I came across a blog post the other day, “Blue Tongue, White Collar” that caught my eye. The writer described interviewing for admission to Yale and found herself tripped up by her blue collar origins. And this brought back long suppressed memories of a similar interview, and similar rejection because I, too, betrayed my working class origins. [Ironically, I discovered that this blogger and I both grew up in Youngstown–go figure!].
It’s weird, actually. Technically, I lived in a white-collar home in a blue collar neighborhood. Dad worked a series of lower level management jobs while most of the friends around me had parents working in the mills or in other union jobs connected to steel-making. I think I’ve always felt a bit bi-cultural. I still feel that. I work in a collegiate ministry among graduate students and faculty at a major university. These are really bright people–most of whom have never been near a blast furnace (we used to go on field trips to see them–at least from a safe distance!).
What I think many of them don’t appreciate is that there were really bright and gifted people in the blue collar neighborhood I grew up in. Many were children of immigrants who worked hard to achieve home ownership and took pride in their homes, which they remodeled, added onto and cared for meticulously. They often did dangerous work and were savvy enough to survive. They fed families through labor strikes. My wife’s father worked in a factory but was a gifted artist. And one of the reasons many worked so hard was to send their kids to college so they could have a different life.
In some ways, this scene is changing, as manufacturing jobs disappear and more and more, many workers are going to be “knowledge workers”. But while I think our definition of “working class” may be changing, the fact that this is a class, that kids grow up in homes of working class parents, and have aspirations to mix with a wider society means that we need to think about what does diversity and inclusion look like for this group of people. Just as organizations often erect tacit barriers (glass ceilings, color lines, etc.) for other groups, so also the lack of perception of the cultural difference of social class leads to barriers for those from working class backgrounds being included and giving their best in our organizations.
One example: several years ago, our organization hosted a conference at a hotel that ran over a weekend. One of our speakers, probably meaning well, proposed that we all clean our own rooms over the weekend so hotel workers could have some time off. Subsequently there was an apology and the acknowledgement that our presence meant overtime as well as tip income that made a substantial difference in the family incomes of these workers.
This shows up in so many ways. Take vacations for example. Growing up, a vacation was a weekend at Niagara Falls, or renting a cabin at a nearby lake. Imagine what it is like to rub shoulders with those whose families routinely took trips to Europe or even more exotic destinations? Take sports. For some of us, it was just pickup games at the local sports field. We didn’t have the opportunity to go to soccer or lacrosse camps.
More than that, it can show up in the attitudes classes have for each other. It is just as easy to belittle the blue collar folks as those who never get all the dirt from under their fingernails, as it is to belittle academics as worthless ivory tower intellectuals. In business settings, it is the suspicions that exist between “management” and “labor”–the fat cats and the little guy.
Most people doing diversity work say it is bad be “color blind”. We should call out and even celebrate our ethnic differences. Yet I would propose that many of our organizations are class blind. We don’t recognize this as difference and so don’t “call out” that difference. And because we don’t call it out, we don’t discover what there might be of value in that difference. Recently in one of these “sharing exercises” people do in seminars, we were asked to answer this question: What would you like someone to ask you about yourself?” I found myself responding, “I’d like them to ask me what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.” But I wonder if anyone really wants to know…
[Update: This post, meant to be a stand alone, is what led to the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series, which began in response to “Steve’s” comment below. Along the way, I’ve discovered there are people who want to know, and many others who identify deeply with the answers.]