From the Trailer Park to the Ivory Tower and Somewhere in Between:
A Critical Autoethnography of Class Performativity in Academe
Tasha R. Rennels
Department of Communication
University of South Florida
Many academics hail from working-class backgrounds but there often is reluctance to reveal this information within the ivory tower—a space notoriously associated with privilege. This essay continues the work of unconventional scholars who yearn to debunk the common assumption that the academy is a space of middle-class homogeneity. Instead of denying my working-class identity, as I have done for the past decade, I embrace it. I share how the stigma of being a working-class woman in a presumed middle-class space is lived, felt, and managed via class performativity. My hope is that the stories I write provide a space of resistance for those in academe, specifically graduate students, who may not have the resources live up to its middle-class expectations. The larger this space can become, the greater potential there is for members of the academic community to accept and make a way for those with limited means.
Keywords: critical autoethnography, class, passing, performance, academia
From the Trailer Park to the Ivory Tower: A Critical Autoethnography of Class Performativity
Class is not just about the way you talk, or dress, or furnish your home; it is not just about the job you do or how much money you make doing it...Class is something beneath your clothes, under your skin, in your psyche, at the very core of your being.
—Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, 1995, p. 98.
I was born poor into a world that despises the poor.
—Dorothy Allison, "A Question of Class," 2009, p. 113.
I was raised in a trailer park but I rarely tell that to anyone. Every now and then, my secret slips through the cracks revealing my hidden past—a past I am slowly learning to embrace.
It is December 2005. I have just turned 21 and am home with my family for Christmas break. I am seated in our cramped living room among stained carpets, ripped blinds, a leaking ceiling, and gaping holes that line the walls and doors. Drop Dead Gorgeous—a movie about an aspiring beauty queen, Amber Atkins, who hails from a trailer park—flashes on the screen. The trailer park Amber lives in resembles many I have seen on TV before; it is riddled with crime, addiction, and filth. I quickly change the channel.
My phone rings. It's my friend Austin from college.
"Hey Tasha! What's up?"
"Oh not much, just watching TV. You?"
"Well, I just got off the phone with Liz and we were talking about meeting up with a bunch of people from school tomorrow night in Minneapolis. Would you be interesting in going?"
"Yea! I would love that. I don't have a car through, so I have to figure out how I will get there first."
Austin responds to my dilemma with enthusiasm. "I think your town is right on the way. I can just come get you if you want."
"Oh, well, I guess it's kind of on the way, but my place is pretty hard to find and I would hate for you to get lost."
"Whatever, Tasha," Austin chuckles. "It can't be that hard. Let me just come get you. I don't mind at all."
His persistence causes my stomach to churn with paranoia.
Austin not only lives on a lake—an indicator of wealth in Minnesota—but he owns a brand new truck and is always dressed in designer clothing. If he ever finds out where I live, he will probably lose all respect for me. I've heard him make fun of trailer parks before, calling them "ghetto" and "trashy."
I can't stand the thought of losing Austin's respect. He is, after all, the ringleader of our group of friends. I decide to weasel my way out of the conversation.
"Thanks for the offer Austin, but I am going to see if I can just borrow my mom's car for the night. I think it will be easier that way. I'll call you back and let you know what she says, okay?"
"Sounds good. I'll talk to you later."
After hanging up with Austin, I run to my mom to ask if I can use her car the following evening. She tells me she needs it to run errands but offers to drop me off at a coffee shop near Minneapolis so Austin won't have to go too far out of his way to meet me.
The next day, mom takes me to the coffee shop and Austin pulls up in his pristine, dark blue F-150. He is dressed in an Abercrombie hooded sweatshirt, Abercrombie jeans, and Doc Marten shoes. I am greeted with a smile and a waft of his Ralph Lauren cologne as I hop into his truck. We head to our favorite bar in Minneapolis to meet with our friends. The night flies by. At 1:45 in the morning, I hear the bartenders yell "last call," and it dawns on me I never arranged for a ride home. I flee for the bathroom and, with trembling hands, frantically dial my mom's number. She doesn't answer, which means she is probably asleep.
I have no choice but to ask Austin.
Before I even open my mouth, Austin offers to take me home. I hesitantly accept his proposal as we guzzle down the last few sips of our beer. One by one the lights in the bar shut down and the reality of what's about to happen slaps me square in the face.
Austin and I head to his truck. Panic and anxiety replace the calming effect of alcohol as we coast down the highway. I invent scenarios in my mind.
