As Long as You Think We Are White: Our Experience as Working Class Academics in the Humanities

Justin Philpot and Katie Sullivan Barak

[1] There is a question we, the authors, confront now and then. Having grown up in working class families, in working class neighborhoods, our status as working class people has been periodically questioned as we have worked our way through the halls of higher education. First as students, and now as credentialed academics, the question echoes: how working class are we, really? The answer, predictably, is complicated. It depends on who is asking, the values they assign to class, and whether we meet their pre-conceived idea of what being working class means. The question is less about defining an aspect of our identity than a means of determining our working class authenticity. And we have learned that, because of our race, the answer hardly ever matters. The answer does not matter because we are white.

[2] Many readers will no doubt recognize our nod to James Baldwin in the title. It is worth quoting in full, if only as a reminder. "It is up to you," he said. "As long as you think you're white, there is no hope for you. As long as you think you're white, I'm going to be forced to think I'm black" ("James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket"). Our thoughts on our experiences as white working class academics proceed from a rhetorical question, asked in response to Baldwin, ourselves, and our peers. The question is this: As long as you think we are white, does what we think matter at all? When our working class identity is routinely dismissed by an essentializing conception of race and privilege, we think the answer is no. In fact, we are willing to go a step further and say that doing so is itself an act of privilege, albeit one peculiar to higher education. This is academic privilege.

[3] Academic privilege, as we see it, is the use of the fact of racism—or sexism, or homophobia, or classism—to erase or negate another aspect of one's identity. It is the prioritization of one aspect of an individual's identity over another, and it is a reductionist practice. Race is a social construct, racism a social reality. So is class. In our case, our class identity has been challenged and called into question most often by those who see us first and foremost as white, with all the privileges the concept entails. In instances where we believe our class experience is relevant, that aspect of our working class-ness has been deprioritized by our peers, many of whom are decidedly not working class. Most importantly, it is the concept of whiteness that is brought to bear, and not the social reality of being poor and white. Time and again we have been told whatever disadvantages we may have had as members of the working class are irrelevant when measured against the advantages conveyed by our presumed race.

[4] Part of the difficulty we face in discussing these issues stems from these reductionist tendencies. We have never felt that our race was unimportant, or questioned the reality of white privilege. When we have had occasion to address our class identity, it has been our perceived racial identity that has been called on to dismiss our self-identification as working class, rather than complicating it. Whereas we feel comfortable addressing the intersecting forces of race privilege and working class-ness, our conception of ourselves as both has, most often, spurred the recognition of only one; our race trumped our class, almost every time. It is not up to us, but we would like this to change. And we think an intersectional approach to thinking about working class academics would be a good place to start.

[5] An intersectional approach acknowledges that singular identity categories cannot exist. Individuals are comprised of complex, overlapping social identities that limit how we see the world and how the world sees them. Social and cultural categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability are not universal experiences; these are "interwoven" identities (Lykke 51). Lisa Bowleg argues "there is no single reality about the experience of one's intersecting identities, only multiple constructed realities about one's own experience of intersectionality" (317). The recognition of intersectional identity is crucial to supporting a vital and relevant social and cultural criticism in the humanities. We believe adopting this approach, individually, may help others see working class academics more completely. When social class is used as an additive identity (white + working class, for example), race is unnecessarily prioritized over class as a matter of course, regardless of the question at hand. They deserve equal consideration.

[6] As much as we believe intersectionality is a valuable critical tool, we emphasize it here as an individual perspective because it is in the personal sphere where our class affinity is most at issue. It is in the day-to-day interactions between colleagues, the conscious and unconscious exercise of academic privilege by peers who speak the language of equality, and who assume equality-in-context, that our class difference is made manifest. When, or if, the working class has been engaged as a subject of conversation or debate, it has not been in relation to academia. In our experience, the existence of working class academics is hardly given a second thought, if any thought at all. When either of us has, on occasion, referenced our own background our experience has been dismissed as either; 1) too small a sample size to be relevant; 2) irrelevant in context, as we were obviously not working class now that we were in higher education; 3) insignificant in comparison to the advantages other aspects of our identity were considered to convey, including our standing as academics. These are not, we think, institutional responses, nor could they be solely explained as such through contemporary work on power, identity, class, or privilege. Rather, these were the responses of our peers—colleagues and mentors—and they were personal, albeit wrapped in the jargon and ideals of academic discussion.

