Tag Archives: working class

Hillbilly Elegy and Cultural Identity

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Yesterday I nursed a cold and finished the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. My husband walked in on occasion during the course of the book, and he often punctuated  the narration with a loud “yup.” As somebody who came from a culturally working-class background and found himself at Yale getting an advanced degree, they have a lot in common, and Vance’s experiences often rang true to him. I feel the cultural distance myself, too, within the Yale social circle, though I’m not immersed in it at work like he is. I remember being at a professor’s (insanely nice) house once and overhearing him ask another student, “Do you have any working-class friends?” I wanted to wave my hand frantically and point to myself and my husband.

Like Vance, my husband and I can also point to potentially traumatic experiences that affect more children with limited economic means than children in middle-class and higher families. I can easily check off at least three of those ACEs about maybe four, and I think Vance checked off six.

I was hoping that Vance would spend a lot more time talking about how his identity changed because of Yale, if he had to give up parts of his hillbilly identity in order to advance himself, consciously or unconsciously. He did tell how he lied about his Yale enrollment to a woman in Ohio with a Yale sweatshirt because he didn’t want to identify with her presumed class, and about how he learned to navigate the hiring process and how it’s structured in a way that it screens out those who aren’t already part of upper middle class culture. And how he would get calls from home about his drug-addicted mom, reminders of where he came from. And how he realized he had a quick, violent temper and an inability to express his emotions due to his volatile home life, and he worked to change that. But I want to know if he stuffed the more inconsequential parts of his origins down, like his personal tastes. Did he unabashedly talked about country music, or Cracker Barrel, or ask Yale friends if they wanted to shoot at beer cans on the weekend? Did he intentionally turn that part of himself off and shed it from his identity, or reserve it for trips back to Ohio and Kentucky? How aware was he of his cultural markers? He doesn’t indicate if he gave any of these parts of himself up, or what it felt like to decide to shed them or keep them. More on that in a minute.

Many of his phrases – skewering “lazy” people who took advantage of government assistance, defaulting to church as a force of social organization, talking about the decay of tradition without defining “tradition” – show that he remains entrenched in politically conservative modes, presumably which he got from his conservative relatives.* I found myself wondering if his harsh criticism of welfare recipients or a coworker who was taking 40-minute bathroom breaks (which to me is an indication that somebody is shooting up) was misdirected anger from his own opiate-addicted mother, or if it’s willful blindness to the way that addictions affect the addicts’ behavior and ability to function. He acknowledged that current psychological thought views addiction as a mental illness, but he doesn’t seem to extend his own personal sympathy toward addicts. Moreover, I don’t think that widespread addiction is something that you fix by giving people more church. I say that as a churchgoer.

He opines that we use government to fix issues that it can’t resolve, that it increases learned helplessness among groups like the working-class whites of his childhood. In his mind, hillbilly culture itself, its violent tendencies and family instability, is something that has to be fixed from the inside by hillbillies themselves. I admit that I have a tendency nowadays to look at governmental solutions. And it’s true that some people take advantage of the safety nets that government provides. But I think the stakes are too high for us to remove those nets and hope that our economically disadvantaged populations are going to toughen up and straighten out their cultures on their own.

Payday loans might have helped Vance pay his rent on time and avoid late fees that one time that he used it, but overall, I think payday loans do more harm to our society than good when low-income families get into the habit of using them. People are going to abuse WIC, but if abolishing WIC means there are kids that go hungry, I’d rather accept the abuse. Some people are doing a terrible job of parenting due to ignorance or drug abuse or other reasons, but if the schools ignore the shortcomings of those families and push their scheduled curriculum forward without trying to take up the slack, then those kids fail, and the school has failed those kids just as badly as their parents. It’s not right. And it would be great if we had social institutions instead of government institutions that would take up the slack, but we don’t, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people if we just take those government institutions away before the social ones are strong enough, or varied enough, or can survive, let alone thrive, in the mobile population we currently have.

