Guilt and Defensiveness vs Owning Our Privilege(s)

What follows is a very personal essay about my own learning about class, race and other “isms.” I use my own method of self-critique and observation and lived experience. Most of what I’ve learned is, of course, unfortunately, hindsight.

I am from a poverty / lower working class background. Socially I have had many mixed poverty/working/middle class friends and girlfriends. Recently I had a huge fight with my girlfriend because I mentioned the “C” word. No, not Cancer, Class. We have since ironed it out but it is ever present in everyday life. Here’s what this argument looked like:

We were driving from San Francisco up Rte 5 to Oregon to visit her sister for Thanksgiving. I was driving her car which is a 2003 Toyota Corolla with Cruise control. I have a 1995 Toyota Tercel. I love my car, even though it has no Cruise control. I have 206+k miles on it. She has 60K miles on hers.

I have a “heavy foot” (tendency to speed) unless there’s cruise control. I was driving her vehicle and commented how nice it is to drive her vehicle and put on cruise control and relax so I can stop looking at the dashboard and be worried about speeding all the time when on the highway. It’s dangerous, annoying and stressful to be driving in fear of getting a $300 ticket. After a few moments of silence I snapped my fingers and said, “hey, that’s a class issue.”  I was just excited  because I had an epiphany. I said it with no intent. I saw it as a class issue because usually cars with cruise control are later model cars and/or more expensive cars than I can afford.

She got really irritated and angrily said. “not everything is about class!” At that point I got angry back and started yelling about “OMG I said the ‘C’ word!! Yep, I said it again! Well, goddamn me, shoot me!” I felt like Ralph Cramden (Jackie Gleason) from The Honeymooners (1950’s network TV). I’m laughing now as I write this. But it felt maddening to me at the time.

I realize that so many of these arguments are because of our varying degrees of privilege and the resulting guilt of that privilege. And usually from there the argument degenerates into defensiveness and no one can hear anyone. The reason I know this is because of prior relationships I had with wimin of color. At times I would get tired of always hearing “white this or white that” or “Indian this or that.”  I knew the political content and got it, but my ego, my race, race privilege got in the way. It’s one thing to know it on a somewhat distant level, but living in a mixed race couple, of course, I had to deal with my racism. I am at least honest enough to admit it. Threfore, I can learn. Same thing goes for Class issues, gender/sex issues, etc.

I don’t say all of that to pin a medal on my chest, but it is what I’ve learned and observed. In a way, getting to understand how our society is organized, including the emotional content as part of society, taking it to the larger picture, I think, helps me understand myself and others without all the blame, shame and guilt. And now I can make a lot of Jewish jokes because I’m Jewish — and guilt being the topic, well, I can have a really good time with that.

Guilt. What can I say about that? We all have it. It’s not always a bad or negative thing. Sometimes, guilt helps us do the right thing. Other times, and mostly, it gets in the way of honest communication and truly giving to others. Maybe this essay is really about owning our privilege(s) and how to make use of them?

I tend to share examples of internalized classism. I do that because it’s a way of saying to the self-proclaimed “guilty” ones ‘ hey, you’re not alone in thinking the way you do. I was socialized in this society as much as you were. And if you want to be guilty, because you think that will help us, that’s the wrong tact to take.’  Maybe we are all guilty, and then what? I think if we own our privilege(s) and put them to use in whatever way we can, then we’re doing something to alleviate inequality.

I pulled a classist act on my own sister recently. Out of three girls in my family, I was the only one that went to college in my 30’s. My sisters both live a pretty middle-class existence financially and socially. But the oldest bought a trailer for vacations and set it up in a Florida trailer resort, and then the resort got closed down because the town no longer approved zoning for trailers. I guess she had an eye opener because she had thought she had “made it” because she had money, she’s been able to have financial stability (for the first time in her life), and then the town which is a relatively affluent area on the west coast of Florida, decided that trailers were “too trashy” for their community. I mention this because there’s so much more to class than money.

But that wasn’t the classist act I laid on my middle sister. With my middle sister, I told her a story and gave her the definition of a word without her asking, and when I gave her this little tidbit, she said, “I know what that means.” I felt embarrassed and bad that I did that.

So, there we are. We are all guilty in a way. The internalization of the “isms” goes deep. If anyone would like to talk more about this I’d be really happy about that. And what about privileges? Can we name what they look like?

