And other questions of class performance and anxiety with Jonathan Menjivar
I cannot wait to listen to this. Even just reading the article and a few comments clarified something for me: it’s not just about what we have (or don’t), but how we feel about what we have or don’t. It seems obvious when I say it, but I don’t think that’s been totally obvious to me, even as I, too, have grappled with this stuff since I moved in 4th grade from a working class town that I loved, where I played in the creek and caught crayfish, a wealthy town that I hated, where I obsessed over esprit sweaters and pretended to fall asleep at slumber parties in ginormous houses just to get out of having to perform a role I didn’t understand. No matter what’s going on for any given individual, there’s the situation and how they feel about it. It doubles the complexity.
This makes me think of so many conversations with my best friend -- we met in sociology grad school. She grew up in a working-class community and family, and her mom, who was determined to get her out, had all these really interesting strategies for trying to prepare her. Like, every year they went to the opera, the ballet, and the symphony once, even when they were in the middle of going bankrupt. Her mom may never have read Bourdieu, but she intuitively got it. My friend went to a really good liberal arts college, but, you know, she gets to wilderness orientation and there are kids tromping through the woods in Benetton, and she had like two Benetton shirts that she kept carefully wrapped in tissue paper because they were so precious. So that's how she ended up being a sociology major -- she took a sociology course and all of her difficulties adjusting to college suddenly made sense, that it was class.
Meanwhile I'm the child of Marxist sociologists, so class was super salient in my house in different ways. (And at one point after I met my best friend, my dad comes to me with an article by someone he knows at the state school near her liberal arts college, going "Look, J was interviewed for this research about first-generation college students!" Because the ways her mom prepped her for a class leap were so distinctive, he could tell it was her through the pseudonym.) But one of the things that I really associate with my own class privilege is not having to know about certain forms of high culture and not feeling at all self-conscious about it. I don't like jazz and I don't feel obligated to pretend to know anything about it. I'm fine listening to a symphony but I wouldn't choose it and I hate opera. It's like my graduate degree: One of the most useful things about having an Ivy League PhD is being able to scoff at the idea that people with Ivy League degrees are any smarter than anyone else.
And then my friend and I both end up with high-income husbands (my husband just took a giant pay cut moving from BigLaw to government, but that's another story) and talking a lot about what it feels like to make that kind of financial jump and how it operates relative to class. So, long story short, if either of us had any time at all, we would need to organize some kind of long-distance joint listening to this podcast.
I think I have a chip on my shoulder about class because I grew up in a family that was very middle-middle class--we always had enough of what we needed, we weren't worried about keeping a roof over our heads or the lights on, and we got some of what we wanted but not all--but I grew up around people who were upper-middle class or flat-out rich.
I was very conscious of the differences between them and me: how the leftovers in our fridge were in re-used sour cream containers instead of fancy Tupperware, how our family collectively did a paper route when we wanted to save up to go to Disney World once time while my friends went every year, how our house was perfectly adequate to our needs but my sister and I shared a tiny bathroom while my friends lived in McMansions, how I wore hand-me-downs from cousins and my friends bought their clothes at the mall. How my parents frequently told me "no, we can't afford that" about things my friends didn't even have to ask for. I didn't really *want* their lives, I wasn't jealous most of the time, but I was aware that the way they lived was considered more desirable.
It made me hyperaware of those gradations of class, and it also made me hate the idea of being mistaken for someone whose had a lot of money. To this day, I'm horrified that people might think I grew up with more money than I did. Yes, I lived in a neighborhood that became trendy, but my parents had bought the house long before it became an expensive area! Yes, I went to a private school for high school, but I was on scholarship! Yes, my parents now live in a very, very nice and expensive house, but they built that like three years ago with money my granddaddy made in the last few years of his life and left to them--I did not grow up in a house like that!
And yet I am also hyperaware of how much I have, how much easier my life has been than many other people's, the way that my parents' college educations gave me privileges that so many other people do not have, etc.
I feel like I'm trying to constantly balance "please don't think I grew up rich" with "please don't think I'm ungrateful or unaware of all I have and have had!" And it seems a little silly when I actually analyze it, to be wasting so much energy on this! Why do I care how I'm perceived class-wise? I do not know! But I do.
My son’s middle school principal always signed off with “Keep it classy!” And I always read it back to myself as, “Keep it classist!” which is what she meant. This is the same school that had Country vs. Country Club spirit days.
This is such a great article! Class has always been interesting to me, because I grew up in like a very cultured, very educated family (of two people - me and my mom), but we were poor. My family is a Jewish refugee family and we had been poor back to the first single mother in a line of three - my great-grandmother. I didn’t mind being poor growing up because all my friends were also poor, many poorer than me (I had times with no heat or hot water, but I didn’t have food insecurity). So even though I never ate in a restaurant or bought clothes in a store, no one else did either and I didn’t really think about it. My mom always told me we were rich, compared to most of the world. Because we had health insurance and a house and weren’t refugees. So I grew up feeling rich. I do remember though being like obsessed with Tropicana orange juice and breakfast cereal. When I got my first full-time job I was 16 and I would buy and drink whole cartons of Tropicana. It was this iconic experience of wealth for me.
But I also didn’t really feel out of place other places. I got a scholarship to go to a fancy boarding school for high school, and even though my friends were other scholarship kids and we would laugh sometimes at the rich kid shit, I didn’t feel uncomfortable. And I think that comes from being white, but also comes from having this hyper cultured, hyper educated family. My mom was friends with lots of famous artists. Our house was full of books. We have a family tree back to 1860 and everyone (male) on there has at least a bachelors degree.