Vance seemed to think that churches would be the best social organization structure, pointing to studies that regular attendees report higher levels of happiness than non-attendees. But Vance himself pointed out that the teachings of some churches can be destructive and turn people inward, and I don’t think that theological agreement with a group of other people should be a prerequisite for inclusion in social safety nets. It’s awesome if you can find that group, but I wouldn’t want to force people into a box. Political parties could be a better organizing structure, or looser community action groups centered around certain broad principles and ideas. Maybe it’s a relatively new, or American, or even individually-focused or selfish, idea that the beliefs and practices of faiths matter more than the benefits of social organization, but I’m okay with that being the new status quo if it means we have more sincere expressions of faith. (Similarly, I think that extending marriage to gay couples revitalizes the institution. If marriage is truly a special union that commits two people to each other, then straight couples have been diminishing its significance for decades by marrying because of unplanned pregnancies, because it seems like the thing to do in their long-term relationship, or for any other number of wrong reasons.)

 


 

And now for something completely different. Like Vance, I come from a rural, working-class background, and I have moved up in the socioeconomic ladder. Though my current income level and most of my cultural affiliations mark me as securely middle class, I do actively reject some markers that, to me, signify the middle class and upper middle class. I am well aware of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Apple products. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, no tablet, and a Chromebook.
  • Lululemon. I do spend money on Nike activewear because I find it comfortable, and sometimes on sale items at Athleta, a lesser-known activewear brand under the Gap umbrella.
  • Home ownership.
  • Buying brand new cars.
  • Urban Outfitters. (More a rejection of hipster culture than anything.)
  • Victoria’s Secret, PINK, Abercrombie. The exception: VS has awesome pantyhose.
  • Starbucks. I make 96% of my coffee at home, and sometimes I go to Dunkin Donuts.
  • “Fancy” restaurants. I prefer pub settings, and I tend to balk at the price of restaurant entrees when I can make something delicious at home for a fraction of the cost.
  • Brunch. See above re: cost.
  • Purebred dogs from a breeder. Shelter mutts are my go-to.
  • Skiing. Always seemed so expensive, and what rich kids did on break.
  • Country clubs. See above re: rich kids.

There are middle- and upper middle-class things that I do embrace, though:

  • Consumer Reports. They helped me pick my coffee maker as well as my…
  • Toyota Prius. Reliable, not wasteful of fossil fuels, and affordable to maintain.
  • News sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, Slate
  • Podcasts. Goes hand in hand with the news.
  • Audiobooks. Goes hand in hand with podcasts, but it really took off because my job gives me access.
  • Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew. With blessings from my mom, the cast of What Not to Wear, numerous fashion bloggers, and my employee discount when I worked at BR, I happily spent money on building a good quality wardrobe.
  • Craft breweries and local breweries. My husband and I got married at a brewery.
  • Art films and foreign films.
  • HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Cheaper than cable.
  • Travel abroad. My husband is way more into it than I am, but I’ve visited five countries aside from the U.S., none of which had English as an official language.
  • Whole Foods. They have good quality products that are oftentimes cheaper than regular stores. For example, house brand organic yogurt is $3.39 per 32 oz tub at WF, and it’s $4.39 for Stonyfield at Stop & Shop.
  • Organic products, to an extent. Processed organic products often have less  ingredients and taste better, and I notice a taste difference with some produce.
  • CSA membership.

Of course, I could do the same with rural Pennsylvania / working-class things. I’ve sort of done that before in my Raised Rural posts, without collecting them together in a list.

It’s pretty telling what I reject and embrace. Intellectually, I identify way more with populations that are more educated. It isn’t a surprise given my education level, my social circles, and my job, which encourages and rewards curiosity. Economically, though, I appear to be frugal and concerned with my bottom line and balancing quality and cost – maybe even too preoccupied with it. Without a doubt, this comes from growing up with little to no disposable income. I don’t stress about it like I used to, when I would create spreadsheets with store brand prices between several stores and think about how my mom’s grocery shopping involved both Giant and Shop-Rite. But it’s not something I want to totally give up. Besides, the more money I save on yogurt, the more there is for travel and books.