10 Responses

  1. Lena, we should talk. I grew up working class and married an owning class woman. It’s hard naming social class stuff because I get that all the time. “Not everything is about social class.”

    It wouldn’t be if we could talk openly about it, name it, and move on.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Christopher Page

    The experience of your older sister stood out for me. As someone who’s always been in between major class strata (e.g., upper end of lower and lower end of middle), I’m reminded of so many experiences where I thought, ‘Ah! I made it, things are going to be OK!’ only to have the local upper/owning/rulings decide “we” aren’t going to accept that any more as legit.

    The first such experience that came to my mind was when my wife and I transplanted to CA from CT. Prior to the late 1990’s it was possible to “vacation” along the CA coast camping on the beach or at least in roadside pullouts along the PCH here and there. For us “vacation” always meant camping or backpacking, mainly because we enjoy that but realistically, that’s what we could afford. There wasn’t an alternative to camping, and sadly still isn’t for us. Anyway, we were in heaven because in CA, unlike New England we could camp everywhere we wanted to go. We’d scrimp and save to come up with gas money, a park fee here and there and poof! Vacation! Within a few years we noticed no-camping signs going up, the PCH along Big Sur and Morro Bay got guard rails preventing folks from pulling off the road. Within a few years of we’ve found heaven and we could vacation we were back to what folks now call “staycationing”; it wasn’t our choice to stay at home, it’s just that the only way to go away from home for more than a day trip was eliminated for us by an idea that people camping along the coast was “trashy” and brought in “riff raff,” “hippies,” or “the element.”

    Park closures and fee increases due to budget cuts (some among the owning class don’t like to pay taxes, I guess) impact us and people with lower incomes than us in much more profound ways than people with means. For us it means, we stay home—”no break for you”. For those with means it’s just a shrug of a shoulder, we’ll go stay in a hotel or go to Hawaii instead.

    But bring any of that up in everyday conversation, woo! Cardinal sin and all that. I’m learning to keep bringing it up anyway. People need to have a more mobile or fluid way of understanding, observing and responding to class impacts in our contemporary neo-robber baron society. It helps to be able to talk about those things and accept the presence of any attendant guilt, shame, judgment in order to experience and converse more openly, like Jeanne says, “name it, and move on.”

  3. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    I’m so appreciative of getting responses. Jeanne, yeah, naming it is hard. I always want to say “it’ll only hurt for a little while!” I sometimes get what I call lower class arrogant. Of course sarcasm is a tool of the powerless so I try to move on. I’m at a point in my life where if I can’t name or talk about class issues especially with an intimate, then for me, I don’t think I can stay in that relationship.What middle class folks don’t seem to realize is that by naming something it takes it out of the personal and is far less blaming in the long run. The defensiveness is what hurts and does more damage, in my opinion.

    Hi Christopher. Of course if we can’t name it then it becomes either something in our heads, ie we get blamed for being too sensitive or we’re making things up, but basically it means “go away” or shut up. And yes, even the campgrounds on the coast of Ca are expensive for working and poverty class folks. I have an added conundrum because I’m chemically sensitive and can’t stay in motels because of fragrance things they put in the rooms. I have to camp. There still are National Parks to camp in,but again they cost.

    I’m thrilled to dialogue about this. You’re so right, there isn’t many people willing to talk about the “C” word.

    A middle class friend of mine read this and she said it wasn’t a class issue because she got an older car with power steering and didn’t pay that much for it. While it might be true that I could have found another car that I could afford with power steering, maybe, that isn’t even the issue really. What happened was far more important because the issue got opened up and more understanding happened and I realized for myself that if I’m in a mixed class relationship and we can’t talk about class, for me, it’s a bottom line issue. I’ve been hurt from some past relationships where everything was psychologized and I was always the “weirdo” and expected to be other than who I was.I’m not willing to do that anymore. Older and wiser as they say.

    Keep talking! This is a great forum for that, for us.

  4. Mimi

    Ah – read it! Great comments – will be back later – gotta busy day. Just checking in. Class is all about consumption, as has been pointed out. The higher you go, the greater the inequality and that addiction to creating hierarchies in societies is The Problem in the world today. You can’t tackle the issues of equality without dismantling the concept of hierarchies.

