Our Kind of People

The Good Men Project reprints a slightly altered version of an old post of mine today: Our Kind of People, Class, and Pride.

I wonder, reading it again, if I haven’t fallen into classic trap of the privileged white person: getting absolution from a poorer, browner person. Is “Oscar” (the story is real, name changed) my “magic Mexican”? (See the concept in film of the “magic Negro”, the wise black character who inspires transformative change in the white person, who is the real hero of the story. See “The Help”, “Green Mile”, and a hundred other films.)

I hadn’t thought about that before. Wondering now.

A surprising Sunday vision

I went out very early this morning to the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, and knocked out a 21 mile run along the road that leads up and beyond Cogswell Dam.

In order to get out to West Fork, one must drive through the small community of Azusa. Azusa is in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, only a dozen miles from Pasadena — but culturally, the distance is much greater. Azusa Pacific University is a fairly conservative Christian school, and the demographic of the city is split between a growing Latino population and lower-middle/working-class whites. Done with my run, floating on a sea of endorphins, I decided to drive some back streets of Azusa to count lawn signs. Obama-Biden signage outnumbered McCain-Palin posters up and down several blocks. It was striking, because I remember how many more Bush-Cheney signs I had seen just four years ago in the same area.

On a similar note: I often half-joke about “Our Kind of People” and “Not Our Kind of People” (OKOP and NOKOP.) I’ve always said that if there is an official sport for NOKOP, it is “off-roading.” As an environmentalist, there is no human activity — not even perhaps carniverousness — that I find more vile than the delight in driving a gas-guzzling behemoth through creekbeds and up hillsides, tearing up habitat, wasting fuel, and making a dreadful ruckus. The sooner we ban off-road vehicles from all of our state and national parks, the better; it is fervently to be hoped that high gas prices will create barriers to this repulsive and indefensible activity.

That said, sometimes my stereotypes get challenged. Today, on my way back down Highway 39, an enormous pick-up, jacked up to an improbable height, began to tailgate me. Dust-spattered, it and its occupants were clearly just finished from a happy morning of destroying plant life and spreading fumes in a dry river bed. I pulled my Volvo over at a turnout after the driver of the behemoth (it seemed to have once been a Dodge Ram) flashed his lights at me. He roared past, and just as I was about to curse him under my breath, I saw two stickers on the back of his truck. One read “Obama-Biden” and the other read “No on 8: Defend Equality”. I was so surprised, I ended up briefly tailgaiting the Dodge just to make sure I had seen what I had seen, and that this wasn’t just a vision induced by post-run exhaustion. Yup, the stickers were there.

Whatever else his numerous sins against nature, the driver of this monstrous and unnecessary thing was willing to let all and sundry know his support for gay marriage and his commitment to the Democratic ticket. If gay marriage is picking up vocal and public support among the off-road vehicle crowd, then Proposition 8 may well and truly be destined for failure — and the culture ready to accept a new milestone on the road to full equality.

But I still loathe off-roaders.

“Elitism”, privilege, and competition: some thoughts on the new Deresiewicz article

Marian, a periodic reader, sends me a link to this William Deresiewicz article in the American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It was almost exactly a year ago that I responded to another Deresiewicz American Scholar article in this post.

As with his essay on consensual faculty-student relationships, Deresiewicz in his current piece on academic elitism takes a good idea and promptly takes it just one step too far. His basic thesis this time around: an Ivy-league education makes you incapable of connecting with ordinary folks. His first bit of evidence? His own inability to connect with a plumber standing in his kitchen.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this.

I know I’m often accused of making universal applications out of my own experience, but I don’t think even I have done something quite so risible as what Deresiewicz does here. The idea that a first-rate education somehow renders the recipient of that education clueless about the real world is a classic American slur; anti-intellectualism is a potent force in American politics, and has been at least since the Andrew Jackson Administration. It’s disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, that some academics who ought to know better find themselves joining the chorus of those who decry the “useless” nature of top-notch higher education.