[7] When the unspoken assumption of working class absence has been challenged by our self-identification as working class, that identification has been negated by individuals reliant upon the language of the academy to secure themselves from embarrassment and maintain the fiction of an equal, and therefore equally privileged, academy. Admission to the professional sphere of academia does not suddenly level the playing field for the participants. Study after study shows this to be true for racial minorities and women, and it is true of the working class members as well (Ross et al.; Jackson and O'Callaghan; Milkman et al.). So long as the individuals who make up the larger group we call academia believe it is an equitable space, or presume it is unequal only for some, there is no hope for it.

[8] Before moving on, it is necessary to define what we mean by working class. In economic terms, wage labor is the defining characteristic of the working class, and though the type of labor associated with it has shifted away from manual labor to a softer form of service labor, the distinction between wage labor and professional work has remained. Earning a wage and earning a salary bring with them certain limitations and advantages, the primary distinction being the relative security of salaried employment. The distinction between the two, complicated by technology and demand for college-educated employees, can also be considered primarily economic, especially when the two groups look superficially similar. But the fact remains, working class employees, as a result of their type of employment, have different worries and considerations than those who have more stable and better compensated employment. The social aspects of the working class, in our experience, hinge on the instability of long-term, unsecured employment.

[9] But it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on the economic in discussions of class. The conditions of wage-labor notwithstanding, E.P. Thompson's assertion, echoing Marx, that class is first and foremost a relation rings true to us. Indeed, it is the relation between working class academics and their peers, in our experience, that defines the distinction between classes, not economic considerations. We are convinced, like Thompson, that class is a social and cultural formation, despite the reliance on economic conditions to distinguish differences; differences we maintain are not wholly economic. In a similar vein, Bourdieu argues that class is comprised of tastes, emotions, behaviors, motivations, values, worldview, and even our goals and aspirations (1984). Together these form an individual's "habitus." Our habitus, Bourdieu argues, is both collective and individual; "It is socially constructed, it does not have a rational basis of existingÉ and exists because its antecedent history(s) gives meaning to the present" (McKnight and Chandler 78). In our experience neither the economic nor the social/cultural aspects of working class Americans have been much of a concern for our peers in academia when it comes to relating with and accepting their working class colleagues. More often than not, our class has been deemed irrelevant in light of our presumed, shared, academic privilege, an advantage we have never held but which is nevertheless considered evidence of equal footing.

[10] What do we think of when we think of ourselves as working class? Of our parents, one of four went to college, receiving an associate's degree. The degree, combined with 20 years experience, helped make the move from wage labor to a salaried administrative support position possible. Everyone in our immediate families, including us, is a wage laborer, with that single exception. Both of us are the first in our immediate family to attend a four-year college, much less pursue advanced degrees. Growing up, we had little financial security. Between us we received reduced school lunch, housing assistance, had the family car repossessed, been evicted, and spent time in a shelter for homeless families. Christmas presents purchased in charity have been applied for and received.

[11] These were formative experiences for us, and they have shaped the way we look at the world. More importantly, they have shaped the way we approach higher education, cultural studies especially. They do not make us special, nor do they entitle us to anything. We share it to show you: we were born into our social and cultural position, much as we were born into our nationality, our sexuality, our race. We accept it as a fact, and we ask that others do, too.

[12] We are not alone. Our experiences and concerns as working class academics are echoed by scholars who have struggled, and continue to fight, for recognition of the unique relationship between working class academics, their peers, and the social expectations of their profession. Authors almost uniformly report that despite their education bumping them out of the working class and into the middle class, they often deal with feelings of fraudulence or a fictional existence, disloyalty, border-crossing, and dislocation (Dews and Law; hooks; Mahony and Zmroczek; Tokarczyk and Fay). In her book Class Matters bell hooks uses her personal history to unwrap the complicated positionality of a working class woman of color in academia. She describes the general invisibility of poor whites in the United States, stating, "In my neighborhood, everyone believes the face of poverty is black. The white poor blend in" (4). She continues, noting that the politics of race and gender, being simpler, "were easier to identify and challenge than the evils of classism. We live in a society where the poor have no public voice" (5). Summing up, she describes the danger of this omission: "At the end of the day the threat of class warfare, of class struggle, is just too dangerous to face. The neat binary categories of white and black or male and female are not there when it comes to class" (6). The nuance and complexity of class in America, in hooks' view, is not only informed by race and gender but also, crucially, protected by them.