 

*ADDITION 2/8: I encountered that, too, and 2017-Lauren doesn’t believe in them. 2003-Lauren was hearing a lot of outrage in rural Pennsylvania about “welfare queens” and abuse of the system and was more bothered by it, and 2007-Lauren believed that America was a true meritocracy and that social, cultural, and economic issues could be overcome. 2017-Lauren knows more about how the decks are stacked and is also much more compassionate. No version of Lauren believed in the virtue of  old “tradition,” seeing it as way too constraining to historically marginalized populations.

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Raised Rural: Part 3

I established what it was like growing up rural, white, lower-middle class / working class, and conservative as a result. Here I’ll try to lay out how that changed. I imagine it’s going to be just as navel-gazing as the other posts.

While at La Salle, I felt like an outsider. Most other students were urban or suburban, well-off, and Catholic, a denomination that I had grown up knowing very little about, and certainly nothing positive. I was rural, overweight at a time when Pink was blowing up as a brand, and making some of my own clothing out of necessity since I couldn’t afford trendy brands or shop at many regular stores, and I was years past the point of asking my mom for money that I knew she didn’t have, while living among a sea of slim girls with credit cards whose balances were paid by their parents. I didn’t have the money for regular Starbucks runs, impractical Ugg boots, or Apple products, and I didn’t want to identify with that group of people anyway.

In classes, I explored American and British literature and took religion courses, and I learned a little Russian and improved my Spanish. I performed in the jazz and pep bands, and I sang in choir and was an officer at one point until some other students and I pushed our choir director, an older man whose day job was teaching at an all-boys Catholic school, to perform not just for nuns in a nursing home an hour away but to bring our music to children in the local public schools, and the ensuing arguments got so nasty I had to leave choir. I tutored kids in Camden and south Philly once a week, until constant motion sickness from the long van rides forced me to stop. I got work-study in the university archives and every other weekend, I went back home to work a few hours at Kmart. During the summer, I would go back to the Lehigh Valley and take jobs with temp agencies, doing data entry for a beer distributor one summer, then warehouse work alongside women and men mostly in their thirties and forties, and a few stints in factories making boxes or assembling lotion containers. My husband and I both worked in the same warehouse one summer, and we heard over and over that we needed to finish our degrees so we wouldn’t have to come back and work there permanently.

I chafed against the very vocal far left students, who came off to me as smug, shallow caricatures, taking great pains to conform to a stereotype of ultra-liberal college student and who seemed condescending towards those whose political opinions differed from theirs and who had no desire for open discussion. It was easy to poke fun at the socially awkward, intense anarchist, and the artsy atheist vegan who listened to British punk and who wanted everyone to know she was an artsy atheist vegan who was into British punk. I wrote an article criticizing the slant of the college newspaper and bemoaning the lack of balanced viewpoints. I considered myself a moderate, socially fairly liberal but economically conservative and concerned about national security and government spending much more than social issues, a position shared by several college friends who also came from modest backgrounds and went back to work during school breaks. When we openly criticized Obama’s foreign policy during the 2008 election and took his cheer of “yes we can” as a hollow message lacking any substance, I remember a liberal Democrat friend remarking something like “well, they hate Democrats.” The language of this remark placed us into a box, created an artificial binary where one didn’t exist, and shut down any sort of discussions we could have had. My moderate friends and I supported McCain, the moderate Republican, therefore in my Democrat friend’s eyes we were against Democrats, despite our Independent status on our voter registrations.

In truth, this creation of binaries, this idea that I encountered from many Democrats that they were somehow superior, and the automatic assumption by many of my Democrat peers that I shared their viewpoints and political affiliation (and the consequent underlying assumption that if I were Republican, I had differing viewpoints that were also inferior), played a large role in why I stayed away from the left as long as I did.

 


 

This broke down when I moved to Chicago with my now-husband and I truly became an adult.

