Why do we avoid class?

All of my life I have seen the effects of class around me, but never truly understood what “class” really means. Until recently I had not often thought about how I viewed the complicated issue of class in the United States.

Though discussion of equality and fairness to all was available in school and at home, little mention was made of the importance of class. As is the case in much of America, the focus was almost always centered on racial inequality, not on the larger effect of race on one’s socio-economic standing. After all class is a multidimensional way of categorizing groups within a society, and is not as cut and dry as how much money one makes, where they live, what education they have had access to, or the color of their skin. I became aware at young age that discussions of class were viewed as being far too complex and taboo to be carried out in most settings, and therefore went unaddressed for most of my life.

This changed however when I became aware of Class Action. Becoming aware of the existence of an ongoing discussion of class has thoroughly changed the way that I think about the subject and my ability to bring it up in my own life. I have found myself continually questioning my assumptions about class relationships and about the way that I think about the role of class in my life. More and more I have been seeing the important divisions that people make between themselves and those who they view to be of a different class, be it on the street, in the workplace or simply discussing different political views.

As I walk the streets of Cambridge Massachusetts, I find myself coming into contact with class divisions almost everywhere I go. It is striking to me that in a city that is simultaneously home to some of the most prestigious centers of higher education in the world and a sizable working class and financially struggling population does so little to discuss the class disparities within its borders.

In bringing conversations about class to people close to me, I find it difficult to talk for long without falling into standard lines of conversation involving political ideologies, and preconceptions about their class and what they feel as though their relationship between classes should be. I have found it especially hard to break through these barriers when bringing up class with college friends, if only because class is something often discussed in a classroom setting but not in everyday conversation. In even bringing up the topic, I find that most of my friends have one of two responses: they avoid thinking about class’ effects on their lives (mainly the advantage or disadvantage that class background gives), or they fall back on claims of total social and economic mobility within the United States, regardless of a person’s background.

I have wondered on and off as to why this is the case, why is it so hard for Americans in particular to talk about class issues, especially in an open or honest way? In recent years cable news and political pundits have cemented the term “class-warfare” in the economic and political consciousness of the country. This has brought conflict along class lines to the fore. Not only has such discussion proven to be an inaccurate way of talking about the struggles of individuals during the recent recession, but an inflammatory way of drawing a line in the sand between people who see themselves in different class groups.

It seems as though we are moving more and more toward closed minds and sealed lips that allow for understanding between people to fall by the wayside. In order to move forward with any conversation about class differences in this country there needs to be a shift toward open-mindedness on the part of the media and the news consuming public, and as with many other hot-button social issues the discussion needs to begin at early and often. I hope that by discussing class throughout one’s life, Americans can begin to break through the fog of insecurity and misconception that keeps honest dialogue so far out of reach.

2 Responses

  1. Mary Sykes

    I would say that part of the reason we don’t discuss class openly in America is that to discuss it puts the myth of the “individual American success story” to the test, and shows it to be a lie. We cling to the myth that “here in America, we rise or fall on our own merit”. Acknowledging class dynamics shows how skewed our system is.

  2. Kathy Modigliani

    Two sentences in Robert Cross’ essay grabbed me:

    “I became aware at young age that discussions of class were viewed as being far too complex and taboo to be carried out in most settings, and therefore went unaddressed for most of my life.” and

    “I have wondered on and off as to why this is the case, why is it so hard for Americans in particular to talk about class issues, especially in an open or honest way?”

    Indeed, why is it taboo to talk about class in an open and honest way? Here are some preliminary answers to that question. I’d love to read others’ answers because we should be able to answer clearly and rationally.

    In naming a class effect, might we step on the toes of relatively privileged people, upset them? Be considered rude.

    If admitting to lower-class experience, might we lower ourselves in the esteem of others? Might we feel a little like losers?

    The privileged classes control the content of the media and are quick to label attempts to examine class discrepancies or to propose rectifying solutions such as tax the rich more as “class warfare.”

    We need to reframe the debate in terms of equity and civil rights, and claim the higher ground. The Occupy movement has made an important beginning.

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