Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Consider Class Identity

Meaningful Work?
The hardest and most-fraught struggle of my life has been an economic one. It is often difficult to explain what this means this to people, for whom this was not the case. Unlike contemporary kids who go back to their parental home when they are having trouble being self-supporting, many of us don’t or didn’t have that option. By age twenty-two, because of deaths and remarriage, I no longer had a family to return to if I had nowhere else to go.  My family of origin was never wealthy to begin with. My parents, an insurance salesman who worked on commission and a secretary were not regarded as accomplished in this culture. And following our mother’s untimely death, my seventeen-year old sister and I took off for California in her car, to try to make a life for ourselves.

Yes, it was easier to make a living in those years, even in the Bay Area. Working part-time, paying rent and eating was possible then. But there were things I had to learn. To act obsequious and smile were two feats I found particularly difficult. I learned to swallow my pride when gays, lesbians or Jews were insulted, and this happened more often than I’d expected. Even though I was a chronic insomniac, I managed to get up early and go each day to a place where I was neither welcomed nor respected. You could call it prostitution. It was certainly soul-draining, humiliating and degrading. I did it for money, because it was necessary. I did it because I had no other options.

In lesbian activist groups in which I was a participant, friends would tell me how odd it was that I did such politically incorrect work. They said they could only perform a job if it was meaningful and fulfilling. I listened politely not bothering to explain that I didn’t have that luxury. Some of them didn’t procure work until their early thirties. Many never did get paying work and lived on trust funds while pursing art or politics. They put their energy into activities that had the potential of changing the world and looked down on folks like myself. I envied them. They were often very nice people who knew the right behavior for every situation. This knowledge of propriety was a totally new concept to me. I had trouble holding on to jobs, partly because I was too honest.

On three different jobs, all of which I was hoping to hold for a relatively long time, I was fired. It usually happened after I came out as lesbian. On one, after being outed in the SF Chronicle in a Sunday Gay Pride Parade, I was fired Monday, the very next day. Were these firings homophobic? Of course. But they were also class-related because of my poor social skills.

When I visited Cuba, two years ago, I met lots of very poor people. They had tons of issues due to poverty but fear of having no food and no place to live because of lack of money was not among them. Their rent and some basic food staples were given them by the government, but most make less than the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. Insufficient as it was, they had a safety net, unlike the potential free fall in a deep well that we have here in the USA.

I don’t need to worry and struggle anymore. In later life I learned my lesson. I went back to school, Because I could keep only union jobs, I looked for that protection and my work life as an older worker was easier. But my entire journey is part of my identity. When a political person who never experienced the anxiety and pressure of needing to earn their living, speaks to me as though our allotment of “privilege” is the same, I get extremely angry. If I bring up class issues in response, it is often dismissed as a sour grapes thing. “She can’t help her background,” might be said. Of course, she can’t change her circumstances, we are all born with some assets and liabilities.

But now, more than ever, white folks are acknowledging the way race has helped them move through the world. This is a change for the better. It is the same with class advantage. No-one is saying they hate you but our identities are not the same. Never make assumptions that your story is true for anyone else. Open your eyes to the many different routes we all must take to arrive at the same place. And like all members of a wide variety of groups, try to see people in all their identities, all their colors. Life is not just where you wind up. It is also an equation involving the distance traveled.