Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Class evasion

Amber links to an interview with comedian Louis C.K. (of whose work, disclaimer time, I'm a fan), and points us specifically to his opinion of Hahvahd:

If you go to Harvard undergrad, you’re a spoiled brat, and you probably got in through some legacy, and you’re not even getting that good of an education, most Harvard people, but Harvard grad school is where serious professionals get their degrees and licenses.
The context here is that Louis C.K.'s parents met while grad students of some kind or another at Harvard, and - and this is what comes right before the passage Amber cites - this fact has been brought up to delegitimize his claims to a working-class persona. He's being intentionally imprecise, I suspect, with the identity of Harvard undergrads - who are of course not all legacies, and of course the legacies are often enough multigeneration school-nerds who benefitted from an extra leg up - because he's trying to prove that he's no child of privilege.

That interview's easily the finest (written) example I've ever encountered of the kind of picking and choosing that I've heard since high school from those who grew up some form or other of definitively-not-underprivileged. Even rich kids have biographical details that make them sound ordinary, just as even working-class kids have biographical details that give the opposite impression. There's generally an overall answer, albeit one that can be evaded by highlighting the details that cut against the greater truth. C.K. worked crap jobs as a youth, for pocket money his parents weren't giving him? Who among us did not? The relevant class signifier is, did his parents work at the KFC too? Lots of upper-middle-class parents who did not grow up that way themselves live in utter fear of having bratty kids, and - whether through explicitly keeping allowances low, or subtler forms of persuasion - make it so that their offspring feel obliged to work well before college-graduation-age. Lots of parents with cultural-educational capital lack equivalent economic capital, which sounds as if it may have been the case with C.K. This does not, I'd think, amount to blue-collar authenticity, but a relative lack of capital in either direction can be spun as such.

(I'm thinking also of how New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in a recent interview with Leonard Lopate, responded to Lopate's remarks about how his own family never went to nice restaurants because they didn't have any money by admitting that he - Gopnik - went to some, on special occasions, but that he also didn't grow up with much money because his parents were academics, as if they were adjuncts in the hinterlands. Two parents who were both McGill professors - this isn't the same as two parents who were both hedge-fund managers, but... yeah.)

And this seems to be a common factor in revisionist histories of socioeconomic upbringings: mentioning that one's own parents were born poor or working-class. While this can, as I've said, have an impact on how their kids, in turn, are raised, if you're the child of parents who've socio-economically reached whichever point, you yourself do not get to somehow atavistically claim their childhood experiences. Your parents may get to claim self-made-ness, but even they don't get to claim underdog status past a certain (admittedly hard-to-pin-down) point. They probably don't, and their offspring definitely don't.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Hey! McGill!

I... actually have nothing else to say about that, besides noting that Gopnik also got his BA here where both of his parents were professors.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I guess one takeaway for you could be that according to the Gopnik interview, McGill profs are all kinds of scrappy, basically blue-collar, so if you ever need to increase your cred, point people to that WNYC interview? Except by definition, pointing people to a WNYC interview would cancel that out.

PG said...

I agree that it looks pathetic to point to your parents' hard knocks to demonstrate how working class you are, but I think one's parents' (or even grandparents') backgrounds can be relevant for how they've shaped you culturally. In the U.S., both Jews and Asians are often stereotyped as "cheap," and at least in my family that tendency is definitely a product of my parents' upbringing in what no American would deem middle-class circumstances. There's a whole set of behaviors that people still find themselves enacting even once they're economically plenty secure enough not to be (something that embarrasses me with my parents) arguing with service people over every last dollar.

I was hearing someone complain of the table manners he'd observed of a family recently, and I had the realization that so much of good manners is security, e.g. not having the impulse to eat food so quickly that you're taking huge bites.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"but I think one's parents' (or even grandparents') backgrounds can be relevant for how they've shaped you culturally."

I completely agree with this, and perhaps should have made that point more strongly in the post. (It's in there, somewhere...)

Not to revisit Chua too extensively, but this is that idea of raising kids to feel as though they're on the verge of poverty, as though a B will really mean life on the streets, as though there's no such thing as an OK job that pays enough, it's either Greatness or Failure.

And, as came up in the comments earlier, there's tremendous variation in the amount kids are "spoiled" or "feel rich" or however one wants to describe it. There's some relationship between a family having X amount of wealth, and the kid having the "right" jeans or whatever the issue is, but it's not the only factor. Insofar as money is desirable because it brings about freedom, the child of wealthy but "builds character" or "I won't let my child grow up to be one of those American princesses" parents has certain forms of privilege (educational, safety, a good chance of being wealthy and independent later on in life), but lacks the ease of a kid from a less wealthy family, where the parents are giving the kid more money, or letting the kid take a part-time job rather than violin lessons or whatever.

