Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Unseen Complexities of Class Identity

When I was still living in the Deep South, I attended a small church. By small, I mean that by megachurch standards it was tiny. Within easy driving distance of my childhood home, one could find several such institutions. I used to dismissively call them “Six Flags over Jesus.” Speaking for myself, I’m more comfortable in relatively small religious settings. The Methodist church where I attended with my family until shortly before high school fit that profile, which is why I suppose I’ve always felt like one of many zeros elsewhere.  

I church shopped for a while, but eventually landed somewhere reasonably soft and comfortable. It was a Unitarian Universalist church full of non-natives who congregated together because they didn’t necessarily fit seamlessly into the prevailing culture. But there were many Southerners like myself who appreciated the company of those who were liberal and unapologetic. The church had attracted a large cross-section of the creative class of the city, the artists, musicians, and dancers. This was their blue oasis and for a while, I appreciated the dramatic change in scenery.

A regular attender brought a very different perspective. His strong southern accent was undeniable. By contrast, I tried to lose my own and mainly succeeded. He sold, among other things, fully automatic coffee makers to be used in industrial settings. They were the sort usually installed in break rooms so that workers could enjoy a cup of coffee while not on the clock. For free, the man provided and installed himself one of these contraptions in the church kitchen. It made quick work of what could be a trying task. Preparing coffee for close to a hundred people was no small feat.

I began to drift away from the philosophy of the church and become openly critical of the entire faith itself. Because I’d been an active member, people periodically asked me why I’d had this sudden change of heart. One of them was the man I’ve introduced. My criticisms stung and he felt that I was somehow rejecting him in the process.

“I enjoy where I go to church,” he said. “At work, I’m always among bubbas. I just don’t have much in common with them.”

I related to his plight. My father worked in similarly blue collar settings, but those never seemed to bother him much. He knew where he came from and never once denied his identity. Dad leased trucks to companies and corporations who needed to ship products across the country. When I was very young, he competed for the account of a company that was fast expanding beyond its home base in Arkansas. It was called Wal-Mart. Had he landed it, he would have become a millionaire overnight. It was the big fish that got away, but he never lost sleep over it.

Since I’ve become an adult, I’ve noticed that my father’s choice in friends and acquaintances reflected who he was and how he saw himself. They were usually highly educated, middle class men made good. They almost always worked in the same industry as he did, but somehow he was magnanimous enough never see them as competitors. Each of these businessmen had learned to work within the dichotomy of class identity, keeping a foot firmly planted in both camps. They knew they would need to code switch and modify their choice of words depending on their audience.

My father grew up dirt poor. Through hard work and luck he became middle class, but he has always retained a kind of class guilt. I’ve always ascribed it to something like survivor’s guilt. He got out of East Alabama, but many of his classmates at school and teammates on the baseball diamond never have. Dad was a home run hitter in his day, the batter no pitcher wanted to face. Those days are long gone. Unemployment in the rural county where he grew up has remained fixed at 15% ever since the textile mills shuttered and headed elsewhere. It's the same effect as the Rust Belt of the Midwest and Northeast.

My mother’s story is similar, but very different. Her family owned its own small business, a well drilling company. In more remote areas of the region, where city water wasn’t an option, water wells were the only source of potable water. It was a filthy, laborious profession, but it gave my mother’s family a sense of autonomy that my father’s family never did. The lowest of the low were worker bees with little control over their own finances. Having experienced significant poverty earlier, my mother's folks made sure to prevent it from ever happening again.

Mom only needed to climb one rung to reach respectable middle class status. Her mother and father always had an inferiority complex for never having attended college. They’d looked forward to the societal advancement and the opportunity to learn, but the Great Depression wiped out the money that had been saved for tuition. It was expected in her family that one ought to make good and that high achievement was not optional. They acted the part and hoped in time the role would be given to them.   

In my father’s family, the expectation was that one would learn a trade after high school. His mother and father had, at most, an eighth grade education between them. They never once considered college or any other vocation beyond what they saw, without much reservation, as their lot in life. For them, this was just what one did. My father had to scale two massive class constructs, which is why his feelings towards his roots have always been conflicted. My mother’s path to respectability was much easier.

Class is an important topic within the Religious Society of Friends. While we seek common purpose with others and delight in the similarities of our life story, we at times overlook other perspectives. Don’t get me wrong. Few faith groups like ours have ever succeeded in attracting members and attenders from a social strata below our own. Some of this is our responsibility, but to simplify this issue and place the burden upon only one party isn’t realistic.

The same is true when it comes to appealing to African-Americans and those of other racial minorities. I’m not arguing that it’s all a simple matter of greater inclusiveness, because that leaves out personal choice. We may not be for everyone, but nonetheless we are for someone. Class is complicated and multi-layered. It cannot be easily unraveled and explained. What I do know is that every one of us has a story to tell. That may be the only way we can really communicate effectively, beyond the limitations of process and the sterility of terminology. Let’s dare to see everyone as a child of God.      

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