[13] Terms like cost or price repeatedly appear in the literature; there is a collective sense that upward mobility is not free (Reay; Cole and Omari; Datnow and Cooper). Many of the stories in This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class point to the fact that one's identity, familial and community relationships, and acceptance are what you give up in order to be upwardly mobile. hooks agrees, calling this reality "the price of the ticket" (36). Poor students are expected to assimilate into their new middle class position. In addition to losing connections with those who share your class background, once one does climb the ladder, new peers and colleagues do not necessarily replace those lost relationships. Many reports show that working class academics feel isolated and alone. Diane Reay points out, "The possibility of a complex social trajectory for people who remain working-class is often denied" (20). If you are successful as a working class academic, then the trajectory is to move up and away from your class background; you must lose it in order to progress forward. This issue is tied to the fact that working class academics are seen as exceptional examples: "We stand for a triumph of individualism over community; proof that equal opportunities work" (Reay 21; for a structural analysis of the American Dream in classrooms, see Hochschild's 1995 work). Our acceptance and accreditations demonstrate that the American Dream really can come true, boot straps, hard work, and mobility for all.

[14] Sandra J. Jones's study "Complex Subjectivities: Class, Ethnicity, and Race in Women's Narratives of Upward Mobility" presented female professors' personal accounts of negotiating their working class background while moving up in academe. In their discussions of adolescent experiences, participants located the source of their unequal treatment in either their race/ethnicity (when they were the minority in a classroom) or in class (when they were in a classroom made up predominantly by students and teachers of the same race/ethnicity). Jones consistently grounds her interpretations in intersectional analysis, concluding that future research must not sacrifice class identities to gender or racial identities, nor racial and gender identities to class. She puts the onus on schools to "expose classism and provide support for working-class students" and, ultimately, position research and social action within the lens of intersectionality (818; see also Coiner). Diane Reay reached a similar conclusion to Jones, encouraging working class academics to engage with their complex positioning as an ongoing practice—this knowledgeable, thoughtful negotiation needs to be analyzed to deconstruct issues of race, gender, and historical disadvantage. Academics, especially working class academics, should use class background as a resource or a tool to create an ongoing dialogue in classrooms as well as department meetings and other university functions.

[15] Whereas hooks and other scholars use the term "invisibility," we feel our experiences as working class academics are defined instead by acts of erasure. Invisibility does not adequately explain what we feel when we are asked to authenticate our working class experience by colleagues and peers, particularly when the language of race is employed to question its value. Our race privilege is used by those unwilling to face the implications of our class affiliation to undermine our authority as scholars, discrediting our perspective and weakening our position as critics working in fields where our identity and personal experience is not only informative, but meaningful.

[16] When the knowledge and language of critical cultural studies is utilized not to reveal, but to assign, relations of privilege and identity, the utility of these perspectives, as well as their intent, is lost. Doing so serves two purposes, intentional or not. First, by relying on the essentializing concepts rather than the reality of social relations, academic privilege reifies and maintains these concepts, substituting a theoretical understanding for a lived, experienced understanding. Second, it reiterates the privilege afforded by naturalizing the white, middle/upper middle class as the norm, leaving it unchallenged while simultaneously granting it the right to name, and to assign, identity, privilege, and meaning in its own interest.

[17] It is necessary before we continue to clearly state our intentions, lest we risk misunderstandings. We speak only for ourselves. When we saw the call for papers for a special issue on working class academics, we agreed that anything we wrote had to be rooted in our own experiences. To frame a response in any other way would be insincere. Honoring our experiences is too important to us to risk it to understatement or occlusion. Our working class background is a critical component of who we are, and we want to do it justice.

