isms and ignorance

A friend is compiling short testimonials about coping with “isms” (racism, classism, heterosexism, religious prejudice) in higher education for college-bound kids from underrepresented populations. She asked me if I had anything to contribute because her wife mentioned that she thought I’d come from a working-class background. It got me thinking.

First, it got me thinking, how could I confine it to a paragraph?

Then I thought I’d do some more free-associative train of thought kind of writing and see what comes up.

My initial response was that I felt like I had more difficulty in high school (and younger) than college. I basically attended high school in Pretty In Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful — a mostly middle- to upper-middle-class high school with a marginalized population of working class kids. Where do you think the kid who wore all black and listened to way too much Dead Kennedys and Bauhaus with the single mom who worked weekends as a cocktail waitress fit in? Whew. I could tell you stories.

College was different, though. I went to San Francisco State which had a student population of about 30,000. I feel like there were more people from my own background. Plus, let’s face it. I’m white. I get a pass. This has always been one of the interesting things about race and class. You can’t really hide your race. But you can pretty easily hide your class, cover it up with nicer clothes or mimicking the mannerisms of upper-class folks — especially if you’re white.

That’s not to say I did that. I think if you were to look at old photos of me in college you’d see pretty clearly that I didn’t hide my roots. I was pretty aware of my economic background. That’s the deal with economic class; it’s always about money. I remember one day, some teacher or counselor or someone asked what my financial goals were and I said, “to be in a place where I don’t have to think about money.” I’m not sure if that really possible; but it says a lot about my state of mind. When you’re poor, just like when you’re hungry, all you do is think about what you don’t have.

But, I digress.

College for me was a lot of work. And by work, I don’t mean academic work. I mean labor. When I first moved to Humboldt, where I went to a community college for a couple of years, I worked two jobs for a while. One was graveyard-shift dish washer at Denny’s. I got off work at 6 o’clock in the morning and then went to my other job bussing tables at a hotel restaurant from 6 to 3. Home. Shower. Nap. Class. Home. Nap. Work. When did I study? I don’t even remember. I remember a lot of driving, a lot of listing to music, and a lot of chain smoking. Things weren’t much different in San Francisco. While at State, I worked at least four days a week. My last semester was all morning shifts, opening the store at 5 a.m. And all that was for living expenses. That didn’t even touch tuition.

Early in my graduate work, a friend gave me a copy of Nickel and Dimmed. She was really excited about the book and told me I just had to read it. The premiss of the book is that a well-off freelance writer from New England decides to see how it’s possible for anyone to live on minimum wage in this country. So she gives up her comfortable job, her apartment (but not her car), and moves to Florida where she gets a job waiting tables to see just how difficult it is to live on such low wages. In other words, my life. The tone of the book is perpetual shock. “How can anyone live like this?!” the author seems to be exclaiming over and over again. “And in America!?” With each anecdote, her surprise and indignation rises. And I read each anecdote and thought, “Yep, I did that. Oh yeah. I had that job. Yeah, well, that sucks. But you gotta pay the bills.” I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. I wasn’t particularly offended at the book, at it’s “let’s go see how the other half lives” presumption. My indignation came from the fact that my friend didn’t recognize that the “other half” under study here was me. She didn’t notice that her fellow graduate-student friend was working at a coffee shop part-time because my education, unlike hers, was not fully funded. She didn’t realize that I was living in a two-room basement apartment, not because I was being ironic, but because that was my only choice. I think this is what I mean by class being easy to hide. I didn’t have to do much to “pass,” to make someone think that I wasn’t some white-trash wage-slave. All I had to do was go to graduate school. Which is funny. “All I had to do.” As if that was an easy choice. As if that didn’t require some serious thinking outside of my working-class box, years of hard work and sacrifice, making me a total mystery to half my family who can no longer relate to their over-educated relative. My friend didn’t have any idea. We used to hang out with her other grad-school friends, drink micro-brews at a local bar, and talk about Marxism, talk about the proletariate overthrowing the capitalist establishment. It never occurred to her that I was the proletariate. Marxism, for me, was never merely an intellectual game. It was my life. So when I returned Nickel and Dimmed to her the next day, unread, I was sure to remind her of my experiences, of the choices I have had to make in my life which are inherently different from the choices that people of wealth have to make. I wanted to open her eyes to the classism right before her.

The other “ism” I’m reminded of in this little thought experiment has to do with religion. My first year in grad school, shortly after I started calling myself a Buddhist (I won’t even touch here what that means!), I took a class on “Inter-religious Dialogue.” Which was a disaster. For a lot of reasons. Relevant here is that the class was composed of a dozen or so Christians from a variety of denominations, a Wiccan, and me. So, whenever we found ourselves confronted with some sticky theological point, some question about how to deal with a particular issue from our respective religious background, all eyes would fall on me and someone would say, “What’s the Buddhist answer here?” Which I found pretty irritating. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve felt tokenized. I was the token Buddhist. I was everyone’s “Buddhist friend.” The same thing was happening to the Wiccan practitioner, and she and I inevitably bonded over the issue. It didn’t matter that we were not the official spokespeople for our religious traditions. It didn’t matter that there is no, one “Buddhist answer” to the question — to any question. And it was certainly never, “What’s your take on this issue, Scott?” I mean, that’s what essentialism is all about. It’s about reducing an entire class of people down to whatever your preconceived stereotype is, then grafting that essentialist characterization onto the first person you meet who happens to fall into that category. And I sure as hell wasn’t playing. “What’s Buddhist answer?” I’d ask. “I don’t know. I’ll be sure to bring up it next year when all three hundred million of us are in the same room at the same time and take a poll. In the mean time, my answer is that y’all are nuts for believing God’s some white guy with a beard dolling out reward and punishment from a cloud over the North Poll.”

Okay. So I made up that last part. But you get the idea.

I wonder if this is what my friend was looking for?