Why are we not engaging in the class conversation? by becky martinez

“Oftentimes I too am afraid to think or write about class” – bell hooks

A couple of years ago on my way to Penn State, my flight was cancelled in Philadelphia due to a blizzard. Through experience, I have succumbed to the fact I have absolutely no control of the weather and usually do not stress in this type of situation. However, I had just arrived from working in Ohio earlier that day, it was late, and I was exhausted. I had enough organizational knowledge (i.e. cultural capital) to immediately call customer service and was able to rebook for the first departing flight. I now had to decide where to sleep for the next few hours, and it was at that moment I lost it. For the next two hours I contemplated sleeping in the airport or spending money for a hotel room. I tried to find the “best deal,” finally booked a room and tiredly waited for the shuttle.

During those horrendous two hours, of which I could have been in a hotel sleeping, I was unable to make a quick, clear decision. I did not consider taking care of myself or finding a comfortable hotel knowing the following day would be at least 16 hours of travel and work. My decision was wrapped around spending money and if so, how much. I kept asking myself “is this worth it, does it make sense to spend money on a few hours of sleep?” While I saved a few dollars, I felt out of sorts and suffered for a few days. Even now, I am still in deep sadness about that particular experience and the role class played in it because that narrative is a constant part of my daily life.

My immediate reaction when asked to write a blog entry was that of simultaneous appreciation and a dumbfounded “why me?” Might I say, internalized oppression is a powerful force. Once I accepted the invitation, I instantly wanted to write about class due to its saliency in my life. But I quickly found myself in a quandary, and I brainstormed a list of topics, which included my perceived relevance, importance, and others’ interest. Soon after this state of questioning, I came across the above bell hook’s quote and here we are with the question – why are we not engaging in the class conversation?

As someone that often struggles with this conversation, I know my reluctance originates from feelings such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, confusion and emptiness. I grew up in a working class family that thinks, feels and relates to the world very differently than my current middle-formally educated class. In my working class lens, there is a refreshing sense of honesty, work ethic and a down to earth feeling of community. Whereas in my other lens, we spend time talking, dealing with egos, and being strategic. In this lived experience, it’s that of existing in two distinct worlds. In academic terms, it’s a phenomenon known as straddling. It is the quintessential complexity of identity in which I am always managing.

Let us to get to the feelings involved in my experience, yes I said feelings. These are a part of my story because prior to naming them I was unable to engage the topic in any sort of authentic, practical way. I stayed solely in my head and discussed class from that space, i.e. intellectual. I distanced my experience from the theories and had no desire to be honest with myself and deal with how class has interacted with my life. When I finally recognized the feelings associated with my class experience, I was able to dig deep and begin my healing work with it.

I reflected on the roots of these feelings – where we lived, how we spoke, what we drove, who had what around us, etc. I also reflected on my current class position – my degrees, friendships, topics of conversation, spending, and the list seems endless. This process was, and at times still is, alarming and uncomfortable. Strangely, I catch myself in the damaging cycle of currently feeling shame and guilt for once feeling shame and guilt. As I said earlier, internalized oppression, and its counterpart internalized dominance, is extremely powerful. The process of acknowledging and understanding the emotion that surface from my classed experience is essential in disrupting this internalized narrative.

In my current awareness with class, I continuously navigate my values involving money, food, relationships, celebrations, education, actually most anything. Do I buy Skippy peanut butter or the organic kind with flaxseed and sweetened with agave syrup? What do I wear when working with students versus upper administrators? Do I date someone without a degree? What’s my approach in conversations with my nephews about money, values and choices? Do I really need to spend $10 for early check-in on Southwest? These are a few of the conversations constantly swirling in my head shaped by my class identity, and honestly, I have yet to find any easy answers.

In the academy I rarely hear discussions of class beyond an occasional theory, financial aid situation, potential tuition increase or yearly budget meeting, and often only in terms of economics. When I do experience such conversations, it’s most often intellectual or matter of fact with little in depth engagement of the lives behind the numbers not to mention the class disparity that exists on most any college campus. While class is indeed about economic capital, it also involves social and cultural capital and all three are often intertwined with the college experience. I am always struck by the irony that higher education is thought to be the great equalizer, yet breeds so much division in the context of class and is repeatedly ignored. My wish is class becomes as central to the conversation as race and gender, particularly because of the intersectionality and complexity that exists between them.

Speaking of intellectual concepts, internalized oppression and internalized dominance play a critical and destructive role into the treatment of self and others based merely on their identity. Members of subordinated groups internalize attitudes, beliefs and roles that support systems of oppression without question. This eventually leads to the belief of “it is what it is,” and it often goes unchallenged, is accepted, internalized and becomes that person’s narrative. As a result, members of subordinated groups often feel defeated, isolated, doubtful or possibly grateful and collude in keeping the status quo in place. The same dynamic holds true for those in dominant groups. However, it results in feelings such as entitlement, superiority, and guilt, known as internalized dominance.

So, what does this all mean in answering the question, “why are we not engaging in the class conversation?” Here are some tools I have found helpful for such engagement:

1. Self-reflection:

  • What meaning do you make of class?
  • What are your values around class? How have those shaped your views about yourself and others?
  • What about your class identity (of origin and current) are you willing or unwilling to share with others?

2. Explore your class identity

  • What were the markers of class growing up? What are they now?
  • What messages did you receive about class growing up? How do those messages currently show up in your life?
  • How has your class identity shifted over time?
  • Which of your other identities intersect with class?

3. Educate yourself

  • Economic, Social and Cultural Capital
  • Intersections

4. Cultivate class-consciousness – talk about it!

  • Incorporate it as part of professional development during meetings
  • Share your experiences, fears, hopes and struggles
  • Include it in student staff training

5. Remember

  • Do not use your class of origin or current subordinated identities to escape from class privilege
  • Pay attention to your judgment
  • Class is about more than economics

To continue the dialogue, contact becky martinez at 949.278.2281 or beckymartinez@infinitymartinez.com.

dr. becky martinez is a consultant with a focus on social justice, leadership and organizational change. She works with organizations to dismantle systems of oppression through critical dialogue and reflection intertwined with theoretical foundations. becky has worked as an administrator in various institutions of higher education prior to consulting. She is a faculty member for the Social Justice Training Institute and a Lead Facilitator for the LeaderShape Institute. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Leadership with her research focused on the union of transformative learning, social justice and racism.

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