Friday, August 31, 2007

Passing for Middle Class

Just in time for Labor Day...

It’s taken me a long time to think through my response to the recent article Not My Father's Religion by Doug Muder in the UU World. I needed time to think, and time to work through my reflexive angry responses to many of the assumptions presented. At this point my responses are three fold, and interconnected: “class” categories are unclear, “success” is a moving target, and yes – we can offer a message about life to anyone ready to hear it.

I want to thank Doug for doing his own hard work thinking all of this through. He's certainly encouraged my own spiritual growth in getting me to think about these issues. We share a similar background, which will become clear if you continue reading, but with dissimilar experiences. I suspect this is because I do not live and worship in a suburb of Boston with a lot of UUs with advanced degrees. I'm not sure, but I do wonder if we look at UU churches outside major cities, would there be significant differences?

I. “Unitarian Universalism has a class problem.”

A minister I respect very much once made an offhand comment about “passing for middle class.” I had one of those “a-ha!” moments right there, because he had articulated my own gut feeling. Despite living in a comfortable suburb, I still feel like I’m passing for middle class. I grew up solidly blue-collar with both parents working in factories. Dad worked for an auto manufacturer, Mom boxed pet food. Dad’s was a union job, Mom’s wasn’t. That mattered then. I still have trouble crossing a picket line - when the grocery store clerks went on strike a few years ago I was buying milk at the gas station...

The thing is – I’m not so sure what defines class anymore. It’s not income. My dh grew up middle class – his father is a retired science teacher. While I don’t know the actual numbers, I’m pretty sure their household income was fairly comparable to my parents’.

Is it education? At one time I would have said yes. However, if one still believes that an undergraduate degree is a ticket to middle class success these days, one should take off one’s rose-colored glasses. With my B.A., and past work experience, I was able to get clerical jobs. I might have been better off clerking at the grocery store, with union wages, protection and benefits.

I guess what really bothers me most about this discussion of class is the jump from working class to professional class – without considering all of us who fall in between. How do we consider the computer professionals? Are they “skilled laborers” in this schema? What about educators, social workers, dental hygienists, speech pathologists, computer professionals, etc.? Many of these folks have advanced degrees. They’re not members of “the learned professions,” i.e., doctors, lawyers, professors (or ministers) – but, you know what? Those professions ain’t what they used to be, either.

I wonder if these dividing lines are both more fluid and more rigid than once believed. More fluid, because (for example) yesterday’s highly sought-after master’s-level computer professional scrambles today for decent jobs in an industry that has fully embraced the practices of hiring local contract workers and off-shore outsourcing. More rigid, because the standards to become professionals are higher than ever – and the education required to get there more expensive. On the other hand, my thinking on this could be a result of my own social location. There are other "isms" that factor into classism - racism, sexism, ageism - and I haven't considered those here.


…now what, what, (I don’t know, can you tell me what)
what is success?
is it do your own thing?

or to join the rest
and if you truly believe it,
and try over and over again
living in hopes
that someday you'll be in with the winners

oooh, tell me what it is
sweet success

- chorus from What is Success? By Allen Toussaint

(as recorded by Bonnie Raitt)

“The road to success for the working class is self control.” – I actually found this statement somewhat insulting. From where I sit, this is true for everyone, not just the “working class.”

I question the given definition of success in the working and middle class. Muder defines “working class life” as “not following your bliss… The way out of the maze, and the way to get your kids out of the maze, is to get up every day and do something you’d rather not do.” The assumption here is that success equals having one's children do better, and that one doesn't enjoy one's work.

For some this is true. My father would have preferred farming to factory work. Working in a factory with a strong union offered a steady income and good insurance benefits, even in retirement. But getting up and doing something you’d rather not do is not just something “working class” folks do. One computer professional I know left a major corporation to work for a smaller firm where he could work in the area he wanted. He returned to the major corporation, with its dehumanizing corporate culture, less than a year later because the smaller firm went bankrupt. As he said of his return: “At least the checks don’t bounce.”

On the other hand, my brother has – in a working class career – done exactly what he wanted to do. One can look at his life and not think “success” because there is little financial security, no retirement savings, and not great benefits. But again, by his lights he’s a success because he’s lived as he wanted.

I’m troubled by the bleak picture of working class life depicted in the article by what Doug doesn’t say. He does say what professionals in retirement do – they continue to “dabble.” He offers no illustration of what a working/middle class person, or couple, might do. What I've observed is that whatever one does during one’s pre-retirement life, most still want to be active and useful.