[18] We also agreed that presenting our experiences as evidence, as proof of the existence of a difference between working class academics and those who are not, would rely on the same types of generalizations and assumptions non-working class peers exhibit when they talk about us. So we acknowledge that the experiences we recall here are our own, and only ours. Yet, we are confident stating that there is such a thing as academic privilege, and that it differs from the general understanding of privilege only in that it exists in the graduate classroom, the department office, the hallway of a national conference venue. If we can all agree that privilege is a real, functional set of advantages held by some and not others in a given circumstance, then privilege must exist in academia, and in every context. We are not arguing here for the acknowledgement of a type of working class academic experience. We only hope to bring attention to the fact of academic privilege in relation to our working class identity, and its implications.

[19] As far as we are concerned, there is nothing to prove. Academic privilege is a lived reality for us, and we presume all working class academics, though their individual experiences may vary greatly, have encountered it at one time or another in their careers. We recognize, however, that academic privilege needs to be explained to those who do not see or experience its effects. It is our choice to ground our explanation in our experiences. We claim our authority to speak on the subject from our past and present lives in higher education rather than frame it in a theoretical perspective or quantitative analysis. Whatever it is worth to the reader, these are the intentions behind our effort.

[20] Throughout our experience as graduate students, we were consistently reminded of our privilege. Whatever social or cultural forces were at play, our presence in a graduate classroom meant only one thing: we were privileged. Nearly every comment, every critique of a scholar or our own work would reference or be troubled by privilege. Did the authors recognize their own privilege? Were we appropriately conscious of our own? Some class discussions devolved into nothing more than a litany of socio-cultural advantages, attempts to quantify and qualify those with and without privilege, white privilege, gender privilege, economic privilege, and so on. Our own, shared privilege, as students and colleagues, was hardly ever questioned.

[21] We did not suffer for a lack of trying, though. In one course, a required class offered late in the curriculum, one of us suggested a paper topic on the assumption and performance of class in higher education. As it was a course on identity and performance, and we were all in higher education, it seemed a fine topic. The point, at its core, was to show that privilege is often contextual, and that as certain aspects of one's identity became more or less relevant in a given set of conditions, so too does privilege wax and wane depending on its context. Intersectionality and power relations—pretty accepted concepts in cultural studies, and well within the scope of the course. The proposal was not accepted. The professor completely redirected the project: a look at Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, a one-woman play about the Los Angeles riots, an event nearly 20 years past at the time and pointedly not about class and privilege in the academy.

[22] The professor's motivations remain a mystery to us. When we have talked about it, there appear to be only a few reasons why the topic would be rejected outright, none of which have much to do with the approach. Perhaps she felt the author was not up to the challenge, or that the project itself was personally motivated, and misguided as a result. She may have been acting in the best interests of the student who, we realize, would have been taking a risk suggesting that class identity was not adequately recognized by her peers. (That we are now, together, taking such a risk has not escaped us.) In any event, the result was clear: an opportunity to address an aspect of identity was actively denied. It is worth noting that this is the only time either of us can recall that a paper proposal was rejected outright, and the only time either of us has been assigned a topic in place of a self-selected project.

[23] Now, imagine the same thing happening to a person of color who had chosen to write about his or her experiences as a racial minority in the academy, or a woman describing gender performance in the classroom. If you were told that a professor had actively dissuaded an LGBT graduate student from writing about identity and performance in his or her daily life, what would you think of the professor? What would you think was happening?

[24] We entered academia with roughly the same goals and approximately the same understanding of what graduate education entailed. Incomplete as our views were, and whatever the differences between our individual paths through higher education, we both believed that academia was for us. It was the place best suited to our interests, the arena where our particular skills and values would be recognized and accepted. There was no better place to be, no other career, quite as fulfilling or rewarding for us. Graduate school, teaching, writing—this is what we wanted and what we believed we were best at. Additionally, we saw a chance for stable employment and a more secure economic situation. It was the life we both wanted, and nothing prevented us from trying to realize it.

[25] Both of us were fully-funded, and offered assistantships, through our master's and doctoral programs. We qualified for and secured the necessary student loans with minimal complication. All of the tools available to other graduate students were available to us, without exception. When applicable, the only requirements to access these tools were a demonstration of merit, either our own or the value of the experience we sought funds for. Institutionally, there was no difference between us or any of our colleagues save the distinguishing characteristics of our work.

