Introduction to Rhizomes 27
Special Issue on Working Class Academics:
Still Unbroken

Carol Siegel

[1] The personal is political, not just as it famously has been for feminist scholars, but for all working class scholars, feminist or not, as this special issue shows. Almost all of the contributors discuss their personal experiences in order to support points, as is typical of working class discourse according to many studies. And so I will do the same here, starting with this observation: for me the hardest part of being a working class scholar has always been coping with the many middle class people I meet who want to fix me. I'm consistently given the message that my opinions and attitudes are wrong. But that's just the beginning. My appearance, my taste in food, art, and lovers, my approach to life, my spending habits, my manners are all so wrong, apparently, as to call for intervention. Yet I continue to see myself as not broken, not in need of fixing.

[2] Part of the problem here seems to derive from something many scholars of class differences working in Cultural Studies, Sociology, and Psychology have noted. Middle class culture, also known as bourgeois culture, is fairly homogenous. As numerous autobiographical writings from members of that class tell us, the normal American life path (and model to the world) is this: one is born to a college-educated married couple who own two cars and a house with a separate bedroom for everyone, at least two bathrooms and a yard; one learns to obey teachers and other authoritative adults; one begins to drive at age sixteen and acquires a car; one then goes on to get a college degree (or more than one); one begins a professional career; one purchases a house as soon as possible but no later than a couple of years into one's marriage (and one does get married if that's legally possible); one acquires all the usual modern appliances and electronics as seen on TV; and then one produces or adopts at least one child, and the process begins again. Marriages are made not only to gratify romantic or sexual desires but reasonably and sensibly to make an economically comfortable life possible, to ensure that all the material things necessary to having a good life can be provided. And what is a good life? (Hint: Few in the bourgeoisie seem to agree with Walter Pater that "To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.")

[3] Bourgeois people often have difficulty distinguishing between taste and morality, as many cultural critics have observed. Terms like "nice," "right," and of course "good," are often used in ways that make this clear. For example, my love of sensationalistic films is not nice, I'm told. As a highly educated film scholar I should prefer a serious, art film to one directed by George Romero or Russ Meyer, and certainly to one featuring explosions and kick-boxing. A "good" film is by definition one without zombies or big breasts—or explosions. And if I do watch such films it should be for the right reasons, to analyze them critically, not to enjoy them vulgarly. Middle class people rarely use the term "vulgar," preferring "inappropriate," but they generally mean the same thing. And I am apparently often inappropriate. I've come to dread hearing that little nervous snort of laughter that in polite, middle class circles signifies shock at the wrongness of what someone else just said or did. It's always accompanied by an earnest look that seems meant to elicit recognition on my part that what I've just said or done can only be acceptable as a joke. Surely I was raised to know better!

[4] But I am as my upbringing made me. I can take no credit for my extremely progressive—or as I prefer to call them "radical"—politics. Since I have almost always done and believed what I was taught at home, I wonder if I would have been a conservative had my parents been like that. Instead, in the middle of the Cold War my father sternly admonished me never to say anything bad about communists because his father was a Bolshevik; later he joined the Black Panthers and was annoyed when he was subsequently expelled because he was the wrong race. My mother campaigned for Jesse Jackson and cried when he failed to get the Democratic nomination. Both of them worked tirelessly against censorship calling it the first stage of fascism, and I was told I would no longer be welcome in our home if they heard I had crossed a picket line or used a racial slur. Morality for them meant walking lightly on the Earth by not consuming unnecessarily or being wasteful. It meant being sensitive to the problems of the poor and doing all you could to help those in need. They encouraged me to decide for myself how I wanted to dress and how I wanted to conduct my sex life, and treated both things as matters of style with little relation to morality. So long as I didn't buy wastefully, didn't force my sexual attentions on the unwilling, or disrespect people of color, the destitute, or the union, I was fine. How weird it is for me then, to read influential theorists confidently referring as a universal to everyone growing up restrained by their parents from free experimentation with and expression of sexuality and to everyone having been raised to behave properly, meaning to conform to bourgeois norms of self-presentation. And how weird to read over and over in feminist and gender studies theory that all departures from middle class propriety represent rebellion against one's family's values.