But all the same, our lives are not our parents' lives, our experiences not theirs. Feeling ashamed of not having class privilege is different, I think, from feeling ashamed at having eccentric parents. We will never know how it feels to be of Mayflower stock, but the U.S. isn't the kind of society (unlike, from what they say, England) where it's held against you if whatever money your family has is relatively new. If anything, it's so appealing to be self-made, so unappealing to be the next generation, that the children of the self-made do... what C.K. does here, and somehow conflate their parents' trajectories with their own.

Britta said...

Ok, the dude is just wrong: anyone admitted to Hah-vad as an undergrad gets enough financial aid to cover the costs. I believe if your family makes less than $160,000/year (already putting you in the top quintile of income in the US), you get a free ride. Conversely, a Harvard MBA will put you 100,000s in debt. So, not that there aren't rich assholes who are undergrads there, but there are also rich assholes in the various grad or professional programs, and conversely, non/less-rich, less-asshole people there for undergrad. (Not that there isn't rampant classism at top schools, a dean of students told in a teaching orientation told us that students with families making less than $70,000 got a free ride, but we shouldn't be surprised to realize they were smart and could contribute in the classroom too, like somehow we would all assume anyone in the middle classes or below would be illiterate or something.)

I think the point about eccentric parents vs. class privilege is key. Even if your parents still attempt to raise you frugally, it doesn't carry the same sort of stigma and shame of not quite fitting in, or of being an impostor in certain situations (and can even give you brownie "street cred" points with your UMC friends if you spin it the right way.) It's easy to focus on material, tangible things (i.e. growing up in a small house, or with one car, or whatever), but the intangible things are probably more important important: how you speak, how well you know the unwritten, implicit rules of a system, how comfortable or confident you feel, and less implicitly, what sort of "cultural capital" do you have. If you know how to use a salad fork, or chopsticks, or can recognize the difference between Bach or Beethoven, or whatever, you have a certain level of privilege 'even if' you grew up in a cardboard box, one that will help you get into college, or get jobs, or get promotions, or marry a well-off spouse, etc. Also, there's a psychic cost to actually having to worry about homelessness, vs. realizing worst case scenario, you could move back into your childhood bedroom. (Or, extreme case, my friend did Americorps with the sister of a very famous actor who is also from an independently wealthy family who apparently lived within her means (NYC on a $10,000/year stipend, though she worked in a nonprofit right next to her brother's penthouse apartment (which, apparently, had a full yard, on top of some giant building))). Also, more than a psychic cost, there's an actual cost: not having credit, being unable to open up a bank account or get a small loan are incredibly costly. Sometimes scrounging up $50 can save 100s or even thousands of dollars down the line. Most middle class people can get that from friends or family but often poor people are stuck.

Also, now that I am thinking about this, frugality has never cut clearly along class lines (and has often been considered to go the other way, at least in a system where the wealthy are bourgeois industrial or finance capitalists, not a hereditary aristocracy), so I'm not sure how a "my parents were frugal" argument really gets to "I was poor."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That comment from a dean is horrifying! Ugh.

I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Cultural capital matters, which is why often enough, behind a bootstraps story, there's often some backstory about how the parents had been students at Yale or whatever, but then became mentally ill, drug addicted, or both, and due to a dramatic crash, ended up raising their (typically white, in these scenarios) child in poverty. So, much was indeed overcome, but there were still trappings of high culture, still a glimmer of what was to be aspired to.

But on a more everyday level, often people who present themselves as coming from humble beginnings will turn out to be the children of professors who, due to the academic job market, ended up living somewhere far from Zabars or Chez Panisse. These people are not necessarily, not intentionally, misrepresenting their lives - they indeed grew up without much money, in not-at-all glamorous areas - but it's not the same as having grown up in the same locale, raised by parents (or a single parent) working at Walmart.

Where I don't entirely agree is that cultural capital without economic capital often just perpetuates itself. It certainly doesn't always serve as a springboard to cultural and economic capital, and, in children who are for whatever reason impervious to cultural capital - it happens! - they... either flourish as entrepreneurs or, more often, in turn raise families without much cultural or economic capital. Meanwhile, cultural capital in the absence of economic capital isn't always the most wonderful thing - it can mean scrimping and saving to extremes in order to afford yuppie-endorsed food.

This also reminds me of the fuss a while back about how tween/teen fashion prodigy Tavi is a "child of privilege" because her father's an English teacher and her parents are well-educated. A background like that is not going to doom someone to poverty, but nor does it magically guarantee a prominent career in the fashion industry. Thus why her story's so unusual. Her trajectory would have been still more noteworthy if she'd first escaped from one of those Cambodian H&M sweatshops, but it's noteworthy all the same.