[26] Yet it was obvious that some of our colleagues had no need for the support we received. Although we were treated equally by the institution we attended and served, we were not equally privileged. Where our student loans were necessary to cover expenses, including living expenses, many of our colleagues had their rent paid for, either by parents or through structured financial support. They had new cars, or no car payments. When it became more and more clear jobs were scarce, they seemed to have no real worries, either. Parents or family members had businesses, second homes, and vacation properties. Jobs and places to live were not real concerns for them in the same way they were for us. The money they made from their assistantships could be spent on plane tickets to national and international conferences, journal subscriptions, and workshops. The travel stipends and reimbursements they received were no more generous than ours, just unnecessary. The money we used to buy food was their professional development fund. They did not have better institutional support—they had more support, period.

[27] We think most graduate students are asked what they intend to do with their degrees. Graduate students in the humanities do not have the luxury of a simple or obvious answer to this question, common as it seems to be. Looking to earn an MBA? It is pretty obvious what you intend to do with that. Getting a Ph.D. in English? Be ready to answer some questions. Though the questions may be common, the implication, and the reality, are different for students for whom financial security is secured prior to entering graduate school and those who look to attain professional credentials, and economic mobility, through higher education. Graduate students with family or other wealth available to them do not have the same concerns regarding long-term professional security working class students do. They don't have to do anything with the degree they earn, at least, not the way we feel we must. This is the reality. Graduate school, while a personal growth opportunity, needs to be considered an economic opportunity as well for those who seek to make scholarship their profession.

[28] The necessity of having the investment pay off is more than just economic. Higher education has distanced us from our working class family and friends who see our education as both aspirational and evidence of differing class affinity. We have to temper our language when we are at home. There is no expectation our work, or our interest in it, will be understood, even if it is accepted. More often than not, it is not considered work at all. We have both had the nature of our academic work, as labor, called into question by family. After a long day at the kitchen table revising a final paper, one of us made the comment that we needed a shower. "Shower? All you've done is write all day." Friends have been disappointed to learn that looking for jobs means looking nationally, defying the expectation that everyone, eventually, moves back home. Pursuing graduate school and an academic career has separated us from our cultural background in a way middle/upper middle class colleagues have trouble understanding.

[29] We have both pursued graduate certificates in Women's Studies, and found courses in this particular curriculum more open to exploring the complex relationship between class and identity. During one discussion of food, accessibility, and health, the question of cost became a sticking point. One of us made the point that eating a well balanced diet (as defined by nutritionists and health experts) was possible while making minimum wage, but that doing so was entirely dependent upon other costs, not just the individual's willingness. Depending on the season, expenses could fluctuate: the price of fruits and vegetables change, the cost associated with school (supplies, books, clothes) varies, etc. The discussion began to pivot around foods that would "stick to your ribs" versus standard "healthy" choices. A pound of beans and a pound of rice versus a pound of lean meat and pound of fresh broccoli: which was "better" for a family of four in terms of satiation and economics?

[30] Not everyone participated, and once the discussion got mired in the muddy ground of defining what "healthy" and "poor" really meant, only a handful of us were still actively making points. When all was said and done the division was clear; the rib-stickers were the self-identified poor, white and minority alike, and the dissenting voices, the skeptics who questioned whether what we said was really true, were all white, and two-thirds male. Class, not race, was the meaningful relation in the room that evening, and it is memorable because so often it was not. It is memorable, too, for another reason: it was a rare occasion when the working class students spoke from our experiences. There was little attempt to shield ourselves from embarrassment, or judgment. We were poor, we ate like this, and the reasons why are simple—we had to. From that night on, we knew who are allies were in that room, and the discussions changed. We no longer hinted at class, referenced it only in tandem with race, or gender. Class was treated, oddly enough, equitably. Addressing a subject through class became valid, accepted, even if the rib-stickers were the only ones who tried.

[31] Once, in another class, the discussion turned to the Christian Lander's blog (and later book) Stuff White People Like. If you did not catch the blog at the height of its popularity, it is pretty straightforward: a list, with elaboration, of stereotypical things white people supposedly like. The site is half social commentary, half parody. Unsurprisingly, a good deal of what white people like has to do with race, at least as far as the site is concerned. White people like "diversity," "Barack Obama," and "having black friends." They like to consume race and culture as well. White people like "Asian girls," "sushi," and "Asian fusion food." As we were talking about the site and passed the book around, another, no less subtle critique became evident, but went largely unacknowledged—this was stuff white people with money like. It is clear that the site has a bone to pick with a certain class of white people.