Now I work in agriculture and I get defensive because I get flagged as a rich kid. Because of how I talk. So these guys with $50k trucks think I grew up wealthy, and it’s interesting to me how mad that makes me. Like it would be a character flaw. It kind of is? Idk, I remember watching this documentary on Oasis and one of the interviews said something along the lines of - “I’m not saying I’m a better person than he is, because I grew up with nothing, but just fundamentally, [that means] I have a better soul.” 😂
This was such a fascinating interview, and I can't wait to listen to the podcast. I grew up - until I was almost 23 - in the UK, and have now lived in the US for 29 years. My understanding of class, and my anxieties about it, are so muddled. Were I still in my home town, I would be working class no matter how much money I made - I was born to it; that's it, that's your class. And in lots and lots of ways I see that still shaping my world - I don't know opera or much classical music; I know very little jazz; I haven't read a whole bunch of "great authors"; I know nothing about ancient Greece and Rome; going to college was bewildering. There was just no access to that stuff. But over here, in the States, I carry so many markers of being middle class - not just my income (which is very low for my field, but so much more than so many people make), but my education and my location. Yet my m/c life is very much shaped by the experience of growing up working class, especially when it comes to how I relate to and use money. All by way of saying - I appreciate how complicated both of you made this in the interview, and how much food for continuing thought you've provided.
Well. I read this as “Am I a Casserole?” TWICE. I assumed there was a metaphor there that would reveal itself to me upon reading.
Joking aside, what a wonderful interview that will roll around in my brain all day. Also now I want my mom’s chicken and rice casserole.
I am so excited to listen to this podcast! This was such a great interview too. I grew up in a upper lower class/lower middle class family and attended a private religious grammar school thanks to extensive financial aid. I quickly became aware of the differences between me and my classmates, from their huge houses, the clothes (who knew brands were a thing?!), the vacations they went on, and their hobbies. My parents scrimped and saved so I could go on a trip with my youth group—my first plane ride at age 14—and bartered for things like flute or art lessons. And I'm grateful for that. But I've had mixed feelings about going to that school because of the insecurities that developed there. I was the only one of my friends at college that was paying for my education (my parents paid for about a quarter, I paid half, the rest was scholarships and student loans) and that could lead to very complicated conversations about what I could or could not afford. And those conversations are still happening a couple of decades later as a single never-married woman whose friends have either high-powered careers or married wealthy men. I want to be supportive of the opportunities my friends have as a result but it can be so hard to examine the differences in our lifestyles.
I appreciate the push to reconsider our perceptions of rich people. it feels like a justified and okay hatred since I'm the one on the bottom. but Rachel is right that it's not about any individual rich people, the anger and pain I feel is because of what I lack, not what they have or how they act. when I feel angry like he did at the wedding, it's anger because I know it's unfair that I have to choose between replacing my holey underwear and eating vegetables this week. the anger comes out at people who never had to make that choice and own $100 dollar a pair underwear but it's not their fault as individuals that the system exists like this.
I feel so seen. Cannot wait to listen to the podcast. I grew up rural working class and my first full time job was in West Palm Beach, Florida, where I had assignments on Palm Beach. I was completely ignorant of class issues until then, which is shocking to say, but when everyone around you has fairly similar experiences and family dynamics, it can feel like we were all on the same page. But then Palm Beach—I was terrified of hitting a Bentley with my little Toyota Echo. I felt totally self conscious and like a total rube.
Such a great interview, thank you so much! “In my own life, the limitations of class meant that I often didn’t have access or the know-how to really get the things I wanted.” That has been the story of my life as well. I remember sewing a dress to wear to an event at my first job out of college. My housemate, a college friend, took one look at the dress and said the fabric looked like it was for quilts. It wasn’t but that didn’t matter. She was my fashionable friend and I was cut to the quick. I wore the dress to the event and never put it on again.
I know I repeat my mother’s lessons regularly here, but this is another one: “class is quiet.” It is not about elevating you or expecting credit for everything you do. It is about elevating others. It is not expressed in material things. It is expressed in behavior, acknowledging everyone and including everyone. That is old-school, of course, but it’s my yardstick.
I cannot wait to listen to this. Growing up lower middle class in the rust belt, I often felt in over my head moving to NYC after college. I was introduced to Bourdieu in my first semester of grad school and suddenly my whole life made sense! I was also fortunate to take a class with Rachel Sherman when she first started teaching at the New School. Feel like I am still doing the dance between worlds.
I really loved the Terry Gross episode. Even if she hadnt been born bougie, her class status catapulted so far over her career that she was made bougie, and its rare to hear folks who’ve had upward mobility in that way acknowledge it. Can wait to listen to the rest of the season!!
Extremely resonant, as my partner and I are about to go to a wine tasting thing with friends. I'm always forced to remember how my mother was shamed when she said she loved white zinfandel.
"That's a bimbo wine!" someone complained. And she replied that she was a bimbo, and owned it.
Anyhow I am not a podcast person but you had me at swap meet board shorts and Jarvis.
My husband and I listen to the podcast "Are You Garbage?" hosted by comedians H. Foley and Kevin Ryan, where each week they interview a different guest to see essentially how they grew up and where they land now. And every time we play along, I am garbage and my husband is the epitome of class. The questions range from "what kind of crackers did you have in the house growing up?" to "have you ever spent any amount of time in a trailer park?" It's clear over decades that I've pendulumed, attempting to swing as far from my past into a higher class that I actually recoiled to swing a little bit back. My husband and I can laugh about our different experiences, but my parents and my in-laws struggle to get along. Their financial situations have nearly evened out, but their class backgrounds maintain what feels like a perpetual misunderstanding — and with my own mother being afraid I will "leave her behind."
Are You Garbage is certainly fun, but Classy really gave me a better capacity to probe these issues with my broader family and convince everyone I love them whether I'm eating Rustic Bakery or Ritz. I just loved this series.