Graduating in 2009 with more debt than we’d expected and with a terrible economy, we both went directly into graduate school. He fled turmoil in his family, and I followed him. We weren’t insulated by a college campus as we were in Philly, but actually living among real people now, first in Kenwood and then Hyde Park, both on the south side. Our neighbors were mostly working-class Black folk.

Our apartment was robbed within a week of us moving in, and our landlord, a tall Irish man who never seemed to make much eye contact with me and reserved it for my husband, assumed it was a mentally ill tenant on a floor above us and he tried to enter his apartment to look for our items and take my husband along with him, who refused to help. Over the next several months, though, we would have to confront our landlord’s practices for the racism that it was. We overheard him treat the Black tenants – who were trying to raise families – dismissively and listen to us, the two stupid college students who would be gone in a short time. We befriended the spunky, talkative 12-year-old girl upstairs, who was one of the only people our new dog tolerated, and we heard about how the landlord treated her and her mother. We grew so uncomfortable with this favoritism and his general terrible practices as a landlord that we moved when our lease was up, despite the reasonable monthly cost.

During the two years we lived in Kenwood and Hyde Park, I made small talk with men and women who were waiting at the same bus stop or who wanted to greet our dog or who waited on me in stores or who wanted to tell me they were extras in the Blues Brothers.

We got dirty looks when we climbed aboard packed buses, full bags hanging from us from a grocery shopping trip, two white kids taking up aisle space among tired women who appeared to be on their way home from work.

We loaded up a gigantic suitcase every two weeks with our dirty laundry and wheeled it eight blocks to the laundromat and watched People’s Court while women folded white t-shirts.

We came across a man laying on the sidewalk, soaked to the bone and unmoving, and I reached out and shook him to wake him from what we guessed was an overdose, and after he rose, bewildered, the ambulance we called refused to come out and make sure he was okay, because he was able to walk.

I was spat upon by a disturbed, angry man who also spat upon an older white lady working in the laundromat – I knew it was ridiculous when the enraged woman said she wanted him to be charged with a “hate crime,” and I stood in court next to her and the white student who witnessed it and the white cop who wrote up the incident, while the white judge talked to the man as if he were a child and made him apologize to the laundromat lady, and outside the courtroom the cop told us the man would be back out in the streets in a matter of months because the jails were overcrowded and it was warm outside.

We saw how the neighborhoods became dusty and litter-strewn and boarded up immediately south of the University of Chicago, package stores the only thing open for blocks and blocks.

We heard how the college kids raved about Harold’s, the chicken joint in Hyde Park at 53rd and Kimbark, but were too afraid to venture out beyond the bubble of the university, though we knew you could get vastly superior chicken at Golden Fish and Chicken at 45th and Cottage Grove, near our first apartment.

We were approached one cold night close to Thanksgiving by a man who asked us if we could get him something in the supermarket, and we bought him sandwich supplies to feed himself and his family for a couple days.

We were asked by a suspicious bus driver one night, after a long day downtown, if we knew where we were going and we replied “home,” though the driver didn’t seem to believe us.

We took a bus transfer on our way to a nice dinner and found ourselves waiting on a trash-strewn intersection, deserted except for several men and women, high and stumbling around as if they were the walking dead.

We saw the devastation from the earthquake in Haiti and learned that an immigrant we knew, a former coworker of my husband, lost his entire family in Port-au-Prince.

I waited 40 minutes for a late bus one day before I decided to walk to my green line stop on 47th, and as I got closer to the station, I saw dozens of people standing utterly silent on the sidewalk as a woman screamed, full of grief, in a vacant lot across the street, a news camera trained impassively on her, and I later found a news article containing a photo of a bloodstained White Sox hat lying on the macadam.

When I finally found a job at a research library, my boss told me that the workplace barely ever closed for bad weather, because it only closed when the schools closed, and the schools stayed open because they were the only place that many kids in the city would get a meal for the day.

I waited for a train one day and heard two young men threatening each other across the platforms, and an older gentleman quietly turned to me and said, “excuse me, do you think there’s a lot of hate in this world?”

