totally serious. It was pretty funny.

      Back to the Toddlers and Tiaras thing. There are a few issues with that. There’s children’s safety. That’s the issue I have with it that makes me say “fuck you” to anyone who defends it. But, I also think it’s similar to the thing I described up there. If we don’t talk to overt racists (listen to, I mean) we’ll do a whole lot of not listening. I suppose writing off “those mothers” as nut-jobs who have a fucked up way of loving their children would be just as much “not listening.”

      One of the many, many blocks I’ve had to writing about this stuff is that fear of being condescending. Just like when my racism “work” all started I was totally swamped with “white guilt.” It had me stuck. I definitely have some kind of “guilt” about saying that aspiring to be “a 22 year old woman with a GED who’s dancing in a bar and hoping some 40 year old rich guy notices her” sounds really, really sad to me. There are a whole world of echoing voices saying, “who the fuck are you to tell me my life isn’t as good as yours? BITCH!”

      So many hurdles. It’s amazing how difficult it is to form even a few simple sentences without my mind wandering off into twenty different tangents of “but, then, if, what about…”

      Thanks again, Paula. :-) SMOOCH.

  2. I used to follow Bageant’s blog religiously and I cried when he died. Still, he had a very specific agenda to serve.

    There’s a whole lotta territory between CPA and topless dancer. And there’s the whole category of blue collar aristocrats, working class people who bring in the big bucks and know how to manage money and life, that we tend to ignore.

    Thing is, we mostly know what we know and are terrified of anything different. And yet, people carve out all sorts of lives we mostly don’t notice and imagine.

    I’ve learned recently not to have preconceptions about people and it is serving me well. And also to avoid politics. We connect with each other as mothers, as workers who are underpaid and under appreciated, as people who like to dance and eat, people with crazy parents and siblings, people who try to make our houses into homes.

    Getting rid of good taste helps a lot too.

    The thing is, we are really learning how to be poor, I think, you and I. And the ones who can teach us that, well, they aren’t the ones we grew up with.

    • My first thought after reading your reply (wow! thank you for reading and replying, I feel honored) was, “wait, didn’t Chris.tine grow up on a farm? how can she consider herself upper/professional class/white collar?” So, it’s already a murky, muddy issue. I love murky and muddy, though. Finding clarity in it, especially. Where do you feel you come from? What is your “background” when it comes to socio-economic class?

      If I didn’t grow up poor (white trash/redneck) I can’t learn how to be poor anymore than I can learn how to be Black. I can learn to live in a state that’s closer to poverty than I have ever known, but I’ll never be poor. I can’t erase my past.

      What do you mean about “avoiding politics?” What a surprising thing to read…

      That you describe there being a “whole lotta territory between” the two people Paula described is a great example of how difficult all of this is to talk about. Why do you think there is a whole lotta territory between them? How do you define that territory? Of course, they sound like they come from very different backgrounds, but what do you think falls in that space between them?

      Thank you, again, for reading and replying.

  3. You display the problem with assumptions. All people from Wisconsin didn’t grow up on farms. Maybe you got that idea because folks in MW mocked me for being a hick because I was/am idealistic and expressed occasional uncategorizable notions.

    How I can regard myself as professional white collar (never upper; formerly middle, now lower middle) is that I graduated from college (first in my family, true) and supported myself and my children in professional jobs (teaching, public relations, editing, and so forth) for my entire career. I earned it. And while my parents did not have college degrees, my mother was an RN and my dad an architectural designer, both skilled, middle-class jobs. I grew up in an affluent suburb and went to a predominantly Jewish, upper middle class high school, and that formed my image of myself as middle class, though relatively underprivileged.

    Still, most of my Dad’s friends were masons and carpenters and electricians, blue collar folks. So were most of my relatives (and my grandfather was a farmer, and we spent some summers on the farm, but that’s a whole different ballgame). I was bi-cultural.

    In the US, class is a confusing combination of education, type of work, amount of money earned, and perhaps most important of all, style. I have it all except the money. And except the belief that there is only one better way to do things, and that is the way of the professional classes.

    I spent enough time taking my rich friends’ mothers to hospitals to know that all was not paradise there.