It’s all too easy to offer counter-anecdotes. Barack Obama went to Harvard Law, for heaven’s sake. There are many criticisms that might be made of him, but an inability to connect with those who were not similarly well-educated is not one of them. And though I’ve never sent a transfer student to Harvard undergrad, I have had former students of mine go on to graduate school at that most famous of American universities. I’ve had exceptional students here at Pasadena City College who have transferred to other Ivies, such as Cornell, Penn, and Columbia. I’ve seen first-generation students from working-class Mexican-American families go “back East” and come home to put the education they received to work within their communities. Most of my colleagues could say the same. Continue reading

Vulgar ostentation or justifiable pride: a reflection on hanging academic diplomas

On Friday, I wrote in my post about the perceived preference for Ph.Ds at the community college:

I’m glad I have my Ph.D. (My diplomas are all in a box somewhere, mind you. Our Kind of People never put degrees on the wall, after all; it seems showy and aggressive.)

I’ve been thinking about this issue of not putting the diploma on the wall. One of my senior colleagues here is a woman from, as she describes it, “an Irish working-class family where no one went to college.” One of six children, she was the first in her family to receive a B.A., and after years of hard work, a Ph.D. Her undergraduate and graduate diplomas are framed and hang on the wall in her office. She does insist that her students address her as “Dr. Sullivan” (not her real name).

Dr. S and I are good friends, and after I got my Ph.D. in 1999, she said to me “Now you can hang a new diploma on your wall.” I told her I didn’t think that was going to happen. “Why not?”, she asked.

I told Dr. S (who, among other things, has expertise in sociology) that “in my culture”, “my people” tend to see the display of diplomas as “showing off.” Both my parents had Ph.Ds. from Berkeley; I have no idea where either one of their diplomas is hiding. For them, putting a diploma up in the office would have been like hanging a marriage license on the wall after getting home from the honeymoon! It’s one thing, I told Dr. S, to be privately proud of an accomplishment; it’s another thing to wave the proof of that accomplishment around.

I don’t know which football coach it was who said it, but some grizzled old veteran who counseled against exuberant celebration after a score always said “Act like you’ve done it before and intend to do it again very soon.” In other words, drawing attention to one’s academic accomplishments (and hanging diplomas on the office walll is certainly drawing attention) suggests that one views the acquisition of the doctorate as vaguely miraculous. It also, I told Dr. S, seemed to be inviting admiration. OKOP, I told her, are trained to downplay “that sort of thing.”

Dr. S and I were and are good enough friends to have this sort of “cross-cultural dialogue.” Dr. S wasn’t in the least offended by my reluctance to hang my various diplomas, or by my willingness to confess to her my reasons for keeping the damn things tucked in a drawer. But she also offered her own perspective:

“Hugo”, she said, “I don’t display the diploma to show off for myself. My mother and father worked terribly hard to put me through school. My husband sacrificed enormously so that I could work on my doctorate while our kids were small. No one in my family or my husband’s had ever gotten a Ph.D. before. And after all that collective effort, if I act as you do — as if a Ph.D. is ultimately not important — it makes it seem as if I don’t appreciate all that they did to help me achieve this goal. When my eighty-year old mother comes to my office, she gets to see that diploma and it makes her feel incredibly proud. Your mother, Hugo, already has a Ph.D, and though I’m sure she’s proud of you, she doesn’t need to see it the way mine does.”

Dr. S reminded me that the “OKOP dislike of ostentation” is in part a manifestation of privilege. When everyone in the family goes to college, and lots of people get Ph.Ds, and parents don’t have to work double shifts at the factory to pay for graduate school for the kids — then the newly dissertated and hooded ones can afford to be nonchalant and self-deprecating. Dr. S argued that in her case, as a woman from a working-class Irish Catholic background, she was both entitled to a greater degree of display and indeed required to “show off”. To do any less would be to disrespect the extraordinary sacrifice of her loved ones.

I’m also aware of something that Dr. S didn’t mention. We teach on a campus that has a high percentage of non-white students, as well as a majority of folks who are first-generation college students. These students need reminders that a Ph.D. is possible for them too. Those professors who hold the doctorate — and are themselves members of ethnic minorities or were, like Dr. S, first-generation college students — thus have, perhaps, an obligation to display the diploma in order to inspire the young.

