I cannot tell you how many classes I have sat in on, or how many conversations I have had, where the discussion centers on the difficulties faced by members of the working class. My peers, and at times my professors, drone on about the scarcity of social mobility, absence of economic resources and shortage of occupational opportunities available to those in the working class. This rhetoric labels members of the working class as having a deficit.
At moments when this happens, I sit there dumbfounded, I want to yell at them, shake them until they listen and recognize that here I am, the exact person you want to save or help or whatever it is these conversations aim to achieve. I am right here. And what’s more, I am not at a deficit. I have an understanding and knowledge of the world that is predicated on the fact that I grew up with less money than most. This knowledge is an asset and it is time for it to be treated as such.
Class identity can shape dreams and aspirations or it can prevent them from forming at all. It can foster inquisitiveness or demand obedience. It can teach people how much (or how little) they matter. This complicated dichotomy is almost impossible to understand if you live outside the world of the working class and working poor.
An important distinction exists between understanding an experience and knowing it. As academics, we strive to understand our world, but we often over-intellectualize our learning by forgetting that what we are attempting to understand at times applies directly to the experience and personal knowledge of our peers. This behavior prevents us from developing empathy and blocks connections from forming between different kinds of people.
If your biggest concern on any given day is what you should buy from the latest bougie clothing site, don’t treat buying clothes second-hand as a deficit. It is an asset to know to invest capital into the success and happiness of yourself, your family and those you love, rather than trends that will be deemed obsolete in a year.
If you complain about having to buy your own textbooks, while with the same breath, express your excitement regarding your upcoming vacation paid in full by your family, don’t view those who have not traveled because they can’t afford it as at deficit. It is an asset to understand that the communities in which we are raised have as much to give us as any vacation destination.
I am tired of the ever-present classist rhetoric at Occidental that promotes the idea that to have traveled, studied or experienced a wide variety of things makes you more cultured than those who have not. That spending a week exploring the streets of Paris is more important than spending a week curling up in bed with a battered copy of Alex Haley’s “Roots.” That watching “La La Land” with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is a better way of spending your time than flipping through old family photos. That knowledge acquired on a college campus is any more valuable than knowledge given by elders, family and friends. This argument deeply narrow-minded.
I have a firm conviction of the truth and the power of my emotions and experiences. I not only understand them intellectually, I also know them and they have shaped me.
I know that the deep lines etched into my parents’ faces come from their constant endeavor to make my life the best it can be, and I know that many people on this campus cannot even conceptualize how deep those lines go. I know the loneliness and frustration that comes from being incapable of relating to experiences like traveling the world and tasting the finest foods. I know how to sustain myself in the face of unbelievable stress because backing down is not an option for those of us who have no means or place to escape to. I know the value of immaterial goods, of finding beauty and meaning and purpose in little things that more moneyed people frequently view as mediocre and unimportant. I know how to generously love those around me because I was taught that life is never about the success of the individual and always about the prosperity of the collective.
I know I am not at a deficit. My experience, though fraught with challenges, is a blessing and it’s time it is treated as such.
We as a campus need to drastically shift our rhetoric on class. We need to recognize the breadth of class difference on this campus and worldwide. And that those who come from working class backgrounds have exceptional knowledge and insights on how to live life that should be seen as assets. Don’t tell me what I don’t understand, ask me instead what I know to be true.
Kelsey Martin is a sophomore sociology major. She can be reached at [email protected]