Maybe I can tell Austin that our house burnt down, and our insurance gave us the trailer to live in while they build us a new house. Or how about I explain to Austin that we recently sold our last home before buying a new one and decided to live minimally in the meantime?
I don't think my scenarios are convincing enough so I give up. Besides, we have just reached my hometown; it's too late to conjure up a lie Austin will believe.
There is nothing more I can do. I can't magically transform where I live. The second he turns into my neighborhood he will see the unkempt homes and cramped yards littered with abandoned toys and broken down Chevy pickup trucks. I cringe at the thought of him pulling up to my own home: a light grey doublewide lined with uneven shutters, dented skirting, and torn window screens.
We turn onto Maple Street, the dividing line between my trailer park and the middle-class housing community where I have always wanted to live. I know we are close because we have just crossed over railroad tracks and I can smell the foul, sewage-ridden river that borders the street on which I live.
Any moment now I have to tell Austin to turn left, but so much of me wants to tell him to turn right instead.
I give into my desire.
"Umm, turn right!" I blurt out.
"Right?" Austin says.
I hesitate for a fleeting moment but continue to deceive him. Austin turns right while I frantically search for a house where he can drop me off.
My heart is pounding.
I decide to have Austin take me to my friend Sarah's house. It is late and her family is probably sleeping, so I figure I can just run around to the back door.
"Do you see that green street sign up ahead?" I ask.
"Okay, just turn left when you get up to it and you'll enter a cul-de-sac where my house is located. As soon as you turn into the cul-de-sac, could you turn off your headlights?"
After a slight hesitation, Austin cocks his head to the side, turns to me and says, "Sure, but why?"
"Well, I just don't want you to wake anyone up," I say. "Sometimes my family forgets to shut the blinds, and they're all light sleepers."
Austin turns off his headlights as we pull up to Sarah's driveway. I give him a quick hug and tell him I am going to run around to the back door so I do not wake my family. Quietly, I hop out of his truck, run to the back of the house, and plop into a nearby snow bank to hide while Austin pulls away. The frigid air stings my exposed skin, but I refuse to move until I am sure Austin is gone. When I no longer hear the sound of his truck's engine, I emerge from the snow bank and breathe a sigh of relief punctuated by shivers. It is so cold I can see my breath, but I try to think warm thoughts as I begin the mile long trek from my pretend neighborhood to my real neighborhood—the trailer park.
Two weeks after the incident, I head back up to college for the spring semester. I try to forget about what happened with Austin but life takes an unexpected turn the following summer when I am living at home with my family. Out of the blue, Austin calls me.
"Hey Tasha, I'm in your hometown right now," he says in an uneasy tone.
I mask my panic with enthusiasm. "What? You Are? That's exciting!"
"Well, I was on my way to Minneapolis to see a couple of buddies and I thought I would stop by."
I feel my heart beat out of my chest at the mention of him stopping by. I try to speak, but the words escape me. Austin fills the silence.
"Yea," he says mysteriously. "I actually came to your house and a guy named George answered the door. Do you know George?"
Shit! George is Sarah's dad. Shit! I play dumb.
"George? Hmm. Are you sure you're at the right house?"
"Yea. I'm sure," Austin confidently replies. "When I came to the door and asked for you, George told me that he was your friend Sarah's dad and that you live in the trailer park across the street. Is that true?"
My cover is blown. I swallow my pride, throw down my white flag, and surrender.
"Yes, Austin it's true. I'm sorry. I just didn't feel comfortable telling you where I really lived. It's nothing to do with you. It's me. I just hate where I come from."
Why is he not saying anything? Is he mad at me for lying? Has he lost respect for me because of where I live? Is he going to make fun of me like my high school classmates used to?
"It's fine Tash. I don't know why you didn't tell me before. It's honestly not a big deal"
I breathe a sigh of relief.
"Thanks," I say. "I appreciate it. I just get embarrassed sometimes, you know?"
"Well don't be. I don't think any differently of you," Austin says, trying to reassure me. I wonder if he senses my doubt.
"Okay," I say cautiously. "But could you please not tell anyone about this? I don't want people knowing where I live."
"I won't, but I don't think that where you live is something you should feel the need to hide."
If only you knew, Austin. If only you knew...