I have another colleague in another department; like me, he holds a Ph.D from UCLA. He is also African-American, and he began his academic career right here at PCC. On the wall in his office, he has diplomas from each stage of his career in higher education, starting with the associate’s degree from Pasadena all the way up to the doctorate itself. Those diplomas, which hang behind his desk and stare his visitors in the face are not just there to swell his head — they are there, I suspect, to send a message to those students who look like him (but not like me) that academic success is possible for everyone if they work hard enough. Though I’ve never discussed it with this man, I suspect that this is his reason for displaying the evidence of his academic prowess so boldly. What OKOP sees as aggressive and vulgar showiness, others may see as much-needed inspiration for the next generation.

I know my diplomas are somewhere in a box in the garage. I last saw them in 2002, when I was packing up after my divorce. I have no intention of throwing them out, of course. But in all honesty, I’m not really sure what to do with them. I don’t want them on the wall in my home, or on the wall in my campus office. Perhaps I’ll just keep them tucked away forever, in the same sort of place where I keep old tax returns and insurance papers. But let me be clear that I no longer cast aspersions on those who choose to hang the evidence of their achievements for all to see. For some, perhaps, it isn’t ostentation or insecurity that drives such display: it’s the desire to honor all those who made the achievement possible. And it’s the desire to inspire a new generation to achieve similar goals. In the end, there’s nothing vulgar or showy about that.

A note on white privilege

Thanks to Barry (Ampersand) the 16th Erase Racism carnival is up. It’s there I found a link to this powerful post from Naima: “It ain’t privilege, it’s injustice”. It begins:

a particular phenomenon in the immensely white Leftist circles at yale is a rhetorical and ideological obssession with the notion of White Privilege.

it is not uncommon to hear a white liberal campus organizer at yale say something along the lines of, “we white students at yale walk around enjoying a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin – it is because of this privilege that we must work to uplift the citizens of new haven.”

…as a blactivist at yale, i have found it rare to emerge from an organizing conversation or meeting with a white peer without a guilt-stricken or self-righteous allusion to “White Privilege.”

I have a hard time believing that in 2007, any “white liberal campus organizer” would use the verb “uplift”, unless they did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek!

Still, I smiled when I read this. I had impeccable liberal credentials during my undergraduate years at Berkeley in the mid-1980s. My freshman year, I participated in anti-ROTC and “divest from South Africa” demonstrations. Later, I worked with groups that sought an ethnic studies requirement for graduation; that mandate was eventually put in place my senior year. In my ethnic studies classes (where I was often one of the only white men), I alternated between being adversarial and apologetic. Both served a purpose. When I was adversarial, I provided a helpful foil; when I was apologetic for my white privilege, I was demonstrating my good intentions, if nothing else.

I grasped quickly that white privilege manifested itself in a variety of ways. It had never occurred to me to question why it was that store managers never followed me around, worried that I would shoplift. It never occurred to me that it was unusual to have the first police officer to pull me over for speeding (when I was 17) address me as “sir” and let me off with a warning. It never occured to me that it was a huge confidence-booster to have most of my classes taught by professors who looked as if they could be my uncles or aunts. Realizing that the color of my skin gave me this unmerited privilege was eye-opening.

Of course, I quickly became adept — as many well-intentioned and earnest young white liberals invariably are — at bringing up my white privilege as often as possible. I said things like “I’m really becoming aware of how privileged I am” or “I never knew how many things I could take for granted because I was born with white skin.” I also began to believe that if I pre-emptively apologized for having this privilege, I could redirect the anger of “people of color” away from me and towards those “other white people”, the ones who weren’t as enlightened as I.

It’s almost axiomatic on college campuses that a significant percentage of white progressives are eager to expiate real or imagined guilt. One rather simple (and to many people of color, exasperating) way for white people to prove their progressive bona fides (and get rid of that pesky guilt) is to throw some acknowledgement of their own white privilege into virtually every sentence. It’s similar to what some young men do when they first start discovering feminism. These anti-racist newbies (of which I surely once was one) imagine that approaching virtually ever situation with an “I’m sorry” on their lips is one road towards the acceptance they crave.

The problem is that many young white liberals value expiating their own guilt over really getting rid of race-based privilege. Naima:

if the world were organized by “White Privilege” rather than “Racism,” a police officer might be especially kind to white people while nonetheless providing people of color with legal protection, aid, fairness under the law.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, “We are beneficiaries of racism,” or “We participate in a racialized system of oppression.”