    It’s really time to open up the issue, as Lena has pointed out, in the same way that race and disability have become identifiable in everyday interaction.

    1. Lena Rothman
      Lena Rothman

      “You can’t tackle the issues of equality without dismantling the concept of hierarchies.”

      What came first, the chicken or the egg? I’ll give this more thought and respond. It would be great if someone else responds.

  5. What a gift to be reading this! I was told I brought the Great Depression by being born in 1929! Money is a chronic dilemma for me. When I have a little extra, I’m likely to give it away. When I’m tight, I’m a master improviser, economizer, simplifier. I never felt poor, but my parents, though not college educated, had higher-class ancestors and thus language and attitudes of upper middle class. Their remedy for poverty became my mantra: When in doubt, go back to school. You can’t have too many degrees. All those letters after my name give this little Colorado peasant power and clout! I earn in 21 hours/week at age 82 what the great working class has to spend 40 hours earning! How confusing! Guilt-inducing? Often. By traveling widely, living in Third World countries, I’ve grown lateral roots of languages and loyalty while losing my deeply middle-American taproot. I volunteer half time in a self-sufficiency project in Mexico, donating a chunk of every paycheck to them. I am signed up for a White Privilege conference in March to deal with this terrible prejudice against my white self. I may not have enough time left to accept my paradoxes such as wearing only used clothes but owning a 1200 square foot house outright, a car with cruise control, also paid off. I’m here, open to helpful discussion.

  6. I have been forced to deal with this issue recently, but from the other side of the discussion. My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my parents are both highly college-educated and so am I, so I have the language and attitudes of the middle class. I recently got out of a relationship with a lower-class person who grew up in a trailer and used to be homeless. Socially, he is in an awkward position because he has left the conservative Christianity where he grew up and now associates mainly with more religiously-liberal people who happen to be mostly middle and upper-middle class, but at the same time he acutely feels their privilege. I was the one who ended the relationship, and while some of the reasons had nothing to do with class (for example, he is much more extroverted than I, and so there was a constant tension between my wanting to be alone and his wanting to be running around all day), I admit that the biggest reason was that I was spending myself almost into debt buying him things because he was unemployed. He has accused me of being a classist (and I wonder if he may be right) because I honestly didn’t have much hope of him becoming financially stable, given that he has been fired from past jobs and dropped out of community college because of emotional issues (these were caused by a troubled family background, which statistically speaking, he probably wouldn’t have had if he’d grown up middle class– class issues again!). I am beginning to see privilege in everything I do, but my current relationship with him is just too emotionally-charged for me to even know if I SHOULD address this issue with him at this point. I guess the best I can do is to acknowledge my privilege and fight classism in other areas of my life, and leave this one untouched for now.
    I plan to write a blog post on this topic once I’ve sorted through it some more.

    1. Lena Rothman
      Lena Rothman

      Mixed class relationships are difficult. If he can’t support himself for various reasons having to do with his emotionality there isn’t anything you can do about that.You can be supportive but he’s the one that has to deal with himself. You said “I honestly didn’t have much hope of him becoming financially stable, given that he has been fired from past jobs and dropped out of community college because of emotional issues (these were caused by a troubled family background, which statistically speaking, he probably wouldn’t have had if he’d grown up middle class– class issues again!).”

      I was a Sociology major and also through life experiences, I can say that it is not true that lower classed people are more prone to “troubled family background”. Where is that statistically proven? That statement reeks of assumptions and bias. Perhaps you’re mistaken because lower classed families are more visible. Incest,alcoholism, addictions in general and mental illness falls across all class backgrounds.

      1. Lena, I just wanted to say “hi.” I was cyber-surfing and discovered this site. Although I’m a “little late to the post party.” I’m married and living in Maine now. I left Port Townsend years ago.

        This is a pertinent topic, and one that I’ve frequently contemplated. It takes courage to talk about the class issue, but it’s necessary for social understanding. Anyway, I hope that you’re doing well.

  7. Pat

    Lena! so good to hear news of you. My Mother Mercedes asked me today about you and I promised I would search. Somewhat late in posting. Hope we can hear from you same address in Tucson. I think I have struggled to be accepted/understood by others and really can empathize with your thoughts. Would love to hear more.

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