    A big difference between us is that you were in the “upper” category. And you carry with it the indocrination and the habits of that group, which I think includes the belief in the superiority of those people and their ways.

    I just was at a party with all doctors, people I work with doing the same level of work, though at a vastly different pay grade (teaching med students to write). And the conversation turned to how the top 10% of their high school classmates went to law school but the top 2% went to medical school, because, well, they were, you know: superior. The artists, the mavericks, the entrepreneurs weren’t even on their radar. We hold onto the assumptions of our reference group until we don’t. If we don’t.

    By avoiding politics I mean staying away from the abstractions and the dogma, the precepts and the pronouncements, the theories and the explanations. When you get down to how do you cook your greens and where can you get ’em cheap, you connect, you don’t divide. And sometimes, you can have real conversations. Especially if you listen more than talk.

    So I’ll stop talking now and listen!

    • Definitely. Our assumptions are a big part of what makes all of this difficult to discuss. For what it’s worth, the only thing I remember about you from m.w was that I was a very young (not just chronologically) woman who was deeply and desperately hoping you would like me. Other than that, I don’t remember much about you. The “farm girl” thing came from things you said on Facebook. I’m quite sure you’ve referred to yourself in that way. I also know that especially before family farms were destroyed, some farmers made plenty of money relative to their neighbors. As you note, money doesn’t determine socio-economic class.

      I wonder if it wasn’t clear that my first paragraph was an intentional confession showing how insidious and pervasive the class stuff is. I was trying to point out that I was being snotty and gross for thinking that.

      Know what’s funny? It wasn’t until… (checking goodreads.com) 2008 that I realized I was “upper” anything. I grew up believing I was solidly middle class. In fact, I even believed I was on the lower end of the scale. Compared to my peers, we seemed to be “poor.” It’s hard for me, still, to fathom how deeply and thoroughly my background was sheltered. I hated and resented “rich people” with a white hot passion. Hated them. Despised their use of privilege and selfishness. Their lack of care for those who were struggling (like the people in my Dad’s church who were actually poor) was obscene. I wasn’t one of “them” (the rich) for sure. When I read Limbo http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46074.Limbo I was suddenly hit with this ugly realization: I am one of them. Everything about how I viewed my past changed.

      It’s clear to me now that what keeps other people out of the inner circles of power and wealth are actions terribly subtle and seemingly harmless. My reaction to your post (the first thought being a puzzled (innocent?), “but she’s not ‘one of us'”) is exactly that kind of stealthy and ugly act. That initial thought could lead to a change in tone or a whole different load of assumptions. The conversation (on my end) is immediately affected because of my wondering about where you were coming from.

      As for avoiding politics, what do you consider this discussion? For me, the personal is political. The theoretical is necessary to direct my actions. I need these “bigger” discussions to uncover my truths. This is political for me.

      For me, “avoiding politics” feels like a red flag that says, “let’s only focus on the positive and disregard the realities” in that Ehrenreich “Bright Sided” way. I don’t think that’s what you mean, is it? I can’t imagine living my life avoiding politics (as I understand the meaning of that phrase).

      Thanks, again, for commenting.

  4. The font is still too fine and thin, though the point size seem better.

    Of course everything is political. But any discussion aimed at convincing and persuading people to see things the way we do is, IMO, a dooming discussion.

    I find “what” people think to be unrevealing. Pretty much, we already know that and prepare to do our battles or affirmations accordingly. What gives you something to work with and understand is knowing “how” they came to think that, what experiences and training informed the thought and the belief. Which is why

    For me love of the theoretical pales in comparison to love of kindness. That’s probably an age thing as much as a class thing. One of the gifts of belonging to my lower-class-than-yours is a stronger orientation toward a communal good — and not as an abstraction but as a way to survive.

    • Well, Chris, I’m thinking you should probably just take your age or socio-economically derived wisdom and go be the salt-of-the-earth full-of-the-kindness-that-counts somewhere else. Doesn’t seem like you’re able to do it here. That’s a shame.

      Not to Chris, but to anyone else reading this thread, I find it unsurprising but terribly disappointing that I feel I’ve just been flipped the big, fat bird (regardless of Chris’ intentions). It really is a brutal and brittle collection of issues. Each of us with our own individual experiences, plus the weight of intentions and expectations (or hopes). It takes more courage for me to talk about my experience when it comes to class than it has for almost anything else, ever. I’m not looking for a pat on the back or applause, I’m just noticing how quickly the conversation went to “you’re an elitist who doesn’t know what real life is all about.” The shut-down, couched in claims of a commitment to Real Kindness.

