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.
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
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?