I grew up in a very blue collar neighborhood in Queens, NY and never understood when I was a kid how we were different from everyone else because everyone around us was the same. The only noticeable differences in our neighborhood was the block where the families of color lived (of course, my Jewish mother and Italian father referred to those neighbors with very different and colorful euphemisms). I am the youngest of three children and the first in the family to attend college. Both my parents were first generation, born of immigrants from different parts of Europe. My parents thought they had made it because they lived in a semi-detatched house in a suburban section of Queens and had a nice Cadillac in the driveway. We traveled to Florida and vacationed over the summers in Montauk because my father’s parents had a home there long before it caught the attention of the rich and famous. My reality was one where my mother sat in aluminum lawn chairs in the driveway with the other neighbor wives and they smoked their cigarettes and drank their coffee and gossiped about everyone’s else’s business. None of the women worked, none of them had been educated. The men did not take the train into the city but, instead, were police officers, like my father or taxi drivers, like our closest neighbor friends. Most of the men worked with their hands or owned local businesses like the candy store or the liquor store or the electronics store. In my memory, it seems somewhat idyllic in that it was a simpler time and an easier life but, when I reflect on it, it reminds me of how inadequate I felt when I left this community and ventured out to college and beyond because I was so ill-prepared for the life that lay ahead of me.
It was not until I went away to college and subsequently entered into the workforce that I realized how different my roots were from so many others that I came into contact with. I did not understand how my peers had the luxury to live at home (without their parents insisting that they pay rent) or the opportunity to go to graduate school. It was disconcerting to me when I found out that my friends’ parents were subsidizing their living expenses because it really was not possible to live in NYC in the late 80s and early 90s on an entry-level publishing salary. I was going deeper into debt every month as I tried to afford my cockroach-infested, one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope that I shared with two roommates. I did not understand that there was any other way to live.
I became acutely aware of my under-exposure to the world when I began mingling with other professionals who knew which glass was theirs at a luncheon (is it the one on the right or is that my bread plate? I still have to ask!). I felt so disadvantaged with an extreme lack of culture and worldliness as I began to partake in business lunches and realized I had no idea how to make small talk because I simply had nothing to talk about. I had never been out of the country – I had not even really traveled inside the country! It was not until I was well into my 30s that I visited Boston! The hardest part about it all was that I simply could not process what was different about me because I did not understand the class differences and all the deficiencies that come along with that. I ended up feeling more and more insecure about my inadequacy and reinforced the negative messages into my head that I was different and less worthy than these other individuals who clearly had a more privileged background than me.
It was not until recently, when I began studying the impact of micro-inequities or unconscious bias in the workplace, that I began to understand how my blue collar upbringing impacted the way I viewed the world. Being a white woman in publishing in NYC, I was almost always in the majority in the workplace. I never thought about the experiences of my minority colleagues because I was not able to escape my majority mentality. It did not occur to me that I was privileged or that I had an easier ride than others because it was all I knew and, deep down, I felt so inadequate all the time that I could hardly escape my own feelings of being out of place and uncomfortable wherever I went. As my career progressed and I got married and moved the suburbs, I slowly escaped a lot of the trappings of my blue collar upbringing and became more cultured, more experienced and, ultimately, more confident. I had the opportunity to travel abroad, spent more and more time in business meetings and traveling for work and slowly I began to ingratiate myself into this other culture. I stopped thinking about myself as different because, in fact, I blended in really well and no one had any sense of where I came from or what insecurities I had around my life before leaving the boroughs.
Then I started working in diversity and everything changed. I was able, for the first time in a life, to put a label on what I had experienced. I was different and I had to hide my differences in order to fit in. I looked at the world from a completely different lens than so many of my friends and co-workers and none of them could possibly understand the disadvantage I walked into the room with every time I entered. I remember being at a diversity conference years ago and an African American woman said to me that when she walks into the room, the first thing people see is the color of her skin. Before she can open her mouth, she has been assessed by the others in the room simply because she looks different than most everyone else. That blew my mind. I was so conscious of the clothes I was wearing or my hairstyle and could not imagine how different her life experience was because, while I could get a better haircut or more stylish clothes, she could never change the color of her skin.
This was a breakthrough moment for me. I knew I had to dig deep inside myself and figure out what made me feel different and understand how it was impacting my thinking. And, I finally was able to address it with the others around me in order to hopefully bridge the gap that often existed between us. It was very liberating for me because I felt like I was able to remove the costume that I wore with me that allowed me to cover up my own class struggles.
I recently began reading a great book that really speaks to my experiences – Limbo: BLue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano. Lubrano is a journalist who was a working-class kid from Brooklyn who moved into the white-collar world when he went to college. He speaks from his own personal experiences and also shares some expert ideas on class and mobility. Finding and reading this book has really validated my feelings about being caught in a class struggle that I never knew existed. I never considered class as an issue for me until I started probing deeper into my own feelings and experiences.
I am sure that I am not the only one out there with these feelings. Please share with me your own experiences with class struggles -either your own or others that you have had to deal with in your personal or professional lives. This is a very important topic that needs to have more of a spotlight shined on it so those of us who have been hiding out can come to the table and share our feelings.