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Bold emphasis mine. That was me for a very long time. Talking about one’s own “white privilege” and, better yet, claiming to “renounce” it (as if that were genuinely possible), is immensely satisfying. It’s also more than a little self-centered. Reading this post, I’m reminded that all too often, the language of “white privilege” serves to re-center the discussion of racism away from its victims and back on to the sensibilities of the privileged and the powerful.

I don’t make apologies for my cultural whiteness any longer (see my “Happy White Boy” and first OKOP post on that subject). But of course, no one was ever asking me to apologize for preppiness or a long-term subscription to Town and Country. What the activists of color I’ve worked with have asked me to do is, first of all, be honest as North Star asks the white Yalies to be honest. It’s not enough to cop to white privilege — we who benefit from that privilege do so at the expense of others. In this case, privilege is a zero-sum game.

And of course, the real problem is that talking endlessly about “white privilege” reinforces its power. Endlessly lamenting something you think you wish you didn’t have simply makes it seem all the more potent.

More on white privilege, reparations, and the sins of our ancestors: a rambling response to Carl

Carl at Young Anabaptist Radicals found several things troubling about my “Dukes don’t emigrate” post last week. He posted a couple of comments below my piece, and then wrote his own lengthy response here.

In my comments section, I had written:

We need to be honest about the mistakes of our ancestors. We also need to see those mistakes in a historical context, and avoid the tendency to mythologize and glamorize those who were the victims of colonization. Cruelty is a human universal, and sin — at least the capacity for sin — is found in every tribe and nation under the sun. Collectively, some have inflicted both more harm (and perhaps more good) than others.

Carl, politely but firmly, found that response wanting:

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard something along the lines of “cruelty is a human universal” from white people as a blanket dismissal of the idea that Euro-American culture might have anything significant to learn from indigenous people. Same goes for the tired bit about “don’t mythologize the victims of colonization.” You don’t have to be a romanticizing, mythologizing, self-hating fool to be willing to simply look at another culture and say, “You know, I value many of the things my ancestors taught me. But I think these folks have some things figured out about how to live on this earth that my ancestors once knew, but lost somewhere along the way.” In my experience, the resistance to this idea is huge – and the cliches in your paragraph are a key piece of that resistance.

That’s fair enough. I’m quite prepared to believe that indigenous groups in the Third World had “ways of seeing” nature and reality that were — and perhaps still are — immensely valuable. I don’t know how well I live out that conviction in my own life, however. Sure, I go to the health food store and stock up on homeopathic, “natural” remedies that were (so the advertisers say) the secrets of indigenous peoples. In recent years, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife’s family in rural Colombia, enjoying their “simpler”, more “pastoral” life. I’m never allowed to do any actual work when I’m on the finca, however. Despite my often sincere attempts to pitch in, my status as a guest (and perhaps, my status as a — comparatively — staggeringly affluent white man) means that despite my protestations, I’m generally waited on and catered to and told to lie in a hammock. Generally, I get a week or two to observe and to witness a different way of being. I come away appreciative for the tremendous hospitality of those who have so little, and filled with gratitude for the extraordinary privileges I have.

I’ve also been on a number of “mission trips” to Mexico, doing the usual things affluent white Christians do down there. Lots of short-term bursts of hard work (hey, I learned how to use a cement mixer in rural Sinaloa a few years ago), lots of prayer, lots of pious and hackneyed sentiment about how we Americans had “so much to learn” from those who “have so little.” Forgive a touch of cynicism, but after you’ve done a couple of these weeks south of the Border with a group of earnest teenagers, it’s hard not to poke a bit of fun. I’m aware, deeply aware, that no matter how much I try to humble myself, I’m still going to be the affluent white man waltzing into an impoverished community for a few days, bringing a bunch of chattering teenagers who come to do just a little bit of work. It’s easy to find oneself slipping into the role of the munificent bwana, filled with self-congratulation because I’ve left behind the air conditioning and the high-thread count sheets for a few days of sweat, dirt, ranchera and frijoles. I do make a sincere effort to avoid that role, but it invariably seems to be thrust upon me. Perhaps I unconsciously insist on playing it.