[5] But the weirdest thing of all is the insistence of most middle class people that the working class is much more restrictive than their own class, uniformly ultra-conservative, especially on social issues. We are told repeatedly that all of our folks are racist and homophobic, no matter that huge numbers of working class people are people of color and that interracial relationships abound among us, or that many of us are gay and/or include gay friends and relatives as valued family members in our everyday lives. We are told repeatedly that the 1960s and 70s counterculture was middle class, although those of us who were there and paying attention know otherwise. (I remember my joy in 1968 when the social hierarchy at my high school shifted from giving the highest status to those who could afford their own cars and fancy clothes to those who were "streetwise" and knew how to make use of things the more affluent had thrown away!) My parents and their friends called themselves bohemians. Most of them were autodidacts who belonged to organizations created by and populated with working class people who enjoyed reading and studying. But many, like my father, also liked nature and the outdoors, camping out with old gear bought at the Army-Navy store. My father and his Italian immigrant Fuller Brush Man buddies loved opera, and he sang in a light opera company. But he also loved pop. We saw no conflict between enjoying Madame Butterfly free in the park (all of us crying at the end) and then coming home and singing novelty and show tunes while my sister played the battered upright piano jammed into a corner of our tiny living room. I not only saw more diversity of tastes, interests, and politics in working class people than I have ever seen in the middle classes, I also saw more tolerance of other people's tastes and interests, if not politics, among my own class. And I have yet to hear a working class person give that little shocked laugh that begs the other person to come to her senses and act right, since every decent person knows what's nice and what is inappropriate. Instead, our parents often explained to us, without judgment, when someone from one of the many cultures that make up our class did or said something unusual to us, "That's just the way they do things." Yet, we are told repeatedly that we are all the same.

[6] Working class diversity is ignored. And I must ask why? Is it because to recognize that there are many distinct and different cultures under the big umbrella of most of the humans on Earth—that is the people who don't own the means of production -- would mean that the middle class and its rules and practices are not the standard by which decency and sanity itself should be judged, but are simply the ways of one group among many? Is it because the "we" and "us" in middle class people's situated speech are not as inclusive as the speakers think, and not because working class people are too ignorant to recognize that we were raised wrong, so we can’t be heroically rebellious like the progressive children of the bourgeoisie?

[7] I chose to create this special issue of Rhizomes because I want to showcase the problem of continuing to be working class in academe, of continuing to choose to identify with a group that is absurdly and grotesquely reduced to stereotypes that are taken for granted by most other academics. The problem of being assumed to be broken and in need of remediation so we can fit in. Along with being urged to acknowledge white privilege, academics are now told that they should acknowledge class privilege, and that, for many middle class people, takes the form of pityingly conveying to their colleagues from the lower social classes their sense that the way they were raised was an advantage over the ways we were.

[8] And here I want to acknowledge those friends of mine, and others like them, who deliberately dropped down from the higher social classes because they recognized that membership in the working class can be a huge advantage in developing critical thinking and ethical behavior. You know who you are; you're the ones who get just as mad as I do when middle class people try to straighten you out. You hate that little correcting laugh as much as I do, and get it aimed at you at least as often. You're the ones who don't say defensively, "I worked for everything I have," when it's obvious that you have more than other people who also work hard. And more than anything else, you’re the ones who don't tell working class people who we are and what we think, but instead listen to us about our experience! Probably you are among the readers of this issue.

[9] I want to take issue with the idea that being born and raised working class is a disadvantage and instead talk a bit about the advantages I and many others gained from being raised working class. First I must concede that some working class people are conservative and some aspire to be middle class (or rich) and pursue that goal by behaving as much like middle class people as their personal finances and borrowing power allow. But I will insist, as do most of the essays here, that many working class people feel strong allegiance to their class of origin and manifest that allegiance through resisting bourgeois practices and values. People who retain their working class affect stand out glaringly in academe, as many of these essays discuss, and for most of us this at some point becomes not a matter of lack of knowledge of how to pass for middle class, but a choice to stand with those who are not bourgeois. We refuse and resist the dominant culture because that's what we learned at home. For me the greatest advantage I received from my early life within working class communities was that I didn't need a bumper sticker to tell me to "question authority."