[32] Someone did eventually point out that quite a lot of what was on the list had little to nothing to do with the reality of poor or working class white people, but not us. Participation in this particular conversation was limited because the subject was middle/upper middle class white people, even if our middle/upper middle class peers did not see it that way. We understood why the site was popular, and what our colleagues found funny about it, but not because it referenced working class individuals directly. As other students laughed at themselves and their unenlightened peers, all we thought of was how we did not like "unpaid internships," "Apple products," or "Outdoor performance clothes." Of course, not liking them was based on principle rather than experience. We have never had the means to either work for free or pay a premium for trendy design. "Outdoor performance clothes" were by definition older items you did not mind ruining outside. It was funny, but it was also strange. On the way home we asked: they know the author is making fun of them, right?

[33] We have learned during our graduate careers that the distinction we make between "us" and "them" is rote, a type of muscle memory. Having grown up knowing that there were people who did not have the same financial, social, or cultural concerns as us, recognizing those differences in real time became necessary to prevent a mistake, a social miscue that would reveal ourselves as poor. It was a form of self protection. Once you are called white trash, you are. Better to be called quiet or shy than give away too much by accident and be remembered as the poor kid. However familiar the process of distinguishing class is to us, in academia we found there was another, more potent danger. It was clear our apparent race was the most important aspect of our identity to practically everyone else, and failure to treat it as such was a sign not only of poor social consciousness and scholarship, but a personal fault as well. And so we internalized another rule. It was better to be quiet than considered racists. This, too, is why we are careful.

[34] Our class is something we have actively kept from people in higher education because we do not want to be judged for it, and we have had difficulty helping people understand our fear. So, we talk amongst ourselves and on the rare occasions there are enough of us present to feel secure, we talk openly. On these few occasions we can tell you, we are our most complete selves. The rest of the time we are careful not to be too vulnerable, too open to clumsy attempts to relate and hurt feelings. We keep ourselves to ourselves, because we know: nobody else gets it.

[35] Part of the reason our non-working class peers have trouble understanding this self-imposed silence comes down to the simple fact that they were not themselves poor. Our middle/upper middle class colleagues grew up with a different set of expectations, a different worldview. The point was well made by Tressie McMillan Cottom in a blog post about how people who grow up with means characterize the poor. She wrote:

What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability (sic) authorities as inherently poor.

So, some people have more money than others. As revelations go it is a pretty common one, and obvious, too. What it is not, however, is unimportant, because it leads us to something a bit more useful than a restatement of economic reality. The important thing to keep in mind about economic inequality in this example, in relation to academia, is this: it does not matter. The odd relationship between working class academics and their chosen profession is not grounded in economics, only informed by them. If it were, there would be a simple solution—more money. But economic inequality is not the condition that allows working class academics to be marginalized by their colleagues, if only because they seem so often unaware of it. As we see it, the problem is not that we started from a different position, but the assumption that we did not. The problem is not lived socio-economic inequality, but the fictive ideal of equality itself.

[36] Proceeding from the fact that some people have more financial resources than others, the position of working class academics cannot be rectified institutionally. That is to say, the inability to integrate working class academics is not an institutional concern, but a personal, private, and social one. We were given opportunities and we took them, made the best of the situations we were in. Opportunities, we hasten to acknowledge, many graduate students do not have. Fully funded programs are few and far between; paid assistantships rarer still. And yet, in the best possible circumstances, under the most equitable terms we have ever even heard of, our self-identification as working class was ignored, dismissed, or challenged outright. Not by the institution, but by people. There is a word that describes this type of practice: discrimination.

[37] Questions of equality in academia go hand-in-hand with questions of discrimination. As we stated earlier, whatever discrimination we have felt was not necessarily institutional, but personal. We cannot see a means to rectify the marginalized position of working class academics at the college or university level, nor is it our intention to suggest any other means to do so administratively. What the question of discrimination helps illustrate is the way in which equality, its rhetorical opposite, is engaged by individuals to address the perceived lack of equality in the academy. What we find is that discrimination and equality are firmly rooted in specific, long-term political projects that do not engage class as an identity in and of itself—let alone as an active part of an intersectional existence.