I overheard a woman with scarred, scabbed, picked-over skin and a clear, angelic voice talk to somebody only she could see.

I read about how a girl who had sung at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and who lived in our first neighborhood had been shot and killed on a nearby playground.

I stood as one of the only white folk at the Easter Vigil at the church in which my husband was being received, and without any hesitation, the parishioners grasped my hand during the Lord’s Prayer and shook it, smiling, during the Sharing of the Peace.

I was told to kill with kindness at my retail job on the Magnificent Mile.

I was told that the old lady who made an extended fuss and exasperated my patience was probably lonely and looking for somebody to talk to.

I felt guilty that, in the middle of summer, I could only point the Muslim woman and her daughters to the clearance floor and hope they could find something modestly cut from the early spring leftovers.

I realized that no matter how little money I had, there were always those in much worse shape than I.

I saw men and women relieve themselves on State Street, a boy throw up on himself at 8 am on a Saturday morning, and a man with pink stubs where his fingers should be.

I touched eugenics journals from 1930s Germany, and washing my hands didn’t remove the deep feeling of unease I had or the image of the swastikas on the cover, and I cried when I stumbled upon an article from an 1880’s medical journal where a doctor wrote luridly and in great, gratuitous, tabloid-like detail about a severely deformed infant girl.

 

 

 

This is how I became an adult.

Raised Rural: Part 2

In part 1, I more or less established what it was like growing up rural, white, and more or less working class. But I didn’t want to stay that way.

I spoke about my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch family in detail. The family name goes back to my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, whose grave I located eight miles from the house where I grew up, and maybe three miles from my grandparents and five from my aunt. Not far from the grave is a little village that bears the family name, where his trading post was.

My mother’s family, also Pennsylvania Dutch with supposedly some Swiss and other assorted heritage, doesn’t have any towns named after them. As they tell it, my grandparents came from alcoholism, neglect, and abuse and managed to rise above it to become fine people. They were active in the Lutheran church in their hometown as long as I can remember, and they frequently packed up their six children for camping trips across the eastern U.S. and Canada. As a young child, it was normal for them to visit places like Alaska, Iceland, Caribbean Islands, and Scotland. My grandfather would have spent a winter in Antarctica like my aunt and cousin, if not for his doctor’s recommendations against it.

My aunts and uncles, like my grandparents, were lively, talkative, funny people when I saw them at family reunions and holidays, and their houses were much newer than mine and nicely decorated. They went to the Renaissance Faire and traveled internationally, wore wooden pendant necklaces, and one of my older cousins got a Bachelor’s degree. She, as well as all my older cousins, moved away to different states or south into the cities or suburbs. The second wave of cousins – the wave to which I belong – quoted the Simpsons and Seinfeld, had tarantulas and ball pythons as pets (we asked for years to get a python too, and after my brother spent his own summer at the amusement park he bought his own), and owned current game systems like Sega Genesis and PlayStation. They introduced me to Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, and Final Fantasy 7. Most of us have wandered around different parts of the country, too, or managed to get a work visa to New Zealand for a couple years.

Awareness of the world outside of rural Pennsylvania is what I inherited from this side of the family. It bordered on – no, it crossed over into arrogance, and I remember an occasion as a teen when an adult outside the family called me out when I said I was better than somebody in town. It was a terrible thing for me to say and think, but I inherited it nonetheless. It might have been given to me as a coping mechanism for my difficulties socializing with other kids. (Or maybe it incited my difficulties. As a 30-year-old who hasn’t had to feel the sting of peer rejection for many years, I can’t tell.) I didn’t have friends in my elementary school, so books filled the void at recess and in my spare time at home.