      I’m going to keep trying, though.

    • It’s been gnawing at me that I tried to start talking about difficult issues and when I felt insulted I shut down the conversation. I asked several friends to give me their perspective of this exchange and I got a wide set of responses. (I was pleased to realize I have online friends who come from a really wide range of backgrounds.)

      If you’re up for it, Chris, I’d like to keep talking. I’m going to do some “active listening” to see if I can figure out where I might be misunderstanding you.

      I also want to say that what is so strange to me is I didn’t think we were disagreeing about much of anything. I thought we were saying essentially the same thing about almost all everything except for a couple issues. (Happy to spell out where I think we disagree if you’re interested.)

      I “hear” you saying that you value the personal connections between human beings regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. That you find sustenance in finding common ground in those areas of our lives that intersect (food, friends, family, love, joy, sorrow). I hear you saying that you have experienced life in a fairly wide range of “positions” in the non-linear socio-economic scale. I also hear you saying (and this is the part that felt like a “fuck you”) that people in the upper classes (for lack of a better word/simplicity’s sake) think they and their lifestyles/ways/culture are better than those “below them.”

      Am I close?

      What do you think I was saying in all of this?

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  6. Randomly jumping in but wondering if there is a bit of conflation going on, being familiar with Bageant’s work, his focus was often on the working poor which is not necessarily the same thing as the working class or blue collar folks. Chris made a really valid point about blue collar aristocrats, there are many (not as many as there used to be) folks who did blue collar work and were quite well off financially. But when we hear of an electrician or plumber we don’t always think of them as being people who would be well off financially, In part because one can do do blue collar work but be in management, etc.

    I know you are interested in having a dilalogue on class but I think you have to also look at it from a historical perspective. Class levels or whatever we want to call them are changing and they aren’t what they used to be. Much of the middle class in this country was formed around people who held blue collar manufacturing jobs, then that base disappeared and the service jobs that replaced them helped create a rising working poor class.

    In the end though, who knows where this class thing is going to do as more formerly upper middle class folks find themselves barely hanging onto middle class status and even dropping into the working poor class.

    Probably haven’t added much of value but did want to come back.

    • I wouldn’t say I want to “have a dialogue about class” but I want to identify why so many people in our country seem to talk right past each other and think the others are completely batshit insane.

      That’s what I’m trying to get to. I’m also trying to get myself less afraid of talking about socio-economic status issues.

      I have to admit I’m sort of sitting here reading your words and thinking, yeah, um, I know that (money doesn’t equal socio-economic class, that’s why the socio- is always there when I write it). I mean, you’re the one who gave me Limbo, so you know I know that stuff. Since I know you know I know (yes, I had to write that just because it’s making me chuckle)… nothing more on that. It just reminds me how quickly this stuff becomes sensitive.

      Here’s a question for you (and anyone reading the comments), you talk about people finding themselves in different classes. Doesn’t that contradict what you said about the money doesn’t equal class thing?

      I mean, I just don’t think it’s possible to “change class status.” Or, rather, it has to happen over generations, don’t you think? My father’s uncles his mother’s side were plumbers and that whole slew of family have an entirely different feel than the rest of my family has. Some of my cousins (2nd cousin? once removed?) are doctors and stuff, but holidays are still in that same feeling or vibe that was different than the one I grew up with. I’m only calling on my limited experience because I have a tiny bit here that applies. I could probably do a better job if I went back to books.

      Do you think people can, in one individual’s lifetime, “change socio-economic class?”

      People can get poor (or poorer), sure, but, as you said, that isn’t the same as “class.” So, when Chris said in her initial comment to me that she and I were “learning to be poor,” I disagreed with her. I felt it was disrespectful of an entire culture (huge range of cultures) that I would never know, could never know, because I can’t wipe away my nearly 43 years or pretend my family isn’t who they are, etc.

      Anyway, I should be working! And, I’m really glad you commented. You’re part of why I even started thinking about this stuff in the first place.

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