Given my interest in the existence and manifestations of class in my life, my city, and my country, it comes as no surprise that I have enjoyed reading Paul Fussell’s slightly tongue in cheek book, “Class: A Guide through the American Status System.” Fussell correctly points out that class is fuzzier than just how much money you make or how fancy your clothes are; it is subtle and multi-faceted and unspoken, but no less real and no less demarcating.
Regular readers of my blog know the issue of class is one I muse on a lot. Some may wonder why my fixation, either because “who cares” or else “there are no classes in America.” To be sure, one can overemphasize this issue, as with race. But, as with race, it is likely our problem is not overemphasis but rather denial. Better to be honest about our classism than to further implicate ourselves through our vehement insistence that we are past that.
On that note, let us consider some of the ways we signal to others what class we belong to, and sort ourselves with others like us and away from others not like us (as with Fussell, I focus only on things we can change, so for this list I ignore the racial angles):
• Profession (what sector, what job type, what level within the organization)
• Education (degrees, institutions)
• Home location (what part of the city, what school district)
• Transportation (mode, number of available choices)
• Home décor (what we prioritize, how expensive our tastes are)
• Leisure activities (signaling how much money, free time, and refinement we have)
• Vacations (see “leisure activities” above)
• Physical appearance (grooming, attire, scents)
• Language (vocabulary, diction, accent)
• Kids (what they wear, where they go to school, what activities they do)
I’m probably missing a few categories, but you get the picture. If you are among those who protest that you are class-blind, and/or that there are no separate classes in this nation, ask yourself a few questions about these categories. How alike or different are you from others who are like you in these areas? How proud or ashamed are you to announce your characteristics to others? What do you think these characteristics signal to others about you?
Thanks to the wonders of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, our ability to define ourselves to ourselves and others has never been easier or broader. Cynically, I wonder what status updates are other than carefully crafted messaging designed to cultivate our personal brand so as to situate ourselves within our unwritten class system. Our photos, our links to articles, and even our responses to others’ photos and articles, are all designed to reinforce something about ourselves that relates to what class we believe we are in or aspire to be in: that we are ghetto, or that we are refined, or that we are worldly, or that we are family-oriented.
I would submit to you that not only is class alive and well in America, but it is as rigid as it is real. If you disagree, ask yourself whether you would feel uncomfortably out of place if you tried something different. Depending on where you’re coming from, riding the bus or going to the opera or sending your kids to a certain school will seem so out of character that you can’t even fathom subjecting yourself and your family to it. We make the lamest excuses to keep from doing this – it’s inconvenient, I can’t afford it, my child won’t do well there – but I think fundamentally it is about the unstated but very real barriers that we place upon ourselves to go no higher or lower than what we understand our class boundaries to be.
On a more hopeful note, I think what is remarkable is not the existence of classes and class boundaries, but rather the many ways we all transcend those distinctions every day. Much of our world and much of our history is far more hierarchical and defined than modern-day America. Big cities in particular offer incredible agglomerations of different people from different walks of life circulating comfortably in a shared experience, whether it is kids playing in a park or shoppers meandering through the aisles of a big farmer’s market. As much as we may be hard-wired to classify ourselves, the American spirit is also uniquely egalitarian in its overall attitude, which, when combined with the right context, can create wonderful places where guards are lowered and people interface as equals.
Finally, a word to the Christians. Class was an issue in New Testament times, too, which makes the apostle Paul’s statement – “there is now no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female” (Galatians 3:28) – so remarkable. And yet how many of our congregations are multi-class in nature? And how many of us are just as guilty as the world around us of working desperately to maintain an image to the outside world that is consistent with their class preferences? How many of us do big and small things (from moving to a new neighborhood or sending your kid to a different pre-school, to going to a public event or taking the bus) to build bridges with people vastly different in class from us, for the purposes of influencing those people for the Kingdom of God?
After all, the defining act of our Savior and Lord, who was literally in a class by Himself, was to lay aside that divine nature and become not only a human being but a lowly servant and a condemned criminal. (This same Savior or Lord shocked many by associating with society's dregs, although He counted the very rich and powerful among His acquaintances as well.) Let us who call ourselves Christians recognize the very real and very rigid class boundaries that threaten to divide us, and, imitating Jesus’ example, cross those boundaries in big ways and small ways, however uncomfortable that makes us, to love and live and empathize and serve.