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.