[10] What most characterizes the working class to me is a core resistance to authority because we know it isn't on our side. No one who grows up working class can possibly believe that obedience to authority figures will keep us safe or advance us in the world, because we see every day that authority figures have no respect for us or our families and no interest in protecting us from harm. Instead they treat us with suspicion and disdain, constantly reminding us that we are not welcome in spaces reserved for the more affluent social classes by asking us what we are doing there when we venture out of our designated territories and into to the more wealthy zones. So our motivation to conform to the demands of authorities is weak. Many of us only do so when we fear punitive consequences if we don't. But even when we obey, we resist mentally and emotionally, we continue to question because we know that we are being told lies about the justice system and the educational system. And that these lies are intended to control us so we can't change our low position in the power structure.

[11] And that leads to another of the biggest advantages of being raised working class. Unless we are exceptionally unobservant, we cannot possibly believe we inhabit a meritocracy in which hard work pays off with social mobility to a higher class status. The only direction we see most of the people we respect going is down. Most of us had parents, other family members, and adult neighbors who worked very hard, indeed, and got little more than basic subsistence for it, and sometimes not even that. In school we saw that, as studies of school placement and grading have shown, the better dressed students from the more affluent families got preferential treatment from teachers and administrators even when they were less intelligent or worked less hard. If we applied for white collar jobs we saw that a personal appearance signifying comparative wealth was the most important factor in securing a good position, not ability to do the job well. (This was gravely explained to me by an officer of a temp agency when I was eighteen. Because I had clothes from Goodwill and vinyl shoes she chose a job for me bussing tables.) The quality of one's work didn't matter, we saw, only conformity to appearance codes did. Of course we could have tried to conform, and sometimes we did, but we always got details wrong because we saw the issue as one of imitation of ultimately meaningless superficial things, not as virtuous adherence to high standards of self-presentation. We couldn't believe in the rightness and goodness of these standards; the value of productive work was all we could think truly mattered, although to the middle classes it obviously did not.

[12] The thing I remember best about my parents is that their hands were never idle. Whenever she sat down at home, my mother knitted or sewed. Whenever he sat down at home, my father had a tray on his lap with something he was repairing or creating. They worked hard at their jobs and at taking care of their family, but they rarely got a break. My father was a "nine days wonder" officer in World War II, trained to lead because of his high I.Q and physical strength and daring. But because he was very dark-skinned and kinky-haired, he wasn't allowed to command white troops or get a job where he would be in charge of white people. I'm sure the way he talked, pronouncing "th" as "d" as in "dem guys" didn't help either. When he left the Army, he did road work and then sold Fuller Brushes door-to-door in African American neighborhoods, along with a team of other dark immigrants and former ghetto dwellers like himself. My mother was so brilliant as a school girl that her teacher was able to secure her a half scholarship at the exclusive women's college she had attended—where my mother was tormented and humiliated daily by the other girls, did menial labor to pay the rest of her tuition, and was sneered at and mocked by her professors because of her Brooklyn accent and wardrobe of two dresses from the church poor box. After graduation, despite fluency in three languages, she couldn't do better than a job in a typing pool with other young women, mostly Puerto Ricans, who also came from poverty. Social mobility is a myth that normal observation of our elders' lives exploded for us. And that is freeing! Kasey Musgraves' popular country song, "Follow Your Arrow," expresses the working class ethos I was raised with: "You're damned if you do/ And you're damned if you don't/ So you might as well just do/ Whatever you want."

[13] We often hear that "to raise morale, lower expectations," and we were conditioned by growing up working class to live this. I feel privileged and at a great advantage because I never expected to have a room of my own in which to write and think. The largest home my family ever had was 800 square feet, for six people, plus a continually visiting cousin. I shared a bedroom with two of my sisters. And this was normal in our community where only an only child could have her own private room. We learned to do homework and read while a couple of feet away from us others talked, watched TV (all 2 channels our crumby black and white sets would receive), listened to music and sang along, or talked loudly. As a result I acquired powers of concentration that astound many of my colleagues. I can write for publication in coffee houses and in shopping mall food courts, next to screaming babies or shouting teens, and because I still don't have a room of my own, I often do.