Carl also deals with the issue of reparations for the “sins of the ancestors”:

Many people talk about privilege and “working for a more equitable society” entirely in the present tense, without any reference to the critical role of accepting _real responsibility_ for the sins of our ancestors. Responsibility in this case means recognizing that we benefit from our ancestors’ sins (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land), and then making things right. This choice has very practical implications. Here in South Dakota, there are plenty of well-meaning white folks who will say, “Yes! Let’s work towards a more equitable society!” The unspoken implication is: become a part of my society, on my terms, and I’ll try to help you get your piece of the pie. There are far fewer white people who are willing to hear Lakota people say “We don’t want your society – we want you to give back the Black Hills that you stole, and then leave us alone.” Doing the latter requires an understanding that the theft of the Black Hills is not ancient history, it’s of critical present-day relevance. Same goes for slavery – it ain’t ancient history, folks. We don’t just need “a more equitable society” – we need to make actual, physical reparations! Until there’s been real recompense, the wounds of the past are still open and bleeding – they are, in fact, the continuing wounds of the present.

I’m not familar with the Lakota struggle (beyond a cursory knowledge from American history classes.) I am curious to know how many of the living Lakota have European ancestry themselves, however. When one is descended from both colonizer and the colonized, isn’t it cherry-picking to identify with only one aspect of your heritage? Isn’t it odd to demand reparations, when that means your mother’s side of the family ends up paying your father’s? Perhaps it isn’t odd at all; I’ll admit I’ve given it remarkably little thought.

As for reparations for slavery and other injustices, fine. On my mother’s side, my ancestors certainly owned slaves. (Though one branch of the family first came to California in the early 1850s, selling their plantation in East Texas and freeing their slaves, following the patriarch’s sudden revelation that slavery was immoral. That’s a feather in our family cap, one we periodically display.) Whatever modest wealth my mother’s side of the family was able to generate was at least in part built on slave labor. Here in California, my great-great grandfather made a living as a lawyer, serving as counsel for the railroads, “foreclosing on widows and orphans”, making money, I acknowledge, on the backs of Chinese laborers. Some of that money (not much) has trickled down to my generation.

Do I feel guilt because my ancestors owned slaves or served as hired legal guns for Southern Pacific? No. Do I admit some of my material benefits may have been connected to those acts of exploitation? Yes. I tithe on what I have and on what I inherit. I vote Democratic and support affirmative action. I am willing to support, with my money and my vote, programs that seek to redress historic inequities. But what else am I supposed to do? Shall I play amateur geneaologist, track down the descendants of slaves my ancestors owned, and send them a check? Shall I demand that we sell the small piece of land my family has owned in the Northern California hills, bought well over a century ago with money derived (in part, not in whole) from the largesse dispensed by the railroads? It was once Ohlone Indian land, and there are no Ohlone left. Shall we find the one or two folks who still have a drop of Ohlone blood, get on our knees, and make a personal and abject apology?

I’m not trying to offend, but I’d like some clear-cut clarification of what is asked of me. I give my first fruits to God and his work. I support government and private programs that seek to offer redress. If you want to raise my taxes to fund a massive reparations program, sure. I’ll write the check gladly. What else is there?

My favorite spot on earth is my family’s ranch in the hills northeast of San Jose. My family has been in those hills since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, and though most of what we once owned has been given to the public park system, a few very small parcels remain in our hands. In our old ranch house, pictures of my great- and great-great and great-great-great grandmothers and fathers hang on the walls and sit upon desks. I love looking at those people I never knew, knowing that they were the ones who crossed the plains in covered wagons, came around the Horn in storm-tossed boats, who longed for something new and bigger and better and different. There is a restlessness in the northern European, WASPy soul; a restlessness I see in my family’s history and in my own life. The longing for the new and the different runs deep in some of us. Call it the “pioneer spirit”. And it is, I fully acknowledge, a mixed legacy. Lord knows, that restlessness runs deep in me.

I love these ancestors of mine. I don’t worship them, but sometimes — as unChristian as it may seem to do so — I talk to them. I walk the hills and canyons of my truest earthly home, and I feel a cloud of witnesses hovering nearby. I talk to old “Albert Alfonso”, who first built the ranch houses. I talk to “aunt Jacqueline”, the family’s near-legendary matriarch. They died before my mother was born, and yet I still feel them to be a part of me, and I feel them most when I am on the land that they loved. Do I judge them perfect, blameless? No. Do I think that the means by which money came into their lives to have been so sordid that it vitiates any other good that they did? Of course not.