Confronting a Life of Denial through Critical Autoethnographic Inquiry
In its most basic form, class refers to one's position, based on income, in an economic system of production (Orbe, 2014). Class, however, is more than the amount of money someone earns. As Langston (1992) indicates, "Class is your understanding of the world and where you fit in; it's composed of ideas, behaviors, attitudes, values, and language; class is how you think, feel, act, look, dress, talk, move, and walk" (p. 112). This description suggests that class can be performed apart from one's economic resources. In other words, someone may have little to no income but still perform as though they are middle-class by learning from, relating to, and imitating middle-class people around them (Bettie, 2003; Dykins Callahan, 2008). As the vignette above suggests, this is what I have done for most of my life. I have spent a countless number of years in denial of my working-class identity—a denial fostered by the increasing pressure to perform middle-class in the academy as well as the stigma attached to the white working-class population. According to Goffman (1963), stigma arises when a person possesses a "deeply discrediting attribute" (p. 3) that disqualifies them from full social acceptance. When someone is stigmatized, they are devalued and this applies directly to white working-class people who are regularly assumed to be stupid, immoral, dirty, lazy, and addicted to alcohol, drugs, and sex among other things (Bullock, Wyche, & Williams, 2001; Clawson & Trice, 2000; hooks, 2000; Kendall, 2005; Wray & Newitz, 1997).
It is common knowledge in the academic community that white working-class people are stigmatized. The lived experiences of this stigma, however, are rarely addressed (Dykins Callahan, 2008). This is because scholars often examine stigma from a distanced observational stance that privileges outsider perspectives. Inspired by Ellis (1998, 2004), I seek to privilege insider perspectives instead by turning the ethnographic gaze in on itself. I create what Carol Rambo (1995) calls "a layered account" by weaving together a series of scenes to show how the stigma of being a white working-class woman in a presumed middle-class space is lived, felt, and managed. My work is guided by critical autoethnographic inquiry because it affords me the opportunity to provide a critique of academic culture through personal narratives that are written carefully, reflexively, and critically (Berry & Warren, 2009; Boylorn & Orbe, 2014). The stories I write, in other words, open up a space of resistance between the individual and the collective (Jones, 2005) to challenge processes of class domination and exclusion that pervade the academy (Kosut, 2006).
By sharing the stigma I have endured for being a white working-class woman, I add to the limited amount of scholarship about lived experiences of class (Bettie, 2003; Dykins Callahan, 2008; Felski, 2000; Lawler, 1999; Overall, 1995). I also answer Dykins Callahan's (2008) call for academics to make room in the academy for class subjectivities. Instead of denying my working-class identity—as I have done for the past decade—I learn to embrace it inside and outside the walls of the ivory tower. My hope is that the stories I write will resonate with others who negotiate poor and working-class identities in the academy. More importantly, I hope they will resonate with graduate students who, like me, are steadily falling victim to debt because of rising tuition costs, decreased assistance, and an increased pressure to perform a middle-class professorial role without the means to do so (Cassuto, 2011). Shedding light on a dilemma such as this is important because it provides a space of resistance for those in the academy who do not and cannot live up to its middle-class expectations. As Kosut (2006) states, "Unless the everyday dynamics of class exclusion are explicitly problematized, institutions will continue to implicitly reproduce the culture of the elite, and working-class voices will remain marginalized and silent (p. 245)." It is time to speak up.
From the Trailer Park
There is part of my self which is seen, and therefore seen to be what I am. But there is another part of my self which is not seen; this is my history. This unseen part both is and is not my true self.
—Stephanie Lawler, Ph. D., "'Getting Out and Getting Away': Women's Narratives of Class Mobility," 1999, p. 16.
Mom has been drinking a lot more lately, often locking herself in her room to cry and consume boxed wine until she passes out. The top shelf of the fridge has become her personal domain, stuffed to the brim with her relaxation elixir. It all started when she was forced to file for bankruptcy during my senior year of high school. Matt, my ex-stepdad to whom she was married for ten years, forged credit cards under her name just before their divorce and used them to buy my two siblings, mom, and me a multitude of gifts. He was trying to cover up the wounds he had caused from years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. His "charitable efforts," however, were not successful. Mom kicked him out six months ago but was left with a mountain of debt she could not climb. I can understand the stress she is under—a poor single parent of three in the wake of a nasty second divorce—but it doesn't excuse the amount of alcohol she consumes. Mom's drinking has gotten out of hand and created a rift between us that wasn't there before the divorce. I now only talk to her when I need something, like tonight. She is only on her second glass of wine so I am hopeful as I proceed to her bedroom door and begin to knock.
"Mom?" I ask quietly.
"What?" she replies with a hint of irritation in her voice.
"I need to borrow your car."
"I left some homework at Nikki's the other night and I need to grab it from her so I can finish it. I have to hand it in tomorrow."
