August 11, 2016

A young American woman detects that she is seen as "white trash"

I accept that every word she says below is gospel truth so I am glad that I had a much easier ride.  I come from a similar background.  My father was a lumberjack and we lived in a small Australian country town -- where everybody thought that "poofters" (homosexuals) were disgusting and most men could fix most things with wire. We had churches for even the smaller denominations and there was culture -- the better-off mothers were keen to get their daughters into the State Eisteddfod, for instance.

But I really had no difficulty in going where I wanted to go.  To this day I still have most of my old country values and am profoundly glad of it.  But I did go  through academe in only 6 years to get my BA, MA and PhD.  And I got a teaching job -- with tenure -- at a major university straight out of my Ph.D.  So that is surely a very easy ride!

So how come?  Part of the answer is that I am a born academic. Academic tasks are easy for me. I once spent 4 months preparing for an exam that normally requires 4 years of study -- and passed with a 'B'.  And I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in 6 weeks!

But the point is that, given the ability, there was nothing else holding me back. I have never been aware of social barriers in my life.  Like all conservatives in academe, I was definitely an outsider but the interesting thing there is that I was not an outsider because of my social origins but because of my views, even if those two things are not totally separable.

So why the lack of social barriers?  It goes back to the distinctive egalitarianism of Australian life. No society has ever achieved pervasive equality but Australia has very nearly achieved equality of respect.  People are overwhelmingly polite and friendly towards one-another regardless of economic or occupational differences between them.  And when I tell people that I was born in Innisfail, the response is usually interest rather than contempt.

And there is usually little reserve between family members.  There are of course "black sheep" everywhere but lots of things that would make you a "black sheep" elsewhere -- such as poor economic success -- mostly just don't matter here.  My marvelous brother had an avocation quite as strong as mine -- for motorbikes.  He is basically a motorbike mechanic -- but he sells bikes too.  But when you read his Facebook posts, you note that he sounds just like me. Neither of us have ever changed from our underlying conservatism.

And, during my longest marriage, my wife -- who, as the daughter of a wharfie (longshoreman)  -- is definitely a working class girl -- always insisted on including a handicapped or otherwise marginal person along to our Christmas celebrations.

So in Australia, people basically do what they want to do -- regardless of any social class implications.  Most people can recognize some social class differences but don't think they are important. Australians are genuinely tolerant.

There are other countries with claims of being tolerant, but that usually means tolerant of Leftism only.  Fascists like Hillary Clinton and Communists like Bernie Sanders might both be tolerated as mainstream but no such toleration extends to Donald Trump.

And in the famously tolerant Nederland, the anti-immigrant Geert Wilders has had a very torrid time. He always seem to be under  prosecution for his political opinions and is generally treated as a pariah by the Dutch establishment.

And in Sweden, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have risen to a significant presence in the Riksdag despite huge censorship and various prosecutions from the mainstream Swedish Left.

Australia does have its own anti-immigrant politician -- Pauline Hansen -- but the media seems rather fascinated by her. Like Trump, she gets reams of free publicity even from Left-leaning media. In the recent federal election, her party got 4 Senate seats out of 76.

I have written these few sketchy notes as a sort of antiphon to the story below.  You CAN go wherever you want to go from a humble background -- but that is, as far as I can tell, easiest in Australia.  Snobbery is pervasive in Britain and America but it is avoided like the plague in Australia.  We can think well of ourselves without thinking ill of others.

I was presenting at a panel at the Media and Civil Rights Symposium at the University of South Carolina. I noticed that one of my fellow panelists was from a small college in my home county. I quickly ran up to him and shared that I was from a small town near the college he taught at. At the end of our conversation about history and Central Pennsylvania, he looked at me and said, “it’s good to see a local kid actually do something.” While he certainly meant it as a compliment, my first thought was “fuck you.” This comment sowed the seeds of the bitter chip I was developing on my shoulder.

