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 ┬áher 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.