I try to communicate the urgency, but she doesn't respond favorably.
"It's nine o' clock already, Tasha. Why didn't you ask me earlier?"
"Because I was taking care of other stuff, mom. I just realized now I forgot it."
"Well you should have realized earlier," she says sarcastically, her words slurring together.
Maybe she's had more than two glasses.
"Why can't you just get Nikki to give it to you in the morning? Doesn't she get to school early? You can finish it then. I don't have the money to keep putting gas in the car because of your forgetfulness."
Frustrated with her blatant criticism, I raise my voice hoping it will penetrate through the flimsy faux wood door that separates us. "I have to do it tonight, mom! Come on! Just give me the damn keys!"
She yells back, "Don't get lippy with me Tasha! You're definitely not getting my keys now!"
"Mom, you're being completely irrational!" I scream, frustrated with how much the alcohol is likely tainting her decision.
"No I am not, Tasha! You need to chill out! I am sick and tired of you coming home and acting like the world revolves around you. It doesn't! Now leave me alone, and let me relax!"
"Not until you give me the keys," I snap back.
"Well you're not getting them, so tough luck."
Upon hearing these hateful words pour out of my mouth, mom flies out of bed and marches towards her bedroom door. I back away, regretting what I said, and fearing what will happen next.
Forcefully, she whips open the door and stomps towards the front, right corner of the living room where I am huddled helplessly. Her crimson face and heavy breathing make me quiver. I place my arms over my head for protection, but such efforts are futile in the midst of her wrath. With fire in her eyes, she violently grabs my right bicep and bites down with unrelenting force. Her teeth sink slowly and deeply, penetrating layers of my flesh.
Shock waves from the sharp sting of her bite ricochet throughout my body. I shriek from the unbearable pain and try to remove my arm from the tight grip of her teeth, but am unsuccessful. I can feel blood oozing out of the fresh wound, but mom refuses to budge. Instead, she clings even tighter, like a vulture that has captured its prey.
This isn't my mother, I think to myself. She would never do this.
I release another shriek of pain that snaps mom back into reality. Her crimson face turns white as a sheet when she realizes the harm she has caused me. She lets go of her grip and gets on her hands and knees to apologize.
"I am so sorry, Tasha," she says while attempting to grab my hands, which I quickly move away. "Please forgive me. I didn't know what I was doing. Please forgive me. You know I didn't mean to hurt you."
I ignore her desperate apology and run away to my bedroom, grabbing the cordless phone along the way. I dial 911. I have never seen mom act like this before but I am worried she'll do it again.
As I explain the incident to the dispatcher, mom retreats to her bedroom in a daze, hoping what just happened is a dream. I head outside to wait for the cops hoping to see officers Hagerty and Miller who have responded to previous domestic abuse reports—a frequent occurrence throughout the recent divorce.
The softball-size bite mark on my arm begins to bruise and swell.
Minutes later, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see officers Hagerty and Miller turn onto my road. I run to tell them my story and reveal the swollen wound with hopes that the bite marks will prove my case. The officers take several pictures of the bite and then barge into mom's bedroom to arrest her. With tears pouring down her face, mom is escorted out of the trailer. She doesn't struggle to break free because she knows she's done wrong; I can tell by the way she hangs her head towards the ground. Comforted by the fact that she is behind bars, I go to bed. My arm throbs and mind races as I try to think of what to tell my friends at school the next day.
My mom was only in jail for one night. She was released the following morning with orders to attend alcohol management classes. I was ordered to leave the trailer and not speak with her for thirty days. Thankfully, my best friend Nikki and her parents let me stay with them. Despite their hospitality, I felt uncomfortable, like an orphan—torn from my origins and placed in a foreign bed. Nikki promised not to tell anyone, and I wore long sleeves to cover up the damage. When the local newspaper printed mom's name under the crime section, I averted my eyes and shielded my ears from the gossip that ensued among my classmates.
"Did you hear that Tasha's mom got arrested? I knew that family was trailer trash. I told you."
"I heard Tasha's mom got drunk and went nuts. Go figure. Everyone who lives in that damn trailer park is a mess."