In college, the micro-aggressions weren’t so noticeable. They came out when anyone familiar with my Central Pennsylvania hometown responded with an “ugh” upon meeting me. When friends of mine would shame people for smoking cigarettes or drinking soda, I would internalize this disapproval. I quickly learned not to say “cuss” or talk about my love of NASCAR racing. I spent my time trying to find my place in Philadelphia and crush my origins under books and my love of history. My senior year of college I took a small interdisciplinary research seminar, the kind of class that sticks with you for years afterwards. I was in the midst of applying to graduate schools, when my professor tried to explain some unknowable, intangible quality of graduate students and academia that wasn’t and couldn’t be taught at my working-class public university. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about.

That fall, I entered a M.A. program at an SEC school. Even at a large public university in the deep south, most of the graduate students came from high-ranking public schools and liberal arts colleges. I didn’t. Most of my peers had parents who were professors or lawyers or professionals. I was raised by a medical scheduler, a mechanic, and a farrier. My grandparents lived in a house trailer in the woods of Edenton, North Carolina, for much of my childhood. There were no concrete or tangible disadvantages to having a working-class background, or for being from towns that elicited an “ew” from anyone in the know. But I very clearly lacked something, something that united my colleagues and resulted in a confidence of place and belonging that I would never have. My differences — in public education and cultural knowledge — couldn’t be undone, but I could learn how to hide them. In my personal life, I wore them like a badge of honor — but I also wanted to get an academic job someday.

I bought The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky, a terrifying book full of blunt (and much needed advice) about navigating the academic job market. While the author gives outspoken advice about the struggles of the job market, particularly for women, she also implicitly argues for the importance of hiding one’s class. She wrote about clothing and makeup and speaking patterns in women. Around the time I read this book, I realized that I, for a lack of a better term, code “white trash.” I have bad teeth, frequently say “ya’ll” and “how come,” and have a habit of running around South Philadelphia in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. t-shirt. It is one thing to have your hometown judged by your peers, but it is quite another to realize that qualities you possess, habits born of a lifetime that you don’t even realize you have, make you read as unqualified or unfit for your chosen profession.

But you can’t go home either, as they say. The more formal education I acquired, the larger the gap between my family and I became. My parents are incredibly proud of me and have never been anything other than supportive. But everyone from cousins to former employers have insinuated that I am arrogant because I left my small town for the city and enrolled in a Ph.D program. Why couldn’t I get a real job in the Harley Factory? What could you even do with a history Ph.D anyway? And most common of all, was I ever coming home? Slowly I realized the answer to that question had to be no.

Coming home still feels like a relief, a break from a life of pretending. But very gradually, my life has become very different from that of my family and old friends. We no longer watch the same TV or drink the same beer or read the same books. It takes a good week to get acclimated to the Folgers coffee my mom still buys. And many of my friends have no frame of reference for my chosen career, having never gone to college or even finished high school themselves. And sometimes my liberal and quasi-socialist opinions run up against those of the people in my hometown. How can I contest their sometimes racist, homophobic, or anti-intellectual opinions without confirming their stereotypes about who I have become, an elitist snob from the city?

The result is an in-betweenness, a lack of belonging. I will never fully belong in the world of academia, and frankly I don’t want to. But I also no longer fully belong at home. And I can’t complain (nor do I want to). I am incredibly lucky. I graduated from a high school where many students never see a community college or a technical school, much less a Ph.D program in the humanities. I am the dream, the local kid who did good. But nobody tells you what it’s like, the incredible loneliness that accompanies that kind of class jumping that many people dream of.

So, I continue to pull out that well-worn Dale Earnhardt t-shirt. I wrote the majority of my M.A. thesis while listening to Tim McGraw, and am in fact listening to him as I write this essay. And Barnes and Noble still seems to me like an intellectual mecca, “the city on the hill.” After all, Flannery O’Connor once wrote “when in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”


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