Friday, February 20, 2009

Class, the final frontier

Think rich, look poor.

by Jeneiene Schaffer

TUCSON -- The smoothness of the antique, dumpstered off the curb, velvet sofa held us with a youthful cockiness as we giggled over too many glasses of chardonnay. Shouts of "Oh, so true!" were intertwined with hasty page turning. After what seemed to be an hour, the chapter was finished, the over-turned bottle was releasing, only reluctantly, a few drops, so we sat back and allowed a comforting fog of satisfaction settle on our young and rebellious heads.

We surveyed our graduate student apartment as only one could if one's job was real estate agent to the New York hipster on a budget. On two by fours and cinder blocks nestled the women's studies books that could make our poor mothers swoon. Check. With an eye toward selective chaos, were displayed avant-garde paintings and sculptures found discarded in the back alleys of art schools. Check. The absence of carpeting. Check. Oh please, only hard wood floors will do. Looking closer to the source, we checked out our costumes of New York regulation black, combined in no particular fashion with torn tee shirts, 'ethnic' jewelry, and our faces the way nature intended. Check and double check.

Back in 1988 when my best friend and I read the seminal 1983 book Class by Paul Fussell, we were at a crossroads. Both she and I were poor and trying hard to fit in with the upper class 'Ivy types'. I was a hip-hop street kid from New Jersey, and she a Bob Dylan wanna bee from some nowhere town in North Carolina. A bond over rejection with anything to do with 'class' gave us license to yuk it up with fellow travelers on the "category X" express. And if fellow grad students didn't hear your stomach growl during seminars, no one would be the wiser.

Twenty years later, I find myself still at that crossroads. In the cutting edge women's studies department those long years ago, I absorbed the mantra of race, class, and gender. These were the categories that defined a woman's world. It may be more possible to accept now that issues of race and gender have come far. But, class? How are we doing on that front as a community, a state, and a nation?

I would argue that class is our nation's psychological last frontier. What do you hear from naysayers when universal health care and quality equitable education are encouraged? Do you hear, for example, as if from the grave of Eugene McCarthy, that we risk becoming socialist, Marxist, or (what?) communist?

No longer willing to hide behind the fa├žade of any trappings that display or hide a hue of class, I feel a certain connection with those folks who struggle hard for a better life. I will work hard on campaigns here in my community of Tucson to make sure quality public education is protected. My moral and democratic sense of 'class' compels me to do this. May it compel you as well.

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