Throughout the course of my childhood, I bore the scars of judgment for circumstances beyond my control. Despite what people said, I knew mom loved me. She never missed a choir concert or softball game and worked hard to make sure my siblings and I were clothed and fed. We were her number one priority. She didn't mean to drink so much, but alcohol was all she could rely on to numb her from the burdens of poverty and abuse from which she could never escape. My grandfather was an alcoholic who spent more time in the bars than he did at home, leaving my grandmother to care for their four children, including my mom, with what little money was left after pull-tabs and shots of whiskey. Eventually, grandma married a new man who, unbeknownst to her at first, was also an alcoholic. Worse yet, he was abusive. He beat my mom so severely that she was placed in a foster home to finish her senior year of high school. Two failed marriages, three children, a pantry full of donated food, and a menial, low-paying job at a plastic factory would come to define a majority of my mom's adulthood before her untimely death at the age of 45. The tears she used to shed behind closed doors were rooted in a sense a failure—a sense that the past she tried to run away from had become her present.
I often felt bad for my mom, but never tried to defend her. I didn't even try to defend myself despite the ridicule that flooded my ears. I was graduating in two months and moving far away to attend college. Denying my "trailer trash" roots seemed pointless when the promise of a new life and new identity was right around the corner.
To the Ivory Tower
It is September 2004, the first month of my sophomore year of college. I have just moved into a dorm with two of my closest friends, Samantha and Liz. I stare at our open closets, which are built into the wall next to one another. Samantha and Liz's closets are stuffed to the brim with designer clothes and dangling price tags. A wave of anxiety rushes over me when I notice how bare and tasteless mine looks in comparison.
"Liz?" I yell from the bedroom.
"What's up?" she says, while working on her computer in our shared office space.
"Do you want to go shopping? I need some new clothes."
"You know I do!" she says enthusiastically.
Her response doesn't surprise me. Liz loves to shop and her parents, who frequently wire her money, never seem to mind.
We grab our purses and head for the mall.
Our first stop is "The Limited," Liz's favorite store. I cringe as I browse at the price tags affiliated with the latest fashion trends.
A $40 sequined tank top? Who the hell pays $40 for a tank top? What a rip off!
I glance up and see Liz walking towards the dressing room with an arm full of clothes— including a sequined tank top. Go figure. I am sure it will look great on her, I think. Everything usually does. She's the epitome of a "My-Size Barbie"—long blonde hair, blue eyes, tiny waist, and a budding chest.
As soon as Liz is out of sight, I dart towards the clearance section to see if there is anything appealing. Nothing catches my eye.
Several minutes later, Liz emerges out of the dressing room with a beaming smile and six items of clothing. She proceeds to the cash register.
I feel uncomfortable leaving the store empty-handed so I quickly grab a pair of black dress pants in my size and line up behind Liz.
"Those look cute!" Liz says, turning around to look at my pants.
"Thanks!" I say, happy to know "Barbie" approves of my selection.
"Are you ready ma'am?" one of the cashiers asks.
"I sure am," I say as I walk towards her and hand over the pants.
She scans the price tag and with a smile says, "Your total is $79.29."
Shit! I think. I should have checked the price tag first.
I open my wallet and find only $20 in cash.
Liz walks towards me. I don't want to look cheap so I dig through the slots in my wallet for a credit card. I give the cashier the first one I can find.
After several attempts, the cashier says, "Ma'am, your card has been declined."
"What?" I say with a nervous laugh. "That can't be. I know I have room on there."
In reality, the card is probably maxed out, but I refuse to admit this in front of Liz.
I frantically search for another card to restore my dignity. Thankfully, it works.
With my new pants in hand, I walk out of the store and towards the nearby food court with Liz. We decide to indulge in some Chinese for lunch.
During our meal, Liz points to a heavily tattooed girl at the table next to us. The girl, who looks to be around our age, has long dark hair and is wearing tight cutoff jean shorts with a small, black revealing tank top.
"Ugh. Do you see that chick over there?"
"Yea," I say. "She looks cold in that outfit, doesn't she?"
"She looks trashy in that outfit is more like it," Liz says with a raised voice. "I mean, who wears something like that to the mall?"
I shrug my shoulders. "I'm not sure."
Liz takes a sip of her soda, looks me straight in the eyes, and says with a chuckle, "That girl needs to go back to the trailer park where she came from."
Her words bring to the surface a multitude of painful memories from my childhood; memories of being made fun of for living in a trailer; memories I have tried hard to suppress.
I feel like a million shards of glass have exploded inside of me, but I mask the pain of Liz's words with a smile. I have to, or I risk her discovering where I am from.
"Yea, that girl is such white trash," I say.
The shards of glass dig deeper.
"Are you ready to head home now?" Liz asks as she finishes up her last bite of lo mein.
I reach in my wallet to grab another credit card. "Can we stay a while longer? I have some more things I want to buy."