But... I do agree with your point that there are bootstrap situations and non-bootstrap situations, and someone with enough money, if not piles of it, and a childhood steeped in books and arugula doesn't have much of a claim on having grown up poor.

Britta said...

Yeah, but I think the Tavi YPIS is because the world is somehow magically divided into paupers and trust fund babies, and the idea that people can be somewhere in the middle doesn't seem to register. (Though, in fairness, in 50 years that may indeed be the structure of the US, and thus anyone not living hand to mouth is de facto flying a private jet, but I don't think we're quite there.)

I think that's where some of the difficulty comes in. People with Harvard educated parents play up being poor because, even with MC/UMC advantages, we are not all handed a successful life on a silver platter, and so it is true that hard work and ambition and whatever help people become relatively more successful than their slacker siblings. The Tavi stuff is extra ridiculous because not even someone with Kim Kardashian-level wealth can do what Tavi did, and she is one person who, given relatively modest parameters (being white, able-bodied, slender, not raised in a meth lab) was able to do extraordinary things. It's true that if she looked like Gabourey Sidibe she probably wouldn't have gotten the coverage she did, but there are probably tens, if not hundreds of thousands of girls equally as pretty and well-off as Tavi was, and none of them are now internationally famous bloggers/fashion designers.

I think the other point is that there really are people who assume that not having a summer home in the Hamptons means you probably spent your childhood in a coal mine, or worse, grew up on a diet solely of Twinkies and late night cable TV. I imagine there are more of those sorts of people at Harvard than elsewhere (I found it a bit amusing that at Swarthmore I spent a summer getting paid to volunteer at home because I counted as an "underprivileged kid who could give back to my community with my fancy larnin"), and so being generally more middle class and explaining that over and over again gets annoying.

Britta said...

Ok, while I'm writing a novel, I think part of it is that US culture in the mainstream media has been divided into Red state/Blue state "Real Americans" vs. "effete college professors who control the world," and the leftwing YPIS group feeds right into that, and so if you are the child of college professors, or really any blue state white collar professional, you have to constantly point out that parents who know ancient Greek doesn't automatically translate into a trust fund or cushy job controlling the US after college graduation. Even though taking a family to Disney world can easily be more expensive than taking them to Europe, doing one makes you an average American, doing the other makes you an Elite. (Or, as might be the case with many Asian immigrants, parents might work 2 jobs to afford a private school or outside classes, whereas another parent might put the money towards a truck.)

This all reminds me of conversations about standardized tests, where it's assumed the only way to do well involves taking expensive classes. It's perfectly possible to 1) not study and do well, or 2) check study books out of the library, study on your own and do well, all which require little to no money. It's true though, that these methods require a certain presumed level of previous education, which you might not get if your parents are functionally illiterate, or recent immigrants, or you attend a really crappy public school where not getting shot is on the list of priorities. Doing well because you've studied on your own then does involve type of privilege, but it also involves self-discipline and hard work, and is not the type where you drop 5 grand get a perfect score, however there's very little room to talk about the middle rather than the extremes.

Britta said...

Um...sorry if I kind of said the same thing twice in a row only slightly differently. Hopefully there are enough different points/angles to make the comments not entirely redundant.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Re: Tavi - true enough that most really wealthy people couldn't do what she has. Indeed, by definition, her trajectory requires that she not be the child of incredibly wealthy and well-connected people. (An obvious comparison is the Sea of Shoes blogger, whose mother is a former model, whose family has gobs of money for reasons I won't bother Googling, and whose blog is pretty much about all the designer shoes she buys.

But yes, there's definitely a phenomenon of pretending there's no middle class, and - whatever its future, like you say - there is one. This is what's happening when the very rich imagine the not quite as rich are in fact poor (as when I switched from a private school to a more prestigious as well as, well, free public magnet high school and my former classmates thought this was evidence that my family had been devastated by some kind of financial crisis), and it's true with YPIS, when "privilege" is thrown around as if anyone not living the "Precious" life is in exactly the same position.

The takeaway ought to be... self-awareness. Personal histories are complicated, but we should all have some general sense of where we stand, where we stand with respect to immediate and broader (our city, country, the world) communities. It's a bit much to expect this of young children, but not of older teens, adults.

This means both not throwing around YPIS at people whose advantages are fairly mundane, and who achieved what they did through hard work, and also not telling stories about one's own upbringing in which every detail that could hint at something scrappier (it's somehow always a reference to an "old, run-down" car of some year/make/model whose significance, aside from the year, I, a non-car person, never catch onto).