Confessions of a “Working Class” Academic Upon Returning “Home”

For the past five days I’ve been sharing a small room with my mom on the second floor of my grandparent’s house, in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Mom has never been known for her housekeeping—I grew up in a series of small homes and apartments, always cluttered with newspapers, opened bills, unopened junk mail, pet hair, unpacked boxes, and overdue library books—and her current one-room “house” is just as messy, only in a more confined space. I’m not saying any of this to put-down my mom—(she’s my best friend and the most amazing woman on the planet!)—only to paint you a picture of the life of my single-mom who works two jobs (starting at 3am, sometimes ending after 7pm), who generally only has the energy to walk our beautiful dog, and not to clean or tidy her surroundings.

ohio unemployment rates

She’s staying with my grandparents because, in case you didn’t know, the economy is shit, and while her working-class status afforded her the option to rent in the past, this is no longer an option. So, when I come home to visit, I come stay with her in the floral-wallpaper’d room, the ancient bed with a creaky mattress, and piles of her boxes, clothes, and newspapersmailmagazinesbooks (etc).  The material reality of this situation is a bit of a microcosm to how I grew up. In fact, my whole visit home has been a palpable reminder of the contradictory nature of my “working-class” identity.

Let me explain. The aforementioned bedroom, although old and unkempt, resides in a home that would definitely be considered “middle-class.” It has two stories, two bedrooms, two living rooms, a dining room, a patio, kitchen, laundry room, two-car garage, large back yard. Growing up, I loved visits to my grandparent’s house because it was a retreat from whatever messy, tiny quarters where mom and I were currently residing. My grandparents (as well as a majority of my aunts and uncles) are college-educated, cultured, and “good liberals.” So, although I experienced the sometimes harsh conditions of a single-working-class-mom-household—(and even before my dad’s accident, he worked 3rd shift and did something with tools, I’m not sure what, but both he and mom had barely graduated high school)—I still knew what it was to be middle-class. My family made sure I grew up reading books, seeing plays, watching cable, and occasionally going on trips. Before thrift shopping was hip, I would throw tantrums when mom said we had to shop there, but was spoiled with a mini-shopping sprees (at the mall!) each season from either grandmother. So when I say “I’m working class!” what I really mean is:

I grew up with a single-mom who worked two working-class jobs. I experienced food stamps, a day or two without electricity or heat from late-paid bills, and the precarity of renting. But growing up, I also saw plays on Broadway, had conversations about politics around a china-laden dinner table (at the grandparent’s), and got to go to Europe with my French class in high school. Since “being on my own” it’s true I’ve never made anything above the poverty line, and so, economically, I’ve still yet to experience a middle-class lifestyle. But I am going into my 8th (!) year of higher education, regularly use phrases like “non-normative modalities,” “hegemonic affect,” “transgressive reflexivity,” and have a ridiculously expensive Bikram Yoga membership. I stress about money, and hate that I can’t fly home to see my family as often as I’d like because I can’t afford it, but, truth be told, I’m not exactly “struggling.”

The contradictions become more salient when I spend time with friends from home and try to engage in conversation in a way

isn't this *hilarious*?! it's a trading card with a dude that mostly grad students and professors know about! i know you want to get in on this, small towns of ohio!

that isn’t condescending or esoteric (because really I have no one to give the nod-and-wink to if I’m talking about “what a Foucauldian mess of a bar this is!”). I am a happy bridesmaid in the upcoming wedding of my first-best-friend of 21 years, but have to censor myself to make sure I don’t start verbal-vomiting radical queer critiques of the institution of marriage. When a family member tried to talk to me about gender, he acknowledged that he knew there were more than two genders—“because of hermaphrodites,”—and upon hearing my audible scoff, my mom reminded me that not everyone knows that the correct term is “intersex” (or that that’s not the only reason there are more than two genders). My grandparents want desperately to know what I write and teach about, but I just can’t seem to find the words to explain radical queer politics in a way that makes sense to them (especially since while I think they’d be accepting if I were a big ol’ lesbian, they are more troubled as to why I say I’m queer when I have only brought men home). Another friend from high school noticed the tattoo I have on my arm with the lyrics from “solidarity forever.” I tried to clarify why I’d get a labor tune permanently scarred on my body, when the last thing they remember about me is that I loved pop-punk and wanted to feed homeless people.  I love my ‘home’ friends and family with all my heart, but I—as I know many academics have experienced—am increasingly strained to find common ground.