When I was given the chance to go to college—thanks to scholarships, grants, and a pile of student loans—I felt pressured to perform middle-class. I remember experiencing what Sennett and Cobb (1972) refer to as "hidden injuries," the social-psychological burdens of class anxiety; or rather, the feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy that arise when one compares oneself to others at a higher social level. I wanted to be like the people around me, so I chose to reinvent myself. I racked up credit card debt to hide my working-class roots behind fashionable clothing, a decent car, and fancy decorations for my dorm room. I walked with my head held high and used big words like "hegemony" to prove why I belonged. In short, I passed as middle-class leaving my "white trash" past behind me.
According to Goffman (1963), passing is a strategy of inclusion that allows an individual to fit in and be accepted by mainstream society. It involves the movement from one set of identities to another, with the goal of hiding the stigma and appearing "normal." To pass, individuals mask a hated or discreditable identity with a less threatening and more socially acceptable one. College afforded me to the opportunity to mask my working-class identity with a middle-class one. In my mind, class was no longer material, it was a performance (Bettie, 2003; Dykins Callahan, 2008)—a performance in which I thrived. Austin was the only uninvited person, to my knowledge, who saw behind the curtain of my middle-class act. My performance was convincing, but I made sure to receive proper training. I pursued a major in theatre and took several acting classes so that I could be certified in pretending to be someone I am not.
For the past decade, since I have decided to stay within the confines of the ivory tower by pursuing a Ph.D., academia has provided an ideal stage to enact my theatrical knowledge. More importantly, academia has become my potential source of mobility. As a Ph.D. student, who is on track to become a middle-class professional, I exist in a liminal space, a state of class limbo (hooks, 2000), between the "working-class" and "educated elite." I twist and turn through the privileged halls of the ivory tower trying hard to tear away from my working-class roots. But I am not the only scholar whose performance is motivated by self-denial.
Despite the fact that many professionals in higher education are from working-class backgrounds, many of them have chosen to hide this information (Barney Dews & Law, 1995). I relate to Dykins Callahan (2008) who states, "like so many other working-class academics, I have hidden behind branded clothing, semi-fine wine, scholarly books, and big words" (p. 354). Despite my best efforts, however, prejudice lurks behind in the shadows. I may be a "border crosser" as an academic, but the haunted voices from my working-class past never seem to fade away (Barney Dews & Law, 1995). These voices are most audible when I am consuming texts about the working-class that remind me of where I come from, when I receive bills that I cannot afford to pay, or when I hear people make fun of those who are less fortunate.
The escape from my working-class background is akin to a rubber band that binds my poverty-ridden past to my middle-class future. I struggle to separate the two worlds, but am limited in how far the rubber band will stretch. The more I try to split my past from my future the greater the tension I create until I am eventually snapped back into reality—the reality of where I come from, and where I still believe I exist.
Somewhere in Between
I hope this email finds you well. Thank you for your panel submission to the Ethnography Division of NCA. I am delighted to inform you that your panel, "Blue Collar Scholars: Using Ethnography to Embrace Working-Class Identities in the Ivory Tower," has been accepted for presentation at the NCA 99th Annual Convention, November 21-24, 2013 in Washington DC.
My reaction to this news is bittersweet. I'm excited because my scholarship has been deemed worthy of acceptance to a national conference. My excitement, however, is met with panic. I start crunching the numbers—a common reaction among people with working-class backgrounds. We think about money every day because we fear it will run out. We know what it's like to live from paycheck to paycheck (Orbe, 2014).
- Airfare: $250
Hotel for three nights with student rate: $450.
- Hotel for three nights because student rate was sold out within two hours: $624
- Taxi from airport to hotel and back: $60
- Conference registration fee for students: $75
- NCA student membership fee: $60
- Food and drinks for three days and three nights: $150
- Incidentals: $50
- Professional clothing: $200
NET INCOME PER MONTH ON GRADUTE STUDENT STIPEND: $1,238.00
This four-day conference, which graduate students in the discipline of communication are encouraged and often expected to attend, costs more than what I make in one month. Thankfully, I have friends to split the hotel with and a working spouse who can help fund part of the expense. I still, however, need a credit card to pay for a large portion of the trip up front. What about the students who don't have a spouse or other family members to provide support? Or the students with children or other dependents? What do they do? They succumb to debt.
