Gee, thanks, but I’m actually not exceptional at all

I sometimes think one of the strongest barriers to equality is that when you’re trying to join a group you weren’t born into, you have to either smile and nod while listening to the crap those people say about the group you were born into, or stand up for yourself and your people and alienate the very group of people you were hoping to join. Except now you’re wondering if they’re worth joining – unless you’ve learned to despise your own group in order to identify with the group you’re moving into.

Maybe I can make this clearer with an example. Let’s say you grow up in a socioeconomic class that didn’t enjoy the financial security the middle class has. You want to move into the middle class not because you hate the folks from your own class, but because you want and feel you deserve financial security. You eventually get a good job – the kind your parents never had a chance to get – and you’re working amongst middle class folks. Now, they had their parents pay for college and maybe their first home down-payment, so they’re still ahead of you financially as you struggle to pay your college loans alongside the rent, transportation and the “right” clothes for your job. But you’re getting there.

Except, you have to listen to your new-found middle class co-workers talk about poor people and how poor people defeat themselves and there’s nothing anyone can do to help them. Or, less offensively but still boiling down to the same ideas, they say anyone can get rich in this country, and if they don’t, it’s because they’re not trying hard at all. And you find yourself thinking of people you know or knew. People who worked two low-paying jobs because they were damned lucky to be employed at all in their economically devastated region. People whose college plans got cut short by a sick parent needing constant nursing the family could hardly afford to outsource. People who never wasted their money on anything, who lived frugally not because it was “green” but because it was survival. People who fought hard and burned with passion to set up their kids for a slightly less dismal financial experience. People who maybe endured harassment at work and kept their mouths shut for fear of losing a job they couldn’t replace. People who had no one to take them in if they got laid off or moved somewhere else in hopes of finding a job. And you think: applying the stereotype of laziness to these people just flat out contradicts your sense of reality.

But if you say it, your middle class buddies will either reject it flat out, or say you’re too sensitive. They weren’t talking about you, after all. You’re exceptional. Which is to say, you obviously did something brilliant that never occurred to all the people you grew up amongst for three generations.

Except, no. You simply seized an opportunity it took your family multiple generations to build. If the opportunity had gotten built in time for your parent’s generation, they would’ve done the same. If it hadn’t gotten built until you had kids of your own, they would’ve been the ones to Make It. You know you’re not exceptional, at least not in the way they mean it. You know you are simply the product of a whole lot of people working much harder than the middle class could probably endure, just to get one of you out of Going Nowheresville and into something like a nice life.

Only it’s not so nice, if you have to put up with this.

It’s not just a socioeconomic issue, either. Women who lose a lot of weight often find themselves borged into a Skinny Bitchez Club where they get to hear about the lazy disgustingness of fat women. And with race, it needn’t even be a mobility issue: a person of color can be born into a middle or upper class and find herself having to listen to all sorts of stereotypes about people of her color or ethnicity. She shouldn’t take it personally: she’s an exception.

If you’ve had a similar experience, did you ever find a balance? I’m still searching for it.

When you talk in generalizations about a group I have belonged to, you are talking about people I love and know, some of whom I know to be the antithesis of what you say they are – and in some cases, know to be much higher quality creatures than you. Don’t think you can tell me I’m an exception, and that makes it okay. I didn’t reject and abandon the group of people from which I came; I didn’t join your group in order to think poorly of them. I joined your group to get away from your oppression, not become a part of it.

Comments

  1. Derek says

    I love this blog, even though it makes me mad every time I read it. As trailer-trash-turned-middle-class-with-mortgage-family-and-two-cars-person, I am offended by this blog. But as just trailer-trash-guy I love it. I’m confused.

  2. Jen says

    On facebook I stumbled across a group some of my aquaintances were joining called ‘I’m a working class hero’ or something to that effect.
    Intrigued by the John Lennon quote I clicked on the link.
    The group info was something like ‘We are heroes because we dragged ourselves out of the shitty council estates we were brought up in and got to university or got a good job, against all the odds.’

    I had a problem with them using the John Lennon quote, which I always thought was about solidarity with the working classes, not leaving your neighbours behind in the deteriorating tower block you grew up in while you put on a suit and try to blend in with the middle classes. (and probably talk about how lazy they are).
    I can’t find the link unfortunately cos I’m at work and facebook is blocked.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Huh. I agree with your take and the whole thing just strikes me as… sad. They’ve missed the whole point and co-opted a song to boot.