[38] If you Google "discrimination in academia," without quotation marks, nearly all the results have something to do with the struggle to make higher education an equitable arena for women and racial minorities.[1] Nearly every editorial and research paper identifies these groups specifically, and for good reason. Historically, women and racial minorities have been systemically disadvantaged in higher education as students, faculty, and administrators. They face unequal standards for admission, are paid less than their peers when hired, and are underrepresented. The 2.9 million search results are, if nothing else, an indication of how far we have yet to go to meet our own high standards for academic equality, and of the effort to do so.

[39] A search for "class discrimination in academia," without quotation marks, returns 1.6 million results, less than the 2.9 for discrimination generally, but it is a more refined search. However, the first page tells the tale: none of the ten-top results deal with class specifically. In fact, only two of the top-ten results even highlight the term as it is used to describe socio-economic status. In the single instance it is, the result is for a book about women, race and class in academia. The second highlighted use leads to a former academic's blog and her personal story of working in higher education. If you search again, this time with the quotation marks in place, "class discrimination in academia" returns just a single result—a Polish website for what appears to be an oil and gas company.

[40] We do not want to draw damning conclusions from such a simple exercise. At the same time, we are hardly surprised at the results. Class is entwined with discussions of race in this country, so much so that when we talk about the poor we talk about the rural-poor (white) or the urban-poor (black), using geography to further break apart the underlying economic unity—being poor. We are not saying there are not differences between poor whites and poor blacks in America, or anyone else, for that matter. What we are saying is that the persistent and simplistic coupling of class and race prevents us from seeing any commonality. Author and economic justice activist Betsy Leondar-Wright argues that class creates more commonalities than race, gender, age, generation and issue. Focusing specifically on class-culture differences within social movements, Leondar-Wright states, "Class is often regarded only as a feature of the macroeconomy; by contrast, race and gender have both macro and micro dimensions in the progressive lexicon: identities, stereotypes, cultures, and organizational dynamics, not only structural inequalities" (4, emphasis in original). This is simply untrue, according to Leondar-Wright; class connects people in the same ways race and gender do.

[41] We feel there is a hierarchy of privilege at work in academia, both theoretically and practically, a prioritization of identity and dis/advantage that, in our experience, has been deployed to limit engagement with questions of class. So long as our apparent race is considered more important than our class identification, so long as our race and class exist as mutually exclusive categories rather than a relation, there will be precious little space for the 'working class' parts of us in the academy. Such is the case now, and it has nothing at all to do with us.

[42] We know: both of us have benefitted from white privilege. At the same time we argue that privilege is fluid, mutable. The benefits of our race privilege are not bequeathed to us evenly from day-to-day, and other aspects of our identities can serve to cancel it out entirely given the proper circumstances. This is a difficult position to justify when, in the humanities, race is considered, or at least treated, as the single most important factor in American cultural history. It may well be, and we certainly are not arguing it is not. All we are saying is that in our relationships with individuals in academia, on a personal level, race has been used not to complicate or confound our class identification, but eliminate it. This is confusing to us for a couple of reasons. In the first instance, we look to the history of scholarship on race and class and see overwhelming progress made to connect the two, not separate them (Roediger). Yet because they are so often paired, race and class are seen as congruous, as opposed to intersecting, when the discussion turns to individuals, their history and, troublingly, their intentions. But if a holistic, intersectional approach to identity seems beyond the grasp of academics personally, a greater challenge rests in the language of identity itself. So long as class is presented as associate to race, and gender, etc., those aspects of an identity will be prioritized even when a class perspective may be more useful, or more relevant. Under such conditions we do not believe the adoption of a worthwhile intersectional perspective is possible.

[43] We do not necessarily expect our gesture towards a more robust and practical intersectionality to be accepted. This is, after all, academia, and a certain amount of dissension and debate is not only inevitable, it is welcome. But we fear our point will not be considered, and not for objective reasons. We accept that it is difficult to conceive of white people as oppressed or disadvantaged. The fact remains that in certain circumstances, some are. No one is equally privileged, not in comparison to another and not even in comparison to themselves when particular aspects of their identity are at play independently, or to varying degrees. For these reasons we believe an applied intersectionality has the benefit of being complex, and inclusive of nuance.