[14] One of the other major advantages I gained from my upbringing was to be comfortable around all sorts of other people. When you are living in a small space, especially in an urban environment, and use public transportation and walking as your only modes of travel, you must learn to interact peacefully with people who represent the great diversity of the lower classes. After a rocky start living in inner city slums, when, like most young girls, I was frequently the victim of street crime, I've learned that my best protections are my cheap Timex watch and pay-as-you-go phone without even a camera. I now easily recognize those strangers who pose dangers and those who will be helpful or entertaining. I modify my self-presentation to avoid being irritating or provocative to specific groups. I move freely through the world with reasonable caution but little fear. Some of the homeless and street people I see daily greet me cordially. When I hear middle class people expressing anxiety about going outside their comfort zone of affluent suburbs and shopping malls, I feel sorry for them. Their homes may belong to them (or the bank), but I feel that downtown in cities belongs to me. One of my most exhilarating travel experiences was being given a map at a conference hotel in Philadelphia on which the concierge had highlighted areas of the city to avoid, heading straight for those places and thoroughly enjoying them because they were filled with the kinds of people I've had the most positive experiences with.

[15] And while middle class people apparently often enjoy the delusion that they are independent if they own everything they use, we working class people see the costs of things. We know that some have because others don't, that the poor pay in suffering for what the more affluent enjoy. We see the children who will grow up with respiratory problems because they live near the oil refinery and the parents who will mourn a son or daughter lost to another war for cheap fuel, and so we know that driving a car doesn't mean you are more independent than a bus rider. We may be just as hard on the environment as the middle classes, sometimes harder because we can't afford to buy the same energy efficient things as they do, but at least we know we aren't independent, we know we can't make it without the help of others. No one can. The recognition that my life is contingent on the lives of others, that independence itself is a myth, and that the illusion of it costs others greatly, has been tremendously empowering for me. It has helped me own the choices I make.

[16] And finally I have the advantage of freedom from being subject to the relentless disinformation campaign that is American television broadcasting. Like many working class people I know, when I watch television, I do so skeptically. TV doesn't pull me into its norms and make me see the world as the advertisers want me to. This is because TV has never seemed to be talking to me. The constant bleating in commercials about "your house," "your car," "your washer-dryer," "your lawn," and so on, are obviously addressing someone else since I don't have and never did have any of that stuff. (Maybe I'd be more attentive if they talked about "your apartment," "your bus service," "your laundromat," and "your geraniums on the windowsill." I know I would if they ever talked about "your annoying landlord!") Similarly the representation in most TV dramas and comedies of what is meant to be a normal life but looks like wealth to me, lets me know what I don't have, but at the same time reminds me that, for that very reason, what I'm seeing isn't pertinent to my own life. As a friend who grew up in East L.A. told me, "When I was a kid, we watched Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet and it was like they were in sci-fi, on another planet."

[17] I'm very grateful to have spent the first thirty-five years of my life working class. My working class heritage and training made me the person I am who values experiences over possessions and who will always do what I want, because I know that doing what others want is not only unbearable, it doesn't change a thing. I continue to conform to the expectations of the more powerful only so far as is absolutely necessary to my economic survival. In a world that fragments us with conflicting demands and promises that won't be kept, I feel whole, still unbroken.

[18] The essays in this special issue cover a wide range of working class experiences and come from scholars in the United States and abroad. Some are leaders in working class studies whose names you will immediately recognize and whose gracious willingness to contribute to this issue represents their commitment to our shared class. Some are established scholars in other fields who, like me, are just beginning to analyze and theorize the class investments of academe that have alienated them. Others are just beginning academic careers and seeing what they are up against, with remarkable insight. Some have attained wealth, or at least solid comfort, relative to the conditions under which they grew up while others continue to struggle with economic privation. Some have experienced their origins as an advantage in academe, as I mostly have, while others have mostly suffered because of where they came from. And this is the luck of the draw in terms of where they have found work. Some have developed a philosophy or at least strategies for dealing with the class oppression they face. Some just endure it as best they can. Some stay for the students like themselves, others in order to keep in circulation information about worlds outside the middle class. Some pass as middle class because they must, and by revealing themselves in this special issue show great courage. Others take a defiant stance towards the dominant culture. But all of us are able to make unique contributions to knowledge work because of where we came from and what we learned there and thereafter. Our voices will be heard, though we speak truths that the bourgeoisie does not want to hear. As I tell my students at our campus, where the norm is to be the first in the family to attend college, throughout all of time, throughout all the world, the working class have been and still are the majority, so if we chose to speak our truths we cannot be silenced.