Do I know that the land I now call “mine” and “ours” once belonged to a native people, long since wiped from the earth? You bet. Do I grieve that? Yes. But will renouncing my heritage, giving up that land, right an ancient wrong? No. I don’t believe it. Perhaps I don’t want to believe it.

“Dukes don’t emigrate”: more OKOP/NOKOP reflections, and wincing at the use of the term “upper-class”

Here at Pasadena City College, we have an excellent theater department. Here’s the press release for the newest production:

Follow a year in the lives of six upper-class friends through a series of holiday-themed parties as the Pasadena City College Performing and Communication Arts Division proudly presents “The Country Club,” which opens on Friday, March 23, in PCC’s Sexson Auditorium.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy-drama tells the story of a young and charmingly neurotic woman who retreats from a failed marriage and decides to go back to her upper-class hometown in Pennsylvania. There, she finds love, friendships, and tragedies. The play consists of nine scenes and evolves around different holidays.

“This ‘dramady’ reflects the typical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domain of the upper-class,” said Duke Stroud, PCC professor and director of the play. “It’s a portrait of dysfunctional relationships, which are funny and dramatic at the same time.”

(Note: I’ve explained OKOP and NOKOP here, and I now have a whole specific archive dealing with class.)

I know nothing about the play, and I doubt I’ll be able to get a chance to see it. But the press release, which I read yesterday, got under my skin instantly. You see, I hate the use of the phrase “upper class” to describe American families.

I grew up in culture that described itself as “upper-middle class”. And in the WASP circles of my youth and my family background, I certainly encountered plenty of remarkably well-to-do people. I know the world of “clubs” fairly well, and though that world holds relatively little interest for me today, it’s still quite familiar. (Or as John Bradshaw would write it, family-ar). And here’s the thing: if there’s one maxim “our kind of people” all agreed on, it was that talking explicitly and publicly about class was prima facie evidence that you lacked it. Nothing could be more more NOKOP than to describe anything, be it a social gesture or a fashion accessory, as “classy.” Once, while at a family luncheon, I used the term “classy” to describe the play of one of John McEnroe’s opponents (we had just watched a Wimbledon match on television.) From the reaction of a few of my older relatives, you would think I had dropped the f-bomb. “I think you want to say that his behavior was ‘gentlemanly’, dear” one of my elders advised me. Another suggested that “sporting” would have been an even more appropriate choice. I was about 14, and just starting to get the picture: we don’t talk about class.

And even worse than calling something “classy”? Referring to the existence of an American “upper-class.” I was raised to believe that the only authentic upper-class that exists is to be found in Europe. As one hired geneaologist famously told my great-aunt Carmen when she speculated that we had many aristocratic forebears, “Mrs. Starr, dukes don’t emigrate.” “Dukes don’t emigrate” became the standard bon mot we all used (and still do) whenever anyone speaks of an upper class in the United States. As far as we’re concerned, we maintain the satisfying fiction that almost all are middle class: there’s lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle. And the less said specifically about these strata, the better.

To be really honest, I feel protective of the very sort of people the press release from our theater department seems to disparage. I’ve reread it a couple of times, and it’s not particularly offensive (save for the wince-inducing use of “upper class”). But here’s the really blunt truth: there are very few folks on this campus — faculty, staff, students — who come from a WASPy upper-middle class background. On at least one side of my family, I do. And part of me feels as if this play (about which I know zilch) is going to caricature a culture that I value. And those doing the caricaturing on stage will, on this campus that is over 80% non-white, be those who know little or nothing about the culture they lampoon.

It’s embarrassing to cop to this. Frankly, I’m prepared to believe that there’s a certain element of both classism and racism in my response. And Lord knows, despite years and years of teaching at a diverse urban community college, despite living in a glorious, successful, interracial marriage, I still struggle with my own bigotry, my own elitism. I am not proud of it, and I continue to work spiritually and psychologically to overcome whatever vestiges of prejudice remain in my soul.