  4. Kelly says

    I don’t know the context for the facebook group, so I can’t comment on whether I agree with them or not. But I can certainly relate to your quote of their summary. I don’t see it as a lack of solidarity, but rather something most working class people aspire to: to better themselves and their circumstances and not have to accept the same conditions as previous generations.

    Would you rather we all just stayed where we were; didn’t try to make a little more money than our parents, go for a job we might actually enjoy, unlike our parents, maybe even work for a decent house rather than the rotting tenement we grew up in? Despite the fact that most of us won’t make it?

    As Jennifer said, it usually takes generations to escape. I was a lucky one who did escape. And it was against the odds. I did well in school even though I had no parent to help me with my homework every afternoon. I managed to go to a pretty good university. Despite not having the money to pay for it. And even an excellent grad school. Again, without the money to pay for it. The first person in my entire family to do so. I now have a decent job. That I mostly enjoy. That allows me to not worry about whether I’ll be able to pay the rent. You cannot believe the anxiety I no longer feel.

    I take exception to the idea that I left my neighbors behind and am now trying to blend in with the middle class. I look back on my accomplishments and I am proud of myself, but also of my mother, who sacrificed to provide me with the few opportunities I had and encouraged me to seize them. Just about every situation mentioned in the article (and more) happened to my mother – (community) college cut short; divorced by her husband and left to care for her two children alone; worked two (and often three) low paying jobs to make ends meet; suffered sexual harassment at a job because she couldn’t afford to quit; went without meals so her children could eat. Anyone who has watched her parent do all that, knowing it was for her and her sibling, cannot possibly betray her parent by trying to blend in with a group that more often than not dismisses her trials as something that simply doesn’t happen in this country.

    When you have truly experienced the misery of being the working poor, and escaped it sometimes feels like you’re a hero. I do admit that some may try to forget where they came from, because it is such an unpleasant situation, nobody wants to remember. We are sometimes just so relieved to be out that we don’t want to think about it a second longer, even to advocate for those still trapped. It is when we remember that we feel like a hero. We just need to remember that heros take action on behalf of others as well as themselves.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Anyone who has watched her parent do all that, knowing it was for her and her sibling, cannot possibly betray her parent by trying to blend in with a group that more often than not dismisses her trials as something that simply doesn’t happen in this country.

    Some manage to do just that, actually. They’re ashamed of their background and view the sacrificing parent as a sucker.

    There is nothing heroic about escaping your own oppression. Helping to end oppression is what’s heroic. Escaping it benefits no one but the person who escaped.

    That’s why people who escape hellish situations often have survival guilt, irrational and unfair as that is, about all the people they leave. For this Facebook group to call themselves heroes when all they did was look out for number one is more than a little sickening.

    You have every right to feel great about escaping your own oppression, but if that makes you feel like a hero, I think you’ve missed the point too.

  6. Janine deManda says

    @Jennifer Kesler – Yes! Hell, yes! Fuck yes! A thousand squizillion times YYYEEEESSSS!!!!! Thank you for writing this article!

  7. Eme says

    “If you’ve had a similar experience, did you ever find a balance? I’m still searching for it.”
    I have actually been the born-into-the-middle-class-person when people of my class were talking about a so-called ‘low-class’ friend of mine. Back then, I’m sorry to say that I caved to societal pressures to not say anything (I was six), but I did break off the friendship with the classist.
    I’ve since learned to look for certain behavior patterns and at the diversity of the group. I also give them a sort of trial period in which I go to a few functions. It usually doesn’t take long for any -ism to show up in casual conversation.
    Unless I really need to join the group (like I need the job), this is where I cut out if they’re really bad/beyond hope. If they’re not, I try to educate them. It’s a long and arduous process that I’d best describe as corruption of the -ism. (Get them to cut this one corner- it’s not all *that* illegal, and it’s only once- then get them to cut that corner, and before they know it, they’re corrupted. The difference being that you get them to cut corners on their -ism thinking.) …maybe you could try something like this? Or you could just try to ignore them…
    The long-winded one will shut up now.

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