Debt becomes, for many graduate students, including myself, a mechanism for survival in the academy. According to the most recent report released about graduate student financing from the U.S. Department of Education (2011), graduate students made an average of $12,100 in assistantships between 2007 and 2008—only $1,890 more than the poverty threshold for a household of one at that time (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). It is also important to note that this $12,100 average was significantly skewed by graduate students who made higher salaries. While students in engineering and the sciences made an average of $12,900, those in the humanities and social sciences earned only $8,750 (U.S. Department of Education (2010)—$1,490 under the poverty threshold for a household of one (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). This variation in salaries by disciplines continues to remain intact, which means that students like me who are pursuing an advanced degree in communication, or any discipline in the social sciences or humanities for that matter, are more prone to experiencing poverty. As Cassuto (2011) states when discussing the cost of graduate education, "we're impoverishing our students at the same time that we're educating them"(p. 2). This is why I still identify as working-class though my professors and peers like to tell me otherwise.
"Class is fluid, Tasha. You may identify as working-class but you are becoming middle-class because of the career you are pursuing. This is a reality that I want to encourage you to accept."
"Tasha, a bright future awaits you. Soon you will no longer have to worry as much about money."
"Once you are a professor, Tasha, you should no longer claim a working-class identity."
At that same moment I hear these voices clamoring in my head, I am typing in the numbers on my credit card to buy a flight for a conference I am not sure I can afford. It doesn't make sense.
I am on a path towards mobility that is causing me to go in debt. One step forward. Two steps back. There is no easy solution. As a Ph.D. student, I cannot bow out of conferences or other academic networking opportunities that increase my potential for obtaining a career and the class mobility I have been seeking for most of my life. I need to be present and, while I am present, I should enact the middle-class performance that is culturally required (Dykins Callahan, 2008). I should eat expensive dinners with a cloth napkin in my lap, drink fine wine as if I know why it's fine, wear professional clothing that accommodates my abnormally long limbs, and talk as if I am well read and up to date on current events. Engaging in these activities enables me to fit in, to play the role of "professor" for which I am seeking to be cast.
The irony here is that I am expected to perform a middle-class role without the resources to do so. I am thrust into a space of class ambiguity—a space where class as performance and class as material substance collide. For those who were raised in low-income working-class families, this space can create great tension (Orbe, 2014). Every swipe of a credit card to impress others within the academy sends a wave of discomfort throughout my body and my household. My spouse hates when we have to rely on credit and so do I. The material consequences, however, are inevitable, and I do not see another option. I feel a hole in my pocket and, though it burns, I remain steadfast. When the curtain opens and all eyes are on me, I keep my struggles hidden backstage because I want my performance to be convincing. Debt today. Prosperity tomorrow. This is what I repeatedly tell myself when the spotlight is on, but these words are beginning to carry less and less weight. How can I believe that prosperity is on the horizon when I am slowly drowning in debt? I entered the academy to move away from the working-class, but it seems I am headed towards it instead. The ivory tower in which I have taken refuge has not protected me from my past as I thought it would; this is especially true considering that 76% of the academic labor force consists of adjunct instructors who earn only about $2,700 per course. My chance of obtaining a tenure-track job with a modest wage is steadily declining (Pannapacker, 2013).
Even if I achieve the middle-class lifestyle I desire, I will always identify with the values and lifestyles of non-college-educated, wage-earning people. As Barney Dews and Law (1995) indicate, "crossing from one world to another is never fully achieved for the working-class academic; the transformation is never complete" (p. 7). Socioeconomic status is a lifestyle that does not necessarily change with a larger income (Orbe, 2014). The hidden rules, patterns of thought, social interaction, and cognitive strategies of the class in which one was raised will often stay with them (Payne, 2003). I am living proof of this phenomenon:
- I lack the discursive capital to effectively participate in "legitimate academic speak" (Kosut, 2006, p. 250).
- I cannot tell the difference between wine from a box and wine from a bottle.
- I eat steak with ketchup.
- I still wear clothes from high school, 11 years later.
- My skin crawls every time I receive a bill in the mail.
- I bog myself down with doubt that I am not smart enough to succeed in academia.
- I work my ass off because I fear that debt will someday conquer my life.
The list goes on and on.
I am, and will always be, associated with the working-class. Though I have often considered this a hindrance, I also see it as a resource. I may have to scrape by financially to attend and perform as if I am middle-class at conferences, but I never take a day in the academy for granted. As a first generation college student, I see the chance to earn a Ph.D. as a rare gift for which I am thankful every day. I try not to complain despite the many challenges that come my way. Having this positive mindset motivates me to persevere and keeps me balanced while doing so. In addition to working hard, I am exceedingly frugal. I try to avoid debt as much as possible, which means that I shop at thrift stores and often forgo adventures with friends that exceed my limited budget. I may not have a fancy wardrobe or a thriving social life now but when school loans payments kick in, I am sure I will be grateful for the sacrifices I have made. Coming from the working-class can have its perks.