The “WASPy country-club set” don’t need me to defend them. Yes, I continue to maintain quite seriously that we don’t have an authentic “upper-class” in this country. I continue to feel uncomfortable when others discuss what sort of behaviors or clothing choices are “classy” or not. But my intellectual and political training tells me that there’s no point in defending those who have had the greatest access to power and privilege in our nation’s relatively brief history. My commitment to justice and equality tells me that there is much in what I call my heritage that is ugly, oppressive, elitist, emotionally stunted and whoppingly superficial. There is also, as I’ve posted before, much that is joyous and good. (Read my “Happy WASP boy”.)

And I may have to swallow my own issues, and go see this play.

UPDATE: I’m reminded that nearly a century ago, my great-great grandfather wrote and privately published his memoirs. Speaking of ancestry, he wrote something lovely that is quoted as often as the “dukes don’t emigrate” line. A.A. Moore said in 1915:

Children, let your modest pride be this: you come of sturdy stock.

I love that. Even if I suspect it’s a reference to the fact that many of us are big-boned.

“OKOP”, “NOKOP” and Oscar: a long post about class, family, and pride

Here on the blog, I’ve touched on issues of race before: just over two months ago, my post "The Happy WASP Boy" generated some fairly heated responses. With tongue only partially planted in cheek, I wrote then:

But here’s the thing I’ve realized in my life:  though there is much that is vacuous and materialistic about North American middle-class culture, that has damn all to do with skin color or ethnic heritage!  I grew up with a father who was a European war refugee and a mother who came from an "old" California family of German, English,and Scots-Irish ancestry.  I spent most of my time with my mother’s side of the family, and they formed my values and my world view. 

Yes, we’re WASPs.  If you want to stereotype one aspect of us, we’re a Brooks Brothers wearing, Bloody Mary drinking, Buick Roadmaster station-wagon driving, fraternity and sorority joining, tennis-playing, mayonnaise and meat loaf eating, Junior League cookbook owning, monogrammed thank-you note writing, Town and Country magazine reading, English horseback riding, debutante ball attending, Social Register listed, pastel polo-shirt or sweater set clad clan.  Without apologies.

There was a lot of discussion in the comments, and it was pointed out to me by several people that my characterization of my family was less about skin color and more about class.  I think I was aware of that when I wrote the post, but honestly, felt awkward about writing about my family and my background in terms of class.  Where I come from, class is hinted at but never discussed: just in blogging about my family in these posts, I’ve violated some rules.  There are certain topics that aren’t to be talked about too openly, and issues of class and money are among them.

When we were cynical teenagers, my brother and I came up with the terms OKOP and NOKOP.  OKOP stood for "Our Kind of People"; NOKOP (obviously) for "Not Our Kind of People."  We used the words ironically, expressing our chagrin at what we saw as the subtle elitism and snobbery of many members of our extended clan.  My cousins of my generation picked up the terms, and at times, the line between the sincere and the ironic use of the acronyms became blurred.  Someone would bring home a girlfriend to meet the family, and she would tie her sweater around her waist instead of draping it over her shoulders.  "So NOKOP", we’d mouth to each other over the family dinner table.   I once brought a friend to a Fourth of July party who wore a "Porn Star" baseball cap.    "She’s nice", said one cousin, "but a bit NOKOP, don’t you think?"  What began as an expression to poke fun at certain elements of class consciousness in our clan became instead a way of reinforcing those same elements.   That’s what happens, I suppose.

Of course, we’ve become a much more diverse family over the years.  Half-a-dozen of us are in interracial marriages with people from a wide variety of social backgrounds.   A great many of us don’t care about the things an older generation cared about; only a handful of my cousins still worry about who’s in the Social Register and keeping up expensive club memberships.  And well over half of us vote solidly Democratic — something that would have horrified our great-grandparents’ generation.  (My mother’s father and his brother were the only members of their entire family who voted for FDR).

For years and years, I struggled to come to terms with whether or not I wanted to embrace or reject certain aspects of my "class background."  At Berkeley, I learned quickly that others were allowed to say with pride that they were the first in the family to go to university — but I couldn’t say "I’m a fourth-generation Golden Bear" without being greeted with rolled eyes and epithets like "f-ing snob".  Those of us who were from "old families" (a favorite euphemism of the upper-middle classes) learned to conceal it — or openly disparage it.  When I lived in a co-op at Cal (I had become the first male member of my mother’s family in a century not to pledge a fraternity), I knew one other gal in the house who came from a similar background to my own.  We both made a conscious choice to make fun of our privileges.  We wore our Che Guevara t-shirts and wallowed in white guilt like pigs in a trough.