My goal in getting my PhD is to close gaps—to provide space for the marginalized to be empowered through education, to work with community orgs through service-learning so as to provide university resources, to challenge and work to dismantle racism, sexism, classism, able-bodyism, heterosexism, etc. But when I am immersed in my “roots,” all I feel that I have done is widen the gap.

For those of you that read this, you must have some understanding of what I write or you wouldn’t keep returning. So I am hoping you might have advice or empathetic stories as to how you deal with the way that academia distances us from our roots, and sometimes renders us immobile to engage in productive dialogue. How can I make the changes I want to make if the only populations that want to engage with me are my academic colleagues, my we’re-paying-to-be-here-so-we’ll-listen students (and/or the students who are there because they’re fucking rad kids that want to learn and change the world!), or already-politicized/organized-bad-ass-marginalized populations?


19 thoughts on “Confessions of a “Working Class” Academic Upon Returning “Home”

  1. as a sort of compliment to your –no electricity for a day/trips to the opera– dichotomy, it is funny how i seemed to grow up almost the exact opposite.

    meaning i was firmly planted in various middle-upper class neighborhoods. my dad made a lot of money. we lived in fucking nice houses. but my mom couldn’t manage money if it killed her, so my childhood narrative went like: we don’t have any money so stop asking for dance shoes! the cable is going to get shut off so feel bad about it! no we can’t afford those GAP jeans everyone is wearing. mixed with a total lack of cultural acceptance of the upper-middle class neighbors we surrounded. so no opera, no wine, no fancy clothes, no fancy food. just looking at us and our culture you would swear we had no money. i got my clothes at K Mart, not the mall, like the rest of my peers. but, like, we could have afforded it with some money management. but alas i went to boring college prep schools and scoffed at the snotty rich kids, all the while living in a household that could have some connection to the upper class if they wanted. and by no means were my parents resisting anything. it just wasn’t in their blood i guess. (and i am not trying to excuse away my privilege. it is just interesting how we seem to have reverse narratives going on)

    as for your final questions, i think our jobs would be a lot more salient to us if EVERYONE was allowed to come to college. like the kids that live a block away from the U but are refused entry due to economic constraints. so maybe the question should be, what are we going to do to re-open the university doors to those who may need it the most? maybe then your questions wouldn’t be so relevant (and that is a good thing, i think)

    • love the post raech. i’ve felt that same distance from my family when i talk about what i do (did! hehe) or learn. my dad was a firefighter and a laborer (does this still – puts in plumbing, electric stuff for a friend) and my mom’s an RN… mom was the first in her family to graduate from high school, could barely pay the rent on her trailer. dad was from a poor farm family but his aunts and uncles owned land so culturally a bit different. i say all this because words like “non-normative modalities” have always felt to me like bullshit (not that non-normative modalities are bullshit, but just that academic jargon in general is pretty f-ing ridiculous and shouts “hey, look at my special smart privilege!”), esp when coupled with the disdain many folks i’ve met still harbor for those less educated. ultimately, i can’t really make those things jive… i feel much more comfortable outside of the academy in a lot of ways… folks like you who embrace and embody praxis give me hope, but folks who sit in their air conditioned offices trying to make the next right move in a theoretical debate that ultimately does ZERO for the people around them make me want to throw things. i’m sure those folks would look down on your mama and mine for their clutter and lack of love for whatever music is hip and intellectual at that moment. the point of this long, rambling rant: after lots of reflection, i’m still confused and frustrated and unable to ignore my learned visceral aversion to pretentiousness as well as my learned assumed connection between pretentious behavior & the ivory tower. i even feel guilty shopping at the farmer’s market instead of wal-mart (when it should be the opposite!). OK end of pointless rant.

      • Deb, thanks for responding to this. As I’ve mentioned to you before, I feel we are kindred spirits with our similar backgrounds. And your point about Wal-Mart v. farmer’s market is so right on. For me, I probably wouldn’t consider going to wal-mart, but would consider (and do) going to unionized grocery stores over non-unionized health food/local/co-op stores. Interesting pickle there.