I question my ability, however, to admit my working-class roots with such ease. Two years ago, when I was unsure as to where my life was headed, this essay would have never been possible. Now that I have the chance to obtain a career that might afford me a middle-class lifestyle, admitting where I come from is somehow easier than it used to be. I emphasize the word "might" because, even if I do manage to be among the minority who gets a tenure track job, the average starting salary for a new Assistant Professor of Communication is only $58,482 per year (College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, 2014).While this may seem like a plentiful amount, it doesn't even come close to the $130,000 that is currently needed, per year, for a family of four to live an "American Dream" middle-class lifestyle in the United States (Gold, 2014). After I have some time to pay off debt and—if I work hard enough—receive a promotion or two, I may have the chance to fulfill this "American Dream," and it is this chance, albeit small, that I believe allows me to comfortably admit where I come from. I understand what Felski (2000) means when she indicates that "scholarly writing about lower-class life is almost invariably produced by individuals who are distanced from that life" (p. 42). Distance, in other words, creates a sense of security. I can talk about my "white trash" past because, if I obtain the career I desire, I am not going back. Instead of being in the trash, I can step outside of it, bend over the bag, and pick out pieces that allow me to contemplate what it means to be a white working-class woman in the United States today.
The distance from my working-class roots is not only created by my current path to success, but by the reality that the trailer I grew up in is no longer occupied by my family. Three years ago, when my mother unexpectedly died in her sleep from blood poisoning, my siblings and stepdad, Ed—mom's third husband—moved out. Living around all of her possessions was too depressing. Ironically, Ed bought a house in the neighborhood that I always wanted to live in while growing up—the neighborhood I pretended to live in when Austin dropped me off back in college. Now when I go home for a visit, I no longer have to turn left into the trailer park. Instead, I turn right into the middle-class neighborhood I used to envy.
Though I wish I had the gumption to admit my working-class roots and struggles much earlier, I am thankful I can be open about them now. I need to be open about them now. As Sweeney (2001) indicates, "white trash" are not marginalized by race or immigrant status, but by our own discomfort and denial. "White trash are what we come from and what we fear to be" (p. 146). By living in denial for the past ten years, I have done nothing but reinforce the stigma that people like me experience on a daily basis—the stigma that tainted my childhood.
My silence, in other words, has perpetuated the marginalization of working-class folks both within and outside of the academy, which is why I want to speak up. The culture of confession has penetrated the walls of the academy and I finally have caught the bug (Feski, 2000). I hope others do, too. For graduate students with similar backgrounds to mine, speaking up is especially important. The more we comply with the middle-class performance that is required of us within the academy, the more we are prone to debt. According to Cassuto (2011), in 2004, median figures for graduate student debt were $28,000 for those pursuing master's degrees, and $45,000 for those pursuing Ph.D.'s—amounts that are steadily on the rise, do not include undergraduate loans, and have thrust many into the trenches of poverty upon graduation. We become complicit in our own classed oppression when we say nothing and take out loans to pay for outrageous conference fees and other expenses all to fit a persona that many of us cannot afford to maintain on meager graduate assistantship stipends. I am not implying that we should stop attending conferences. What I am implying, however, is that we begin to admit our working-class roots and material struggles in the academy rather than hiding them. My plea echoes Kosut (2006) who states:
Those of us who identify as members of the working classes who are lucky enough to join the professoriate must work to change the system from the inside. Because of our unique class standpoint (outsiders who have made it in), I believe that we [members of the working-class] have a responsibility to make class visible (p. 260).
By admitting where we come from and where we are, we can begin to debunk the common assumption that everyone in the academy is middle-class (Barney Dews & Law, 1995; Moon, 1998). Perhaps when this happens, the pressure to perform a class we are not will decrease. We can be accepted for who we are and where we come from rather than who we pretend to be.
April 25, 2013
I sit at the end of a long conference table holding a newly completed paper with trembling hands. It is the last day of my Ph.D. seminar in autoethnography and I am scheduled to present what I have written. I look up and see the eyes of thirteen classmates staring at me.
Fear rises from within, invading my thoughts.
Can I do this? Or am I just going to run away like I always do? What if I don't run away? What will they think of me?
I take a deep breath and open my mouth.
"I was raised in a trailer park but I rarely tell that to anyone..."
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