Thursday, January 07, 2010

On this class thing

I was having an exchange with Donald Clark on Facebook today that got my brain whirring on the subject of class.

Anyone who knows Donald will know that he detests what he calls 'middle class snobbery'. I guess I don't understand the class thing too well, because I can't for the life of me figure out what a 'middle class' person would have to be snobbish about.

I am told time and again that the whole class thing is dead, over, forgotten, past history, yadda yadda. But it comes up so often in conversation that this is quite obviously not the case. And I remain convinced that part of the reason we have not readily been absorbed into English culture is that we don't fit neatly into any of the class categories.

If I were pressed, I would probably say that:

  • Working class people are people who work with their hands. Largely 'blue collar' jobs. But is - for example - a nurse or a policeman a blue collar worker? I have no idea.
  • A middle class person tends to be educated beyond high school and works in a 'white collar' job. But very few people wear 'white collar' type attire to the office any more - it's all jeans and polo shirts, these days.
  • Do we still even have a ruling class? Would that be the titled people, even though they definitely don't rule us any more? The mink-and-manure set, even though so many of them are all title and no money?
Who knows? And where does that leave people with no job at all? The idle rich and the idle poor. Trust fund beneficiaries and lifelong benefit (dole) recipients. The hackneyed cliche is that the working class doesn't work, middle class isn't in the middle and the ruling class doesn't rule.

I suspect each person formulates their own boundaries to fit themselves in where they feel they belong.

My husband and I both have a university education. Mine is to postgraduate level. We own a large-ish house. Our children will both almost certainly go to university. Are we middle class?

But what about our heritage? How much does that count?

My husband's parents were both indisputably 'working class' and of 'working class' stock. Blue collar workers who took pride in an honest day's work. His maternal grandfather earned his keep with a little fishing boat, as did many people on the island. My husband's university graduation was a red letter event in the history of the family. To this day, my husband treasures his friendships with men who work diligently with their hands. I think they remind him of his late Dad. So is he working class?

My own parents were office workers. My grandparents consisted of a shop-assistant-turned-librarian, two teachers and a civil servant. Does that constitute middle class? Lower middle class? How many strata of middle class are there? Does it matter?

How far back do we go? Do we go back to my titled ancestor (Earl or Lord Grenville or Granville or something) who disowned his daughter for her dalliance with a hired hand, and packed them both off to South Africa with a financial settlement, on the understanding that they never darkened his door again? How very Thorn Birds! Or how about the branch of my family that glories in the surname Bastard, being the descendants of some or other illegitimate off-spring of some or other king or noble or something. Or how about my loony ancestor, the self-styled Emperor of San Francisco (note: this account differs quite significantly from the hard copy accounts I have seen - it is far more flattering of Norton I!). Does this make me ruling class?

When we first moved to the UK a decade or so ago, we deliberately chose a 'working class' village school for our children, believing they would be among salt of the earth people. Ha! On every hand we were accused of thinking ourselves better than other families. And yet we never consciously did anything to give that impression. We found ourselves looked down upon by what I assume were middle class people, because we weren't posh enough or rich enough or something enough. And the only time I met a titled person, I caused outrage among my colleagues at the college by treating him as I would anyone else, inviting him to join me in the kitchen as I made him a mug (a mug, mind you!) of tea. To give him his due, Lord Mayhew (for lo, 'twas he!) was completely unfazed and chatted away to me as if he had known me all his life.

So no. I haven't quite got this class thing sorted. And in a way, I hope I never do. I'd rather you took me on merit, and I hope you won't mind if I do the same. Whoever you or your ancestors may be.

4 comments:

V Yonkers said...

Karyn, last semester I taught a class in consumer behaviour where the study of class and people's perceptions about class and where they fit in is a key concept to getting people to buy.

One thing that was obvious was that the perception of class, mobility between the classes, self-image and aspirations for class recognition are very culturally based. Interestingly enough, class and its basis vary within the US depending on what region you live in. My sister was considered a member of the middle class where we grew up in a working class small town in upstate NY (there are three levels of middle class in the US: well off professionals fall into the upper middle class), but upper class when she worked in Georgia. My mother's family could be traced back to the 1600's in the US to important leaders and this was one of the conditions in the South (family pedigree). Her income was not as important in determining class. In the West, she would be considered lower middle class because she made such a low salary, but was a professional.

I used a great site in my class. The interactive games that help you determine which class you belong to are interesting (of course, that would be the class you belong to in the US!). The issue of "class" never goes away. It is always there whether it is explicit or implicit. In the US, we like to think we are immune to class differences when in fact it is just that we do have class mobility. However, the class distinction is still there.

Karyn Romeis said...

@V_Yonkers I imagine the culture of a country and even a community within a country would have a lot to do with one's perception of one's class and standing within society.

Because identity was so wrapped up with race in South Africa while I was growing up, and because my mother struggled so hard to raise us without the racial prejudice that prevailed even within our own family, we didn't really notice class issues. Wealth, yes. But that's a different issue. Let's face it, the celebrity culture has bestowed great wealth on many 'working class' people.

Perhaps I am seen as having airs and graces by refusing to allow myself to be boxed into a class bracket. Now there's a thought...

Anonymous said...

class is a strange thing and it is so entrenched over here, that imagining a society without it is odd. I'll never forget my granny visiting our new house when I was a child. It wasn't exactly grand, a three bed 1930s semi, but it turned out she had used to clean houses in that street when my mum was little. To her, it really seemed as if we had become properly middle class. Again, I think the term middle-class is difficult to define. Both my parents were teachers, the first of their families to go on to higher education, and both my grandfathers were dockers. My other half, Roy is from staunchly working class scottish roots. My view of being properly middle class is having at least three generations of professional workers in the family, and money never being too much of a consideration.

Of course, working class is strange nowadays too - with the ravaging of traditional blue collar industries in the 70s and 80s, there is now a whole swathe of society that has never worked.Much of the working class identity as my granddad knew it has gone.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Anonymous Much of what you say reflects my own views and experience. I wonder how your granny felt about her daughter's middle class lifestyle? Would she have been proud or would she have thought that she should have stuck to her roots?