        So much to say on this. Wish you didn’t leave, so we could continue to have each other’s back when folks start talkin’ bout ‘trailer trash’! ; )

    • Mel,

      Our reverse narratives are interesting indeed. Hm. Speaks to the complexity of class, something that isn’t talked about enough I think.

      I agree with your final comment; access is absolutely the most important thing, but the other thing is (and i know you know this) that not everyone *wants* to come and talk about ideas in the classroom, ya know? and that’s totally cool and fine (if my dad were around to hear me talk like this, he’d leave the room, i think!). so, how we do we move people that want to remain in their a-political existences?

      also, after reading about the (literal) mess i grew up in, maybe you see why i am an OCD cleaner?! ; )

      • LOL re: OCD. Yes another opposite I forgot to mention. My mom was an OCD cleaner (ten times more than you) and I used to get SO mad about it. She would vacuum everyday (so loud!) during all my favorite shows and I was made to do so much cleaning that I thought was repetitive. I don’t wash my clothes very often in part b/c my mom ruined so many of my clothes washing them every time I wore them. Shrinkage and material decomposition. I still like a clean house, but she is like seriously nuts about it. But being a stay-at-home mom would probably make me nuts, too. So I can’t hate.

        Re: access. You are so right and I actually didn’t even think about people who are not interested in an education. Now I will…

  2. Best post you’ve had yet.

    The first rule of moving people is:

    Start the conversation where they are in life, not where you are.

    The second rule is:

    A conversation last a lifetime not an evening.

    The last rule is:

    If people like you they are more likely to listen to you say things that they don’t like.

    • Thanks for this. You always have good lessons on organizing (obviously). But not all your workers google search anarcho-syndacalism, ya know? I loved that story because it showed me working folks can be empowered w/o every resource offered by the university, but it’s daunting when there are so many more who are not moved to organize, and not moved to engage in the struggle on a broader level.

      but people tend to like me, so that i think i’m okay on. : ) conservative students listen to a lot of stuff presented in a seemingly diplomatic way, and end up thinking very differently after they finish my course.

      • With time and pateince and a loving passionate spirit, almost anyone can be moved. Even conservative family members.

        I’m certain that those you feel stuck on today like you very much, and are therefore willing to listen to you in a way they would not listen to most people.

        But….don’t forget the first two points:

        Don’t start where you are, start where they are. For example they probably don’t know “intersexed” people but they probably know some “homosexual” people. And while those people might have more specific or not easily defined sexuality as “homosexual” without alot of discussion, your family isn’t doing to understand that.

        Once the rights and diginty of “homosexual” people they know is understood, then it’s easier to move them to understand and respect ideas like “intersexed” or other sexualities (that i’m certain i don’t even understand).

        and that leads to the second rule:

        if this is your long term friends and family…you have years to slowly move them. Pick one topic and one person and discuss it in great detail, not broad concepts in sweeping terms. If you have moderate goals in the conversations then you will be excited with the progress rather than disappointed that they haven’t totally come around.

        Something you are not know for is your patience.

        Good luck to you with the fam.

  3. i was home a few months ago for my brother’s wedding and was surrounded by completely heteronormative relatives and friends. they are all for the most part extremely conservative and come from working-class backgrounds(union pipefitters, firefighters, for the most part). when they asked me at the dinner table “if i had a girldfriend” i felt excited to at least briefly explain pronouns and the difference between transgender and transexual to them(all completely new topics of discussion for them). maybe i was just excited not to have to explain veganism again to them and why i wasnt eating the food….anyways its hard to say that i felt the discussion was productive since right after dinner id catch my uncles making blatant sexist comments while my grandpa discovered the audre lorde book i had been reading during the ceremony and getting on my case(without reading any of it) for obviously racist reasons. i went back to the table where male bodied groomsmen and female bodied bridesmaids sat on separate sides and was silent for most of the night.
    when i go back home i definitely see myself avoiding many of my relatives and it makes me really sad since i dont want to feel so disconnected but i feel completely lost and alone when im around them. but my mom is asking more questions and seeking out information to educate herself which makes me happy and makes me realize that ive got to at least give everyone a chance and to remember those bonds i have created when i feel lost.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Kevin. I get that, totally. But my mom has also done a 180 on her thinking, and just bought herself A People’s History of the United States, and is reading Louder Than Bombs, a collection of essays from The Progressive, so there is hope!

