This is the third installment in my series about race from the book Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Store of Race by Debby Irving. At the end of this chapter, she poses a question about race. People often state that there are “class” issues in America and not “race” issues. Irving believes, as well as I do, that the two issues are intertwined and not mutually exclusive.
Question: Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggests these categories as a way of thinking about class:
- Working Class
- Lower-Middle Class
- Professional Middle Class
- Upper-Middle Class
- Owning Class
How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?
I’m not sure if I’d ever label my parents as owning class, or anyone for that matter, but let’s explore the meaning (intention) of this label. Does the owning class own American society? Well, yes, in a way they do. The richest of the rich can afford to throw money behind their political wants and needs. They are raised with contacts and taught how to be rich and how to keep as many of their dollars as they can. Rich people can buy politicians to do what they want for the benefit of themselves or the companies they run (yes, I think we need campaign finance reform—funny you should ask). Our government is not so much a democracy as a system set up where the very few control the very many through political means, systemic racism, classism without the very many really knowing it’s happening. I digress—
As a young child, I remember asking my parents if we were rich. No, they said. We lived in a big house. We had two cars. My mom bought us Guess jeans and swatch watches. I had an allowance. I had a car at 16, albeit it a hand-me-down. At one point, I had a Limited Too card which I was only supposed to use to buy dresses. I was a tomboy and liked to live in jeans and baggy shirts, which my mom hated seeing me in. As a kid I would have characterized my parents as upper-middle class, but realistically they’re more toward owning class. My dad is a doctor (now retired) and my mom stayed home with us. We had a blessed existence, because my parents could afford to give us one. They paid for private school for us. They also encouraged us to help others, less fortunate, and they encouraged us to work hard. My dad was a spendthrift in a lot of ways, teaching us that saving is important.
My dad grew up in a middle class family. More toward professional middle class, I’m assuming. His dad worked. And my dad had a stellar work ethic, which allowed him to achieve a lot in his professional career as a surgeon. Sure, some of that comes with the fact that he was a white man growing up in the right time for surgeons to make a mint. We all benefit (or not) from our circumstances.
My mom’s childhood finances seem more complicated to me. She is the daughter of a doctor. But there seemed to be a lot of ups and downs as far as finances in her family. Some failed business ventures by my grandfather left them bad off at some points. I’m sure this affected my mother’s well-being and her relationship with money.
However, when I was growing up money seemed to be somewhat of a taboo subject, so a lot of my guesses about my parents’ class growing up is just conjecture. People did not talk about money—it was considered impolite.
So where do I fit on the class scale? My husband and I both work. We have three children and a big house. We fit along the upper-middle class line (or maybe right below it because of the adjustment for the number of people in our family). We are comfortable. We take vacations, don’t have debt, and life is pretty easy for us. We can give our kids what they need and generally what they want. We aren’t as well off as my parents were growing up. My parents told me that each parent wants their kids to do better than them. That’s the natural progression of things. But that’s not the case with us. Certainly, Rob is probably better off than his mom was, simply from the fact that we have two-income earning adults in our home. But we won’t be able to match my parents’ earning power.
In my childhood, my parents emphasized material success. Money, education, and a good job allow one to be successful. My dad modeled hard work, and my mom did too. She went back to school when I was a teenager and showed me it’s never too late to live your dreams. She also showed me hard work and persistence lead to success. For a long time, I equated money with success. When I went to college, the need to be seen as successful in my parents’ eyes prohibited me from making the creative jump into a writing-related field, because writers don’t earn money (or very much of it). Therefore being a writer would lead to a lack of success, since money equaled success. Because of the world and the class I grew up in shaped my beliefs about success, I lied to myself for a long time about what I needed in order to see myself as successful. I put behind my writer dreams for a long time and lived a life without a creative flow. Until I felt like it was falling apart (tangents are my favorite, don’t’cha know?).
I don’t feel like we talked about race a lot when I was a child. I felt like anyone who could go to college could get a job and succeed. The equation seemed to be: education leads to money which leads to success. What I didn’t think about was the connections my dad and my mom had. I didn’t think about how my race automatically gave me a head start, not to mention my class. I was given the best of the best which helped lead to material success—the way I thought success is built. Certainly, money makes life easier, but I never thought about it in terms of race until I was much older.
Being from a white upper-middle class or owning class family in the South gave me advantages others don’t have. I’ve always thought hard work leads to success. But what if all the cards are stacked against you from the beginning? What if you’re born into a lower middle class family? What if your parents can’t afford to send you to private school or even the best public schools? Doesn’t that automatically impact your ability to get further in life? It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s much more difficult because your starting from a more distant line.
What are your thoughts on class? What class were you raised in and what class are you in now? How did it shape your views of success? Do you think the class you were raised in impacted your view on race?
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