To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of  her slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

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10 thoughts on “To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

    • Portland comes up a lot in relation to this issue. I wonder if that has to do with the long history of institutionalized and legalized racism in Oregon (the only sundown state to have existed). Portland was once known as the whitest city in the US. Sadly, that might be the very thing that attracted the liberal class to that city, a pattern seen elsewhere

      There is a close connection between racism and classism. It reminds me of a study done on the South. Areas that in the past had higher concentrations of slavery now have higher rates of poverty for both blacks and white. The problems of poverty get hidden below the racial order. Poor people in a class-obsessed society are seen as inherently inferior (even by those slightly above poverty), similar to that of dark-skinned people in a race-obsessed society. Racism and classism are mutually reinforcing within the oppressive caste system, which is what it is with a permanent underclass of untouchables.

      Criminalization is one of many tools available for social control. As there is driving while black, there is not driving while poor (such as the horrendous and shameful act of resting in public). Some of what you shared is taking all of this to a different level. Slave labor, of course, is as American as apple pie. But this innovative use of something like Homeland Security appears to be a new phenomenon.

    • That is a good point. Plus, the homeless are being shifted into the poor neighborhoods. And as housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, those struggling poor have to find a way to leave the city or else join the ranks of the homeless.

      Many people who become homeless do so while still having a job, even though they don’t make enough to pay for housing. But being homeless makes it difficult to keep one’s job, especially if the government clears out your homeless camp and throws all your work clothes away.

      The problem is simply leaving isn’t always an option for the most poor. Moving somewhere else can mean leaving behind one’s social network and social support of family, friends, neighbors, church, etc. Those are all the people around you who might be able to help you out when things get bad.

      Then if such poor people do move in hope of a better place but find their situation keeps getting worse, they are really fucked. In that case, they are still struggling with poverty and have lost the people who could have helped them. That might be what happens to many when they move to big cities from rural areas with the expectation of finding work.

      This can create a permanently restless population trying to stay one step ahead of homelessness. Others choose, maybe wisely, to stay put where they are and find mutual cause with those they know. The only thing worse than being poor is being poor and alone, especially while homeless and without protection.

    • I should share this with my friend. She left Portland after her divorce. But her kid had to say in a Portland school. Unfortunately, there is nothing she can do about it because of the restrictions of the divorce. So maybe I shouldn’t tell her about it, after all.

    • The border areas of Nebraska and Iowa is apparently affordable. But I know in Western Iowa there are many older people. That means it is a largely retired working class living off the wealth they accrued and pensions they gained during a better time for the working class. That makes me wonder if the differences seen on the map might partly be where is located the older working class and younger working class. Towns like the one my dad grew up in are only kept alive by the pensions of old and rapidly dying off retired factory workers which is the now main tax base. There is going to be an economic crash when that past working class wealth is finally gone.

    • The US isn’t like a post-colonial developing nation. Rather, the US is a post-colonial developing nation. We just sometimes forget that because of the wealthy ruling elite.

      This is the type of thing that race realists such as many HBDers try to argue is genetic determinism. It’s an excuse not to have to compassionately, rationally, and pragmatically deal with basic human problems.

      “The parasite, better known as hookworm, enters the body through the skin, usually through the soles of bare feet, and travels around the body until it attaches itself to the small intestine where it proceeds to suck the blood of its host. Over months or years it causes iron deficiency and anemia, weight loss, tiredness and impaired mental function, especially in children, helping to trap them into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.

      “Hookworm was rampant in the deep south of the US in the earlier 20th century, sapping the energy and educational achievements of both white and black kids and helping to create the stereotype of the lazy and lethargic southern redneck. As public health improved, most experts assumed it had disappeared altogether by the 1980s.”

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