They might travel.

They might volunteer. Lots of working/middle class people volunteer, giving back to their communities and staying active doing for others. Every church I've been in has had a company of retired volunteers that keeps everything going.

And, many working/middle class folks take part-time jobs in retirement. Some of the stuff people do for money is important to them, and they do return to it. The job isn’t just a paycheck – the greeter at Wal-Mart may have retired from a similar job, and may still want the contact with others that s/he enjoyed at work. The supplement to his/her pension/Social Security benefit doesn’t hurt, either.

III. Finally, I challenge the assumption that only the professional class faces the spiritual challenge of inspiration. Would my Dad have been comfortable in my Unitarian Universalist congregation? No, he wouldn’t have – but not because of the theology. He didn’t want, or need, a preacher telling him to exercise self-control and do the hard thing. Life had already taught him that lesson. He needed a reason to hope for something better in this life.

I know the harsh theology to fit a harsh world does not work for all working/middle class folks. My father had an abiding distrust for organized religion, believing that most were just out to separate an honest working man from his hard-earned money. He would have thought the same of my church, too. But he came from a long line of folks who embraced some interesting theologies. His grandmother was a Quaker, believing that the Light of God shone in all of us. If that’s not inspiring, what is? Listening for the still, small voice of the Spirit within must have taught subtle discernment, as well as the discipline to follow the Spirit’s call. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, not a Quaker, but this resonates in my soul – and seems not at all harsh.

It’s my conviction that it’s precisely in our message that there are alternatives, there are different ways to think about what is good and right, that our strength lies. This doesn’t mean to abandon values and self-control for folly and whimsy. Or, as one youth advisor I knew said, "It doesn't mean we can just believe and do whatever we want." I do agree with Doug Muder that this does mean doing some hard theological thinking, though I'm not at all sure we can find one "truth that encompasses all situations." But, I do think we can find truths and that we are up to the task. We can offer a message of hope, just as our Universalist forebears did, that there isn’t just “one chance.” And that’s a message that I think we all – class be damned – need today.


ms. kitty said...

Wow, this is a great post, EB, and fleshes out what I have been mulling over and trying to articulate myself. Thank you for posting it.

Terri Dennehy Pahucki said...

I am so glad I came across this!! Your post really resonates with my experience also, and articulates many of my own responses to the article. Thank you!

Earthbound Spirit said...

You're welcome, Ms. Kitty & Terri. It's still rattling around in my mind, though. I don't think classism can exist without the other 'isms: racism, sexism, ageism. As I said, the article is encouraging my own spiritual growth!

T.L. Holladay said...

Great post. I'd like to send this to my "main squeeze" if I may (what DO you call someone who is your "boyfriend" but "boyfriend" sounds so juvenile, esp. when the man in question is 41 and I am 37?).

He will really appreciate this, seeing as how he grew up in the projects as the oldest of 6 kids of a single mother. Life was very tough for him, and he's thoroughly convinced that if one subjected any one of today's kids (dressing all "ghetto" the way they like to do because they think it's "cool") to his life as a youth, they'd just about die without their iPods and cell phones and rhinestone-studded teeth and all that.

Only in America (maybe) could you find kids who deliberately dress like they're poor, while others grow up hungry and having to work full time jobs before graduating high school just to help Mom pay the bills.

Earthbound Spirit said...

T.L., Thank you for your comment. You may certainly send this to your friend. The post is public, after all. EBS

Elizabeth J. Barrett said...

I just today found your terrific post about the Muder article. I was rather upset after reading Muder's article, for many of the same reasons you mention in your post. I wrote a long letter to the editor of UU World about class fluidity, passing for middle class, that inspiration is not only for Professionals (nor does it only mean finding a career that inspires), etc. I included a few little tips for welcoming working class folks to our UU congregations.

My letter was way too long to be published, but I finally posted my modest tips to get some feedback:

A shoutout to T.L.-- I spent part of my childhood in the projects, too. I have a much different view of what constitutes a luxury item than most others I know. Luxuries include cell phone, laptop, iPod, quilts, a freezer, purchasing new books and music, spending more than $7 at a restaurant, etc. I think that having a safe place to live and food to eat are the necessities, but many families must do without these.

Sorry, my comment is too long.