[44] This is the difficulty of making a case for our working class-ness, especially in a cultural studies arena. Race and class are so often paired together, decoupling them can be seen as, at best, an act of ignorance. At worst it is considered blatant racism; as much has been implied when we have approached the topic before with our peers. We share a fear that our comments here will be criticized unjustly. Not academically—we welcome and respect such responses—but personally. We worry we will be judged a certain kind of person (defensive, ignorant, racist) for emphasizing an aspect of our identity others do not see, or devalue in light of other presumed advantages.

[45] When we decided to write this article we wanted to do two things. First, we wanted to take the assertion that working class academics are marginalized within the humanities as a fact, and proceed accordingly. We were less interested in proving what we knew to be true than describing it to people who did not necessarily think it untrue, but who, in our experience, had not really thought about it at all. Second, we wanted to wrap up whatever it was we wrote with something more than an earnest, if polite, claim to relevance. There needed be, we thought, something other than a human interest story wrapped in glossy paper. We wanted to suggest there was something to be done about the marginalization of working class academics - the marginalization of anyone, really—that was useful for everyone, privileged and non.

[46] The first of our two goals was easily met. The fact of our working class backgrounds was easy to embrace. After all, it was as much a part of our identities as anything else. What it was not was visible. Calling attention to the unseen carries with it the possibility of dismissal on a number of counts, not the least of which is the common academic refrain that individual experience, though informative, is not evidence. Co-authoring the piece dampens some of that if only because we, together, cover so much other ground. We are still worried that the fact that working class academics are marginalized will be dismissed by some within the humanities as unimportant when weighed against other, identity specific, issues. If it happens, so be it; there is nothing we can do to stop it. It is stupid, though, to grade every issue of race, gender, class, sexuality as if we were using an emergency room pain scale, 1-10, which is worse? Recognizing the marginalization of one group does not diminish the marginalization of another; it is not a zero-sum game. In the U.S. there is plenty of under-privilege to go around.

[47] What we are asking for, really, is reflection on the practice of equality in academia. According to Bourdieu, practice, whether conscious or not, is the logic individuals utilize when confronted with social situations or individuals that contradict or problematize their personal experience (2005). As McKnight and Chandler explain:

This practical sense of living in the social universe is needed because it allows people to exist in time and space without having to think about every action for which they engage. The major point lies in the recognition that the world operates as it does because most social actions are taken-for-granted (i.e. the notion that people of color are inferior); without these rules (structure), social life would be impossible. On the other hand, the social rules are not without a sense of ßux and malleability (agency), which can, on the occasions that enough individuals make enough choices that disrupt, lead to great shifts in institutional arrangements. (78)

There is space for change as long as people are willing to "disrupt" and challenge what is taken for granted. But this potential is weighed against the hard reality of privilege: if you want to eradicate it and create true equality, privilege must be given up by the people who possess it.

[48] Which brings us to our second goal, the so-what, our call to action. Here is our takeaway, the lesson we would like to convey: you cannot be educated out of privilege. Again: you cannot be educated out of privilege. Reading a special issue on working class academics does not make you any less privileged, or oppressed, than you were before, and it does not make you any more knowledgeable than you already were about the people you work with and their background. Unless, of course, they happened to write it and it was sufficiently personal. Until you talk to someone about it, until you see them as a person instead of an identity, until you identify with them on a human level well, you cannot claim to know anything at all about it. You, personally, need to change, think differently, self-evaluate, self-reflect. Do you think NASCAR is stupid? Do you have trouble understanding why anyone would get a pay-day loan? Buy scratch tickets? Are these the only things you think of when you think of the working class? That, as the saying goes, is a you problem. Not being able see those things is not your fault, necessarily, but it is a constraint, a condition of your thinking. All reading about it does is show you that the constraint exists. It is up to you to be mindful of it and do something about it.

[49] Or not. Anyway, our job is done. We have pointed out a fact of our intersectional experience, few of many, all of which owe their existence to our relation to those other than us, the privileged academics who dismiss our experience without ever thinking about it. Which, of course, is just a natural extension of privilege in the first place. That, too, is a fact. The difference is we, the working class, under-privileged academics, can see both, and the privileged academics too often see neither.

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[1] We performed this search on June 20, 2014.