  4. Geez, I’m glad to see that people realize that we’re often preaching to the choir. The key is to start explaining our “radical new ideas” is to speak the language of the un-converted. Break it down into tiny pieces connecting everything with logic–it’s hard to digest new ideas as a whole. I remember trying to explain to people, “I’m not heterosexual or homosexual–I’m just sexual!” so many times… But I think if we look at the situation from their point of view and understand that they just haven’t heard of words like transgender or genderqueer before, we really can’t blame them. They could scoff at us as easily as we scoff at them.

  5. hey R,

    Great post, I can really relate to what you’re saying here. I’ve been a marxist for basically my entire adult life and it’s taken me a really long time to get comfortable with what I still think of as non-objective understandings of class, like sociological definitions of class like middle class etc. I think those are actually super important categories that speak to people’s experience at least as much as the ‘sellers of labor power’ type definition I tend to use. I mean, the differences and hierarchies that ‘middle class’ and similar sociological terms map onto are really salient in people’s lives – I think because these latter categories are about people’s identities, which are only partially determined by their relationship to the means of production.

    The stuff about your family speaks to my experience a lot too, and this kind of stuff is a good argument for why categories like middle class have important uses. My mom got her teaching degree after many years of night school while raising kids. I’m the only other person in my family with a degree (I’m pretty sure out of my entire extended family), and I’ve totally had those vocabulary related disconnects like you describe. I think this particularly true for academics, because we work in/on/with language, and maintain our authority in part by language. I also think that some habits of our work can sometimes transfer into the rest of our speech habits, at least that’s been my experience – when I quit working as an organizer and came back to school Angelica noticed that I started to talk more and ask less questions. It wasn’t deliberate but I think it came from moving to an environment where prestige/success is handed out in part because of ability to speak well and deliver content vs an environment that valued listening and asking questions.

    One other thing that this post made me think of one of the most unpleasant vocabulary related disconnects I’ve experienced. I’ve had where I’ve used a term that people don’t get, or where I’ve just been unclear and rambly, and relatives or friends have thought I was trying to show off or something. That’s always felt particularly lousy, it can make these differences of education etc start to feel like a source of mistrust and resentment, which is really terrible when it happens with someone you love. This doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore, thankfully (I’ve gotten better about talking about my work with less academic sounding words, though I still have the stuff you describe where people want to know what you study and it’s hard to talk about).

    Anyways, great post, thought provoking (as usual!)

    take care,

  6. “….when I quit working as an organizer and came back to school Angelica noticed that I started to talk more and ask less questions.”

    wow. i think that is such a poignant reminder for all of us in the academy, because i think that happens to us so easily. : /

    thanks so much for you always-appreciated feedback.

  7. Maybe, despite getting married herself, your first-best-friend wouldn’t mind if you “start verbal-vomiting radical queer critiques of the institution of marriage.”

    I think that you shouldn’t try to be two different people- you’ve obviously changed a lot from the 18 year old who left Cleveland for Chicago. Let your friends at home see the “you” that your academic friends see, too! Just because they don’t use words like “heteronormative” [did I spell that right? : )], doesn’t mean that they can’t understand them, or aren’t receptive to new ideas. This seems to me exactly what you should be doing, if you want to change the way people see things- just start a discussion with them.

    • thats a very good point, kimmy…i hope i didnt offend you with this. it’s certainly not about me thinking you wouldn’t “get” it…i just fear i will come off as annoying or snobby….but we even almost started to talk about it at yours truly, right? i said something about probably not getting married and you were like “you might fall in love with someone who likes tradition!” which showed me that you also critique a lot of the tradition; i mean, you say that explicitly. i guess i just dont want to bore people, or seem “too goo”, cause that is not my goal, as i said.

      i love you, and i appreciate this comment.

    • and i should “ps” that brian, peter and i had a very interesting and productive conversation about politics at the bar. i just find those times to be the exception because i worry so much that my ideas are off-putting.

  8. Pingback: Living a Life of the Mind and/or Being a Class Traitor « .rebel grrrl academy: revolution in the shoproom, the classroom, the streets & the hips.

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