We had Sesame Street and Disney picture book series, books that I loved from Ollie’s Bargain Outlet on ocean life and natural disasters, world fact books that I read cover to cover, a children’s dictionary that I browsed for him, books on predatory animals and poison dart frogs that I would swipe off my brother’s shelves and read jealously. I would read every word on the cereal boxes, move on to the beaten-up coverless copy of Ferdinand the Bull that appeared in our house from seemingly nowhere and which I was particularly fond of, then I’d go read the cards on F-14 Tomcats and Apache helicopters and B-5 stealth bombers that my grandmother ordered for my brother. I spent hours studying the Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. When the Scholastic catalogs were distributed at school, sometimes I could beg my mom into ordering a book or two if they could afford it. I read books my grandmother got from church sales, her old encyclopedias, and my father’s Strange But True books we found in the attic one day at her house. I loved my elementary school librarian, and she loved me back, letting me pick out chapter books too advanced for most of my classmates and allowing me a steady diet of Hank the Cowdog and paranormal stories. When she retired, we all made cards, and mine included a drawing of me clinging to her leg and crying with a sign for the Trail of Tears (and recent topic on social studies) in the background.

I was markedly different from the other kids in my elementary school. I dressed like a boy with shapeless jeans and oversized t-shirts and sneakers, and I was seriously absentminded and awkward and prone to daydreaming, but I also got straight As, won a poetry contest run by the local newspaper, and after a couple tests I was put into the gifted program. The three other gifted kids in my grade had entered the program before me, the trail possibly blazed for them by older, academically successful siblings. We never became friends. I was teased so badly, there were times when I pleaded with my mom to somehow get me into a private school, thinking it would be better socially. My mom pointed out that the kids in private school would probably be worse.

In junior high, the kids from the township and borough were thrown together with kids from the district’s other elementary school – which was adjacent to the “rich” suburban school district – and I found acceptance among the kids from the mobile home park and eventually formed my clan with anime nerds and fellow marching band members, choir members, and the people in their orbit. Most of the band kids lived in housing developments from the 70s and 80s, and like me, many of them had been in gifted. We would quote Monty Python sketches and Mel Brooks movies. Most of us played the student instruments we’d rented in fourth grade and eventually bought, or instruments that had been living in the band closet for years, but once in a while an unblemished, rose-tinted piece of brass would appear.

Though most people in my school district who continued their education went to community college or commuted to the rural state university 40 minutes away, the band kids with the newer houses tended to choose places like Penn State, Gettysburg, Muhlenberg, Temple, West Chester. Big state universities or private colleges where they’d live on campus. When I attended my future husband’s Baccalaureate, there was a palpable gasp when it was announced that one of the graduates – not even the valedictorian or salutatorian – was going to the University of Pennsylvania. It was unheard of that someone from our district would get to go to an Ivy League.

A prestigious university wouldn’t be in my own future, either. When I toured potential transfer colleges in the Philadelphia area to be close to my now-husband, I did visit Penn (I even remember the short Catholic school-inspired skirt from Kohl’s I wore, because it seemed academic), who might have taken some of my college credits but couldn’t offer me a scholarship. Neither could Bryn Mawr, who wanted to count my father’s income in their need-based scholarship calculations despite my parents’ divorce and my complete lack of financial support from him. Haverford had a 3% acceptance rate for transfer students so I didn’t bother applying, and Swarthmore wouldn’t have accepted any of my transfer credits.

So I applied La Salle University, the same place my husband was attending. A regional Catholic college, not nearly as well-known as St. Joseph’s or Villanova, it was attended primarily by kids in the Philly area who had gone to Catholic school and received a partial grant from the university. Coming from a family of working-class lapsed Catholics from Delaware County, it made sense that he gravitated towards those three colleges. La Salle just happened to offer the best financial aid package to him.

Lucky for me, they also accepted all my transfer credits and gave me a scholarship… even if I was as far from a suburban / urban Catholic as you could imagine. This was apparent before classes even started. I remember I was made to participate in the orientation weekend designed for incoming freshman, and we played Jeopardy. When I correctly answered several questions including one about John James Audubon and the magazine he founded, a frustrated freshman boy burst out some comment about how he didn’t spend all of his time birdwatching. I thought to myself, incredulously, how had he never heard of Audubon mazagine?