Should Americans Talk About Class?

Helllllllllllllll yes!

“But why?” some ask.

Good question. My short answer: because talking about class is revolutionary. American society as a whole, as judged by my Super Scientific Approach of paying attention to popular culture, has gotten steadily better at talking about gender, race, and sexual orientation.

But start talking about class, and we approach…

!!The Frontier of Collective Consciousness!!

Ignoring Homeless Guy

The American class system is part of our collective consciousness because it requires all of our minds to maintain it. And class is on the frontier because although we all see and respond to class (consciously or subconsciously), very few people are comfortable talking about their personal class experience, especially in “mixed class” company.  This is ESPECIALLY true among people who enjoy significant privilege, like myself.

In fact, I spent 31 years of my life NOT talking about my class! Fear of judgment, fear of envy, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of destroyed friendships–these are powerful inhibitors to honesty about class privilege. You can read more about my personal struggle with self-acceptance around privilege on my blog.

Fast forward to the present day. Now, when I start talking about my class background as a person of privilege,crazy shit happens. By bringing up the most taboo part of my identity near the beginning of a relationship, it frees us to talk about…well, pretty much anything. This can disorient people, and I have to be careful about how I approach the topic. But once I do, invariably, within minutes, we’re talking about the core of what makes up American society, what’s wonderful about it, and what’s hideous, too…and our PERSONAL roles in maintaining the beauty or hideousness of it!

This type of conversation might not be so rare…among people of similar class backgrounds. But when people of different class backgrounds start talking like this, AND acknowledging the role their class status plays in the way they know and act in the world…that’s revolution. This is how real, sustainable coalitions are formed. You can check out Betsy Leondar-Wright’s book Missing Class for fascinating explorations of how open acknowledgement of class status among activists is a foundation of successful social movements.

Greedy diner

By breaking out of my fear about revealing my class background as a person of privilege, every conversation I have now has the potential to work towards creating a society in which class status is acknowledged and talked about openly. When people are consciously reflective about their own class and the way it has shaped them, it builds trust across class lines by weakening the power of American stereotypes about different classes (“rich people are all greedy” and “poor people don’t want to work”).

Acknowledging class status ain’t the end, but it’s a damn good place to start.


Abe Lateiner blogs at Risk Something and at the Huffington Post.