A few days ago, Sean Craven wrote his Malcolm Gladwell post. And what struck me about it was that while I do not grapple with some of the same issues that Sean does, I struggle with Gladwell’s comments on class. Gladwell suggests that one of the main issues that separate us from one another is class, and it makes a huge difference on who we are and what we can become.
When I initially instigated the conversation about Outliers and expertise, Sean seemed to have almost a visceral reaction. I actually find myself reacting a little viscerally about this point, but then I sort of take a couple of deep breaths, and I realize not everyone has come to this realization by hard work, trial, and error, and everyone’s epiphanies are a little different.
Hello. My name is Catherine. I come from the class commonly known as white trash, although I think that term is on the way out. I am the poster child for recovery and faking it until you make it. But sometimes you all say something, do something, or engage in cultural mores that make me realize I am actually a Martian child not of your suburban world.
My visceral reaction to Gladwell’s idea of class importance is because I fully understand that being imbued with lower class values has put me at a disadvantage, and I’ve had to shuck large pieces of who I was and what I believed in as a kid to get here (me, as Sean would put it, shaking my fist from the gutter.)
Most often, the things I have shucked were weird and imminently shuckable (you beat your kids to get them to behave, you can’t trust The Man, failure is never your fault, white bread and white gravy are a delicious taste treat). As Sean says, you walk the walk and you talk the talk of those in power. If you walk the walk and talk the talk of those in power, you get some place.
And I’m a pretty damned good chameleon. If we remove class from this conversation, and we put this in the perspective of being a fan, more of you might relate to this conversation. You know how awkward we geeky nerdy types are? How we sometimes don’t follow through on socially accepted conventions, and people look at us askance? That’s what this is like. You don’t know the internal rules and codes, and if you want to pass as a non-fan, you try to negotiate those rules some how, either by acclimatizing to them, or getting around them.
What an unfair double whammy! I grew up poor with geeky interests. Being an abused kid also gave me some strange expectations, but those are more of a pathology than a culture, so we’ll just stick with the poor geek.
How do I pass myself off as a non-geek? Well, I don’t, exactly. I am an English professor. That culture means I can be arty and odd, and still be acceptable. Everyone in the office knows that I write fantasy, that I make and wear costumes, that I can wax loudly and deliberately about, say, Deep Space Nine, and that my social behavior will spill into the spectrum of the odd. Because I am a professor of English, however, these are eccentric behaviors rather than unacceptable ones.
When doing business with the world at large, passing one’s self off as a non-geek is a bit trickier. I have to acclimate to non-geek behavior (use the indoor voice, don’t ramp up about things people don’t ramp up about, don’t mention the extreme geek hobbies (costuming becomes costuming for theater, or at the most outrageous, historical costuming), be clean, wear reasonably stylish clothes in good repair, groom one’s self, etc, etc).
What startled me is that I have actually internalized some of this–which means fake it until you make it applies. Confession time: when I first met Elizabeth Bear at Viable Paradise, she was having a geek moment. She was telling a story loudly, and enthusiastically. Well, she was among friends and fellow geeks. And my non-geek monitor kicked in, because I was in a public place with unknowns trying to be professional. My first thought was, “Who is this person, and is she going to be a problem for the instructors this week?” And she turned out to be Elizabeth Bear, an instructor for that week. What startled me about that moment is I realized that in acclimatizing I had developed a judgmental gland, and I needed to have it removed. Since health insurance didn’t approve that kind of surgery, I monitor carefully.
So, back to being poor. I have adjusted in the more obvious ways. I no longer wear clothes that are hopelessly worn or out of style just because I have them. To be honest, I do hold on to some items of clothing because I am not at the point of being able to discard something just because I don’t like it any longer, or it doesn’t fit QUITE right. I have acquired “intellectual” political opinions (by which I mean the political opinions held often by college graduates of the middle class. This has nothing to do with intelligence) and discarded my working class Republican roots (not all Republicanism is lower class. Mine was.) I believe in human rights. I understand white privilege. I donate to charity. I am well-traveled.
How do I not fit? I still worry about paying my bills; even though this has ceased being a realistic problem for me since 1998, I still find myself concerned about paying things on time and making sure we have enough money. I am not as ept socially as I ought to be. People are flabbergasted by my bluntness and forthrightness. Some middle-class friends see this as extraordinary, ethical, and virtuous; others see it as rude. Culturally, I do not know some middle-class mores. For example, how to return worn items. How to plan for my retirement. How to not be too emotional. (The emotional one really frustrates me. We may have been waiving our fist from the gutter, but our emotions were earnest. It seems to me sometimes that people who were raised in the middle class have had the emotions bred out of them, or amputated at birth. Like an emotional bris or something.)
In short, being a geek and a person from the lower classes, I spend a lot of my time pretending and doing things that don’t come naturally to me in order to succeed in a society I didn’t write the rules for. Therein lies my fantasy life. I’m not middle-class. I just play that class on tv.
I understand what I’m getting in return. Sometimes I wonder if I’m selling out. The answer seems to be no, as when I have been faced with decisions like walking away from a job that censored a book in my classroom, or advocating for other things that I think are just, I stay true to my moral core. As an educator, I feel that I’m making a difference. If to succeed with my mission as a professor I need to be more middle class, that’s worth it.
For those of you who romanticize poverty, I have to tell you that there is no romance in it. You’re cold, hungry, and wanting most of the time. I don’t mind leaving that behind.
But I still get away with lower class stuff from time to time. That ability to be bi-cultural, if you will, helps us. I am multi-cultural in many ways. I have been both poor and middle-class. I have been both educated and ignorant. I am pretty much pure geek, but I can survive in the world of work and convention. Outwardly I look like I’ve become something else, but inside I am a blend of all these things.
You will see what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for just the surface, I can be whatever you want. If you dip a little deeper, you’re going to find facets and bumps and pieces of culture that don’t fit with yours. If you can kick it up a notch and negotiate these bumps, congrats, you’re on your way to world citizenship. If you can’t, well, you can go ahead and feel like I’m like you.
And honestly, in spite of Gladwell’s consideration that we do have to change ourselves to succeed in the mainstream, what I think he really means is that we have to change the presentation of ourselves. Because while I have chosen some middle-class ideas as virtuous, I have, strangely enough, decided that some of my working class values are also virtuous, and should be maintained, regardless of what those in the middle-class may think of me.
I guess, then, take that, Malcolm Gladwell. I buy expertise, I buy interdependency, I even buy style, although not through the lens of conformity. However, I feel it’s important to closely examine your ideas on class deeply and thoroughly, not only as a tool, but as a culture which has both good and bad systems, regardless of whether it’s the class in power or not.
Now I’ve got to call the other junior high girls and find out what color they’re wearing Monday.