What has class got to do with it?

After it had happened a couple of times, I began to wonder why I got so upset when a colleague borrowed my books and returned them some time later dog-eared and with coffee rings on the cover. It took me a while longer to realise that I was getting upset about a class difference between us. My desire was to keep my books clean and tidy, my colleague seemed to me not to care about that. This led to some low-level conflict and reluctance on my part to share my books. We had very few books at home when I was growing up and lost or damaged things couldn’t easily be replaced, so I learned to be very careful with my possessions. My colleague’s experiences growing up and relationship with possessions seemed to be different, perhaps because lost or damaged items could more easily be replaced than was possible in my home. This was a conflict created out of two different experiences of scarcity. When we had that long overdue conversation, it was clear that this was just one small example of how class difference was playing out in our relationship. It was like a breath of fresh air to look at these niggles through the lens of class, and to start to bring an awareness of how class privilege plays out in our relationship.

I am, in class terms, what has variously been called a “straddler” or “crossover”, someone who has a working class upbringing and as an adult has moved into the middle class, in my case, through gaining a university education and professional qualifications. I’ve learned from being involved in many majority middle class activist groups that there are unspoken rules about how to behave in meetings, and these rules tend to reinforce middle class values and behaviours. I also notice that, in the process of being assimilated into these mainly middle class activist groups, I have absorbed many of these rules of behaviour and police others around them too.

I was recently part of a group that was exploring class difference, when one of the group said in a confident tone “I don’t know anything about this, but I’m going to say something anyway!” In this case the person, who identifies as coming from a professional middle class background, was honest about their level of knowledge and disclosed that they didn’t know anything about the topic, though they still began to give their opinion! More often, I suspect, opinions are given without this caveat and we are none the wiser about whether it is based on real knowledge or experience. Is this a class difference? According to Betsy Leondar-Wright, in her study of activist class cultures, described in her book Missing Class, speaking with a confident air of authority is a pattern predominantly of the professional and middle classes. Their speech habits are more likely to command the attention of others and their opinions are listened to and more readily accepted by others.

Before I knew it, I had interrupted to point out this example of class difference and then found myself apologising for my interruption. Interrupting each other in meetings is just one example of a behaviour I know to be unacceptable in many of the activist groups I am part of. Interrupting tends to be seen by middle class folk as impolite or disrespectful. Interrupting also interferes with the perceived right to hold forth, sometimes at length, often using abstract concepts. Whereas my working class background experience is of a more conversational to and fro, with overlapping speech common, and briefer and more frequent comments made by those involved in the conversation. For me, these overlapping speech styles indicate engagement with the topic. Sometimes these comments can be challenging, folks letting others know that they don’t agree with them. Sometimes they bring humour to the conversation. At other times they are about supporting and encouraging the other to continue speaking. All are fundamentally about building relationship, solidarity and community. Meeting cultures with a low tolerance of interruptions may work well for someone with a middle class background, but I invite those folks to consider how alienating the no interrupting rules and strict adherence to taking hands in meetings can be for people from a working class background and how much more creative discussions might be with a more everyday conversational style.

As working class activist George Lakey says, “the class difference most likely to be submerged is working class, especially that portion of the working class that is raised poor. To perceive what is submerged requires people sharpening their awareness, opening their hearts. Everybody wins: middle and owning class people become sharper, and working class and poor people get to give their full (and needed) contribution to the movement”.

In an act of allyship, the meeting facilitator in the situation I mentioned above, unfazed by my interruption and with an awareness of the relevance of what I was saying, invited me to repeat it. The effect of this use of facilitator power was to create space for my statement to be heard more deeply by the other group members, and for it to become a learning moment for the group, rather than an out of turn comment to be quickly brushed over and ignored.

Becoming more aware of class culture differences and knowing more about each other’s class backgrounds can help us work through the problems that arise in our groups from class differences, help us create more effective and resilient groups and build stronger cross-class alliances and movements for change.

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