My sophomore year in Ridge House, I had a roommate named "Oscar."  Oscar was from a Mexican-American family in the Central Valley; he was the first in his family to go to college.  Oscar was active in MEChA, as well as the society for Hispanic Engineers and Scientists (two organizations that didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but that’s another story.)  He talked with great pride about his family and what it was like to grow up the son of agricultural laborers, spending half his childhood in Michoacan and the other half in rural Fresno County. But I didn’t want to talk about growing up spending my childhood in places like Santa Barbara and Piedmont and Carmel by-the-Sea.  Where Oscar was proud of his family, I was ashamed of what I believed at the time to be unmerited good fortune and privilege. 

Oscar was a smart lad and a good friend; we went to church together.  One day he asked me: "Hugo, why are you so ashamed of who you are?"  I protested that I wasn’t, and he persisted: "You walk around apologizing for being a white boy from Carmel all the time.  It’s getting really old.  Your family is part of who you are, and you should be proud of your roots.  Period.  Even if you can’t pronounce your own name right."  (He insisted on calling me "Ooogo", rather than the English "Hugh-go" or the German "Hoo-go.")

I told Oscar it wasn’t that easy.   I said:  "People admire you for coming from where you’ve come from — they don’t feel that same way about white guys whose great-grandfathers went here.  It’s like I haven’t earned being here."   Oscar laughed and laughed:  "Shit, Oooogo, sometimes I worry everyone thinks I got in here because of affirmative action; you’re worrying you got in here because of your relatives’ influence.   We both doubt ourselves because of our backgrounds, as different as we are — that’s just classic!"  I laughed with him.   

And then I shared with him the terms "NOKOP" and "OKOP", and I believe I made his whole semester.    As soon as I explained the terms to him, he rolled on the floor in hysterics, gasping in two languages.  The English consisted of "Oh, you f-ing white people, you f-ing white people, I love you soooo much". As if this wasn’t bizarre enough, Oscar then picked up the phone in our room and called up a series of his friends from MEChA, telling them about me and NOKOP and OKOP. And if you were around Oscar or his friends in the 1986-87 academic year, you would have heard them using the acronyms constantly, often in exaggerated accents modeled on Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island: "Ernie, you ridiculous pocho imbecile, that outfit is soooo NOKOP."

Oscar met my parents and my aunt on one occasion, and was gracious as could be.  Though he and his friends enjoyed ribbing me, he was also sending me a very positive message: I shouldn’t take myself or my family so damned seriously.  Oscar taught me that my "white guilt" and my "working class chic" were both affectations that only reinforced my image as an earnest, clueless, elitist.   More than anyone else, Oscar believed that we are simultaneously products of our family background and our own unique choices.  He urged me to always separate the two, and he taught me that shame and guilt ought only be associated with the latter, never the former.  "Your family’s your family, man", he’d say; "Love them, be proud of them, and don’t pretend they aren’t who they are."

I haven’t heard from Oscar in over a decade; last time we talked, he was back in grad school pursuing a second Ph.D. — and I had just started teaching at PCC.   As he always did, he brought up NOKOP and OKOP.   The last time we talked, I had just gotten my nipples pierced (it was an impulse) and I shared the rather painful news with him.  He shrieked with laughter; "Ooogo, even I KNOW that has to be soooo NOKOP."  I agreed that indeed it was, and that my family would not take it well.   "Man", Oscar snorted, "you’re going to be all right."

I rarely use NOKOP or OKOP except in jest any more; neither do my cousins.  I don’t worry about whether or not my name is in the Social Register, and I’d rather tithe to God than pay dues to the Valley Hunt or the Jonathan Club.  But I don’t pretend, either, that those things were not at least a part of my heritage; I don’t deny my background any more.   My family taught me early on not to boast or brag — OKOP don’t draw attention to themselves.  But Oscar taught me that there is no virtue in being embarrassed by one’s heritage, and he taught me that constant apologies were just another sign of privilege.  Living in happy gratitude for one’s heritage —  with the assurance that one is neither above or beneath any other person because of that heritage — is what he urged. And it’s Oscar’s words I still try and follow these days.